Aromatherapy - A Global History


Aromatherapy is a form of alternative medicine that uses volatile plant materials, known as essential oils,  for the purpose of altering a person's mood or health. 

It has been practised all around the world, and there is evidence that essential oils have played a major role in religion and medicine for over 6,000 years.  It hasn't been until recently that the Western world has fully embraced it's therapeutic benefits.

In North Africa herbs are still widely used by the nomadic Berber mountain tribes in natural medicine.  As their culture is influenced by the Egyptians, they use many of the same ingredients.
Aroma Types:  Pungent.
Essential Oils:  Aloe vera, geranium, clove, citronella, cedarwood, clary, sage, melissa, myrrh, rose, spearmint, thyme. 
Rosewater is an important cosmetic in African regions.

Native Americans used oils in remedies and religious rituals long before the arrival of Western settlers.  Aromatic plants such as sage were used in purification rituals to honour their gods.  In Central and South America, the Aztec ruler Montezuma cultivated numerous botanical gardens of aromatic plants with healing properties.
Aroma Types:  Aromatic, citrus.
Essential Oils:  Bergamot, cedarwood, lime, mandarin, peppermint, sage, avocado, citronella, bay.
Native Americans burn scents in cleansing rituals known as 'smudging'.

Aromatherapy has long been practised in Asia (China). The ancient Chinese burned aromatic woods and incense in religious ceremonies, and used the therapeutic qualities of essential oils in healing techniques such as acupressure and massage.
Aroma Types:  Sweet - flower, sharp - citrus, warm - spicy.
Essential Oils:  Benzoin, cajeput, ginger, petit grain, cardamom, cinnamon, citronella, cypress, geranium, grapefruit, jasmine, lemongrass, mandarin, melissa, myrrh, neroli, peppermint, sandalwood.
Oriental perfumes tend to utilise gentle flower aromas and fragrant tree blossoms, including jasmine and neroli.

The Australian Aborigines have long incorporated essential oils into their healing techniques which included healing water infused with tea tree oil.  It was one of the first 'western' cultures to formally acknowledge that aromatherapy had a place in convential medicine. During the First World War all Australian soldiers were issued with tea tree oil to promote their health.
Aroma Types:  Strong, camphorous.
Essential Oils:  Cajeput, eucalyptus, lime, tea tree.
Tea tree is one of the most complex essential oils and has become hugely popular in the West in recent years.

Across (Northern) Europe,  aromatherapy spread, with the Romans, and became prominent once more in the Middle Ages, when it was practised in monasteries to prevent the spread of plague and to fumigate homes.  Western doctors did not use aromatherapy until the nineteenth century and it has only recently been recognised outside of cosmetic applications. 
Aroma Types:  Lavender .
Essential Oils:  Basil, chamomile, clary, sage, juniper, lavender, mandarin, melissa, rose, peppermint, thyme.
Aromatic herbs have been popular in Europe since the Middle Ages for use in toiletries and for scenting homes in the form of small pouches and pillows.

In (Mediterranean) Europe, more than 4000 years ago, the Ancient Greeks used oils both medicinally and cosmetically.  Many of their practices were adopted by the Romans, who enjoyed scented baths and massages with therapeutic oils.  As well as using native plants, many oils were imported from India and Arabia.
Aroma Types:  Basil, lemon, bergamot.
Essential Oils:  Basil, fennel, bergamot, lemon, bay, marjoram, parsley, rose, rosemary, sage, spearmint.
The Romans cultivated herbs wherever they set up new outposts, spreading aromatherapy across Europe.

Aromatherapy is thought to have originated in Ancient Egypt, and the use of essential oils is thought to date back more than 6000 years. Traces of cedar wood oil were even found in Tutankhamen's tomb.
Aroma Types:  Heady, resinous.
Essential Oils:  Aloe, vera, basil, geranium, frankincense, peppermint.
Egypt was the first country to embrace aromatherapy.

In India oils are a very important part of Ayurveda, which has been practised for more than 3000 years.  Oils and incense are also important for stimulating the seven Major Chakras of the body.
Aroma Types:  Spicy, aromatic, earthy.
Essential Oils:  Basil, lemongrass, black pepper, lemon, cardamom, cinnamon, patchouli, myrrh, palmarosa and sandalwood.
Oils are part of an ancient healing tradition in India.

Javan envoys from Indonesia introduced oils and spices to the Han-Dynasty court of China as early as 200 BC.  Cloves were especially popular and spread to Europe in the Middle Ages.  
Aroma Types:  Aphrodisiac, warming.
Essential Oils:  Black pepper, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, patchouli, ylang ylang.
Cloves became popular to the West as a Christmas spice.

Aromatherapy has a long history in the Middle East, where it was important in cosmetics and medicine.  The study of oils came to a peak in the 10th century.
Aroma Types:  Relaxing, tranquil, aphrodisiac.
Essential Oils:  Aniseed, frankincense, myrrh.
Arabian practices were quick to spread throughout Europe after the Crusades.

It is interesting that the effectiveness of aromatherapy is yet to be - scientifically proven!

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