Early HistoryThe sense of smell has always been strong and probably guided our greatest of ancestors in matters such as food and medicinal herbs. As they burned the different woods on their fire they would have noticed different effects on the people around them, such as the stimulating effect of rosemary, and the soothing effects of sage.
It is believed that the first people to use it were the Chinese, who used aromatic plants for well being. They also used it in numerous religious festivals as respect to their Gods, which is still practiced nowadays.
The Egyptians had a great deal to do with the development of aromatherapy. For example, they invented a basic machine which could extract the crude oil of cedar wood. They used oils and herbal preparations for spiritual, cosmetic and medicinal purposes. It is believed that the Egyptians came up with the term "perfume" from the Latin "per fumum", which means "as through the smoke". Apparently, Egyptian men of that era would fragrance themselves by placing a solid cone of perfume on their head, which as it melted throughout the day would cover them in perfume. Frankincense gum and resin was also burned as it was believed to help clear the mind.
The Egyptians also used oils and herbs to embalm the dead, using cedar wood, myrrh, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. On opening a tomb in the 20th century, they discovered traces of herbs, parts of the body remained undecayed, but perhaps even more amazing, that the aroma from the herbs and oils were, although faint, still lingering!
The Greeks got their medical knowledge off the Egyptians, along with many other things, however Greek mythology claims any knowledge of perfumes is thanks to the Gods. They found that aromatic plants had medicinal properties, seeing that while some plants encouraged relaxation, others stimulated. Indeed, the “father of medicine” Hippocrates used fumigation for both aromatic and medicinal purposes.
Oils were applied to the skin using a carrier of olive oil, and one of the most famous of mixtures was created by perfumer Mellagon, called megalion. It was a fatty based oil containing myrrh and was used for it's fragrance, healing qualities and it’s anti-inflammatory properties for the skin.
In India aromatherapy has been used for centuries in the traditional medical system of Ayurveda. This practice uses fresh and dried herbs and well as massage as an important part of the treatment.
The Romans learned from the Greeks and are well known for their scented baths followed by an aromatic massage. The popularity of these aromatherapy oils became so great that trade routes were established to far flung places such as India and Arabia in order to get the finest of oils. When the Roman Empire collapsed there was very little use of aromatherapy until the dark ages when it was rediscovered. It should be noted though that distillation during this time was focused on floral waters, as opposed to essential oils.