Essential Oils Library: Origins


The most amazing aspect of Essential Oils’ is their very existence. These precious essences are quite simply a gift from nature.  The very first knowledge of these oils was buried within the magic of nature.  We know the ancients used them, modern medicine has studied them, coming to the conclusion, in most cases, that they actually do have scientific merit for the ailments they were sought for.  What is steeped in mystery is the early origins, the story of how the first essential oils were extracted from plant matter and how the knowledge of them and their uses came to be discovered. We do know that the power of the plant was passed throughout the ages through oral traditional, finally turning into the written word.  There exists no written record of the ancient experiments testing what each plant or flower could do to help mankind. 

Modern culture has lost sight of the art of ancient healing provided by plants and discovered by early civilizations. What is accepted as the medical standard tends to be what is written and published by western medicine. Fortunately, there still exist pioneers who believe in the amazing healing powers of plants and the potential they offer.

One such believer, L.F.C Mees’speaks of the healing benefits of plants in, Blessed by Illness. Mees, writes of a basic truth that is known by the reader without having to be taught. “We must confess that the many herbs that have been used in medicine for thousand of years, which have nearly disappeared in our time, were found by methods man cannot apply any longer to the kingdoms of nature.  This is the reason that man gradually stopped making use of herbs.  He had lost a feeling for nature.  He could not work with them because his conscious had changed.” 1

According to Mandy Aftel, author of Essence and Alchemy, “Scents reach us in ways that elude sight and sound, but conjure imagination in all it’s sensuality, unsealing hidden worlds.”2.

There is much debate on the historical origins of essential oils. While some believe that distillation of plant matter began in China, others believe the Arab culture as the original inventors of distillation. (Baser) Speculation suggests that the earliest practical devices for water distillation dates form the Indus Culture of 5,000 years ago. The Indus valley civilization, flourished from about 2500 B.C. to about 1500 B.C. in the valley of the Indus River in the northwestern portion of the Indian subcontinent which is present-day Pakistan.

The difficulty is that there is no written documentation of these early processes to extract these vital oils. Absent of real records the actual journey of these oils seems to have sprouted in the land of the Tigris Euphrates which gave birth to the early Essential Oils. The first records of a distillation process were published by “Levy from the High Culture of Mesopotamia) (Levey, 1959 b). In this record a type of cooking pot from Tepe Gaure which was different than other cooking pots in that period.

From these practices ancient Egyptians revived and expanded these early distillation practices.
By today’s medical standards, the ancient Egyptian methods seem primitive and myth based.  Many of these early extractions were not true essential oils by definition but rather fragrant distilled water extracts. These were used in both embalming practices and religious rituals. A  Priest would perform a purification process, with prayers, herbs, and a meditative state, called a Temple Sleep.  In this sleep, dreams of a God would occur and if the patient was worthy they would be healed. With a culture deeply based in gods and worship, the connection to the divine and nature, the belief in this system was powerful.

An ancient medical papyri is believed to have been written by Imhotep, Egypt’s earliest known doctor, architect, high priest, scribe and vizier to King Djoser around 2650 BC.  The Edwin Smith Papyrus contains 90 anatomical terms and 48 injury descriptions and cures. Most of this is scientific speculation based on findings in tombs and ruins, with the truth buried in the lost knowledge of those times. Our increasing understanding however lends credibility to ancient scientific speculation as the recording of ancient history improves.

The Greeks followed in the footsteps of the Egyptians with Asclepius, the Greek God of Medicine.  The Greek Priests would utilize unguents, tinctures and herbal medicines best suited to cure the specific ailment.  According to Mees, “Hippocrates himself represents the beginning of modern medicine in Greek times.” 3

Theophrastus, 371 – 287 BC was the successor of Aristotle at the Peripatetic School and wrote two books, Enquiry into Plants and On the Causes of Plants, which were important contributions to botanical science in the Middle Ages.

Pedacius, who lived from 40 – 90 AD, wrote We Materia Medica, a book that is important for the history of science and knowledge of herbs and their remedies by the Greeks and Romans of that time period, and with its information on 500 plants and therapeutically useful animal and mineral products, was thought to have remained in use until around 1600AD.

The timeline of essential oils makes it quite clear that as man’s knowledge of the science of medicine increased, man’s knowledge and belief in essential oils decreased.  Mandy Aftel sums this up when he stated that “Freud postulated, that as we began to walk upright, we lost our proximity to scent trails and to the olfactory information they provided.”4 Modern man stood up straight, leaving behind the simple and walking straight into the complex. Along the way he drifted farther and farther from what was once known.   However, throughout the history of medicine after the Egyptians and Greeks, there have been doctors that despite modern thoughts and procedures have stayed true to the healing power of plants.

In the late 15th century and early 16th Paracelsus, believed the origins of healing were divine, and his “Archaes,” consisting of salt, mercury, and sulfur, were to him the elements of life.  “Salt, (sal), mercury, and sulphur are the three principles of which every substance, every being on earth consists – salt, the principle between earth and water, mercury, the principle between water and air, sulphur, the principle between air and warmth,”5   Paracelsus used what he called his, “entra,” or his 5 divine principles to help him diagnose patients.  Ens Astral was man’s connection to the stars, other worlds, and the creating being. Ens Naturale was about biography, man is a world in himself, a microcosm.    Ens Veneni referred to the metabolic process and nutrition.   Ens Spiritual was man’s spiritual connection to the world around him, and finally Ens Dei is the center in man’s force of healing issues.

In the 16th century lived William Turner who is cited by Robert Tisserand in his 1977 book, The Art of Aromatherapy, as the father of English Botany. One of his contributions was the doctrine of signatures, finding that the form of the herb would resemble the part of body or disease which it would cure.

A century later John Baptist van Helmont a chemist “strove to keep contact with the non-physical, divine, element to man,”6 and according to Mees had a dream where, “he was told that he would possess the power of Archangel Raphael and the divine medicine if he were to become a doctor.”7    Nicholas Culpepper, a17th century doctor published in 1653 The Complete Herbal. He wrote. “I consulted my two brothers, Dr. Reason and Dr. Experience and took a voyage to visit my Mother Nature, by whose advice together with the help of Dr. Diligence, I at last obtained my desire and being warned by Mr. Honesty, a stranger in our days, to publish to the world.  I have done it.”8 Nicholas Culpepper would go in and out of favor and in the early months of the English Civil War, would be accused of witchcraft and thus expelled from the Society of Apothecaries.

Robert Tisserand stated that during the black plague, “those who were closet to aromatics, especially perfumers, were virtually immune, since all aromatics are antiseptic.  It is likely that some of those used were indeed effective protection against the plague.”9

Isaac Newton, who lived from 1642 – 1727 was described by John Maynard Keynes as, “not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago. Isaac Newton, a posthumous child borm with no father on Christmas Day, 1642, was the last wonderchild to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.”10 Although, not famous for it, it is said that Newton spent a great deal of time studying alchemy and that he would have been more known as an alchemist if his volumes of books on the subject weren’t burned in a fire.

In the late 18th century, Samuel Hahnemann introduced the world to homeopathy.  Mees writes, In Hahnemann’s use of dilutions, we see someone who seems to be building a bridge between the physical and non-physical worlds.” It was in the 19th century when scientific investigation started when in 1833, M.J. Dumas conducted the first systematic investigation of the constituents of essential oils. His analysis of hydrocarbons and oxygen, sulfur and nitrogen rich properties started the scientific exploration of essential oils. Later in 1882, William Whitla published, Materia Medica, with 22 official plant species and 3 unofficial.  It was also at this time that Rene Maurice Gattefosse’s treated his burnt hand by immersing into a vat of lavender oil and with it instant relief that really brought essential oils back from the past.

The 20th century sees a global resurrection of essential oils.  In 1920 tree oil having been used by the Aboriginals for centuries was recognized by western science as having medical qualities. In Italy at this same time Doctors Gatti and Cajola discovered the benefits of Essential oils in psychotherapy, and Paolo Rovesti used them to help with anxiety and depression.  And just ten years later in France, Dr. Marguerite Maury gave health and beauty treatments through inhalation, ingestion or massage of these essential oils onto the face and body, key to these method of treatment was the aroma. In 1950, Maury took her treatments to England and then eventually the rest of the world.  Jean Valnet, a WWII field surgeon used essential oils on wounded soldiers on the battle field with great success.

Today there is an endless supply of books and resources for a novice to help gain greater knowledge of the healing properties of plants and flowers.  There are a growing number of physicians that study and are certified experts in using the ancient medicines to heal their patients.  Today is a far cry from 1941, when the British Pharmacy and Medicines Act made the practice of herbal medicine illegal, we are however, still overrun with modern technology and chemical based advances that are touted as curatives, creating a question of trust in what we have come to know as aromatherapy. If we are able to resist the rhetoric, aromatherapy can take us back, back to the beginning when man was connected to nature and when he still believed in its power to heal.

End Notes

1. L.F.C. Mees, Blessed by Illness. (Steiner Press, 1983.), 60.

2. Mandy Aftel, Essence & Alchemy, (Gibbs Smith, 2001), 11.

3. Mees, Blessed by Illness, 59.

4. Aftel. Essence & Alchemy, 14.

5. Mees, Blessed by Illness,72.

6. Mees, Blessed by Illness,75

7. Mees, Blessed by Illness, 74.

8. Culpeper, Nicholos, Nicholas Culpepper’s Complete Herbal, (Harvard University, 1816) page 4.

9. Tisserand, Robert, The Art of Aromatherapy, 1977, page 39.

10. Keynes, John Maynard, Newton the Man, 1946.


Aftel, Mandy Essence & Alchemy, (Gibbs Smith, 2001), 11.

Bowles, E. Joy, The A to Z of Essential Oils, 2003.

Culpeper, Nicholos, Nicholas Culpepper’s Complete Herbal, (Harvard University, 1816) page 4.

Keynes, John Maynard, Newton the Man, 1946.

Lawless, Julia, Complete Illustrated Guide to Aromatherapy, 1997.

Mees, L.F.C. Blessed by Illness. (Steiner Press, 1983.), 60.

Poth, Susanne, Tea Tree Oil for Health & Well-Being 1997.

Tisserand, Robert, The Art of Aromatherapy, 1977, page 39.