For this ancient culture, perfumes and aromatherapy were a part of daily life, with perfumed substances used in both religious rituals and in medicine. Fragrances were so important to the ancient Egyptians that one of their deities was dedicated to them. Nefertem, the God of perfume, was an important figure in the Egyptian pantheon3, and is linked to Egyptian creation myths as well as being the official patron of plant-based cosmetic and healing arts. Nefertem was most closely linked to the lotus flower, which is still an integral component of Chinese medicine in the present day.
The ancient Egyptians used plant oils in religious ceremonies and rituals of all types including embalming, purifying, healing, beautifying, and bathing4. They are known to have used a number of aromatic compounds, including myrrh, frankincense, cedarwood, juniper, and coriander5. Records which date back to 4500 BC mention aromatic oils, barks, resins, and spices used in medicine, religious ritual, and embalming. Many different uses for various plant extracts are documented. For example; hayfever was treated with antimony, aloe, myrrh, and honey6. Queen Nefertiti is said to have used cleansing beauty masks made of honey, milk, and flower pollens7, and to have bathed in oils from 80 different fruits and herbs to keep her skin soft.
The Egyptians are thought to have used the processes of distillation and enfleurage to extract plant oils8. The enfleurage technique involves drying flowers over a rack of lard or tallow so that the fat absorbs their scent. This technique was used to extract scent from the Nile lotus, an important ingredient in Egyptian perfumery which features prominently in temple art.
Scented substances were included in many of the rituals involved in preparation for the afterlife. They included containers of scented oils at burial sites of the deceased for them to use in the afterlife, and tucked branches of antiseptic herbs such as rosemary within the folds of the cloth wrappings to help preserve the mummy. Cedarwood, clove and myrrh oils were used to embalm the dead. Traces of such herbs have been discovered with intact portions of mummified bodies, with the herb's scent faint but still apparent9.
Aromatherapy through the Ages
Both the ancient Greeks and Romans gained much of their knowledge of aromatherapy from Egyptian culture10. As trade routes began to open up between Egypt and Europe, the Greeks followed the Egyptians' lead in using plant oils both medicinally and cosmetically. Greek soldiers carried essential oils such as myrrh into battle for the treatment of wounds11, while the famous 'father of medicine', Hippocrates, believed that daily aromatic baths and scented massages were essential to good health12. Knowing that certain plants had antibacterial properties, he urged people to burn these as protection when plague broke out in Athens. Later, the Romans also imported aromatic products from the Far East13. The Romans mastered the art of aromatics, and discovered that while some fragrances were stimulating and uplifting, others had relaxing sedative effects.
During the European plague of the 14th century, over eighty million people across