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"Libraries: The medicine chest of the soul."
Library at Thebes, inscription over the door
The ancient Egyptians used many different plants in the form of aromatic oils.  The ancient Greeks, Romans and “modern day” Europeans used Egyptian influence and knowledge to eventually produce aromatherapy as we know it today.

Early Egyptian Aromatherapy Evidence

One of the earliest records of medicinal plant use is the Ebers Papyrus. The Ebers Papyrus records  approximately one hundred medicinal prescriptions, including some essential oils (albeit not in the exact format in which we know essential oils today).  It dates back to 1550 B.C. and was discovered in 1873 by Egyptologist Ebers.

The Nile Valley was known as the Cradle of Medicine and it was a haven of plants, trees and small bushes brought from India, Persia and Syria.  The ancient Egyptians used many of these plants, in the form of aromatic oils and resins, to successfully embalm humans and animals. The Egyptian king, Tutankhamen, had frankincense preserved in his tomb which was so potent that, when his tomb was opened 3,000 years later, a faint odor remained.  The Egyptians were also early instigators of a rudimentary still for plants.

The Egyptian temple of Edfu has hieroglyphics recording aromatic plant medicine use, including that of the well known Egyptian fragrance called KyphiKyphi helped to induce sleep, alleviate anxieties, eliminate sorrow and acted as a general antidote for toxins.  In addition, priests formulated all sorts of other medicines and perfumes from aromatic materials.

Aromatherapy in Greek History

Influenced by Egyptian knowledge gained from visits to the Nile Valley, a medicinal school was established on the Greek island of Cos, where Hippocrates (460 – 370 B.C.) taught many of his students.  The Greek Megallus formulated a perfume called Megaleion, known to heal wounds and reduce inflammation.  The Greeks classified and indexed their knowledge gained from the Egyptians and contributed significantly to the future study of plant medicine.

Aromatherapy in Roman History

The Romans took the knowledge of both the Egyptians and the Greeks and further advanced “aromatherapy” knowledge.  Discorides (1st Century A.D.) became well known for recording the properties of 500 plants in the book, De Materia Medica.  As the Romans expanded their empire throughout Europe, knowledge spread.  Thyme, rosemary and parsley were some of the aromatic plants which were introduced to Britain by the Romans.

Avicenna and Distillation

Avicenna (Ib’n Sina) (980 A.D.) was an Arab scientist who emerged after the fall of the Roman Empire. His most significant contribution to the aromatherapy world was the introduction of the cooling coil to improve the distillation units for plants.  He wrote a number of books which were widely used up to 1650.

Early Use of Aromatherapy in Europe

In the Middle Ages, the Crusaders brought home perfumes and flower waters from the Arabs; as trade routes opened up from East to West, aromatic plant use spread.  Venice was a trade gateway to the Arabs which helped to spread the wide use of perfume throughout Italy.  Italian Catherine de Medici was responsible for spreading the Italian use of aromatic plants and perfume to France when she married Prince Henri II of France.  Cultivation of plants such as jasmine, lavender and rose was established.  

In the 15th and 16th centuries, explorers Columbus and Cortes brought new plants back to Europe from expeditions to the Americas.  However, aromatic plant use fell out of popular favor when the Industrial Revolution hit Britain.  Furthermore, the mass production of synthetic plant oils impacted the use of “old” medicine.

Gattefosse and Aromatherapy

Rene- Maurice Gattefosse, a French chemist, contributed much to the modern day use of aromatherapy and the re-emergence of the use of aromatic plants.  In the early 20th century, Gattefosse carried out much research into aromatic plant use and properties and it was through an “accident” in one of his tests that modern day aromatherapy emerged.  To cool a burn he received on his hand in an experiment, he plunged his hand into a vat of lavender, thinking it was water.  To his amazement, his hand did not scar and this incident marks the “start” of aromatherapy in the 2oth century.


Lawless, Julia 1995 The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils London: Element
Price, Shirley 2000 Aromatherapy Workbook Rev. Edn. London: Thorsons

This article was written by Sharon Falsetto and appeared in its original format on Suite101 as Egyptian Influence on Aromatherapy

It is expressively prohibited to copy or use this article in any way unless written permission is given by the author Sharon Falsetto.  If it is discovered that copyright laws have not been complied with, legal action will be pursued by the author Sharon Falsetto.

CopyrightSharonFalsetto2010 All Rights Reserved

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