A History of Fragrance

The Ancient World

Much of the ancient history of fragrance is shrouded in mystery. Anthropologists speculate that primitive perfumery began with the burning of gums and resins for incense. Eventually, richly scented plants were incorporated into animal and vegetable oils to anoint the body for ceremony and pleasure. From 7000 to 4000 bc, the fatty oils of olive and sesame are thought to have been combined with fragrant plants to create the original Neolithic ointments. In 3000 bc, when the Egyptians were learning to write and make bricks, they were already importing large quantities of myrrh. The earliest items of commerce were most likely spices, gums and other fragrant plants, mostly reserved for religious purposes.

While on a modern archeological expedition in 1975 to the Indus Valley (which runs the length of modern Pakistan), Dr. Paolo Rovesti found an unusual terra-cotta apparatus, displayed along with terra-cotta perfume containers, in a Taxila museum. It looked like a primitive still, although the 3000 bc dating would place it 4,000 years earlier than most sources date the invention of distillation. Then a vessel of similar design, from around 2000 bc and unquestionably a still, was discovered in Afghanistan. Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets from the 13th century to the 12th century bc describe elaborate egg-shaped vessels containing coils; again, their function is unknown, but they are quite similar to Arab itriz used much later in the history of the region for distillation.

Even if essential oils were available at such an early date, most man-made fragrance was still in the form of incense and ointments. During the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid (c. 2700 bc), papyrus manuscripts recorded the use of fragrant herbs, choice oils, perfumes and temple incense, and told of healing salves made of fragrant resins. Throughout the African continent people coated their skin with fragrant oils to protect themselves from the hot, dry sun. This practice extended to the Mediterranean, where athletes were anointed with scented unguents before competing.

From this same era, the Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the legendary king of Ur in Mesopotamia (modem Iraq) burning ntyw, incense of cedarwood and myrrh to put the gods and goddesses into a pleasant mood. A tablet from neighboring Babylonia contains an import order for cedar, myrrh and cypress; another gives a recipe for scented ointments; a third suggests medicinal uses for cypress. Still farther east, the Chinese Yellow Emperor Book of Internal Medicine, written in 2697 bc, explains various uses of aromatic herbs.

Trade routes to obtain fragrant goods were established throughout the Middle East well before 1700 bc and would be well-traveled for the next 30 centuries-until the Portuguese discovered a way around the Cape of Good Hope. The Old Testament describes one group of early traders: “a company of Ishmaelites [Arabs] from Gilead, bearing spicery, balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt.” Perhaps as early as 1500 bc, monsoon winds began carrying double-outrigger canoes along the “cinnamon route.”

Egypt’s penchant for producing unguents and incense was to become legendary. A figure of King Thothraes IV, carved into the base of the Sphinx at Giza, has been offering devotional incense and oil libations since 1425 bc, and there is little doubt that Egyptian aromas were potent: calcite pots filled with spices such as frankincense preserved in fat still gave off a faint odor when opened in King Tutankhamen’s tomb 3,000 years later. As depicted on wall paintings, solid ointments of spikenard and other aromatics, called “bitcones,” were placed on the heads of dancers and musicians, where they were allowed to gradually-and dramatically-melt down over hair and body.

The most famous Egyptian fragrance, kyphi (the name means “welcome to the gods”), was said to induce hypnotic states. The City of the Sun, Heliopolis, burned resins in the morning, myrrh at noon and kyphi at sunset to the sun god Ra. Kyphi had more than religious uses, however. It could lull one to sleep, alleviate anxieties, increase dreaming, eliminate sorrow, treat asthma and act as a general antidote for toxins. Several recipes are recorded, one of the oldest being a heady blend of calamus, henna, spikenard, frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, cypress and terebinth (pistachio resin), among other ingredients. Cubes of incense were prepared by mixing ground gums and plants with honey, similar to a technique used by the Babylonians and later adapted by both Romans and Greeks.

The ancient Hebrews employed fragrance to consecrate their temples, altars, candles and priests. The book of Exodus (c. 1200 bc) provides the recipe for the holy anointing oil given to Moses for the initiation of priests: myrrh, cinnamon and calamus, mixed with olive oil. Although Moses decreed severe punishment for anyone who obtained holy oils and incense for secular use, not all aromatics were restricted to religious use. We learn in the book of Proverbs that “ointment and perfume rejoice the heart” (27:9), while in the Song of Solomon we read:

A bundle of myrrh is my beloved unto me;

He shall lie all night between my breasts

My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire [henna]

In the vineyards of En-gedi. (1:13-14)

By the late 5th century, Babylon was the principal market for the perfume trade. The Babylonians used cedar of Lebanon, cypress, pine, fir resin, myrtle, calamus and juniper extensively. When the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon, they brought back a heightened appreciation of fragrance, especially in the form of incense.

The ancient Greek world was also rich in fragrance. Just one Greek word, arómata, describes incense, perfume, spices and aromatic medicines. One such concoction, manufactured by a perfumer named Megallus, was the legendary megaleion, which contained burnt resin, cassia, cinnamon and myrrh, and was used in the treatment of wounds and inflammation. At Delphi, the oracle priestesses sat over smoldering fumes of bay leaves to inspire an intoxicating trance; holes in the floor allowed the smoke to “magically” surround them.

By the 7th century bc, Athens had developed into a mercantile center in which hundreds of perfumers set up shop. Trade was heavy in fragrant herbs such as marjoram, lily, thyme, sage, anise, rose and iris, infused into olive, almond, castor and linseed oils to make thick unguents. These were sold in small, elaborately decorated ceramic pots, similar to the smaller jars still sold in Athens today.

While Socrates heartily disapproved of perfume, worrying that it might blur distinctions between slaves (who smelled of sweat) and free men (who apparently did not), Alexander the Great-who, when he entered the tent of the defeated King Darius after the battle of Issos, contemptuously threw out the king’s box of priceless ointments and perfumes-learned to love aromatics after a few years traveling in Asia. He sent deputies to Yemen and Oman to find the source of the Arabian incense with which he anointed his body and which burned constantly by his throne. To his Athenian classmate Theophrastus he sent plant cuttings obtained during his extensive travels, thus establishing a botanical garden in Athens. Theo-phrastus’ treatise On Odors covered all the basics: blending perfumes, shelf life, using wine with aromatics, properties that carry scent, and the effect of odor on the mind and body.

As trade routes expanded, Africa, South Arabia and India began to supply spikenard, cymbopogons and ginger to Middle Eastern and Mediterranean civilization; Phoenician merchants traded in Chinese camphor and Indian cinnamon, pepper and sandalwood; Syrians brought fragrant goods to Arabia. True myrrh and frankincense from distant Yemen finally reached the Mediterranean by 300 bc, by way of Persian traders. Traffic on the trade routes continued to swell as demand increased for roses, sweet flag, orris root, narcissus, saffron, mastic, oak moss, cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, nutmeg, ginger, costus, spikenard, aloewood, grasses and gum resins.

By the 1st century ad, Rome was going through about 2,800 tons of imported frankincense and 550 tons of myrrh per year. Nero, Roman emperor in 54 ad, spent the equivalent of $100,000 to scent just one party he was giving. Carved ivory ceilings in his dining rooms were fitted with concealed pipes that sprayed down mists of fragrant waters on guests below, while panels slid aside to shower guests with fresh rose petals. (All this fragrant excess wasn’t without its casualties; one unfortunate guest is said to have been asphyxiated by a dense cloud of those petals.) Both men and women literally bathed in perfume while attended by slaves called cosmetae. Three types of perfume were applied to the body: solid unguents, scented oil and perfumed powders, all purchased from the shops of unguentarii, who were regarded every bit as highly as doctors. The Romans even referred to their sweethearts as “my myrrh” and “my cinnamon,” much as we use the gustatory endearments “honey” and “sweetie pie.”

The Roman historian Pliny, author of the impressive lst-century ad Natural History, mentions 32 remedies prepared from rose, 21 from lily, 17 from violet and 25 from pennyroyal. Famous Roman blends of the era included susinon, which served not only as a perfume but was a diuretic and women’s anti-inflammatory tonic, and amarakinon, used to treat indigestion and hemorrhoids, and to encourage menstruation. A similar spikenard ointment was suggested for coughs and laryngitis.

Fragrance occurs, at least symbolically, throughout the New Testament records. The frankincense and myrrh brought to the Christ child were more valuable than the gift of gold (if indeed it was gold; some New Testament scholars speculate that the three wise men may have been carrying gold-colored, fragrant ambergris). One of the most famous gospel scenes involves Judas Iscariot complaining about Mary Magdalene’s anointing of Christ’s feet with costly spikenard. Even the Greek word for Christ, Christos, means “anointed,” from the Greek chriein, to anoint.

Indeed, the 1st century ad was a time of accelerated development of aromatherapy’s source sciences. Aromatics was one of five sections covered in Dioscorides’ famous Herbal. The first written description of a still in the Western world is of one invented by Maria Prophetissima and described in The Gold-Making of Cleopatra, an Alexandrian text from around the first century. (Her design was used initially to distill essential oils, but also proved useful for alcoholic beverages.) Gnostic Christians from the 1st to the 4th century ad, whose beliefs were deeply rooted in Egyptian philosophy, held fragrance in high regard. Seeking release from the limitations of the material world, they embraced the symbology of essential oils, which represented the soul of the plant.


Distillation of essential oils and use of aromatics also progressed in the Far East. Like the Christian Gnostics, Chinese Taoists believed that extraction of a plant’s fragrance represented the liberation of its soul. Like the Greeks, the Chinese had just one word, heang, for perfume, incense and fragrance. Moreover, heang was classified into six basic types, according to the mood induced: tranquil, reclusive, luxurious, beautiful, refined or noble.

The Chinese upper classes made lavish use of fragrance during the T’ang dynasties, which began in the 7th century ad, and continued to do so until the end of the Ming dynasty in the 17th century. Their bodies, baths, clothing, homes and temples were all richly scented, as were ink, paper, sachets tucked into their garments, and cosmetics. The ribs of fans were carved from fragrant sandalwood. Huge, fragrant statues of the Buddha were carved from camphor wood. Spectators at dances and other ceremonies could expect to be pelted with perfumed sachets. China imported jasmine-scented sesame oil from India, Persian rosewater via the silk route and, eventually, Indonesian aromatics-cloves, gum benzoin, ginger, nutmeg and patchouli-through India.

Numerous texts related to aromatherapy were published in China. The Hsian Pu treatise by Hung Chu (1100 ad) describes incense-making. The 16th century saw publication of the famous Chinese Materia Medica Pen Ts’ao, which discusses almost 2,000 herbs, including a separate section on 20 essential oils. Jasmine was used as a general tonic; rose improved digestion, liver and blood; chamomile reduced headaches, dizziness and colds; ginger treated coughs and malaria.

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

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.

Most important, the efforts of pioneers like Valnet, Maury and Tisserand have turned aromatherapy into a disciplined healing art, rediscovering the uses of fragrance from ancient times and sparking a revival of aromatherapy that has swept throughout the world.

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Written by Kathi Keville

Explore Wellness in 2021