History of Fragrance

The history of aromatherapy is a fascinating area. We will give you a framework for the use of modern aromatherapy, but there are many excellent texts on the history of aromatherapy that make fascinating reading. Refer to your Program Catalog or the online reading lists at www.apothecary-shoppe.com for recommendations.

Eary History

Fragrance is able to stimulate memories and the senses. Ancient peoples in Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, China, and India, 3000 years BC, released and used fragrant aromas. They learned that inhaling the aroma caused memories to become fixed upon the brain. When the aroma was experienced the next time, the memory was recalled. Burning oils or incense was one of the earliest methods of releasing aromas. During times of animal sacrifice, it was thought the smell of burning flesh was pleasing to the Gods. It was not so pleasant for the general populace, who burned incense along with the sacrificial offering to control the odor.

Highlights from early aroma history


One of the first cultures to explore use of fragrance was the Chinese who describe the six "harmonies" created by incense and the fumes one inhales to achieve héxié (harmony). The harmonies were tranquil, reclusive, luxurious, beautiful, refined, and noble. The Chinese felt that without harmony, one does not achieve balance.

The Egyptians

The Egyptians had a developed perfume industry, but control of the industry remained in the hands on the priests, who used perfumes in religious ceremonies and mummification. The general public, known to bathe and wash frequently, used oils and other cosmetics to protect their skin from the summer heat. In addition, perfumes were used at banquets and receptions, where they were sprayed on the guests, and women and their servants wore a cone of oily unguent on their head that would fragrance the air as it dissolved [1]. Records showing the use of essences and aromatic substances by the Egyptians date back to 4,500 BC. In specific, Egyptians prepared an essence of cedarwood by heating the plant material in a clay vessel that had an opening covered by a screen of woolen fibers. The fat in the wool captured the essential oils. They then pressed or squeezed the impregnated wool to obtain the essence. The Egyptians embalmed their loved ones and their pets with these compounds, which contained the resins and essences. Traces of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg have been found in the bandages of mummies. The preservative effect of the embalmers' fluids is very impressive. Anthropologists have found intestinal fragments completely intact although they were thousands of years old. The aromatic compounds may have contributed to their longevity.

The Greeks

Later, the Greeks made extensive use of aromatic plants and essential oils. For example, the Greeks used perfumes and aromatic herbs to purify the air and reduce odors by burning and strewing them on their floors. Homer mentions perfumes frequently in the "Iliad" and "Odyssey".


During their early history, around 188 BC, the Romans were forbidden to sell exotic fragrances. The use of fragrance and perfumes only flourished after their migration into Italy, which at that time was occupied by the Greeks. It is thought that the Greeks were influential in promoting the use of fragrance and perfumes amongst the Romans. The Latin word perfumum means "through smoke" and was the term used by Romans to describe fragrance, continuing the Greek practice of burning aromatic herbs.


The use of aromatic, medicinal, and household plants spread throughout England and Europe with the movement of the Roman army and has continued to modern day.

Notes and References

[1] Donato, G., and Seefried, M. The Fragrant Past: Perfumes of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. Emory University Museum of Art and Archaeology: Atlanta, 1989.

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