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 Aromatherapy: A History of Fragrance 

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

From the Nara through the Kamakura Periods (710-1333), small lacquer cases containing perfumes hung from a clasp on the kimono. (The container for today's Opium brand perfume was inspired by one of these.) An incense-stick clock changed its scent as time passed, but also dropped a brass ball in case no one was paying attention. A more sophisticated clock announced the time according to the chimney from which the fragrant smoke issued. Geisha girls calculated the cost of their services according to how many sticks of incense had been consumed.

The Middle Ages
The spread of Islam helped to expand appreciation and knowledge of fragrance. Mohammed himself, whose life spanned the 6th and 7th centuries, is said to have loved children, women and fragrance above all else. His favorite scent was probably camphire (henna), but it was the rose that came to permeate Moslem culture. Rose water purified the mosque, scented gloves, flavored sherbet and Turkish delight, and was sprinkled on guests from a flask called a gulabdan. Prayer beads made from gum arabic and rose petals released their scent when handled.

Following the translation in the 7th century of the Western classics into Arabic, Arab alchemists in search of the "quintessence" of plants found it represented in essential oils. The Book of Perfume Chemistry and Distillation by Yakub al-Kindi (803-870) describes many essential oils, including imported Chinese camphor. Gerber (Jabir ibn Hayyan) of Arabia, in his Summa Perfectionis, wrote several chapters on distillation. Credit for improving (and sometimes, erroneously, for discovering) distillation goes to Ibn-Sina, known in the West as Avicenna (980-1037), the Arab alchemist, astronomer, philosopher, mathematician, physician and poet who wrote the famous Canon of Medicine. Essential oils were used extensively in his practice, and one of his 100 books was devoted entirely to roses.

The 13th-century text by Arab physician Al-Samarqandi was also filled with aromatherapeutic lore, with a chapter on aromatic baths and another on aromatic salves and powders. Steams and incenses of marjoram, thyme, wormwood, chamomile, fennel, mint, hyssop and dill were suggested for sinus or ear congestion. Herbs were burned in a gourd, breathed as vapors, or sprinkled on hot stones or bricks. In India, the 12th-century text Someshvara described a daily bath ritual in which fragrant oils of jasmine, coriander, cardamom, basil, costus, pandanus, agarwood, pine, saffron, champac and clove-scented sesame oil were applied. Participants in Tantric ceremonies were also anointed with oils, the men with sandalwood, the women with a bouquet of jasmine on the hands, patchouli on the neck and cheeks, amber on the breasts, spikenard in the hair, musk on the abdomen, sandalwood on the thighs and saffron on the feet. In other rituals, women called dainyals held cloths over their heads to capture Tibetan cedar smoke, which would send them into prophetic chanting. Special finger rings held small compartments filled with musk or amber. Indian temple doors carved from sandalwood invited worshippers to enter (and conveniently deterred termites).

In Europe, a shining light of the Middle Ages was the Abbess of Bingen, Saint Hildegard (1098-1179), an herbalist whose four treatises on medicinal herbs included Causae et Curae ("Causes and Cures of Illness"), in which she spoke highly of fragrant herbs-especially of her favorite, lavender. (Some sources credit her with the invention of lavender water.) European nuns and monks closely guarded the formulas for "Carmelite water," which contained melissa, angelica and other herbs, and for aqua mirabilis, a "miracle water" used to improve memory and vision, and to reduce rheumatic pain, fever, melancholy and congestion.

From the 9th century to the 15th century, the Medical School of Salernum (Salerno) in Italy drew scholars from both the West and the East and crowned its graduates with bay-laurel wreaths. Here much Western knowledge, preserved and refined by the Moslems after the fall of Alexandria, was reestablished in the West. The school's Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum was a kind of medical Bible for many centuries.

Influence of the Spice Trade
In the 13th and 14th centuries, Italy monopolized the Eastern trade established during the Crusades. The guilds-grocers, spicers, apothecaries, perfumers and glovers-controlled the import of enormous quantities of spices used to disinfect cities against the plague and other maladies. The purpose of Marco Polo's journey to China was to bypass Moslem middlemen and their 300-percent markup in price by convincing the Orient to trade directly with Genoa. When Christopher Columbus stumbled on the New World, he intended to make Spain a bigger player in the spice trade by beating out the competition. His route to the East was shorter. Tobacco, coca leaves, vanilla, potatoes and chilies of the Americas were of great interest to the rest of the world. Columbus kept looking for cloves and cinnamon but never did find these spices.

It was the good fortune of the Portuguese to finally establish a route around the tip of Africa, or "Cape of Storms" (later renamed "Cape of Good Hope"). In 1498, Vasco de Gama's sailors cheered, "Christos e espiciarias!" ("For Christ and spices!") as they neared India and her wealth of cloves, ginger, benzoin and pepper. (Jealous, Venice persuaded the Moslem traders to fight the Portuguese, who now controlled the spice trade. The Moslem traders were not successful.) The trade thus shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.

India-always prominent in the spice trade, although more as a pawn than a player-offered a rich variety of scents, including 17 types of jasmine alone. (The Moslem ruler Barbur, one of India's Mogul kings, declared, "One may prefer the fragrances of India to those of the flowers of the whole world.") The British, following the lead of the Dutch East India Company, finally attained a share of the action in the 18th century by taking control of India by exploiting the friction between the Moslems and Hindus. The British published an extensive set of volumes on medicinal and fragrant botanicals titled The Wealth of India.

The Americas
Columbus's assumptions were correct in one respect at least. The Americas indeed held fragrant treasures: balsam of Peru and Tolu, juniper, American cedar, sassafras, and tropical flowers like vanilla, heady with perfume. Like other indigenous peoples around the world, the Native Americans had a long history of burning incense and using scented ointments. Throughout the Americas, massage with fragrant oils was a common form of therapy.

The Aztecs were as extravagant with incense as the Egyptians, and they too manufactured ornate vessels in which to burn it. Injured Aztecs were massaged with scented salves in the sweat lodges, or temazcalli. The Incas made massage ointments of valerian and other herbs thickened with seaweed. In Central America, the Mayans steamed their patients one at a time in cramped clay structures.

Throughout the continent, North Americans "smudged" sick people with tight bundles of fragrant herbs or braided "sweet grass" (Hierochloe odorata), which smells like vanilla. Congestion, rheumatism, headaches, fainting and other ills were treated with smoke from burning plants, or with a strong herb infusion thrown over hot rocks to produce scented steam. The people of the Great Plains used echinacea as a smoke treatment for headaches; many tribes used pungent plants such as goldenrod, fleabane and pearly everlasting for therapeutic purposes.

Scents and "Sophistication"
Even after losing control over the spice trade, Italy remained the European leader for cosmetics and perfumes. As Venice became more cosmopolitan, it began to produce scented pastes, gloves, stockings, shoes, shirts and even fragrant coins. Our word "pomander" comes from the French words pomme d'ambre, a scented ball made of ambergris, spices, wine and honey, carried in a perforated container carried on the belt or on a string around the neck. Dried medicinals were stored in beautiful porcelain pots, and botanical waters were kept in Venetian glass.

The Italian influence swept through France, helped along by Caterina de Medici's marriage to France's Prince Henri II. Making the journey with her were her alchemist (who probably also made her poisons too, but that's another story) and her perfumer, who set up shop in Paris. The towns of Montpellier and Grasse, already strongly influenced by neighboring Genoa, had long produced the perfumed gloves that were in high style among the elite. (The gloves were most often perfumed with neroli, or with animal scents such as ambergris and civet. Apparently this wasn't always appreciated. A 17th-century dramatist, Philip Massinger, complained: "Lady, I would descend to kiss thy hand/but that 'tis gloved, and civet makes me sick.") These towns took the lead, as France's growing fragrance trade began to predominate over Italy's.

England was also influenced by the Italian love of scent. A pair of scented gloves so captured the attention of Queen Elizabeth I, she had a perfumed leather cape and shoes made to match. Sixteenth-century Elizabethans powdered their skin, hair and clothes with fragrant powders, and toned their skin with scented vinegars and fragrant waters. These waters like the Roman blends doubled as internal medicines.

The number of plants distilled expanded in the 16th century, and many books appeared on alchemy and the art of distillation. In 1732, when the Italian Giovanni Maria Farina took over his uncle's business in Cologne, he produced aqua admirabilis, a lively blend of neroli, bergamot, lavender and rosemary in rectified grape spirit. This was splashed on the skin, and also used for treating sore gums and indigestion. French soldiers stationed there dubbed it eau de Cologne, and Napoleon is said to have gone through several bottles a day-an endorsement that made it so popular that 39 competitors and a half century of law suits resulted. Other fashionable fragrances included rose, violet and patchouli, which were used on the imported Indian shawls made popular by Napoleon's famous consort, Josephine.

The Modern World
In the 19th century, two important changes occurred in the Western world of fragrance. The 1867 Paris International Exhibition exhibited perfumes and soaps apart from the pharmacy section, thus establishing an independent commercial arena for "cosmetics." Even more significant was the production of the first synthetic fragrance, coumarin (which smells of new-mown hay), in 1868, followed 20 years later by musk, vanilla and violet. Eventually this list expanded to many hundreds, then thousands, of synthetic fragrances-the first perfumes unsuitable for medicinal use.

France became the leader in reestablishing the therapeutic uses of fragrance. The perfume industry had been divorced from medicinal remedies for 50 years, but slowly began to reclaim its medicinal heritage. The term "aromatherapy" was coined in 1928 by French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefoss‚. His interest in using essential oils therapeutically was stimulated by a laboratory explosion in his family's perfumery business, in which his hand was severely burned. He plunged the injured hand into a container of lavender oil and was amazed at how quickly it healed.

By the 1960s, a few people, including the French doctor Jean Valnet and the Austrian-born biochemist Madame Marguerite Maury, were inspired by Gattefoss‚'s work. As an army surgeon in World War II, Dr. Valnet used essential oils such as thyme, clove, lemon and chamomile on wounds and burns, and later found fragrances successful in treating psychiatric problems. But while Valnet helped inspire a modern aromatherapy movement when his book Aromatherapie was translated into English as The Practice of Aromatherapy, it was the appearance in 1977 of masseur Robert Tisserand's book The Art of Aromatherapy, strongly influenced by the work of Valnet and Gattefoss‚, that was successful in capturing American interest. At present, there are many books available on aromatherapy.

(Excerpted from Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art ISBN: 0895946920)
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 About The Author
Kathi Keville Kathi Keville has studied herbs since 1969. Her attraction to fragrant plants led to an involvement in aromatherapy. Her other books include Herbs for Health and Healing; The Illustrated Encyclopedia of......more
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