An Ancestral Therapy: from Prehistory to The Present

An Ancestral Therapy: from Prehistory to The Present

January 14, 2021

Aromatic plants played a central role in the healing arts of early humankind.

By Jesus Sereno, Chicago IL.

Although the contemporary practice of modern aromatherapy originated within the last hundred years, the use of essential oils to heal mind, body, and spirit can be traced back to all the major ancient civilizations of the world. This knowledge was eventually transmuted into the herbal medicine we know today. The twentieth century brought the development of chemistry and the ability to synthesize the active principles of plants in a laboratory. With it came the creation of synthetic drugs and the development of the pharmaceutical industry and modern medicine.

The success of conventional medicine relegated natural medicine to the background, which, for millennia, had been play an essential role. This caused the near disappearance of many natural therapies. Nowadays, society is re-appreciating natural remedies, and doctors, researchers and pharmacists around the world are once again interested in natural resources and medicinal plants. In addition, patients often consider them the best option to cure or alleviate daily discomfort and not have to resort to drugs and their side effects. All this leads us to affirm that the current healthy trend is to combine each one of the existing therapies to achieve a single objective: our well-being.



For thousands of years, humans have taken advantage of the healing power of plants and some woods; with the discovery of fire came other “powers”, such as plant smoke. Although its healing virtues have been gradually discovered over the centuries, human beings began very early to use smoke from different woods to achieve certain therapeutic effects or to influence mood. In Europe there weren’t aromatic resin trees, that’s why, it is believed that the first human settlements used herbs, such as rosemary and thyme, to make incense.

The healing method of fuming over the sick people is a form of therapy that is still used in some cultures not as remote as it may seem. In fact, it was used in French hospitals until a few decades ago. The smoke from certain woods has antiseptic and bactericidal properties. However, for primitive peoples, its healing capacity was that fragrances soothed gods or spirits.



In Asia, an alembic was found dating from around 5,000 BC, which indicated that in China and India the extraction procedures were already known. The Egyptians used essential oils to embalm their dead 6,000 years ago. Cedar of Lebanon, tuberose, frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon are names associated with the Egyptian cultural heritage, and mentioned both in medical papyri and in daily hygienic traditions. The incense resins discovered in Tutankhamun's tomb 3,250 years after his burial, still exuded his scent.



Ancient Chinese medicine also used natural herbal remedies and, together with acupuncture and proper nutrition, constituted the foundations of what today has come to us as traditional Chinese medicine.

The number of plant products used in ancient China far exceeds those used by any other culture to date. In fact, modern medicine owes many of its herbal formulations to Chinese, who frequently used, for example, rhubarb, ephedrine, ginseng, and tea.

Curiously, the medicinal plants most used in China correspond to those used in Europe, which ratify their effectiveness. Among them are burdock, tarragon, gentian, rhubarb, castor bean, aconite, caraway, walnut, plantain, licorice, peach, pomegranate or Chinese tea.



For more than four thousand years, plants have been the basis of Hindu medicine, known as “Ayurveda” (Science of Life), and uses up to seven hundred substances, among which predominate those of vegetable origin, such as cinnamon, tuberose, ginger, myrrh, coriander and sandalwood.

Herbal remedies, described in numerous beautiful Sanskrit manuscripts, were widely used and were the basis for healing formulas, invocations to the gods, and religious cults. Ashoka, a Buddhist king of the 3rd century BC, classified a large number of medicinal plants that are still used today and, the most part, have been incorporated into different conventional drugs and modern aromatherapy products. Some of those plants are well known: fenugreek, caraway, pepper, cardamom, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, sandalwood, benzoin, hemp, castor, sesame, or aloe. Many of the criteria and formulas of Ayurvedic medicine have arrived, almost intact, to the present day.


In the Babylon’s kingdom, located between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, another of the oldest medicines was developed based on plant substances and essential oils.

Their knowledge has come to us through the clay tablets with texts written in cuneiform script where in addition to detailed a whole list of substances, special emphasis was placed on the moment of their preparation and application. It was recommended to take them shortly before sunrise or during the night, and the decoctions, in which the plant substances were added, were made on the eve.

More than 250 plants were used in Mesopotamian recipe books, many of which were also used in Egypt and later in Arab medicine. Some terracotta’s vessels from five thousand years old, used to extract essences, have been discovered in some archaeological sites, which confirms that these cultures used essential oils in its natural remedies.

On the other hand, the Babylonian king Mardukapalkidine II (772-710 BC) owned a garden in which more than sixty species of medicinal plants were cultivated. These included thyme, saffron, mustard, dill, myrrh, roses, mandrake, poppy, henbane, boxwood, calamus, purslane, caraway, coriander, fennel, juniper, oleander, mustard and licorice. Fruit trees such as apple and pomegranate trees, and vegetables such as garlic, onion, pumpkin or cucumber were also cultivated.



The ancient Egyptians had great medical knowledge, and in plants they found the raw material for many of their natural remedies. In addition, they used the plant kingdom to create perfumes with which they honored their gods, embalmed their dead and worshiped the body and beauty. For them, aromatherapy was part of daily life and was present in rituals, astrology, medicine and cosmetics, and it was absolutely fundamental in the day to day of the rich classes.

The Egyptian priests and doctors were great connoisseurs of the perfumes world. They knew they could be intoxicating, but also that they could lead to insanity. That is why they protected the pharaohs’ tombs with certain hallucinogenic essences to preserve them from thieves. If someone inhaled that scent he could suffer monstrous hallucinations and believe that it was a revenge of the gods.

Priests were in charge of making sacred incenses for rituals. For this, they used up to twenty ingredients, among which were myrrh, juniper, cassia, saffron, cinnamon or tuberose. Herbs were also used for medical purposes, as evidenced by the Ebers papyrus, a famous twenty-meter-long scroll from the 18th dynasty that collects more than 800 recipes and medical remedies, almost all of theme from vegetable origin. For example, to cure hay fever they used a mixture of aloe, myrrh, antimony and honey.

The other great use of aromatherapy was the art of embalming, which was used for the purpose of preserving corpses. In the bandages have been found plant remains with antiseptic and antibiotic properties such as galbanum, cloves, cinnamon or nutmeg.



Herodotus, the famous Greek historian, transcribed in the 5th century BC. a system of distilling turpentine and gave information on perfumes and aromatic substances.

Picking up the Egyptian tradition, Hippocrates, the “father of medicine”, used in the 4th century BC. all kinds of medicinal plants and drugs, among which some narcotics stand out, such as opium, henbane, belladonna or the famous mandrake. Among his natural remedies, he prescribed scented vapors and ointments. In addition, he recommended aromatherapy baths and massage techniques, and performed aromatic fumigations to rid Athens of pests.

From that time is the theory of “signatures”, which prevailed until the Middle Ages. The aforementioned theory argued that there is a relationship between the plants shape and the disease whose cure was attributed to them. For example, the leaves of the trinitaria (Anemone hepatica) were prescribed to combat liver diseases; the rhubarb yellow rhizomes, for jaundice; the flowers and red pomegranate fruits, for hemorrhages; the pulmonaria (Pulmonaria officinalis), for lung problems, etc.



The Romans, inspired by Egyptians and Greeks, developed thermal baths, public baths in which plants, flowers, wood and resins were used to obtain fragrant and healthy baths. His main goal, however, was to enjoy the pleasure of essences.

Greek physicians were soon in demand in Rome, where they trained disciples and created a school. Galen, Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ personal physician, was inspired by Hippocrates, and he influenced subsequent generations. He had extensive knowledge of many medicinal plants with which he prepared his remedies. His studies led him to create various groups of plant substances and he founded the medicine branch called “Galenic”, which studies and produces medicinal preparations. In fact, today, and in honor of his name, the active principles of medicines are known as “Galenic”.

Subsequently, the Greek physician Dioscorides, Claudio and Nero’s personal physician, studied the medicinal plants of the Mediterranean Basin and compiled his knowledge in five volumes which he entitled “De materia medica”. It is possible that he was the one who recommended Nero to use rose oil to soothe his headaches or chamomile as a remedy to promote skin healing, very popular remedies at that time.

Later, with the fall of the Roman Empire, many physicians fled to Constantinople, where they continued their work. There, their work were saved in the library of Alexandria and translated to Arabic language.



The Arabs’ fondness for the plants and flowers distilled waters, especially rose water, is well known. It is believed that the alembic origin was founded in the attempt to find a system that would make the most of the roses essence. In this context, it would be Avicenna who produced — as far as it is known — the world's first essential oil: a small bottle of rose oil.

The Avicenna’s popularity, surpasses even that of Rhazes, highly respected and considered as hospital medicine inventor.

Abu 'Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina, better Known as Avicenna (c. 980—1037) is to Arab medicine what Hippocrates is to Greek: everything. The author of more than 150 learned books, including 16 medical treatises, he was the logical and visionary result of a formidable amalgam of medical ideas and advances. His medicine bears the imprint of Rhazes (clinical analysis), Hippocrates (dietetics) and Aristotle (for logic), and also the Greek Dioscorides phytotherapy knowledge and even Indian exercises (for the body and breathing).

He was a wise man who at the twenty age wrote his famous “Canon” of medicine, a theoretical and practical encyclopedia of all the diseases then known and a fundamental book in some countries until well into the seventeenth century. There, he describes an infinity of current developments, and even proposes water as a therapeutic agent (hydrotherapy), as well as good personal relationships, essential for emotions, good mood and mental health.



The Emperor Charlemagne ordered that certain plant species for therapeutic use should be cultivated in all Empire’s gardens. Thus began a process of acclimatization of some plants that until then were almost unknown in Europe.

Medicinal plants were, necessarily, the basis of many of the natural remedies that were used in the Middle Ages. Aromatherapy had been introduced in the 12th century, brought from the East by Crusades’ doctors, who worked together with Arab doctors, from whom they learned the great importance of hygiene and oils. When they returned to Europe they carried not only essential oils with them, but also enough knowledge of the distillation technique to obtain them.

In the following centuries, the monastic orders were in charge of continuing to maintain and expand knowledge about phytotherapy, dedicating themselves to medicinal plants cultivation and herbal remedies preparation.

In the 14th century, incense and pine were burned in the streets to combat Black Death plagues, which swept Europe. And the same happened in seventeenth-century England, which used lavender, cedar wood, and cypress for the same purpose. In the 16th century, the printing press made a spectacular contribution to the dissemination of knowledge about medicinal plants and their distillation, with works such as Hieronymus Braunschweig’s “New Vollkommen Distillierbuch” (1597).

Paracelsus, a Swiss physician and alchemist, called essential oils “quintessences”, which he used to create his herbal medicines. However, the obscurantism that still reigned at that time led to him being punished and expelled from the profession for his ideas.

In the 18th century, Industrial Revolution beginning, sanitary conditions of cities worsened. From that time on, essential oils will be the basis for medical and herbal medicine kits. In that century the perfumer profession was also created and the perfume industry began to develop, which, until then, had been associated with apothecary work.



During the 19th century, scientific research began on the essential oils that make up aromatherapy as we know it. The French chemical engineer and researcher René-Maurice Gatefossé (1881-1950) is considered the current aromatherapy pioneer; he used essential oils during World War to heal soldiers’ wounds.

Gattefossé had accidentally burned his hand in his laboratory and instinctively placed it in a container that contained lavender essential oil. To his surprise, he saw that hours later the burn was healing and there wasn’t inflammation. He realized that what he considered only a perfumery scent could have powerful therapeutic effects and began researching what is today modern aromatherapy.

A few years later, Marguerite Maury also focused on the study of essential oils from a cosmetic point of view. Little by little, her interest in oils spread to Great Britain, which leaned more for its aesthetics and massages use, compared to the medical interest of the Gallic country.

Another fundamental figure in modern aromatherapy was the doctor Jean Valnet, a military surgeon, who healed many wounded in the Indochina War thanks to the essential oils antiseptic properties and his aromatherapy knowledge and he also contributed to its spread in France.

Robert Tisserand is also one of the most respected personalities in the essential oil world and was very important from the seventies, mainly in Great Britain. He developed extensive research and teaching work and created the most prestigious aromatherapy training center to date, the “Tisserand Institute”.

At the end of the last century, between the 70s and the 90s, a great advance was made by Pierre Franchomme and Daniel Pénoël, with their essential oils study of the South America plants and “quantum aromatherapy”. They released their research on the essential oils chemistry and therapeutic applications, thus providing a scientific basis for the new aromatherapy, a discipline that is more focused, precise, effective and with fewer risks.

Thousands of years later, we know with precision many essential oils therapeutic nuances. But there is still no full awareness of its extraordinary potential, which in many cases they can rival the most powerful medicines.

In recent years, aromatherapy has taken a giant step forward thanks to pharmacist and great aromatologist Dominique Baudoux, who specializes in scientific aromatherapy. Thanks to him, today we can talk about smart natural cosmetics and reliably establish countless essential oils uses. Baudoux is also a lecturer, writer and alma mater of Belgian Pranarôm laboratories.

Leave a comment