The history of essential oils is exciting, romantic and mind-boggling. The stories are everywhere; the whole bible is full of allusions to essential oils. What makes it so exciting is that this part of history is continuously here and now. Each time I smell an oil, I am smelling the whole stretch of history…I am actually part of it, and what the oil does to me, it has done to every person since the dawn of time! And knowing the oils gives me insight to why some oils were used in specific situations. Mind-boggling!
The word Perfume is derived from the Latin per fumum, meaning through smoke. Early man found that certain herbs gave a rich-scenting and healing smoke when placed on the fire. These plants were, naturally, special gifts from the Gods. Bad smells, such as rot and decay, were dangerous to health, so early man learned, by using the sense of smell, what was good and what was bad. I believe these early learnings have become part of a human hereditary trait; every person recognizes the smell of rot and bacteria infestation, even if they never smelled it before.
The Egyptians are the best-known when it comes to the use of aromatic substances. There are ample records on papyrus-rolls dating back to 1700 B.C of how they were used. Wealthy people wore perfumed wax-cones on their heads to melt during the day and infuse them in scent. (We need to remember that these times were stinky. People and their waste is smelly business.) The whole embalming-process was done with essential oils, resins and other scented substances. The process could take up to 6 months and would cost a fortune. This was done for royalty and very wealthy individuals. The “quickie-embalmings” for the not-so-wealthy would take as little as a day. When Tutankhamons grave was opened in the 1920:s (after being sealed for more than 2000 years) small pots were found with solidified scented matter, with the scent still discernible to the nose. Analysis showed it to be wax infused with Frankincense (boswellia carterii) and Myrrh (commiphora myrrha)
The Egyptian temples were in fact laboratories for the priests who were the connectors to God. Only the priests had the knowledge of how to create medicines and holy potions. There are records of medicine for hay-fever, youth-elixirs, and potions to prevent pregnancy. Each hour of the day had a special perfume. In Heliopolis, the city of the Sun-God Ra, Frankincense was burned at sunrise, Myrrh (commiphora myrrha) at noon and Kyphi at sunset. Kyphi is one of the first documented perfumes in history. There are 16 ingredients of which 12 are identified: Calmus, Cassia, Cinnamon, Cyperus, Frankincense, Hina, Juniper, Mastic, Myrrh, Saffron, Spikenard and Turpentine.
Each God had its own scent and the statues in the temples were anointed every day. Osiris had Marjoram (origanum majorana) and Ra had Frankincense.
Scented herbs, spices, flowers, barks, woods and resins were imported from Malaysia, China and India. Frankincense resin came from the Arabic peninsula. The resin comes from a small desert-tree and is to this day collected by nomadic tribes. At the time only certain tribes knew where to find it and how to get it, and this made Frankincense a very valuable substance, even more valuable than gold.