The History of Essential Oils
By Joan Apter, Aromacologist

It is impossible to date exactly when plants were first used. Since the dawn of human history herbs, plants, flowers, shrubs, trees, roots, bushes and seeds have assisted us in our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual life here on earth.

Essential oils are the regenerating and oxygenating properties of the plant kingdom. They are subtle, volatile liquids that are steam distilled under low pressure and low temperature. To produce pure essential oils hundreds or thousands of pounds of plants are required to extract one pound of oil. Lavender requires 175-250 pounds to produce one pound of oil. Rose oil requires 5,000 pounds of petals for one pound of oil. Melissa requires three tons of plants to produce one pound of oil which sells for $9,000 to $15,000!

Many writings tell us where the use of essential oils began. Some say that Aromatherapy began in China, some say India. Research conducted by Dr. Gary Young, author of "Aromatherapy: The Essential Beginning", indicates that the Egyptians were the first to discover the potential of fragrance. According to papyrus found in the Temple of Edfu, dating back to 4500 BC, they were using fragrant oils for rituals and ceremony.

During the Neolithic period, 6,000 to 9,000 years ago, it was discovered that fatty oils could be press- extracted from the olive tree.

The first distillation of plants was done with olive oil. The Egyptians would take cedar bark, strip it, grind it, soak it with olive oil, wrap it in a wool cloth and then burn the cloth. The heat of the cloth would pull the essential oil out of the bark and into the olive oil. They would then press the wool cloth and extract the essential oil!

The Egyptians also found that they could extract oil by placing petals in goose or goat fat. The oil was then separated from the fat. This is the process of making an "absolute," which is an extraction without steam.

In 1817, the Ebers Papyrus was discovered, a scroll dating back to 1500 BC. It contained over 800 formulations. Many mixtures contained myrrh, oil and honey.

In 1922, when King Tutankhamen's tomb was opened, 350 liters of oils were discovered in alabaster jars. These had been placed in the tomb when it was sealed in 1350 BC.

The physicians of Ionia, Attia and Crete came to the cities of the Nile to increase their knowledge. The Greeks ascribed a divine origin to all aromatic plants. Hippocrates attended the school of Cas, founded in 460 BC, and brought his knowledge back to Greece.

Cedarwood oil was highly prized both in Babylon and Egypt. In a clay table from Babylon, dating from 1800 BC, there is an order for imported oil of cedar, myrrh and cypress. This suggests that international trade in aromatics goes back as much as 4,000 years!

The Romans were even more lavish in their use of perfume than the Greeks. The Romans used oils to scent their hair, bodies, clothes, and even the walls of their houses!

There are 188 references to oils in the Bible, and some, such as frankincense, myrrh, rosemary hyssop and spikenard.

Biblical prophets recognized the use of essential oils as a protection. The Three Wise Men brought the oils of frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child. In those days, frankincense was considered more precious than gold!

Perhaps the oldest traditional use of essential oils is for emotional and spiritual purposes, Different fragrances have a calming, stimulating, elevating or suppressing action within the body.

When Rome fell, the surviving Romans fled to Constantinople, bringing with them their knowledge of perfumery. In the late tenth century, Avicenna is credited with the rediscovery of the lost art of distillation. Rose was the first essential oil extracted by this "new" process of steam distilling. These rose oils and roses waters caught the attention of European businessmen, who, by the end of the twelfth century had brought perfumes to Europe.

During the 10th century, the perfume industry saw incredible growth, especially in France. Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, a perfumer in Grasse, France, coined the term "aromatherapy."  In 1928, he published his first book on Aromatherapy.

Another French doctor, Jean Valnet, began to use essential oils. Valnet first published his book, "Aromatherapie" in 1964.

In 1992, it was discovered that essential oils have a bio-electrical frequency measurable in hertz, megahertz and kilohertz. The first frequency monitor was built by Bruce Tainio of Tainio Technology, an independent division of Eastern State University in Cheny, Washington.

Since the turn of the century there has been a growing interest in essential oils in Germany, Switzerland, France in England. 

As we head towards the 21st Century, the rediscovery of essential oils are being enjoyed by people all over the globe. They are truly one of the miracles of the natural pharmacy!

Joan Apter, Aromacologist,  has 22 years experience in the use and application of essential oils. You may contact her for classes and presentations to your group or organization.

For information, or to obtain any of the oils mentioned in this article, contact Joan at 845-679-0512 or e-mail her at

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