Ancient Tales: The History of Aromatherapy


Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination." - Shakespeare

France has a very richly scented history. Cave painting in Lascaux illustrate the Neanderthal’s use of medicinal plants. Perfume sellers were recorded in Paris as early as 1190. Catherine de Medici made Paris the city of perfume when she arrived in 1533 to marry Henry II. Catherine brought along her own perfumer, Rene, who established his famous shop, decorated with an Egyptian motif, on the Pont au Change. The Medici family, wealthy and powerful in Italy, were famous for their clever poison rings. Catherine was said to have dispatched a few poisonous glover to her enemies. Nostradamus, whose prophetic skill is extolled to this day, was a perfumer and alchemist as well as Catherine’s astrologer. Much of the perfume however, as wellas being used for protection, was also used to hide the smell of unwashed bodies or used as an aphrodisiac. Bathing was not in vogue. Elizabeth I (1533-1603) had her cloaks and shoes treated with the oils.

In Germany, Hieronymous Braunschweig wrote a number of books on distillation. New Volkemne Distillierbuch in 1591 referred to 25 essential oils. This was the time of the great herbalists in Europe – William Turner, John Gerarde, John Parkinson and William Culpeper, who in 1652 wrote:

"The oil drawn from the leaves and flowers is of sovereign help, to touch the temples and the nostrils with two to three drops for all diseases of the brain, for the inward diseases it must be done with discretion, as the case requires, for it is very quick and piercing."

Renee Garrefosse is called the father of modern aromatherapy because he was the first to call the practice of using the oils “aromatherapy.” He published his first book, Aromatherapie, in 1928 followed by scientific papers and several other books largely relating to the oils. He knew that the oils had greater antiseptic properties than some of the antiseptic chemicals used at that time, a knowledge that was apparently put into practice when he burnt his hands. Plunging them into a nearby vat of lavender, he was amazed at the short time it took for his hands to heal with no sign of infection and leaving no scar.

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