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History, Myths & Legends of Aromatherapy Part 1

PlanetLightworker April 2006

Aromatherapy History, 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 of knowledge.

Egyptian 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.

The Egyptians also had braziers burning incense on street corners during public festivals.

The 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 from flowers.


The Greeks believed also that the gods were the first herbalists and physicians. They believed the gods taught the art of healing to mankind.

The 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.

Aesculapius’s 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.

Hippocrates, 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 medical practise.

The early Greeks considered illness to be a divine curse and they prayed to the god Apollo, the god of medicine, for recovery.

The 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.

Ritual 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 extracted.


            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/Ocimum basillicum


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 centuries.


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/Chamaemelum nobilis/Anthemis nobilis


Chamomile is one of the oldest known medicinal herbs.

There 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.’



Cedarwood/Cedrus Atlantica/ Juniperus virginiana


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.




Cypress/Cupressus sempervirens


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.

Cypress was mentioned in an Assyrian text that is over 3,500 years old.





Frankincense/Boswellia carteri



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/Jasminum officinale


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/Juniperus communis


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.

Juniper berries are added to gin as flavouring.


Lavender(Lavandula officinalis/Lavandula angustifolia/Lavandula vera)


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.

North 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/Commiphora myrrha


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 "" (New Earth Publications)

April 2006

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