Brief History: Essential Oils
Updated: Nov 16, 2022
Essential oils have been in use since at least 5,000 years ago with the first records originating in ancient India, Persia, and Egypt. The term, "essential" is derived from the belief that the oil made from plants contained the very essence of the plant's scent and flavor.
From what we can learn of history hitherto, essential oils originated in Egypt which was at the leading edge of technology and civilization at the time, being situation on the fertile lands along the Nile River. Essential oils such as cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh resin and an early form of cedar or juniper were used in the primary function of mummification, embalming, and burial.
When Rome invaded and conquered Egypt in 30 BC, they acquired this knowledge. Initially Roman clerics were the biggest sellers, specifically of balsam which was prized for its varied benefits. Roman bath houses were also famous for utilizing aromatic oils such as bay laurel, pine, fir, and juniper which were also used in massage and other therapeutic practices at the time. When baths were not available, olives would be scented with oils and used to clean the body, applying to the skin and then scraped off with an instrument called a strigill. Israelites around this time were recorded using frankincense, cedar wood, hyssop, and fir to elevate spiritual communication.
In most ancient cultures odorous plants were used directly, then with the golden age of the Arab culture was a technique developed for the distillation of essential oils. This distillation method spread to Europe during the Middle Ages with this process described during the 11th to 13th centuries, these distillation products becoming the specialty of Medieval pharmacies. In 12th century Germany, Saint Hildegard of Bingery shared insights into medieval medicines and her work including the use of essential oils in her book, Physica which chronicled plants and their uses.
By the mid 18th century Europe, about 100 essential oils had been introduced, but there remained little understanding about the nature of these products, as chemical knowledge of essential oils would expand later in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Knowledge improved, so then essential oil use expanded in the realms of medicine, food, drinks, and perfumes.
Over these thousands of years, the process of extracting essential oils from plants have developed spanning methods of boiling, crushed powders, animal fats (hot and cold), solvents, and steam distillation. The latter of which seems to be the current preferred method for both the dōTERRA and Young Living essential oils brands.
There is discrepancy regarding if essential oils yield benefits to the human body or not. Common uses includes aromatherapy, topical application, or ingestion (with safe oils). Mainstream medical practitioners however, question the validity of the effects that essential oils have on the human body, emotion, or spirit, believing that many of the benefits are more likely due to conditioned responses or associated memories that scents reinforce and help create.
How aromatherapy influences people is when someone inhales molecules of extracts which stimulates the olfactory nerve in the brain and sends messages to the brain's limbic system, aka the seat of memory, learning, and emotion, thus triggering physiological responses. To say that aromatherapy only works, because of associated memories might not be off the mark, nor incorrect, but this also does not rule out that this method can be healing for certain individuals. Topical applications are used with skin-safe oils mixed with a carrier oil which aids in dilluting the potency of the essential oil as well as enabling it to be absorbed by the skin (aka the body's largest organ) to gain the benefits specific to that plant. To put this method in perspective, it's similar to applying a very concentrated version of herbs to the body (wounds or otherwise). Lastly is the method of ingesting safe essential oils. These are usually limited to the cooking herbs such as rosemary, thyme, wild orange, and other consumable oils for the benefit of flavoring food and herbal use.
Like massage therapy, essential oils hold roots in the healing and spiritual arts, the benefits and impact of which might not always be regulated or measured by science, but often results in healing for many. Essential oils while distilling the plant's essence, take in account the natural plant rather than solely a synthetic component, therefore keeping the natural rhythms in balance with one another. As our understanding deepens, the extraction process continues to refine and new benefits and uses discovered. It is an art that builds and grows upon itself, much like a plant which continues to grow and flourish with carful cultivation.
dōTERRA. (n.d.) Distillation Process [blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.doterra.com/AU/en_AU/essential-oils-distillation
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2022, Sept. 27) Essential Oil Plant Substance. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/essential-oil
Young Living. (2015, April 13) Essential Oils in the Ancient World, pt. I [blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.youngliving.com/blog/essential-oils-in-the-ancient-world-pt-i/
Young Living. (2015, April 15) Essential Oils in the Ancient World: Part II [blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.youngliving.com/blog/essential-oils-in-the-ancient-world-part-ii/
Young Living. (2015, April 18) Essential Oils in the Ancient World: Part III [blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.youngliving.com/blog/essential-oils-in-the-ancient-world-part-iii/
dōTERRA. (n.d.) Essential Oils Origins. Retrieved from https://www.doterra.com/US/en/ebooks-emotional-oil-origins
dōTERRA. (n.d.) What to Know Before Using Essential Oils [blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.doterra.com/CA/en/blog/healthy-living-what-you-should-know-before-using-oils