Medicine was once magic and in indigenous societies around the world this is still seen as the case. Shamans are held in great esteem in hunter-gatherer societies. They are needed to contact the spirit world to seek guidance regarding the weather, crops, childbirth and illnesses. They work their magic by burning herbs that give off narcotic fumes and induce a trance state. This method has actually changed little since prehistoric times, when humans found that throwing aromatic plants onto campfires produced intoxicating scents.
From mysticism to science
As nomadic tribes settled and became the first civilisations, magic became mysticism, which was structured into religion. Priests developed complex rituals to surround ancient practices. Incense was burned as offerings, to protect the ancestral spirits and to receive prophetic visions. From this religious use of plants developed the use of natural medicines and perfumes.
Egypt's Ancient Art of Perfumery
Egyptian perfumers were famous throughout the ancient world for their great skill and use of aromatics. Precious oils and resins were not confined to the temples and were also used in the home, as Egyptian women anointed their skin and hair with the scent of lilies and pine. The most well known perfume was Kyphi, which was also used as a temple incense and as a medicine.
It was made from a blend of 16 plants, most of which are unknown, and inhaling it was thought to help the consciousness to ascend. One ingredient was calamus, whose active constituents include the phenol asorone. Aromatherapist Robert Tisserand explains that this would have acted as a sedative and narcotic. Frankincense was another ingredient, and this oil is still used today by aromatherapists to open up the Crown and Third Eye Chakras.
Aromatics in Magic and Ritual
Aromatherapy played an important role in the religious rites of ancient cultures and contributed to the development of many civilisations.
The most common method of extracting essential oils today is by steam distillation, but this technique had not been discovered in the time of the Ancient Egyptians. Instead, they extracted plant essences through enfleurage and maceration. Though the processes the Egyptians used were simplified compared to today's, they still produced oils of good enough quality to make embalming fluids.
The Egyptians perfected the art of mummification and it is for this that their civilisation is most often remembered. And it could be said that their cultural obsession with the afterlife led to inadvertent scientific progress.
Egyptian embalmers were expert at removing organs intact and without damaging the body and their aromatic formulas perfectly preserved human tissue and flesh.
Later, the Greeks would continue to develop medicine based upon Egyptian writings of the human body and medicinal plants.
The exodus of the Jews from Egypt to Israel around 1240BC also saw the exodus of knowledge of herbs, resins and oils. As a result, references to essential oils and precious balms can be found throughout the bible.
While leading the Jews to the promised land, Moses received knowledge of a special healing ointment from God that could protect people against disease. It contained cassia, cinnamon, framkincense, galbanum, hyssop, myrrh and spikenard.
Mary of Bethany used oil of spikenard to wash Jesus' feet with her long hair.
One of the best known references to essential oils in the Bible is the gift of frankincense and myrrh given to the baby Jesus.
The epic take of Gilgamesh describes how the king of Ur would please the Gods and Goddesses by burning incenses of cedarwood and myrrh. These fragrances were said to carry happiness to the heavens. And, as in Egypt, aromatics were used as much for medicine, perfumes and cosmetics as they were for ritual.
The ancient Sumerians and Assyrians enjoyed bathing in fragrant flower waters and made their skins silky with exotic oil blends. Archaeologists have found cuneiform tablets that date back to the 12th-13th centuries BC and describe egg-shaped vessels containing precious oils.
In the ancient world, herbs, oils and spices were more valued than gold, which duly increased trade and communications between many cultures. Babylon was the centre of the perfume trade in the 5th Century BC.
Located in south-western Asia, between Iran and Russia, today Azerbaijan is a country with a Turkic and Muslim population. Its number one export is oil, though in the past the country prized oils of a different kind. The people of the kingdoms of Manna (ninth-seventh century BC) and Atropatena (fourth-first centuries BC), now Iran, held flowers and plants in high esteem for their spiritual properties.
According to Turkic legend the souls of babies are grown in flowers, which are the creation of the sky god Tangry and his wife Oleng, goddess of grass, trees, and patroness of medicine.
The spiritual beliefs of the Azerbaijanis encompassed strict rules for keeping the body cleansed and purified, and, therefore, the use of perfumed oils was popular. Frankincense, rosemary, cassia, spikenard and hyssop were used for this purpose, but were also renowned for their healing properties.