where did aromatherapy originate from?

Do you think of aromatherapy as a modern invention? 

In fact, aromatherapy has existed in one form or another for thousands of years. However, the exact origins of aromatherapy are more difficult to track down. Even our good friend Google cannot provide a definitive answer.

This is because using plants for their medicinal qualities is part of the history of all cultures. Spanning across cultural traditions, plant essences have been used to uplift the spirits and  improve health since the beginning of civilization.

Although different societies use plants for therapeutic use, the methods of obtaining their essential oils has changed over time.

How are essential oils produced?

Today, essential oils are produced on a mass scale. This is a result of the growing market for their use in cosmetics, medicine and many other household products.

Distilled essential oils

Egypt is credited as the first civilisation to extract essential oils using the process of distillation. They created a device for extracting cedarwood oil. This oil was valued for its preservative properties. This is why it was used in the embalming process as well as for protecting papyrus scrolls. 

Distillation involves heating the plant with water to produce steam. This is funnelled along a cooling tube where it condenses and the oil can be separated. This is still the most popular method of extraction today. 

Cold-pressed essential oils

Historically, the technique of cold pressing was labour intensive and took a long time. It involved absorbing the oils and liquids of the plant with special sponges. These were then crushed so the oils could be collected. 

Modern cold-pressing is done by a machine and is mainly used for citrus-based oils. This technique produces purer and more potent oils as the cold temperature preserves the quality. 

Aromatherapy through the ages

Prehistoric plant use

The idea of cave dwellers unwinding with essential oils might seem far fetched. Even after a narrow escape from the jaws of a wild animal. But evidence suggests the medicinal qualities of plants was understood way back then. The remains of a Neanderthal man were found alongside pollen grains of plant species known for their important medicinal properties. This suggests early humans were aware of the healing benefits of plants.

A study of skeletal remains of Neanderthals found in Spain revealed they used herbal remedies. Their diet was found to include chamomile and yarrow. As yarrow is a very bitter-tasting herb, it was unlikely to be consumed for enjoyment. Amongst other things, these herbs are used to settle digestion. A much needed remedy after a meal of woolly rhinoceros! 

The ancient Egyptians

The first recorded use of aromatics was around 3,500 BC in Egypt. Their focus on infused oils was the foundation for modern aromatherapy. They created various formulas with plant ingredients that were used for embalming and mummification. Lotus flower essence was a necessary inclusion in the tombs of the wealthy. Without cedarwood oil, which was used to preserve ancient scrolls, we wouldn’t know as much as we do today about the Egyptians. 

They developed methods for extracting flower essences to produce perfume. The use of perfume and other scented products was considered a measure of wealth. Essential oils had various cosmetic uses. The Egyptian beauty regime was pretty thorough. They paid a lot of attention to good personal hygiene. They even invented the first recipe for deodorant. 

Traditional Chinese medicine

The use of herbal remedies as treatments for disease can be traced back to 2500 BC. The Chinese had extremely advanced knowledge of the importance of plants for balancing the energy (also known as Qi). Traditional Chinese Medicine uses herbs and plants for treating a huge range of conditions. The origin of nearly all the citrus-based essential oils can be traced back to China.   

Indian Aromatherapy

Written around 2000 BC, the ‘Vedas’ contains information on the uses of over 700 plants and substances. It includes knowledge of their religious as well as medicinal uses. This is because traditional Indian medicine viewed the person holistically. Plants were understood to be important for balancing physical health and the emotions to achieve a state of wholeness. 

Ancient Greece

Hippocrates (c.460-c.370 BC) was a great believer in the healing properties of aromatherapy. He is known to have prescribed aromatic baths and massages to support health and restore balance. Could this be the historical origin of a relaxing spa day? 

He is often referred to as the Father of Medicine. His discoveries led to huge leaps in understanding surrounding illness and the workings of the human body. He developed the concept of holism. The holistic view takes into account the body, mind and spirit of a person. These three aspects must be kept in balance to achieve a state of health. 

The Romans

After the Romans defeated the Greek empire, their knowledge of plants as medicines spread through Europe. They took a lot of their knowledge of plants from the Greeks. The Romans were the first to use essential oils for hygiene. They were added to the public baths and included in massage.

Claudius Galen (c.129-c.216 AD) was a Greek who took the ideas of Hippocrates to Rome. As a physician and surgeon, he treated many wounded gladiators with herbal remedies. 


Between 900 and 950 AD, a text was written by the Saxons called ‘The Leech Book of Bald’. This huge volume detailed the benefits and uses of over 500 different plants. 

The Middle Ages saw a wider use of aromatic plants during the Great Plague. Plant essences were used to prevent the spread of infection. Herbs were used indoors to deodorise the air and people often wore herbal bouquets to ward off disease.

The origin of the word ‘aromatherapy’ 

It wasn’t until 1937 that the term aromatherapy was used to describe the therapeutic use of essential oils. It was coined by René-Maurice Gattefossé (1881-1950) in his book detailing the treatment of disease with essential oils.  

The famous chemist discovered the amazing healing properties of lavender essential oil by accident. The authentic account reveals he suffered first degree burns after a boiling flask exploded. His burns were treated with oil dressings but they did not heal and infection set in. 

He remembered a lavender grower explaining how effective lavender essential oil is for burns. Within two days of treating his skin with lavender, his infection was cleared. His passion became essential oils and he began convincing the medical world of their numerous benefits. 

Aromatherapy for religion and spirituality

The aroma released by burning certain plants can affect a person’s mood. It might cause sleepiness or heighten awareness. Many cultures burn sacred plants as part of their religious ceremonies. From ancient times to the modern day, aromas carried through the air represent our physical connection to the spiritual world. 

Modern aromatherapy

Madame Marguerite Maury (1895-1968) was an Austrian biochemist. She is often said to be the pioneer of the modern discipline of aromatherapy. She opened the first aromatherapy clinics offering essential oils and massage as treatment for various conditions.

Since the 1970s, the popularity of aromatherapy has been on the increase. Many people turn to essential oils for anxiety relief, to ease pain and for support with their quit smoking journey. The use of aromatherapy is likely to increase as more and more people discover the amazing benefits of essential oils.  

Final thoughts

So, what have we learnt from this aromatherapy history lesson?

Some of the key points are:

  • Herbs are helpful
  • Plants have powers
  • There are alternatives to mainstream medicine
  • Aromatherapy can boost health and wellbeing

Let’s take the advice of Hippocrates in ancient Greece. He is quoted as saying that “healing begins with an aromatic bath and daily massage”. So grab your essential oils, run the bath and soak your cares away.