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The History of Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy probably began before recorded history, when man discovered that certain plant aromas had soothing, healing effects when they were crushed in the palm of the hand or burnt on the fire. Tribes that had little contact with modern man until quite recent times retained the knowledge of the uses of plants in their areas, handed down by oral tradition.
The first recorded uses of aromatic oils date back 6000 years, when perfumed oils were a treasured part of Egyptian life. They used many oils whose names are rich in historical and biblical associations, such as cedar, frankincense and myrrh.
The use of therapeutic oils was spread throughout Asia and North Africa in ancient times, with India giving us a rich tradition of strongly perfumed oil such as sandalwood and patchouli. The Greeks and the Romans made good use of their Mediterranean plants for the production of aromatic oils. Hypocrites, called the `father of medicine’, wrote a herbal that recorded the uses of more than 300 plants. In Rome, a doctor called Dioscorides produced five books on healing herbs which he called De Materia Medica. These five volumes became a definitive work, translated into several languages.
The Crusades saw the importation of methods of distilling oils and using their healing properties to northern Europe in the Middle Ages, with herbal oils becoming an important weapon in the fight against diseases such as the Black Death. One such preparation, called Four Thieves Vinegar, was supposed to have protected thieves robbing the bodies of plague victims from contracting the disease themselves.
The Middle Ages saw a great deal of study into herbs and their uses, with many books of the period — such as Culpeper’s Herbal — still being consulted today. The apothecaries of the Middle Ages were the physicians of the time, and every great house had a `still room’, where herbs were distilled and used for a variety of household, personal and medicinal purposes.
The use of herbs fell into disrepute during the 18th and 19th centuries, when they eventually became associated with carnival barkers and `snake oil’, an impression which still taints any serious attempt to bring herbs back into the mainstream.
But throughout recent history, there have been recorded instances of therapeutic healing oils being used to treat many complaints successfully, and today, aromatherapy has become an international industry. The modern multi-billion dollar aromatherapy industry has spawned a wealth of aromatherapy products, such as essential oils, creams, candles, soaps, air fresheners, and fragrance infused papers, textiles and novelties.
But all you have to do to enjoy these oils at their purest is crush a few aromatic leaves in your hand, as our ancient ancestors did.
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