The history of the use of scent is tied inseparably with the use of herbs and plant stuffs for sustenance. Before the rise of the firs civilization, the rac of human animals had to resort to instinct for survival, much like their four-footed counterparts. One of the key senses tied to survival was scent.
We may not have senses as finely tuned as our primitive ancestors. We have less need to depend on smelling an approaching predator or recognizing the direction of food as its aroma is carried in the flight of a passing breeze, so we are slower alerting to the world about us. But we may suppose that our ancestors had highly honed sensitivities, for they needed them to ensure that they would survive another day.
It would make sense that in this time of heightened sensual stimulation the first roots of aromatherapy were planted. We can guess that as fire became a commonplace tool in the villages of the primitive tribes, cooking food gained in popularity. With the beginnings of the culinary arts, the first hints of aromatherapy must have also developed. People would have noticed that different plants gave off different aromas when put to the cooking fire. Likewise, plants produced varying effects on those who may have tended the flames. Perhaps one plant would make one drowsy, while another would make breathing easier, and still another would bring an unexplainable feeling of elation.
In these early times, these strange effects may have been attributed to the virtues of some local god or goddess, and the plant or herb made sacred to that particular deity. Hence, we may imagine the origin of the very first ritual incense, an offering by fire of a sacred plant to the honor of some popular divine power. But in the days of prehistory, we can only guess at the way things may have occurred.
What we do know is that the virtues of fragrance were not unknown in even the earliest civilizations. In Egypt, as early as 1500 b.c, the sacred scents of frankincense and myrrh were among WW the highly valued prizes brought home from trading expeditions to foreign lands. The distillation of substances into essential oils has been taking place at least since 400 b.c in Egypt. In the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, fragrance was commonly used in both incense and essential oils.
The Orient was also no stranger to the virtues of aromatics. In China and Japan, fragrant incense was offered up for ritual use in praise of the gods as well as for the enhancement and special favor of those who gave themselves in marriage.
In India, the home of Tantric practice, fragrance is used liberally in the pursuit of spiritual and physical love. In fact, the ability to manufacture essential oils in this holy land may date back as far as 3000 b.c!
The ancient Hebrews were known, as early as 1200 b.c, to use sacred incenses at their altars. The inhabitants of the lands of the prophet Mohammed discovered the process of alcohol distillation within the first century a.d., but had long used other forms of fragrance as well.
It is difficult to ascertain how much of the development of fragrant substances was independent and how much was inspired by trade with distant lands. However, if we may judge from the universality of the employment of scent, once a culture found the world of aroma, by whatever means, they held dearly to its use.
In fact, there are legends that arise from nearly every land that proclaim the sanctity of one fragrance or another. Many claim the origin of a plant or flower as the exclusive domain of a particular god, goddess, prophet, ruler, or hero. One of the most well-known legends is the tale of Narcissus. By the magick of the goddess Artemis, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. He found himself unable to turn away from the beautiful vision before him, yet he was unable to embrace the figure that he saw within the pool. In his frustration, he took his own life. As his blood soaked into the earth at the water’s edge, up sprang the flower that still bears his name.
Also from the legendry of Greece comes the tale of the nymph Daphne. Pursued by the god Apollo, the maiden called on Gaia, goddess of the earth, to rescue her. The goddess obliged by turning her into a laurel tree. Unable to consummate his love for the nymph, Apollo was moved to tenderness at the sight of her new form. The laurel remains favored of and sacred to the Greek god.
In ancient Rome, the holly was a celebrated plant sacred to Saturn. It was abundant in the ancient winter festival of Saturnalia. As the season rises to claim the flora of the world for death, the green holly stands as the promise of rebirth, its color rich with life while the rest of the plant world has paled with the arrival of winter. The deep red berries are the color of blood, another hint that life continues on, even as the slumber of the earth through the bitter months seems to be the deep slumber of death. The sacred holly plant yet endures in our winter festivities to remind us of rebirth and renewal or, in the Christianized version, of the promise of renewed life through resurrection.