Monday, February 22, 2016


The advent of “aromatherapy” has been attributed to both the Ancient Egyptians and Chinese over 4500 years ago, as scented plants and their products were used in religious practices, as medicines, perfumes, and embalming agents (Manniche, 1989, 1999), and to bring out greater sexuality (Schumann Antelme and Rossini, 2001).

But essential oils as such were unlikely to have been used. In Ancient Egypt, crude plant extracts of frankincense, myrrh, or galbanum, and so on were used in an oily vegetable or animal fat that was massaged onto the bodies of workers building the pyramids or the rich proletariat after their baths (Manniche, 1999). These contained essential oils, water-soluble 554 Handbook of Essential Oils extractives, and pigments. Incense smoke from resinous plant material provided a more sacrosanct atmosphere for making sacrifices, both animal and human, to the gods.

The incense was often mixed with narcotics like cannabis to anesthetize the sacrificial animals, especially with humans (Devereux, 1997). The frankincense extract in oils (citrusy odor) was entirely different to that burnt (church-like) in chemical composition (Arctander, 1960), and therefore would have entirely different functions.

Frankincense (Boswellia carterii; Boswellia thurifera) (Burseraceae), Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha; Balsamodendron myrrha; Balsamodendron opobalsamum) (Burseraceae), Labdanum (Cistus ladaniferus), Galbanum (Ferula galbaniflua), Styrax (Styrax officinalis), or Liquidambar orientalis, Balm of Gilhead (Commiphora opobalsamum), Sandalwood (Santalum album), and Opoponax (Opoponax chironium). Uses included various concoctions of kyphi, burnt three times a day to the sun god Ra: morning, noon, and sunset, in order for him to come back.

The ingredients included raisins, juniper, cinnamon, honey, wine, frankincense, myrrh, burnt resins, cyperus, sweet rust, sweet flag, and aspalanthus in a certain secret proportion (Loret, 1887; Manniche, 1989; Forbes, 1955), as shown on the walls of the laboratory in the temples of Horus at Edfu and Philae. Embalming involved odorous plants such as juniper, cassia, cinnamon, cedarwood, and myrrh, together with natron to preserve the body and ensure safe passage to the afterlife. The bandages in which the mummy was wrapped were drenched in stacte (oil of myrrh) and sprinkled with other spices (for further descriptions and uses, see Lis-Balchin, 2006).

The Chinese also used an incense, hsiang, meaning “aromatic,” made from a variety of plants, with sandalwood being particularly favored by Buddhists. In India, fragrant flowers including jasmine and the root of spikenard giving a sweet scent were used. The Hindus obtained cassia from China and were the first to organize trading routes to Arabia where frankincense was exclusively found. The Hebrews traditionally used incense for purification ceremonies. The use of incense probably spread to Greece from Egypt around the eighth century bc.

The Indians of Mesoamerica used copal, a hard, lustrous resin, obtained from pine trees and various other tropical trees by slicing the bark (Olibanum americanum). Copal pellets bound to corn-husk tubes would be burnt in hollows on the summits of holy hills and mountains, and these places, blackened by centuries of such usage, are still resorted to by today’s Maya in Guatemala (Janson, 1997) and used medicinally to treat diseases of the respiratory system and the skin. Anointing also involves incense (Unterman, 1991).

Queen Elizabeth II underwent the ritual in 1953 at her coronation, with a composition of oils originated by Charles I: essential oils of roses, orange blossom, jasmine petals, sesame seeds, and cinnamon combined with gum benzoin, musk, civet, and ambergris were used (Ellis, 1960). Similarly, musk, sandalwood, and other fragrances were used by the Hindus to wash the effigies of their gods, and this custom was continued by the early Christians.

This probably accounts for the divine odor frequently reported when the tombs of early Christians were opened (Atchley and Cuthbert, 1909). The Christian Church was slow to adopt the use of incense until medieval times, when it was used for funerals (Genders, 1972). The reformation reversed the process as it was considered to be of pagan origin but it still survives in the Roman Catholic Church. Aromatic substances were also widely used in magic (Pinch, 1994).

Source: Handbook of Essential oils.


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