Myths and Legends
Various civilisations throughout history have employed the use of aromatic plants for religious, medicinal,
cosmetic and magickal purposes. One of the earliest forms of aromatherapy was the use of aromatic plants as incense. The word
perfume comes from the Latin word ‘perfumum’,
which means ‘through smoke.’
This would have originally referred to the use of incense. Incense was burned as a way to rid evil spirits, which many of
the ancients considered to be the cause of disease. Associations became made between the healing of disease and the aromas
of the plants used in the healing treatments, and this became the early foundation for what we now know today as ‘aromatherapy.’
The history of aromatherapy may even stretch back further than what we commonly know. It seems that during the
Neolithic period (prior to 4000BC), the Eastern people and some of the European people had discovered how to express oils
from aromatic plants by pressing the plants. During this period of time, nomadic life was being discarded and people started
to settle in one area and cultivate the land. People also started to build sacred
monuments. The associations of the healing properties of plants and evil spirits that caused illness became linked with early
religious beliefs. The earliest healers became associated with a whole structure of religious belief in a community. Many were priests, who acted as instruments to the gods by receiving their powers
of healing through them. Because ancient societies had no comprehensible explanations
of how plants healed, associations were made with the supernatural and religion, and those attitudes have now been incorporated
into modern attitudes towards Herbalism and aromatherapy.
The Ebers Papyrus 2000 B.C., the world’s oldest surviving text, was a list of medicinal prescriptions
in use after about 1800 B.C. This papyrus demonstrated the central role of the gods in Egyptian medicine and Egyptian society.
Osiris was the god of vegetation; Isis had the power to renew life and transmitted the secrets of healing to mankind. Egyptians prayed
to Isis for deliverance from disease. The god Thoth was responsible for formulating each
healing prescription. Thoth’s representation is still the symbol of a physician today; in his left hand he holds the
symbol of life and in his right a staff around which a serpent is coiling itself. Thoth created medicine. Thoth was the god
herbalists carried both a basket containing herbal medicines and a magician’s staff. Before a treatment began, the herbalist
would cast out the demons which possessed the patient.
Egyptians also had braziers burning incense on street corners during public festivals.
Egyptians knew how to extract oil by means of distillation. Most of the oils were produced by infusion of the plant in fatty
oil which was then boiled. The perfume would then evaporate and become fixed in the fat. Wall carvings at the temple of Edfu, show a substance being taken
The Greeks believed also that the gods were the first herbalists and physicians. They believed the gods taught
the art of healing to mankind.
god Aesculapius was the greatest of them all. Aesculapius was the son of Apollo and Coronis. He was slain by Zeus out of jealousy
of Aesculapius’s success at healing the sick and raising the dead.
daughter was Hygieia, the goddess of health, and also where the word ‘hygiene’ was derived. His other daughter was Panacea, whose name means ‘cure all’. They both helped Aesculapius to treat disease.
known as the father of medicine, 460-377 B.C., He was the first person to establish and set down a scientific system of medicine.
The Hippocratic Oath is named after Hippocrates. Up until recently, all Doctors had to swear the Hippocratic Oath before they
could practise. Its opening words were “I
swear by Apollo, the Physician, by Aesculapius, by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the Gods and Goddesses that to the best
of my power and judgement.” This demonstrates the link between early beliefs of medical scientists and modern
early Greeks considered illness to be a divine curse and they prayed to the god Apollo, the god of medicine, for recovery.
ancient Greeks attributed sweet smells to divine origin.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, scientific research and writing of healing plants stopped. Monks became
responsible for healing and caring for the sick as part of their duty as Christians. The Monasteries preserved knowledge by
the scribe’s copying manuscripts by hand; the monks seemed to be keeping literature of herbal and medical practise alive.
But the knowledge was not shared with the masses, so folklore became influential.
and magick were once again turned to.
While in the west, the knowledge of healing plants was being suppressed and hidden, an Arabian alchemist by
the name of Avicenna (10th century AD) was doing some important work in discovering and recording knowledge in
regards to medicinal plants. Avicenna is credited as being the first person to discover the method of distillation, a process
commonly used to extract the essential oil from aromatic plants. Essential oil of rose is thought to be the first oil ever
In this article we will
explore the history, myths and legends associated with the aromatic plants from which we obtain our beloved essential oils.
Basil originates from India. Its name is short for the Greek words basilikon pluton, which means ‘kingly herb’ or the Greek word basilicon, meaning ‘royal remedy.’ The word Ocimum is derived from a
Greek word meaning ‘I feel.’
It came to Europe via the Middle East, and the Egyptians passed on their knowledge of basil to the Europeans. It is also known
as; Sweet basil, Common basil, Our herb, Witches
herb, Albahaca, American Dittany, St Joseph’s Wort and Herb of Kings.
In India the Hindu’s believe that the Hindu Gods, Krishna and Vishnu gave basil (tulsi) its protective and inspirational properties. For this reason,
many Hindus hold basil to be a sacred plant and it is often grown in the gardens of the devout. Basil is also sacred to the
Brahman religion and was worn to bring both spiritual and physical protection. Basil has been used in Chinese medicine for
We know that basil was known to the ancient Egyptians as a sprig of basil was found during the excavation of
a rubbish dump in the city of Memphis, dating back to the days of the Ptolemies or the Late Period.
In Europe, basil is a symbol
of fertility, and in Italy it is known as a symbol of love because the leaves resemble hearts. Italian women would wear basil
to charm and bewitch a man of their desire. Basil would also be added to food when it was thought that Venus’s enticing
powers of love were failing to provide the desired results. In Crete however, the herb is associated with death and evil.
Medieval Europeans used basil to help relieve the pain of childbirth.
In Africa, the speakers
of the Fang Tribe chew basil leaves to provide them with inspiration and assurance. Basil is one of the sacred herbs used
in the Sabbat of Candlemas.
Black Pepper/Piper nigrum
The pepper plant is native to Malabar Coast of India. It is also known as ‘Piper.’ Black pepper is one of the oldest known spices. The first
recorded medicinal use of black pepper came from the seventh-century Tang Dynasty in China.
The Romans used black pepper as food flavouring, and it was massaged into Roman warriors before a battle to
provide strength and stamina. It was also used to provide the same qualities to a man’s performance in the bedroom.
Black pepper was also added into bath water during bathing rituals in Rome, especially before a hedonistic night of pleasure.
Black pepper is a refuted aphrodisiac, and references to its use as an aphrodisiac have been made throughout
history. The use of black pepper in sexual matters was recorded in ancient Arabic sex manuals, referring to its erotic properties.
When Rome fell to the barbarians, the barbarians demanded horses, money and 300 pounds of black pepper. Black
pepper was such a highly regarded luxury, the sea route to India and the Spice Islands were opened because of its high demand.
At one point in time, wars were fought over black pepper, and it was traded ounce for ounce with gold. It was used to pay
taxes and levies, rents and dowries. One pound of black pepper could buy a serf his freedom.
Chamomile is one of the oldest known medicinal herbs.
are two types of chamomile grown and used-German Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) and Roman Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis).
The name chamomile is derived from the Greek word ‘khamaimelon’, which means ‘earth apple’, or ‘ground
apple’ due to the fresh herb’s scent being reminiscent of apples. The genus name, Matricaria, given to
the German chamomile species means ‘matrix’
(womb), and this was the nature that the herb was used by the ancients; as a woman’s herb for relieving female conditions
and aiding childbirth. Chamomile is also known as; Blood of Hestia, Chamomile from the Loins, Manzanilla, Camomyle, Maythen, Whig Plant, Melanthelaion, and Camomile.
The Egyptians used chamomile
as a cure for a condition called ‘agu’,
which is a form of malaria. The Egyptians dedicated chamomile to their sun gods since the flower reminded them of the sun.
It was associated with the god Ra for its healing powers. When the body of King Ramesses II was displayed in Paris, permission
was obtained to take skin tissue for analysis. One of the findings was that the body and abdominal cavity of the king had
been anointed with chamomile oil. It is believed that the chamomile oil was used in the mummification process of the King
for its insect repelling qualities.
The Romans also dedicated chamomile to their gods. Chamomile was also used by India’s ancient Ayurvedic
physicians. The Vikings added chamomile to hair shampoos to aid the lightening of blond hair.
Chamomile was taken to
the Americas by the Pilgrim Fathers of both British and German descent. The herb is so popular to the Germans that they have
given it the exaggerated label of herb ‘alles
zutraut’, meaning ‘capable of anything.’
Chamomile was used by the ancient Egyptians and
the Moors, and it was one of the Saxons' nine sacred herbs, which they called ‘Maythen.’
Cedar comes from the Semitic word signifying ‘power’ or ‘strength.’ Cedarwood is also known as ‘the tree of life’ or the ‘tree
of the gods’, and is a renowned symbol of faith and strength. Cedarwood has been revered for its meditative
and relaxing qualities since ancient times. Cedarwood’s ceremonial use has been recorded as far as 2000 years ago.
Cedarwood was sacred incense to the ancients, and the wood was used to build palaces and temples. Cedarwood
was used to build the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Cedarwood is mentioned several times in the Bible in relation to fertility.
Incense of cedarwood is used in religious ceremonies.
A clay tablet from 1800 B.C. Babylon mentions the trade of cedarwood essential oil. Cedarwood was used by the
Egyptians for its preserving properties in the mummification process and cosmetics. The Egyptians believed that cedarwood
extended the life. A Byzantine legend is of cedarwood being one of the three
symbolic trees that grow at the gates of the ‘Symbolic garden’, alongside the cypress and the pine, all said to
teach us moderation.
A native to the Mediterranean, the cypress tree has been in existence since the Pliocene (Tertiary era.)Cupressus
sempervirens is Cypress’s botanical name. The word ‘sempervirens’ means ‘ever
lasting.’ Cypress has long been associated with death, and is also
known as the ‘Tree of Death.’ The Cypress tree represents the sacred flame of life, the unchangeable, eternal
essence. It is associated with the immortality of the soul. Cypress trees are planted in cemeteries throughout the Mediterranean,
they are the companions to the survivors of the dead, hovering over existence and death and remaining the last loyal companions
of the dead.
The Egyptians associated cypress with death, and also connected cypress to the Egyptian beliefs of the afterlife.
They also used cypress for its preservative properties, and in mummification and ascensions processes.
The cypress tree is sacred
to the Roman God Pluto, who is the ruler of the underworld. In Rome, it is also said that Cupid, the god of love, arrows were
made of cypress. The Greek god Jupiter had a sceptre made from cypress. The Greek god Aesculapius’s temple was said
to be encircled with cypress trees. A Byzantine legend is of cypress being one of the three symbolic trees that grow at the
gates of the ‘Symbolic garden’, alongside the cedarwood tree and the pine, all said to teach us moderation. The
Tibetans use cypress as a purification incense. In Shintoism, the priests sceptre, called a ‘shaku’, was made from cypress wood.
was mentioned in an Assyrian text that is over 3,500 years old.
Frankincense is also known as ‘Olibanum’, which was its original name before it was renamed Frankincense in the 10th century.
The name Olibanum derives from ‘oil of
Lebanon’ as frankincense is native
to the Middle East. The name Frankincense was derived from a mediaeval French word meaning ‘luxuriant incense.’ Frankincense’s earliest known use was
dated back over 5000 years ago, as incense. Frankincense’s fragrance is thought to ascend and perfume the heavens.
Frankincense was highly
prized by the ancients, and was the substance most likely to be burned as holy incense. It has been used since antiquity in
India, the Middle East, Africa, and China and in the West by the Catholic Church as an incense and ceremonial oil. The Egyptians
used frankincense in their temple ceremonies and rituals, as kohl for their eyes and as a rejuvenator of the skin. Frankincense was found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, an ancient Egyptian King.
Jasmine is native to the Himalayas and Asia. Jasmine is considered to be a sacred flower to the peoples of these
areas. The Hindus strung jasmine flowers together to form garlands and presented then to their most honoured guests. Jasmine
is the sacred flower of the Hindu love god, Kama. A fragrant emblem of love, jasmine flowers are often entwined into bridal
flowers at Indian weddings. This custom is said to promise the bridle couple a deep and lasting affection for eternity. Jasmine
is known as ‘moonlight of the
grove’ in India due to its ghostly pale flowers. It is also known by the
names of Jessamine, Yasmin and the King of
Flowers. Jasmine oil is known as ‘the
King of oils.’
An ancient Indian myth
of a princess who fell in love with the sun god Surya-Deva attempts to explain why the jasmine flower will only open its petals
at night. According to the myth, the sun god rejected the princess’s love and she was so heartbroken that she killed
herself. Her ashes were scattered to the ground, and from the ashes the beautiful jasmine grew. Since the sun god was responsible
for her death, the jasmine flower would only open and release her perfume at night.
Throughout history, jasmine has been revered for its aphrodisiac qualities, and known as a plant of love
with a great influence on both males and females.
Juniper has been since antiquity as an incense to protect against evil spirits, and as a spiritual and bodily
protector. Juniper is known as the ‘oil
of protection.’ It is also known as; Wachholder, Enebro, Ginepro, Genevrier and Gemeiner.
The Egyptians used Juniper as part of the embalming process and as
a cosmetic additive to keep the skin soft and supple. Juniper berries were used by the Egyptians to prevent flatulence and
treat indigestion. Internal and external use of Juniper is mentioned often in the ancient Egyptian medical texts. The ancient
Egyptians knew juniper as ‘kedria.’
Hippocrates used juniper to protect Athens against an epidemic (small pox, cholera or leprosy), placing burning
juniper in the streets, homes and squares.
Europeans living in the
Middle Ages believed that planting juniper beside the front door would keep witches out of their homes. If, however, the witch
could guess the correct number of needles on the tree, she would then be granted entry. The English would hang juniper on
the front door of their house to keep away witches on the eve of May. Juniper wood was burned to banish demons. Hanging juniper
on the door was also believed to discourage thieves from entering. Juniper was also used as a disinfectant against the plague.
The Native American Indians
used juniper to assist with childbirth. Zuni women from Mexico used juniper berries to promote uterine recovery after child-birth.
Juniper was also used to treat arthritis and wound infections.
Juniper sprigs were burned
in French hospitals in Paris, and in public places to ward off infection from the plague, leprosy and cholera, and the small
pox epidemic of 1870. Juniper was also burned in France during the 2nd World War. It was burned in hospital rooms
by French nurses to fumigate them.
berries are added to gin as flavouring.
Lavender is native to the Mediterranean. Lavender is responsible for the birth of aromatherapy in our modern culture.
Lavender has been used for centuries to freshen the air of sick rooms and used as a carminative, disinfectant, sedative, tonic
and a healing agent. Lavender is also known by the names of; Spikenard, Elf Leaf, Nardus, Nard and Spike.
The Egyptian pharaohs used
lavender as a perfume and fragrance. The Greeks used lavender to scent their bathwater. The name lavender was possible derived
from the Latin word ‘lavare’,
which means ‘to wash.’
In Tuscany, Lavender was used to remove the ‘evil eye’ from children. A decoction was made from the herb, and a child was washed in the liquid. If
the water became turbid, it was said that the evil eye had been removed.
Lavender was first introduced
to England around 1568. English farmers wore spikes of lavender flowers under their hats to prevent sunstroke and headaches.
The dried flowers were sewn into pillows to prevent insomnia. During the middle Ages, lavender gained a reputation as an aphrodisiac
that attracted a lover. Sprinkling lavender water onto your lover’s head was said to keep your lover faithful. This
belief fuelled a great demand for lavender. Lavender was also one of the ingredients
of the Middle Age’s ‘Vinegar of
Four Thieves’, which was used by grave robbers to ward off the plague.
Victorian women added crushed lavender to the bath, and soaked in front of the fire before a love tryst. Lavender
was also a favourite for scenting bed linen in 17th century England.
Lavender was used in Portugal
and Spain as a strewing herb to scent churches on important occasions. Lavender was also burned to keep the evil spirits away.
Lavender was used right up until World War 1 as an infusion to treat and disinfect wounds.
African women wear lavender as a protective amulet against mistreatment by their husbands. Lavender was taken to the Americas
by the Pilgrim Fathers, where it thrived despite the harsh winter weather.
Myrrh is a native of Africa and Asia. Myrrh has been used since ancient times as a perfume, incense and medicine.
Myrrh is popular incense for religious rituals and ceremonies of many religions across the world. The use of myrrh is discussed
in the world’s oldest surviving text- the Ebers
Papyrus (1500 B.C.) The name myrrh was derived from an Arabic word for myrrh-‘murr’, which means ‘bitter.’ Myrrh is also known
by the names of; Daran, Mirra, Gum Tree Myrrh,
Didthin, Morr-Didin, Bowl, Mirra Balsom Olendron, Commiphora Myrrha, Balsamodendron, Didin and Molmol.
The ancient Egyptians used myrrh as an ingredient in their embalming mixtures to preserve bodies in the mummification
process. They also used myrrh as a treatment for wounds.
The ancient Greeks attributed myrrh’s teardrop shape to Myrrha, the daughter of the Syrian King Thesis.
Myrrha refused to worship the goddess Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Aphrodite was angered by Myrrha’s blasphemy
and tricked Myrrha into committing incest with her father. Thesis realized what he had done and threatened to kill his daughter.
The Gods decided to transform Myrrha into the Myrrh tree to save her. The tear drop resin is said to symbolise Myrrha’s
sorrow. Another classical myth concerning myrrh was of the Mother of Adonis being changed into Myrrh.
Myrrh was used by the Greeks on the battlefield to promote the healing of wounds. Myrrh was also the principal
ingredient in ‘megaleion’, an ancient Greek perfume. The ancient Greeks also used myrrh as an antidote to poison.
This belief that stemmed from the Greek’s concerning myrrh’s protective properties against poison grew; by the
middle ages the use of myrrh was employed to treat infectious disease on the basis of this early belief. When the Black Plague
struck London in 1665, myrrh was used as a protectant against the disease, but unfortunately it offered no benefit. Once this
was found to be the case, the belief in Myrrh’s protective powers faded.
© 2006, Kylie Thompson
First published in "PlanetLightworker.com" (New Earth Publications)
April 2006 www.planetlightworker.com