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The healing power of plants has been acknowledged by many cultures for thousands of years, and aromatherapy can be said to stem from the various systems of traditional medicine developed by ancient civilizations. Primitive peoples used plants in both their healing traditions as well as in their religious rituals.

The idea of a relationship between humankind and a divinity or spirit was one of the earliest forms of human thought. All indigenous cultures also share a common acceptance of the belief that the growth and continued existence of humanity is dependent on a healthy relationship between the body and the mind and between the gods and humankind. In many cultures, fragrance odors were thought to please the gods and healing herbs were even thought to have magical qualities.

Indian medicine is traditionally plant based. The most ancient of Indian religious writings contain prescriptions and formulae, as well as invocations and prayers, that address the healing plants themselves. The medicinal plants of India became famous throughout Asia, and many have now found their way into Western medical treatments and aromatherapy. India’s age-old Ayurvedic medical system is increasingly popular in the West as more people become disillusioned with chemical preparations and turn instead to traditional and holistic forms of healing.

Traditional Chinese medicine is an ancient system of healing that has survived into the present. Herbal medicine is used in conjunction with acupuncture, the insertion of fine needles into specific points of the body to free its energies. Many Chinese herbs have been used for thousands of years. The great classic of Chinese herbal medicine, known as Pen ts' ao kang-mou, lists over 8,000 formulae, most of them plant based, a greater range of plants than has ever been used in any other system of medicine.

Essential oils have been used in Egypt since the time of the pharaohs. There are records on clay tablets of cedarwood and cypress being imported into Egypt, so even in ancient times there was an international trade in essential oils. Cedarwood and myrrh were both used very effectively in the embalming process, biochemical research has now shown that cedarwood oil contains a strong fixative, and that myrrh is an excellent antiseptic and antibacterial oil. The oils were also used in other spheres of life, Cleopatra, is said to have harnessed the power of rose oil in order to blind Mark Anthony with her charms. Egyptian high priests recorded what they knew about the oils on papyrus and their knowledge forms part of the basis of modern aromatherapy.

Babylonian doctors recorded their prescriptions on clay tablets but, unlike the Egyptians, they did not record what quantities to use. What they did record was what time of day the preparations should be prepared and used, usually at sunrise.

The ancient Greeks gained much of their knowledge of essential oils from the Egyptians, but they also acknowledged that the aroma of certain flowers could be either uplifting or relaxing. They used olive oil in their enfleurage processes. The Greek physician Hippocrates, who was revered as the father of medicine, refers to a vast number of medicinal plants in his writings.

The Romans employed many Greek physicians, and through them the use of medicinal plants gradually spread around the ancient world. The Romans used essential oils for pleasure, to perfume their hair, bodies, and clothes, as well as for pain relief. After the fall of Rome many physicians fled to Constantinople, taking their knowledge with them. Here the works of the great Graeco Roman physicians, such as Galen and Hippocrates, were painstakingly translated into Arabic and their knowledge spread throughout the Arab world.

What happened in Europe during the Dark Ages, after the fall of Rome, is unclear, although the widespread persecution of witches for their magical healing powers indicates that here must have been a strong folk healing tradition at that time, one that would have included the uses of aromatic plants. By the 12th century the concept of aromatherapy had definitely arrived in Europe. During the Crusades, European barber surgeons worked alongside Arab physicians, learning from them the importance of hygiene and the uses of oils. Knights returning from the Crusades brought the herbs and oils back to Europe, along with an understanding of the steam distillation process.

The invention of the printing press in the 15th century led to the rapid spread of knowledge, and recipes and methods were frequently gathered together and published as herbals During this time floors were often covered with herbs that gave off their volatile oils when walked on, and little bouquets of herbs, known as tussie-mussies, were carried in public places to ward off infection. In 1665, the year of the Great Plague in Britain, people in London burned lavender, cedarwood, and cypress in the streets. These practices have often been dismissed by historians as little more than superstition, but many of the preparations that were used are now known to be disinfectants, bactericides, and antiviral agents, or insecticides and insect repellents.