The History of Herbal Medicine and Essential Oils

The history of herbal medicine and essential oils includes contributors that cross cultures and continents, leading up to the invention of Aromatherapy.


| April 2014



herbal potion bottles with herbs in a canister

Throughout the history of herbal medicine, herbs, aromas and essential oils have been revered as sacred and useful in day-to-day life.

Photo by Fotolia/Africa Studio

A potion is only as good as its ingredients. Mixing Essential Oils for Magic by Sandra Kynes (Llewellyn Worldwide Ltd., 2013) is a straightforward, hands-on guide that offers everything you need to understand not only how to blend but also why specific blends work well together. With guidance on the historical and present-day uses of essential oils, you’ll make personal blending an integral part of your spiritual and magical practices. The following excerpt from Chapter 1 explains the history of herbal medicine and essentials oils and how it lead to the invention of Aromatherapy.

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Historical Background of Herbal Medicine and Aromatics

The history of essential oils is intertwined with the history of herbal medicine, which in turn has been an integral part of magical practices. Herbal medicine has been used for more than treating minor ailments and disease; it has been instrumental in providing life-enhancing benefits. In most ancient cultures, people believed plants to be magical, and for thousands of years herbs were used as much for ritual as they were for medicine and food. According to medical herbalist and healer Andrew Chevallier, the presence of herbs in burial tombs attests to their powers beyond medicine. In addition, fourth-century BCE Greek philosopher Aristotle noted his belief that plants had psyches.

Aromatic plants in the form of oil and incense were elements of religious and therapeutic practices in early cultures worldwide. In addition, anointment with perfumes and fragrant oils was an almost universal practice. Burning incense in rituals provided a connection between the physical and spiritual—between the mundane and the divine. The word perfume comes from the Latin per, meaning “through,” and fume, meaning “smoke.” It was a common belief that contact with the divine could be achieved through the smoke of incense.

The ancient Egyptians believed that deities were embodied in the smoke and fragrance of temple incense. In addition, aromatics were used to deepen meditation and purify the spirit as well as to add subtlety to their sophisticated system of magic. Dating to approximately 1500 BCE, the Ebers papyrus is the oldest written record of Egyptian use of medicinal plants. Along with the physical details of plants, the manuscript contains related spells and incantations. It also mentions fine oils for perfumery and incense. Made from healing herbs, many of the perfumed oils doubled as medicines. Likewise, Egyptian priests often doubled as physicians and perfumers. Those who specialized in embalming the dead also used their expertise for the living by creating mixtures to beautify skin and protect it from the harsh, damaging desert climate.

Always a valuable commodity, frankincense was considered the perfume of the gods and was used in temple rites as well as a base for perfumes. Because perfumed oils were highly prized, the use of them remained in the province of royalty and the upper classes. These oils were often kept in exquisite bottles made of alabaster, jade, and other precious materials that were functional as well as beautiful. Some of these flasks retained scent until they were opened by archaeologists thousands of years after being sealed.