The Ancient Egyptian Origins of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils

Ancient Egyptians Using Cinnamon Essential OIl
Ancient Egyptians Using Cinnamon Essential OIl

The Origins of Aromatherapy

Ancient Egypt (Kemet) is recognized as the origin for significant development in aromatherapy, and the first distillation of essential oils (dating back to 3500 B.C.) The roots of aromatherapy start with the Ancient Egyptian belief that healing is a holistic process. The body cannot be separated from the mind, the soul, or the spirit. Ancient Egyptians were masters of the holistic and believed that beauty, magic, and medicine were inseparable. They recognized that health and beauty were rooted in cleanliness. Unpleasant smells were associated with impurity, but pleasant aromas indicated the presence of the sacred. Ancient Egyptians were the first in the world to practice the extraction of flower essences and botanical oils. They were also the first civilization to incorporate perfume into their culture.

In no other culture was the concern with health and beautification so extensive. The idea of cleanliness even transcended economic status. Excellent hygiene was a prerequisite for all Ancient Egyptians. It was a common practice for both, men and women, of all classes, to oil their bodies daily as a form of moisturization and protection from environmental conditions like heat and dryness. Records show that body oil for daily use was one of the basic supplies issued in the form of wages even to the lowest class of workers.

Ancient Methods for Essential Oil Extraction

• Burning- perhaps the oldest method, this technique is evoked in the modern word “perfume”, which literally means “through smoke”
• Animal fats and pastes- evidence of this can be found in the enfleurage technique to extract the essence of jasmine. Enfleurage is a process that uses odorless fats that are solid at room temperature to capture the fragrant compounds exuded by plants.
• Oils- blending with botanical plant oils of moringa and almond oil to combine conditioning effects of the plant oil with the fragrant essential oils

Historical Uses for Essential Oil

During the 3rd Dynasty (2650-2575 BC) in Egypt, the process of embalming and mummification was developed by the Ancient Egyptians in their search for immortality. Frankincense, myrrh, galbanum, cinnamon, cedarwood, juniper berry, and spikenard are all known to have been used at some stage to preserve the bodies of their royalty in preparation of the afterlife. Extensive knowledge of Ancient Egyptian beauty regime can be credited to the burial customs and arid climate which preserves artifacts well.
One of the first extractions was done with the lotus flower. The lotus flower was growing everywhere along the River Nile and became the symbol of Upper Egypt. Many aromatic substances were necessary for the afterlife, and in Ancient Egyptian mythology, the lotus flower essence was believed to help in the resurrection.

During the period between the 18th and the 25th Dynasty (1539-657 BC), the Ancient Egyptians continued to refine their use of aromatics in incense, medicine, cosmetics, and finally perfumes. Until just a few hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Ancient Egyptian perfumery industry was celebrated as the finest in the whole of the Middle East and beyond.

Evidence of this has been found in the tomb of King Tutankhamon, where the funeral furniture displays the pharaoh’s wife wrapping his body with the lotus oil. It is believed that jars in the tomb contained lotus flower essence (the tomb was robbed during the Late period).

Early graves contained cosmetic implements and later tombs contained sealed airtight jars. The perfume industry of Ancient Egypt was justifiably famous, as the aromas of these jars lingered even after being opened thousands of years later. Many of these jars were made from alabaster, which was known as the finest material for storing scent.
Ancient papyrus is filled with mentions of myrrh, marjoram, olibanum, jasmine, rose, cardamom, cinnamon, lemongrass, almond, and other botanical oils. In addition, it is documented that Ancient Egyptians had access and used 21 different types of vegetable oils for cosmetic purposes—many of which are still used today in natural products.
There is a great deal of historical evidence that Ancient Egyptians used essential oils for medicinal, spiritual, and cosmetic applications to establish the foundation of what we know, today, as modern aromatherapy.