History of Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy in Antiquity

The earliest pictorial references associated with aromatherapy are believed to be images on the walls of the Lascaux caves in southwestern France (near Montignac in the Dordogne region) which are thought to date from approx. 18,000 B.C..

Many aromatherapy books claim that this therapy is at least 6000 years old. This claim is supported with reference to the many ancient cultures from different parts of the world that are believed to have used scented oils to aid relaxation and healing. Some of those ancient civilizations are mentioned below - note that their uses of scented oils (in general) may be quite different from modern aromatherapy, which often takes the form of aromatherapy massage treatments (not all massages are aromatherapy massages - that depends on the oils used) and aromatherapy products such as creams, oils and luxury bathing products.


Surviving records describe methods used by the Ancient Egyptians to extract oils from aromatic plants. One medical papyri thought to date from around 1555 B.C. describes remedies for a range of illnesses including some remedies and methods similar to those used in modern Aromatherapy and Herbal Medicine.
Egyptians also used aromatic oils in mummification processes.


There are some suggestions that the Ancient Chinese were using aromatic oils at about the same time as the Egyptians. There is clear evidence that they were using aromatic herbs and burning aromatic woods for religious purposes.

Aztec Civilization

The Aztecs of South America developed sophisticated use of plant remedies, some of the plants used being aromatic hence it is likely that they were using some form of aromatherapy effects.

Native America

Native American tribes that inhabited the North American continent before the arrival of Europeans in the 1500s used aromatic oils in conjunction with their herbal remedies. (More about Native American traditions.)


Aromatic massage is sometimes used in the practice of the traditional Indian Medicine, Ayurveda.


The Greeks used aromatic oils for cosmetics and medicines.
Hypocrites studied the therapeutic effects of essential oils and recommended aromatic baths and massages with scented oils.
Greek physician, Theophratus wrote about the healing properties of 'aromatic plants', and fellow physician Pedacius Dioscorides, wrote about herbal medicine - describing some remedies are still used in Aromatherapy in 21st Century.


The Romans, who had learned many healing and relaxation techniques from the Greeks, became well-known for their use of bathing, scented baths, and body treatments using a variety of massage media including aromatic oils. (The remains of their facilities for these activities may still be seen all over the former Roman Empire.)

Note that these ancient civilizations may not necessarily have used scented oils in the same way as each other, or in the same way as aromatherapy is practised today. What is known of the details of use in these times and places varies but there is at least some evidence of the use of aromatic oils for the purposes of physical, mental, emotional, and / or spiritual well-being.

Since 1000 A.D.

The physician Avicenna (980-1037) is credited with first using the distillation process to extract essence of Rose.
Rose essential oil is an important and expensive oil used in modern aromatherapy.

During the Renaissance in Europe (ca. 1450-1600), explorers and merchants brought exotic herbs and oils back to Europe from the Middle and Far East, interest in these luxuries grew, especially among the middle- and upper-classes. Wigs were scented with aromatic oils and people carried scented handkerchiefs to overcome the effects of unsanitary streets and living conditions. In France lavender and rosemary oils were used to fumigate hospitals.

19th Century

European scientists and physicians researched the effects of essential oils on bacteria in people. It was at this time that the scientific method was becoming established in many areas of human thought and study.

20th Century - The Development of Modern Aromatherapy

Key developments leading to the modern form of aromatherapy took place in France during the middle years of the 20th century:


French chemist and writer Dr. Rene Maurice Gattefosse published a book about the anti-microbial effects of essential oils in which he used the term 'aromatherapy'.

Frenchman Albert Couvreur published a book about the medicinal uses of essential oils.


The French medical doctor and army surgeon Dr. Jean Valnet also conducted research using essential oils. At about the same time French biochemist, Margaret Maury developed massage techniques for the effective application of these oils to the skin.

The research results and techniques established by Jean Valnet, Margaret Maury, and her co-researcher Micheline Arcier, form the basis of modern aromatherapy as taught by colleges all over the world today.

21st Century

Aromatherapy continues to increase in popularity throughout the Western World and beyond.

Debate is focussing less on whether or not aromatherapy is effective and more on who should be allowed to practise it, the required qualifications, and how practitioners should be regulated. This is also true of other body-work therapies such as reflexology.

body massage

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