Aromatic plants and oils have been used for thousands of years, as incense, perfumes and cosmetics and for their medical and culinary applications. Their ritual use constituted an integral part of the tradition in most early cultures, where their religious and therapeutic roles became inextricably intertwined. This type of practice is still in evidence: for example, in the East, sprigs of juniper are burned in Tibetan temples as a form of purification; in the West, frankincense is used during the Roman Catholic mass.
In the ancient civilizations, perfumes were used as an expression of the animist and cosmic conceptions, responding above all to the exigencies of a cult associated at first with theophanies and incantations, the perfumes made by fumigation, libation and ablution, grew directly out of the ritual, and became an element in the art of therapy.’
In Ancient India
The Vedic literature of India, dating from around 2000 BC, lists over 700 substances including cinnamon, spikenard, ginger, myrrh, coriander and sandalwood. But aromatics were considered to be more than just perfumes; in the Indo-Aryan tongue, ‘atar’ means smoke, wind, odor and essence, and the Rig Veda codifies their use for both liturgical and therapeutic purposes.
The manner in which it is written reflects a spiritual and philosophical outlook, in which humanity is seen as a part of nature, and the handling of herbs as a sacred task: ‘Simples, you who have existed for so long, even before the Gods were born, I want to under stand your seven hundred secrets! Come, you wise plants, heal this patient for me.” Their understanding of plant lore developed into the traditional Indian or Ayurvedic system of medicine, ken transmission up to the present day.
Essential Oils in Chinese Civilization
The Chinese also have an ancient herbal tradition that accompanies the practice of acupuncture, the earliest records being in the Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Medicine dating from more than 2000 years BC. Among the remedies are several aromatics such as opium and ginger, which, apart from their therapeutic applications, are known to have been utilized for religious purposes since the earliest times, as in the Li-ki and Tcheou-Li ceremonies. Borneo camphor is still used extensively in China today for ritual purposes.
Essential Oils In Middle East
But perhaps the most famous and richest associations concerning the first aromatic materials are those surrounding the ancient Egyptian civilization. Papyrus manuscripts dating back to the reign of Khufu, around 2800 BC, record the use of many medicinal herbs, while another papyrus written about 2000 BC speaks of ‘fine oils and choice per fumes, and the incense of temples, whereby every god is gladdened”.
Aromatic gums and oils such as cedar and myrrh were employed in the embalming process, and the Egyptians were experts in cosmetology and renowned for their herbal preparations and ointments.