Essential oils have an ancient and powerful history dating back more than 6,000 years before modern civilization to approximately 4,000 BC. These oils are the earliest form of medicine on record. All ancient cultures, including Judeo-Christian, Muslim, Chinese, Indian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Arabic cultures, utilized these valued therapeutic substances for healing, daily pleasure, and religious impact. Egyptians bathed in scented waters sometimes three times a day to pamper their skin, and incense was burned in temples so the scented smoke could drift directly to the gods with prayers. For example, most children familiar with the Nativity story at Christmas will have heard of frankincense and myrrh because these precious oils were presented to the newborn Jesus. Frankincense was referred to as a holy anointing oil and along with myrrh was a key ingredient in the embalming process practiced by the Egyptians. Essential oils are actually mentioned in the Bible more than 200 times, including that story.
Aromatics were often more valuable than gold or jewels in the ancient world, and civilizations battled for the right to control this lucrative market. A trading road dedicated to this market stretched between the southernmost tip of Arabia to the coast of Israel, spanning more than 2,500 miles. Thousands of camels, horses, and humans traveled this route carrying incense and precious oils to the outlaying areas and introducing far-flung cultures to the miracles of aromatics. This road was named the Frankincense Route after the essential oil.
Further to the east, Chinese and Indian spiritualists used incense and essential oils in their pursuit of balance and harmony. Many ceremonies were accompanied by the burning of incense, a practice that continues even today. Unfortunately, little is known concretely about this area of the world in ancient times.
The first real documented uses of essential oils for therapeutic reasons were found among the ancient artifacts of the Egyptians. It was also discovered that Egyptians invented a crude distillation process that was used to extract cedarwood oil. Essential oils were a very prevalent factor in Egyptian life from birth until death. Newborn babies were anointed with precious oils are part of a welcoming ceremony. These substances were recognized as healing agents, and the Egyptian populous used many herbal prescriptions for serious or minor physical and mental complaints every day. A papyrus dating back to 1,000 years before Christ was discovered in a tomb in Egypt in the 1920s. This document listed in detail more than 800 essential oil remedies and treatments and showed that myrrh was a favorite ingredient, often mixed with honey and other herbs, because of its ability to inhibit bacterial growth.
Myrrh, cinnamon, clove, cedarwood, nutmeg, and other precious oils are also key ingredients in the embalming process. Tombs opened in the 20th century were still perceptively scented with these essential oils thanks to the embalmed bodies found within the tombs. In 1922, more than 90 gallons of various essential oils were found still sealed and preserved in jars surrounding Tutankhamen's (commonly referred to as King Tut) sarcophagus. These jars represented a truly staggering display of wealth for this period.
Personal fragrances played a huge role in Egyptian life, holding an important place in the spiritual, cosmetic, and medicinal preparations of both men and women. For very special occasions such as parties, Egyptians used a cone of soft wax infused with a personally selected essential oil blend. This cone, called an unguent, was placed on a personís head and during the course of the event it would gradually melt, cooling the person and covering the recipient in scent.
Egyptians became well known as experts on essential oils due to the export of these oils via trade routes to other ancient cultures, and physicians from other cultures, such as the Greeks, came to Egypt to study. Special schools dedicated to the study of essential oils and their incredible range of uses were built in many major cities.
The Greeks understood the aromatic and therapeutic effects of essential oils, but they gave credit for these substances to the gods instead of nature. The Greeks continued to utilize herbs and aromatherapy oils for cosmetics and medicine and routinely prescribed herbal remedies for health conditions. Hippocrates, credited as the father of modern medicine, studied and documented hundreds of aromatic plants and their remedies. He felt there was a plant to cure every ailment that afflicted human beings. He used essential oils such as hypericum or valerian combined with massage, scented baths, and a primitive form of physiotherapy to treat many ailments.
The Roman Empire took the knowledge gained by the earlier ancient cultures and built upon it, refining distillation and extraction techniques and increasing their knowledge of the oils themselves. They did not concentrate only on the medical and psychological benefits, but they also explored spiritual applications by anointing their temples and buildings including the mortar with certain essential oils, such as cedarwood.
Many important scrolls and books written by the ancients about aromatherapy were stored in a vast library in the city of Alexandria in Egypt. Unfortunately, an all-consuming fire destroyed this library in the 10th century, wiping out invaluable essential oil history, applications, remedies, and knowledge. Although people continued to use essential oils, it took centuries to accumulate a similar volume of knowledge again and some applications were lost completely.