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Aromatherapy:   Making Good Scents
Yesterday and Today


"Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains... "
Diane Ackerman

Has the scent of lavender ever made you feel drowsy or calmer? Does the aroma of fresh apple pie bring back reminisces of autumn afternoons in your mother's kitchen? If so, then you instinctively understand some of the basic principles of aromatherapy.

So what is aromatherapy? It is simply the use of essential oils, extracted from plants, trees, and herbs, for therapeutic purposes such as treatment of common ailments, promotion of good health and emotional well being, and enha

Did you know that natural plant oils have been recognized for over 6000 years for their healing, cleansing, preservative and mood-enhancing properties as well as for the sheer pleasure of their fragrances? In fact, the use of essential oils predates written history though the term aromatherapy wasn't coined until 1928 by a French chemist. (Find out more about his "synchronistic" story in the "What shall we call it?" section.)

The use of aromatherapy can be traced through the religious, medical, and social practices of all major civilizations. Rather than go into great detail, here is a brief history on aromatherapy, focusing mostly on the Orient, followed by some little-known historical trivia on aromatherapy, short suggestions on how to use aromatherapy, and a reference list.

How it all started…

Ancient man quickly discovered methods to preserve food and treat ailments through herbs and aromatics. Through Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese manuscripts we learn that priests and physicians have been using essential oils for thousands of year.

The Egyptians first used a method of infusion to extract the oils from aromatic plants which were then used for medicinal and cosmetic purposes as well as embalming. Around that same time, ancient Chinese civilizations were also using some form of aromatics. (Shen Nung's herbal book, dating back to approximately 2700 BC, covers information on over 300 plants and their uses.) The Chinese used aromatics to help create harmony and balance and to show respect to their gods during religious ceremonies. The use of aromatics in China was also linked to ancient therapies such as massage and acupressure. The Chinese may very well have been one of the first cultures to use aromatic plants for well-being.

Chinese Taoists also believed that extraction of a plant's fragrance represented the release of its soul. The Chinese use the word heang for perfume, incense, and fragrance. Moreover, heang was classified into six basic types, according to the mood it induced: tranquil, reclusive, luxurious, beautiful, refined, or noble.

The Chinese upper classes made lavish use of fragrance during the T'ang dynasties (which began in the 7th century AD) and for many centuries thereafter. Their bodies, baths, garments, homes, and temples were all richly scented, as were their inks, paper, sachets for garments, and cosmetics.

However, the Japanese turned the use of incense into a fine art, even though incense didn't arrive in Japan until very late (around 500 AD) after which they perfected a distillation process. By the 4th to 6th century, incense pastes of powdered herbs mixed with seaweed, plum pulp, charcoal, and salt were pressed into spirals, cones, or letters, and then burned on beds of ashes. Special schools taught (and still teach) kodo, the art of perfumery. Students learned how to burn incense for ceremonies and to perform story dances for incense-burning rituals.

From the Nara through Kamakura Periods (710 to 1333 AD), the Japanese hung small lacquer cases containing perfumes from kimono clasps. (The container for today's Opium perfume was inspired by one of these.) An incense-stick clock changed its scent as time passed. A more sophisticated clock announced the time according to the chimney from which the fragrant smoke issued. Geisha girls calculated the cost for their services based to how many sticks of incense had been burnt. Aromatherapy has also been used for many centuries in India. Ayurveda, the traditional medical system of India, uses dried and fresh herbs, as well as aromatic massage as important aspects of treatment. Indian temple doors are typically carved from sandalwood to invite worshippers to enter (and conveniently deter termites). Many of these traditions continue to today.

In trivial pursuit of aromatherapy

The following is trivia on aromatherapy and essential oils as they were used in various cultures and by famous people throughout history.

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