The Curious History of Essential Oils

I’ll be the first to admit it: I showed up a little late to the essential oils revolution. When I think about it, I guess I just wasn’t convinced. Was this little bottle of essential oils really going to revitalize my spirit or soothe my anxiety? I was more than a little skeptical! But, I was also determined to keep an open mind and really uncover all the benefits these oils have to offer.

And, now I’m hooked!

But, before I share what I’ve learned from souring the web and interrogating my essential oil gurus, I thought it would be fun to take a peek into the history of aromatherapy. Aromatic plants have been used for centuries across the world. From religious ceremonies to botanical medicines, these aromatic plants serve as the foundation for modern day pharmaceuticals. Many ancient civilizations developed sophisticated use of plant remedies to not only soothe the body, but heal the mind. Here is a sneak peek into the history of these aromatic oils we know and love.


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The earliest use of essential oils dates back to ancient Egypt in approximately 2000 BC. Egyptian rulers were passionate about beauty, wearing expensive oils and perfumes. Ancient temple priests, whose roles were similar to that of modern physicians, would create a variety of aromatic balms, tinctures, salves and ointments that were used for both religious and medicinal purposes. Upon excavation of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, Egyptian archeologists discovered over 50 alabaster jars specifically carved to house essential oils into the afterlife. These oils were considered to be so valuable that ancient tomb raiders actually drained the jars of the precious oil, leaving behind the gold for discovery in 1922!

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Greece & Rome

Essential oils were not only popular in Egypt, but ancient Greece as well. The Greek physician, Hippocrates, studied and documented over 300 medicinal plants that he believed were beneficial to the human body. Hippocrates is known as the “Father of Modern Medicine,” and his influence can still be seen throughout the medical community. He believed “the way to health [was] to have an aromatic bath and scented massage every day.” Because Roman culture was deeply influenced by the Greeks, use of essential oils carried over to into daily Roman life. The Romans used essential oils in massive quantities, bathing with them several times a day. Oils were used to scent the hair, the body, clothing and bed linens. Wealthy Romans could even request special blends of their favorite oils by highly skilled perfumers.

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In China, use of essential oils for common medicinal ailments is widely accepted. Herbal medicine is integral in Traditional Chinese Medicine, holistic healthcare that stimulates the body’s own healing mechanisms. Shennong’s Herbal is the oldest surviving medical text, dating back to 2700 BC and containing medical use for over 350 plants. Shennong is the father of Chinese herbal medicine. He consumed hundreds of herbs to document their medical value, and many Chinese credit him as the founder of both tea and acupuncture. In the world of aromatherapy, China is one of the biggest producers of essential oils.


Essential oils are a key element in the Indian Ayurvedic medicine, a natural healing system that blends practical, spiritual, and philosophical aspects. The origins of Ayurvedic medicine is shrouded in mystery, but ancient Ayurvedic literature describes Indian doctors administering oils of cinnamon, ginger and coriander as early as 2000 BC. Ayurvedic medicine been practiced in India for over 5,000 years and remains widely popular to this day. The term Ayurveda is rooted in Sanskrit, meaning “life” and “knowledge.” The Vedic scriptures, spiritual text from ancient Indian culture, mention over 700 different herbs used for religious and medicinal purposes.


Essential oils for aromatherapy were first introduced into Europe during the Crusades. The Knights and their armies were responsible for passing along knowledge of herbal medicine that they learned from the Middle East.  Essential oils were widely used in England until the Catholic Church denounced Hippocrates’ teachings on bathing and aromatherapy during the Middle Ages. The Church claimed bathing for pleasure or healing was inappropriate; a sin against the cleansing power of Christ. European historians credit the Monks for keeping aromatherapy alive during this time. Under threat of death for “witchcraft”, the Monks continued to preserve plant medicine and aromatherapy until the late 1500s. By the 1600s, use of essential oils was widespread throughout Europe. In 1910, a French cosmetic chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, accidentally discovered the healing powers of lavender oil when he severely burned his hands in a lab explosion. This experience led him to investigate other medicinal uses for essential oils (which he called “aromatherapie”) to help treat World War I soldiers in military hospitals. Today, the use of aromatherapy in Europe is so widespread, that many physicians will prescribe essential oils (rather than pharmaceuticals) that can be obtained with a prescription from the pharmacy.

South America

The Aztecs of South America had a wealth of aromatic botanicals at their fingertips,  successfully blending science, religion and medicine. They were known for their intricate herbal remedies as they impressed the invading Spanish conquistadors of the 16th century. The Aztecs used a variety of aromatic herbs for healing, many of which are still used throughout Latin American culture to this day. Although there is no written record of essential oils being used before 1522, herbal medicine existed in South America long before the Spanish invasion, and continues to remain common practice (especially in rural, South American communities).

History of Essential Oils



Sources: [1] [2] [3]

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