This world must have been aromatic heaven: women scented their hair with cedar-infused oil and the air was ripe with aromatic smoke from pine, spruce, juniper, and balsam incense, the rich balsam tones creating an aromatic terrain—the perfume of everyday life, rituals, ceremonies, and healing.
It’s no wonder then that the origin of the word “perfume” comes from the Latin per fumus, which means “through smoke.” Ancient priests and physicians believed that incense’s essential-oil-laced smoke ascended up to the gods and gave them the power to call upon healing spirits during religious practices and medical treatments.
Those simple concoctions were the foundation of all our perfumes, cosmetics, and cleaning and herbal healing products—all that is scented can be traced back to these early balms and incense. The next historical evolution in essential oils and the therapeutic use of aromatic plants occurred in India, as a part of ayurvedic medicine. A five-thousand-year-old healing system still practiced today, ayurveda is based on vital
The Ayurvedic healing aesthetic, found in both incense and aromatic personal care oils, is so beautiful that we find it echoed in our favorite perfumes today. We can thank India for giving us sandalwood and vetiver, found in many men’s colognes. Heady jasmine and vanilla are hidden in the complex fragrance of Chanel No. 5. Sandalwood and jasmine ground Guerlain’s Samsara, and my favorite, Hermès’s Calèche, combines jasmine and citrus. I love knowing that the fragrances that capture our imaginations were originally designed to help our spirits ascend toward nirvana. Moving forward to around 2600 BCE in Egypt, Imhotep, the designer of the first pyramid, acted as physician and priest, using essential oils in religious ceremonies, including mummification.
In fact, when the first great tombs were excavated—including those of Pharaohs Tutankhamun and Queen Hatshepsut—traces of still-fragrant frankincense and myrrh were found in some of the vessels. These powerful resins are a mainstay of modern aromatherapy, used mind
These are still favorite scents today. Just think of how we instinctively turn our heads to smell someone cutting open an orange, a lemon, or a lime nearby! From archaeological remains, we also know that people were using aromatic oils in the Middle East around the same time as the Egyptians and the Chinese. In areas of southern Iran and Afghanistan, aromatic oils were found in vessels dated to 2000 BCE and in artifacts from Israel and Jordan. Both frankincense and myrrh are
Gattefossé suffered an accident in his laboratory and his hand was badly burned. He tried treating the wound with lavender oil and noticed immediate benefit. Not only did the pain of the wound subside on contact but also Gattefossé barely had a scar afterward. The oil had relieved his pain and regenerated tissue. Although he had applied the oil topically, as opposed to
Essential oils are finally finding their way back into our homes, offices, and makeup bags as welcome companions to both modern and holistic approaches to medicine, wellness, and beauty.