If you think aromatherapy is a new practice, think again! Many ancient civilizations — including the Greeks, Persians, Romans, and Chinese — used various forms of aromatherapy. The Egyptians are generally credited with founding the use and study of aromatherapy.
Ancient Egyptians used a few basic methods for extracting plant essences: infusion, squeezing, and eventually distillation.
- To infuse oil with a plant essence, simply place the aromatic plant material in the liquid and let the mixture sit in the sun for several weeks. I’ve tried this method for myself, hoping to make lily scented oil… but it ended up getting moldy. So keep a close eye on your mixture if you’d like to try infusing your own oils.
- The squeezing method was relatively simple: bas-reliefs show a cloth bag full of flowers that was twisted around sticks, pressing out the fragrant oil.
- Distillation was done by pouring water over plant material in large pots. Openings in the pots were covered with wool, and the pots were heated. Essential oils would rise up in the steam and collect in the wool material to be squeezed out later.
The resulting oils were used in many different ways. Certain natural aromatics were used in the mummification process to slow decay and putrefaction. Cedarwood, myrrh, pine, cinnamon, and frankincense have all been noted when uncovering tombs. Tutankhamen’s tomb — opened in 1922 — was still scented with frankincense. A three thousand year old mummy still smelled of myrrh and cedarwood when unwrapped by modern forensic scientists.
Aromatics were used in mood-altering incense, luxurious perfumes, skin care preparations, massage oils, and healing ointments. Some blends had nearly a hundred ingredients! Recipes varied greatly from one temple of priest-healers to another. Among popular plant essences used in ancient Egypt were cinnamon, cassia, juniper, and myrrh. Other ingredients were a little stranger, like serpent skin and spittle.