Essential Oils: The Basics - Part II

A Little Historical Perspective on Essential Oil Use

Essential oils have been used by almost every known culture for millennia. One of the oldest, and most familiar, references to essential oils appears in the book of Genesis (Ch.37 … a company of Ishmaelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt.) LAter on, Genesis closes on a somber note with the internment of Joseph’s father, Jacob. (Gen 50:2) The physicians that Joseph brought with him from Egypt embalmed him. Such embalming in the Egyptian manner would certainly have been performed with many essential oils and their resins – of which Frankincense, Myrhh, and Cedar would definitely, have been used.

Essential Oils for WellnessStill older texts from the civilizations of Sumer and Akkad specifically mention Cistus, Myrrh and Frankincense as being extensively used and traded in these cultures A long list of oils have been shown to be invaluable in daily life, healthcare, and ceremonial occasions.

As shown in the thousands of tablets discovered in the region, Babylonian civilization routinely placed MASSIVE orders for Cedarwood, Myrhh, and Cypress. All the while, the Egyptians were, by far, the most prolific consumers of oils and resins from around the ancient world. Mysteriously, references have even been found, in Egyptian texts, of a resin from the Mayan world, identified as ‘Copal’, which is routinely used in Maya ceremonies. But, is not available in the middle east. How they knew of - and sourced this uncommon resin remains a bit of a mystery

Did You Know?
For the majority of ancient history, Frankincense was considered more valuable than gold. Likewise, Myrhh was considered a substance of great value; often compared to silver. In the ancient world, essential oil blends, used for spiritually-proscribed annointings and medicinal purposes were often forbidden for casual use as they were considered too valuable and precious.

Throughout Recorded History

Medieval Europeans famously brought back “exotic” gifts of these oils and resins upon their return from the Crusades. (Western Europe had lost most of their oily knowledge during the Dark Ages.)

And, most famously, the Magi brought valuable gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrhh to the Christ child to honor Him. Frankincense oil (as opposed to its resin form) is often referred to as the “coconut oil" of any essential oil lineup - due to the simple fact that it has thousands of documented uses.

Upon the death of Christ, Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus used oils including Myrhh and Cedar before interring Him in the tomb (John 19:39).

All of this ancient knowledge was buried and lost under centuries of wars, suppression, religious upheaval, and poverty. It was only after WWII that we began to rediscover the making of and uses for essential oils. And, now, despite the many obstacles, the science regarding their usage continues to grow with every passing year.

Modern Developments in Essential Oils

The use of essential oils, in life and health-maintenance has an incredible long and rich history. That we have managed to recover so much knowledge is thanks to the few dedicated 'physics' (doctors of their era) who painstakingly documented and preserved what they had learned. When considering the knowledge that has been lost over such long periods of time, it is truly amazing what remains for us to learn from. The rest, must be reconstructed from scratch. Since WWII, people like D. Gary Young have dedicated their lives to rediscovering the lost pharmacopeia of our past... and, building upon it.

More recently, the amazing natural pharmacy contained in the millions of plant species, found in Central and South America has yielded many more oils and flower essences, for which we are certainly fortunate to have discovered. Copaiba, Dorado Azul, and several others are now a permanent part of our modern essential oil 'medicine cabinet.' And, many have been found to be analogs (similar structures with the same effects) to some of the 'traditional' European and middle eastern oils with which we are more familiar. What can we discover of benefit to humankind if we act as stewards of these treasures rather than treating them as just another exploitable resource?

Native peoples of South America retain much of their heritage. And, learning what they already know, has enriched us greatly. While some of the essences and oils used in these cultures are not considered 'strictly' beneficial, some have revealed the potential to be true miracles of modern wellness practice.

But Wait! There's More.
During the hellish standoff called World War I, the economies and production capacities of every European nation were essentailly destroyed. Even the British, who managed to hold off invasions of their homeland, were basically 'out' of medicines needed to treat the wounded.
Medics of the day, resorted to using essential oils, such as lavender, for treating the burns and open wounds which continously flowed into their hospitals. The remarkeable results from using lavender and other, unspecified, oils prompted a bit of a revolution in essential oils for medicinal purposes once the war was finally over. This is an anecdotal story to be sure. And, the question remains as to where they got these oils from in the first place. One nurse from the hospitals in England was reported to have recorded in her journal, the "flowery smell" of the wards sharply contrasting with the carnage of war.

A Brief Summary of Essential Oils Throughout History

From the Young Living BlogEssential oils have been in constant use for millenia. They have been used in sacred ceremonies, for purification rituals, as cosmetics, and to support general wellness. They hold an honored place in the history of human advancement and world history. Let us now take a brief trip back to see some of the high points for which essential oils have earned so much respect and, to see how far we have come.

Young Living Essential Oils provides an attractive infographic containing this summary. To view the blog entry, click on the image to the right. Or continue reading the highlights below. However, if you have had enough history and are eager to move on, you can click the button below to just hop to the next section titled 'How Essential Oils Work'.

Here are Just a Few Highlights of Essential Oil History

Circa 5000BC~3500BC

Ancient Mesopotamia Circa 5000BC~3500BC

Translations of cuneiform texts from the civilizations of Sumer, Ur and Akkad specifically mention several essential oils such as Cistus, Myrrh and Frankincense as being extensively traded and used in these cultures; in daily life, healthcare, and ceremonial occasions. They were consistently held in high regards as extremely valuable commodoties and traded throughout the Sumerian, and later, the Babylonian and Egyptian Empires.

During excavations in the region of northwestern Iraq (Tepe Gawra), the first known distillation devices were unearthed. These devices were active during a period approximately 5000 years ago; during the height of the Sumerian Empire.


Circa 3000BC

Imperial China

A legendary Chinese ruler by the name of Xeng Nung wrote and published a book which detailed over 300 botanical species and their uses.


Circa 1470BC

Egypt's Late Kingdom Period

The Late Kingdom of Ancient Egypt was a murky period in Egyptian history. Rulers by the names of Thutmose (which was a common name of 18th dynasty rulers) and Hatshepsut reigned during a period of re-emergence of Egypts power. Hatshepsut was especially notable for extending empire and trade to a land called Punt. From this campaign period, it has been extensively documented that the main goods acquired were gold, ebony, and MYRHH. in fact, Hatshepsut's greatest treasure from this expedition was said to have been an entire grove of Myrhh trees brought back by her armies.


Circa 1330BC

Egypt's New Kingdom Period

The boy king and son of Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, was interred with alabaster jars designed specifically to hold the precious essential oils he would need in the afterlife. This period of Egyptian history was short and rife with upheavel and political conflict within the nation. Yet, one thing did remain consistent. And, that was the use of essential oils and resins, at least among the ruling and priest classes.


Circa 345BC


Alexander the Great was known for burning incense in his youth. He was often chastised by his teacher, Leonidas Epiras, for his overly extravagant use of the incense which, of course, was made from costly essential oils.


Circa 1 AD


The Biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth are very specific in recounting that three Magi (From northern Africa) made the journey to honor the birth - bringing the three most costly and precious items obtainable in that era. They were Frankincese, Myrrh. and gold.


Circa 100 AD


Pliny the Elder, the Roman historian, writes a treatise entitled "Natural History". Among the wealth of information, Pliny included a comprehenive description of the uses for herbs and essential oils.


Circa 1000 AD


A Physician named Avicenna began producing floral essential oils such as rose essence, using steam distillation processes. This advancement laid the foundations for the emergence of aromatherapy.


Circa 1930 AD


Dr. Rene-Maurice Gattefosse began groundbreaking research on the therapeutic properties of essential oils. This led to the publication of the first modern-era aromatherapy book.


Circa 1980 AD


Dr. Jean-Claude Lapraz does in-depth research into the therapeutic qualities of essential oils as well as identifying many of their organic, chemical components.


Circa 1985 AD

United States of America

D. Gary Young begins researching essential oils, which eventually leads to the founding of Young Living Essential Oils. Young Living has seen explosive growth. And, has become the first billion dollar company specializing in therapeutic-grade essentials oils.

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