Egyptians used oils in their mummification procedures and over time they became aware of the healing properties of many of these oils. The priests became "healers" mixing and prescribing medicinal potions. Over time people began using the oils in cosmetics and perfumes as well.
Oils of cedarwood, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg and myrrh were used by the Egyptians to embalm the dead. The Roman emperors were famous for their extravagance. They had saffron sprayed
from fountains and used as a strewing herb.
As Egypt grew strong, it’s rulers imported exotic scents as a sign of economic and political might. They imported frankincense, sandalwood, myrrh and cinnamon as tribute from conquered peoples and with trading partners, these treasures were sometimes exchanged for gold.
The Greeks learned a great deal from the Egyptians, but Greek mythology apparently credits the gift and knowledge of perfumes to the gods. The Greeks also recognized the medicinal and aromatic benefits of plants. Hippocrates, commonly called the "father of medicine" practiced fumigations for both aromatic and medicinal benefit. A Greek perfumer by the name of Megallus created a perfume called megaleion. To make it, cinnamon, myrrh and charred frankincense were soaked in ‘Oil of Balanos’ and it quickly gained fame for healing wounds and reducing inflammation. Megaleion included myrrh in a fatty-oil base and served several purposes: for its aroma, for its anti-inflammatory properties towards the skin and to heal wounds.
The word aromatherapy stems from two Ancient Greek words: 'aroma' meaning fragrance or pleasant smell, and 'therapeia' meaning healing.
Romans utilised essential oils for pleasure and to cure pain and also for their popular perfumed baths and massages. Emperor Nero being indulgent in orgies, feasts and fragrances employed rose frequently to cure his headaches, indigestion and to maintain his high spirits while enjoying amusements.
Aromatherapy received a wider acceptance in the early twentieth century. In 1930s Rene- Maurice-Gatte Fosse, a French chemist, dipped his burnt hand in lavender oil. To his surprise the wound healed very quickly without any infection or scarring. He did considerable research on various oils and their therapeutic and psychotherapeutic properties.
During the great plague in London in 1665, people burnt bundles of lavender, cedar wood and cypress in the streets and carried posies of the same plants as their only defence to combat infectious diseases.
The use of therapeutic oils was spread throughout Asia and North Africa in ancient times, with India giving us a rich tradition of strongly perfumed oil such as sandalwood and patchouli.
Aromatic plants and oils have been used for literally thousands of years, as incense, in perfumes and cosmetics, religious ceremonies, and of course in medical and culinary applications. Their use is recorded in many cultures from all over the world.
Essential oils are usually extracted by steam distillation. The oil giving part of the plant is placed inside a stainless steel vat and extreme pressure from the steam around the vat breaks down the plant material and releases the essential oil from the plant cells. When cooled, the oils separate naturally from the water. The residual water is used for cosmetics or skin care and is known as ‘floral water’. Aromatic waters were popular for centuries and even used by the Bible’s chaste Susannah of Babylon, who bathed in orange floral water. The height of their popularity in sixteenth century France saw many varieties, including Carmelite Water made by Carmelite nuns and containing Melissa, promoted for their health benefits. Aromatic plants were becoming an popular part of European life and monasteries were increasingly known to cultivate medicinal herbs.