Teaching Tuesdays - Oils and Perfumes

Although there has been recent phenomenal growth in the "new age" practices of aromatherapy, holistic and herbal medicines, as well as various other treatments, in fact, these treatments are all quite old, ancient in fact. Massage therapy, reflexology and aromatherapy were all practiced in ancient Egypt, using many oils and perfumes that we are still familiar with today. The practical, therapeutic, social and religious uses of these oils and perfumes were depicted on many tombs and  temple walls, and recorded in texts, many of which were later copied by Greek and Roman scholars, who viewed Egypt as the source of all wisdom. It is from this documentation, thanks to Egypt's dry environment which preserved it so well, that the people of our time have been able to reconstruct many of the original ancient remedies and recipes.  

It has been proven that oils and perfumes were used in Egypt before 3100 BC., when Egypt became unified. Burials from the pre-literature period (the Predynastic period), even though they were little more than a hollow in the sand, have been recovered with "grave goods", indicating that they [already] believed in an afterlife. Aside from food and drink, the dead were often buried with cosmetics and the raw ingredients for their preparation. Of course, as the culture developed these rituals became better documented. But perfumes made of resin, lime and oil, as well as ingredients such as henna, oil-producing seeds, and imported resins, were discovered in several Predynastic era grave sites. In fact, one royal tomb, in Abydos, from c3000 BC., was found still containing jars that held their [original] contents of coniferous resin mixed with plant oils and animal fats. Another royal tomb at that same site, could easily be found by smell alone, as its sandy floors were saturated in perfume to a depth of three feet. It was still so strong that it permeated the entire tomb!

Almond oil was regarded as the finest oil in the Egyptian culture, forming the base of the majority of their most famous perfumes and medicines, as well as being used for massage. Also highly prized were the essences of lotus, cedar and cinnamon. These were prized for their own scents, as well as their value in recipes and remedies which were utilized in social and domestic contexts, religious rituals, and medicines, as well as massage and mummification procedures. In fact, these three fragrances represented the Egyptians view of life and death. The lotus flower symbolized the creation of life, while the cedar and cinnamon, both used in the mummification process, represented death and the afterlife. They played an integral part in religious ritual, which involved offerings of costly perfume, large floral bouquets and incense. The power of scent, of fragrance, was one of the ways that the Egyptians bridged the gap between the living world and the heavenly one. In fact, these fragrances were designed to reawaken the senses of the dead, which is why they were essential in the afterlife, and had to be buried with their dead.

I have read through some very detailed recipes from finds dating back to this era, and I have to say that they are recipes easily followed, and are similar to methods that were used until very recently. In fact, I believe that it is safe to say that, all perfumery and oil distillation methods grew from the ancient Egyptians, and many of these methods and recipes changed very little over thousands of years. So when you are discussing "new age" treatments and "new" fragrances, consider that your new is someone else's old!   

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