The Healing Power of Uncommon Scents
The French philosopher Voltaire once wrote that the best medicines were those with a strong aroma. There's much more to this statement than just mere personal opinion or idle speculation; throughout history, powerful aromatic substances have been used for healing.
In the Western World, the ancient Egyptians were the first to master the magic of scents and aromatics; they were famous throughout the Mediterranean world for their fine perfumes. The Egyptians passed on their knowledge to the Greeks and Romans, as well as to the Jews.
Arabia, the Middle East, India and the East Indies were famous as sources of the fragrant balms and resins that were so much in use in aromatics, perfumery, and in medicine. These include Frankincense, Myrrh and Benzoin; Sandalwood, Spikenard and Patchouly. At many times throughout man's history, these precious ingredients were worth more than gold.
Aromatics as Medicines
Most people think of aromatherapy as the inhalation of fragrances from essential oils to affect the mind and spirit. Although that's an important part of aromatherapy, there's much more to it than just that. Aromatic substances can also be ingested and taken internally as medicines.
The aromatic nature of certain herbs and medicines is usually due to the volatile essential oils, oleoresins and resins they contain. The lighter, subtler aromatic principles, usually essential oils, rise to the surface of the body to open the pores of the skin and disperse exogenous pathogenic factors through sweating. Examples of these herbs, called diaphoretics or sudorifics, are Spanish Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), Peppermint (Mentha piperita), and Elder flowers (Sambucus nigra).
The dynamic, volatile nature of the heavier aromatic principles of plants remains inside the body to move and regulate the flow of various secretions, and the circulation of blood, lymph and other humors. But more importantly, they move and regulate the flow of various vital energies: the Vital Force, centered in the heart, chest and lungs; the Natural Force, centered in the liver and the abdominopelvic digestive organs; and the Psychic Force, centered in the head, brain and neuromuscular system. According to the vitalistic principles of Greek Medicine, the flow of these vital energies moves and regulates the flow of the various secretions and vital fluids of the body.
The therapeutic properties of aromatic medicines affecting the flow of the Vital Force in the lungs, chest and heart are: balsamic, bronchiodilator, cardiotonic, cordial, expectorant and pectoral. Aromatic oils and unguents may also be massaged into the chest from the outside to open up the lungs and respiration. Examples are Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) and Benzoin gum (Styrax benzoin).
The therapeutic properties of aromatic medicines affecting the flow of the Natural Force in the abdominopelvic digestive organs are: antispasmodic, antiseptic, aperient, carminative, cholagogue, digestive and stomachic. Examples include many common cooking spices in your spice rack: Cardamom, Dill, Fennel, Marjoram, Oregano and Thyme.
The therapeutic properties of aromatic medicines affecting the flow of the Psychic Force in the head, brain and throughout the neuromuscular system include: antispasmodic, anticonvulsant, anodyne, antirheumatic and analgesic. Besides ingestion, they may also be massaged into the muscles; certain others, like Smelling Salts or Camphor, may even be inhaled to revive consciousness in fainting or syncope. Other examples include Lavender (Lavandula officinalis) and Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens).
Another key property of aromatic medicinals is their antiseptic ability to fight infection. From the earliest of times, the great physicians of antiquity realized that, if infection and sepsis produced a foul, putrid odor, that aromatics with pleasing fragrances would have an ability to fight infection; this simple hypothesis worked, and withstood the test of clinical practice.
Three notable essential oils are most powerful in their antiseptic properties, and could even be called antimicrobial or even antibiotic. These are the essential oils of Thyme (Thymus vulgaris), Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) and Oregano (Origanum vulgare).
Certain aromatic resins from wounded trees, like Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), Dragon's Blood (Calamus draco) or Propolis, a mixture of aromatic tree resins collected by the bees, not only have antiseptic properties to fight infection, but also have cicatrizant and vulnerary properties to speed up the granulation and healing of wounds. Here is a great demonstration of the Doctrine of the Signatures at work: resins, which are "bled" by a tree when it gets cut or wounded to heal itself, are also useful in helping wounds heal in the human body.
The skillful, versatile use of aromatic medicines was an important and central part of traditional Greco-Roman herbal medicine and pharmacy, and cannot be overestimated. Dioscorides devotes considerable space in his Materia Medica to discussing the therapeutic properties of various aromatic herbs and substances, which were collectively called Aromata.
Natural versus Synthetic Fragrances
The human organism has been living and evolving in close contact with the natural aromatic substances found in the plant and animal kingdoms for millions of years. And so, the human organism and its immune system is well-acclimatized and harmoniously attuned to these natural aromatic substances.
The same cannot be said for synthetic fragrances; they are only recent inventions. In those with sensitive or compromised immune systems, they can provoke dizziness, lightheadedness, and various allergic symptoms in the respiratory tract.
Natural fragrances are emitted by whole substances from whole living organisms; they're also imbued with the Vital Force, the Energy of Life. Synthetic fragrances are emitted by dead, lifeless substances, fractionated and engineered, that lack this organic vitality and wholeness.
Artificial fragrances may smell very nice, but lacking the essential wholeness of Nature, they can't heal us the way natural fragrances can. Only natural fragrances can restore health and make us whole. Above all, synthetic perfume oils should NOT be taken internally.
Most people are naively unaware of the damage and derangement that artificial, synthetic fragrances can do to their respiratory tracts and immune systems. Many women who are heavy users of synthetic perfumes continue wearing them while remaining unaware that they may be the cause of the chronic rhinitis, sinusitis, headaches or other allergic symptoms they may be experiencing.
Synthetic fragrances may be very powerful, but they can easily upset the natural harmony and balance of the organism and its humors. In this way, synthetic fragrances are quite similar to synthetic pharmaceutical drugs.
Treatment Methods of Aromatherapy
There are many versatile and imaginative ways to use aromatherapy and aromatic medicinal substances. Broadly speaking, the treatment methods of aromatherapy can be divided into three categories: external, topical and internal.
External Methods of Treatment
It's undeniable that fragrances have a great power to create a mood or atmosphere that can evoke strong passions, sentiments and memories. Since the olfactory receptors sit right on the underside of the brain, the nose and its sense of smell are the gateway to the mind and spirit.
The vast majority of aromatherapy's external treatment methods involve the release of scents into the air and their inhalation to affect the mind and spirit, to create an atmosphere or mood that will balance out or neutralize any negative emotions or mental states. Various techniques exist for doing this: the burning of incense, the atomization of essential oils, making potpourris, and the keeping of fragrant potted plants like Basil inside the home.
Because fragrances profoundly impact the mind and spirit, some of these external methods have subtle powers that could be called magical or spiritual. For example, certain herbs, like Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), Lavender (Lavandula officinalis) and Yarrow (Achillea milfolium) are stuffed into pillows to stimulate and brighten the dreams and evoke lucid dreaming. Incenses like Frankincense (Boswellia carterii) are burned for spiritual protection, and to dispell any negative entities. In the Middle East, the seeds of the Wild Rue (Peganum harmala) are burned to release a smoke that protects and purifies against any negative vibrations or entities. The Native Americans smudge with White Sage
(Salvia apiana) for this purpose.
Certain substances, inhaled through the nostrils, have the power to revive consciousness in cases of fainting and syncope. These substances include the crystalline essence of Camphor (Cinnamomum camphora) and Smelling Salts.
In traditional Greek Medicine, the female uterus was considered to be a very mobile organ, which was attracted to pleasing fragrances and repelled by unpleasant ones. If the uterus was prolapsed, for instance, a piece of foul-smelling Asafoetida resin (Ferula foetida) would be placed in the crotch under the panties to drive the uterus upwards and away from it, while the woman was instructed to smell pleasing perfumes with her nose to draw the uterus upwards.
Topical Methods of Treatment
Aromatic medicines may be applied topically or to the body surface in a wide variety of different ways, and for a variety of different purposes. The conditions treated may range from superficial skin disorders to conditions of the lungs, colon and other internal organs. This is because aromatic medicines have the power to penetrate deep into the body
Perhaps the most common use of topical aromatic substances is in cosmetics and perfumery. Pleasing fragrances have always been associated with personal sanitation and cleanliness, and hence with hygiene and good health.
Aromatic substances may be applied to the skin to treat various skin disorders, blemishes or infections. Rose Water and Glycerine is a famous facial beauty treatment, as is a face wash made from an infusion of fresh Elder flowers (Sambucus nigra). Washing the face with a decoction of Sandalwood chips (Santalum album) is a good skin beautifying treatment for acne-prone skin, and a dab of the natural essential oil has made some blemishes disappear within minutes.
Tea Tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia), applied topically, will treat yeast and fungal infections of the skin. Thymol, or the distilled essence of Thyme oil, is so powerful that it can be applied topically to the nails to cure fungal nail infections.
Massage oils medicated with the essential oils of Bay Laurel, Cinnamon, Lavender or Cloves have the ability to open the pores and provoke sweating, especially if applied before going into a sauna. They also have the ability to stimulate the circulation of blood and lymph, relax and soothe tense, sore or aching muscles, and ease cramps and spasms.
Sometimes, an aromatic unguent medicated with the essences of Eucalyptus, Menthol and Camphor and other similar substances can be applied to the chest as a balsamic pectoral rub to treat colds and lung congestion. Such is the penetrating power of aromatics.
An embrocation is the application of a powerful essential oil or essential oil blend to certain trigger points to initiate healing reflex reactions by the organism. If possible, the therapeutic properties of the essential oil or essential oil blend used should be consonant with those of the trigger point(s) used. For example, Nutmeg oil, which has a very relaxing, sedative effect, is rubbed into the temples to ease the pain and tension of migraines. White Flower Oil is an all-purpose Chinese embrocation oil which contains a blend of the essential oils of Cajeput, Camphor, Menthol and Wintergreen; it is a stimulant and mild analgesic.
Certain healing and disinfectant resins and essences like Camphor, Myrrh, Propolis and Dragon's Blood are common ingredients in tinctures that are used as wound dressings. Many passages in the Bible refer to the application of healing balms and salves to wounds.
By and large, the topical application of aromatics is safe. Care and discretion may be needed with whole body application, as the skin absorption may be considerable. As with anything, some individuals may have idiosyncratic allergic reactions to certain substances.
Internal Methods of Treatment
With internal methods of treatment, the greatest care needs to be exercised in relation to dosage. The danger is minimal or nonexistent if the whole herbs are being used, but when the pure essential oils are used, great care must be taken not to overdose. For internal, oral administration, the usual dose is from 3 to 5 drops, no more. Overdosing with the internal use of essential oils can be fatal.
The medicinal actions and uses of aromatics internally has already been discussed in the beginning of this article. In addition, aromatic medicines may be administered in the form of nose drops; in addition to opening up the head and sinuses, nose drops can also affect the mind and spirit.
Therapeutic Fragrances for the Four Temperaments
Aromatic medicines, like any other medicines, all have their own therapeutic indications and applications. But in Greek Medicine, certain fragrances are, by their very natures, considered to be harmonizing, balancing and therapeutic for certain temperaments.
Choleric: Overheated passions and fiery tempers are cooled down by fragrances like Camphor. Jasmine, Rose, Sandalwood and Aloes Wood. The last two are frequently burned as incense. Camphor is a specific for cooling down sexual passions, and is an anaphrodisiac.
Melancholic: Melancholic types need fragrances with the special ability to soothe and calm the nerves and relax nervous tension. The best among these are Jatamamsi, or Indian Spikenard; Khus-Khus, or Vetivert; and Lavender, Sage, Patchouly and Nutmeg.
Phlegmatic: Phlegmatics, being cold and moist, slow and sluggish, need heating, stimulating fragrances to wake them up and get them moving. These fragrances include Cloves, Cinnamon, Bay Laurel, Galangal and Frankincense, as well as evergreen scents like Pine and Juniper.
Sanguine: The Sanguine temperament, being the most balanced, is also the most versatile and compatible with a wide variety of fragrances. Because the Sanguine temperament is prone to congestion and turbidity of stagnant humors, fragrances with a mildly stimulating, refreshingly clean scent work very well for Sanguines. These fragrances include Peppermint, Basil, Hyssop, Fir and Cardamom.
When it comes to selecting a personal fragrance according to your personal constitutional temperament, listen to your body, and to your intuition. If you feel a deep, strong attraction to a fragrance, it's usually the right one.
Another factor to consider if you're wearing fragrances as perfumes is how they react to your body heat and metabolism. The right fragrance will actually smell better after it's been worn for a while than when it's first put on.
The Greek Way of Incense
Traditionally, the Greeks have made incense by blending together various fragrant resins and burning them on charcoal blocks. Simple, unblended resins may be burned as well. The great advantage of burning resins as incense is that they are pure, concentrated aromatic essences that burn very cleanly, with a strong fragrance.
Resins are blended together in two ways - by melting or by dissolving. Resins may be melted and mixed together in a double boiler over a low flame. Or, they may be powdered and mixed together, and then dissolved into a cohesive mass with alcohol or distilled spirits, at least 80 proof, and left to harden and dry.
Many different resins may be burned together as incense, either singly or in combination with others. A list of various resins commonly used in incense making and their fragrances is as follows:
Amber: Fossilized Pine resin. Somewhat like Pine, but not as warm or full-bodied; darker, and more somber and austere. What is commonly sold as Amber isn't true Amber, but rather, a complex blend of various resins and aromatics; its fragrance is very pungent, warm and full-bodied, with floral overtones.
Bdellium: The resin of a tree that's closely related to Myrrh, which grows in the Middle East. Called Shuddha (natural) Guggulu in Indian Ayurvedic Medicine, its botanical name is Commiphora mukul. Dark yet sweet, smelling like a cross between Myrrh and Fir resin.
Benzoin: Botanical name Styrax benzoin. An important fixative in perfumery, with a warm, broad, robust, full-bodied scent.
Borneol: Borneo Camphor, Dryobalanops aromatica. A crystalline essence like Camphor, but with a cooler, mintier aroma. Great when a cool minty scent is desired.
Camphor: The crystalline essence of the Camphor tree, Cinnamomum camphora, which grows in Southeast Asia and is closely related to Cinnamon. Perhaps the subtlest of all fragrances, Camphor's cool scent imparts a spiritual atmosphere.
Copal: A favorite of the Incas, Mayas and Aztecs, this resin of the Bursera bipinnata tree hails from Central America. Its delicious fragrance is like a blend of Vanilla, Pine and Myrrh.
Dragon's Blood: This red resin comes from Calamus draco, a kind of dwarf palm-like tree native to southern Asia. Its scent is spicy and stimulating, sharp but sufficiently warm and full-bodied. An important fixative in perfumery.
Fir: The resin from Abies picea, a stately evergreen tree. A deliciously sweet, pungent, warm and full-bodied evergreen aroma. A clean, refreshing, wonderful scent.
Frankincense: The exuded resin of Boswellia carterii, a shrub that grows in the Middle East. A very bright, subtle, light, spicy scent. Because of its protective, purifying, uplifting solar vibrations, Frankincense is a favorite of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Juniper: The resin of the evergreen tree Juniperus comunis. Has a bright, light, spicy evergreen scent with fruity overtones.
Loban: A compounded resinous substance from India with a heavy, pungent floral fragrance that smells somewhat like a combination of Roses, Jasmine and Gardenias.
Mastic: The resin from the small evergreen tree, Pistachia lentiscus, which grows only on the Greek Aegean island of Chios. It has a light, bright, subtle scent similar to Frankincense, but softer and broader, with delicate floral and Vanilla-like overtones.
Myrrh: The resin of Commiphora myrrha, a small tree or shrub that grows in the Middle East. Whereas Frankincense has solar vibrations, those of Myrrh are dark, mysterious and lunar. Myrrh has a bitter, dark, somber aroma with heavy, pungent floral overtones.
Pine: The exuded resin of various species of Pine, most notably Pinus sylvestris. While having a fresh, evergreen scent, the resins of different species of Pine vary from more crisp, light and austere to more warm, soft and full-bodied.
Propolis: A blend of various tree resins collected by the bees to protect their hives from infection. A sharp, spicy scent, quite similar to Poplar / Tacamahac or Styrax.
Spruce: Also known as Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga canadensis), the resin of Spruce smells quite similar to that of its evergreen cousin, Fir, but it's a bit broader, rounder and more full-bodied.
Styrax: The gummy, resinous exudate of various species of Ash or Aspen trees. Styrax has an indescribably sharp, clear, transparent scent that is totally unique.
Tacamahac: The resinous exudate of Balm of Gilead (Populus candicans), which is acutally the buds of a species of Poplar tree. To make Tacamahac, which is the purified resin, Balm of Gilead buds are placed in simmering water until their resin melts off and floats up to the surface. The resin is then skimmed off the top with a spoon and collected. A delicious scent that smells like a cross between wine and Roses, with overtones of Myrrh. The European Black Poplar (Populus nigra) buds can be similarly prepared and used, but their scent is warmer, sweeter, and more full-bodied.
The Perfumes of Pliny the Elder
Traditional perfume making is quite an art, and there's a lot of intricate chemistry involved in the extraction, concentration and blending of scents from natural, organic materials. Perfumes in the ancient world were in the form of concentrated oils and unguents, usually made from a base of tallow, lard, or olive oil.
The fragrant botanical materials were placed in the oils, tallow or lard in a process known as enfleurage, which is French for the laying on of flowers. The fats and oils absorb the aromatic essences from the flowers and plants. Many times, successive new batches of aromatic botanicals would be placed in the same fats and oils to super-concentrate their fragrances. Other substances, such as wine or honey, were also used to extract the fragrances.
Every good perfume recipe would contain at least one ingredient that would serve as a fixative. A fixative is a substance, usually with a strong, heavy, pungent or even foetid aroma of its own, which grounds, "fixes" and amplifies the fragrances of the other ingredients.
Perhaps the best-known and most powerful natural fixatives are those from the scent glands of various mammals: Ambergris (whale), Castoreum (beaver), Civet (wild cat), and Musk (the Musk deer). Others are resins: Asafoetida, Benzoin, Dragon's Blood, and Myrrh. And still others are from other plant parts, mainly roots: Valerian, Vetivert, Patchouly, Calamus, Orris root and Spikenard.
The Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote quite a bit about perfumes in his Historia Naturalis (Natural History). An excellent web article about ancient perfume making, which includes some of Pliny the Elder's original recipes, is the following:
Do a Google search on Aromatherapy and you will find thousands of entries. Perhaps one of the best web pages to go to for a good introduction to Aromatherapy is: