Ancient Oils in Ancient Egypt

The fertile soil around the Nile River became a source of life throughout Africa. The kingdom of Egypt grew around the Nile delta; and its name became synonymous with power, wealth, and technological advancement.

The abundance of food in Egypt, owed to the richness of the land, allowed for the development of a rich culture, which included some of the earliest advances in writing, agriculture, urbanization, and central government. In addition, this progressive culture was the perfect stage for innovation in herbal medicine.

One of the first recognized compilations by ancient healers is called the Ebers Papyrus. Although it dates from approximately 1,500 B.C., it is believed to have been copied from earlier texts. The scroll contains recipes, ceremonies, and other information that Egyptians deemed worthy of preservation.

But, of course, the most famous Egyptian use of aromatic botanicals is in mummification. In preparing the bodies of the deceased for burial, embalmers used various botanicals such as cinnamon, resins such as frankincense and myrrh, and an early form of cedar or juniper essential oil.

Ancient Egyptians used many plant recipes for healing and spiritual practices, serving as forerunners to today’s essential oil movement. However, the use of essential oils and similar products didn’t end there! The vast influence of the Egyptian empire made it the hub for the spread of essential oil knowledge throughout the ancient world.

The most prominent borrower of Egyptian knowledge was the Roman Empire. Rome invaded and conquered Egypt in 30 B.C., wresting control from Cleopatra and establishing itself as the preeminent civilization in the region.

This shift in power spurred the ascension of Roman clerics to the top of the natural-solutions pyramid. Their most lucrative botanical, balsam, was heralded for its varied uses. Rome also became famous for its bathhouses, which used aromatic botanicals such as bay laurel, pine, fir, and juniper. These plants and their extracted essential oils were also used in massages or other therapeutic practices. When baths were not available, ancient Romans used scented olive oils to clean their bodies, applying them to the skin and then scraping them off with an instrument called a strigil.

One of the most enduring records of essential oil use during the Roman Empire is the New Testament. Israelite’s used essential oils such as frankincense, cedar wood, hyssop, and fir, to elevate spiritual communion. The most famous example of the value that essential oils had in Israelite culture is in the telling of the birth of Jesus, to whom gifts were given of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The Egyptian and Roman empires may have declined, but ancient healers’ wisdom continued to spread. Renowned writers from the Middle East such as Persian polymath Ibn Sīnā (980–1037 A.D.) and Islamic botanist and physician Ibn al-Baitair (1197–1248 A.D.) promoted the use of herbs and essential oils. In 12th-century Germany, Saint Hildegard of Bingen used herbs and oils in her practice and gave valuable insight into medieval medicine with her works, including Physica, a 200-chapter chronicling of plants and their uses.*

 

It’s obvious that the ancient world, from Egypt, to Rome, to Israel, to Persia, regarded essential oils and other plant byproducts highly. But how, exactly, did our ancestors extract essential oils from plants, and how did these early methods evolve into today’s highly advanced extraction technology?

While people in ancient times quickly recognized the value of using* pure botanicals, methods for extracting the essences of those botanicals have evolved slowly over time. Let’s explore the development of these processes, from the most basic to today’s advanced methods.

Some early herbalists combined the use of the essential oil with an extraction method. For example, those seeking the aromatic experiences of a botanical would boil the plant in water and enjoy the essential oil-heavy steam as it permeated the room. However, this method didn’t allow for topical use of the product and didn’t offer the concentrated form that many herbalists sought.

In order to extract a more pure and conservable essential oil, early extractors stripped the bark from cedar, sandalwood, and other trees; ground the bark finely; and mixed the powder with olive oil. This mixture was then placed on a wool cloth, heated, and pressed, squeezing the essential oil out of the bark powder and into the olive oil. The olive oil and essential oil mix could be stored in clay jars and used topically or aromatically.

Ancient perfumers also discovered that animal fat will absorb the fragrant compounds from plants, leading to a process called cold enfleurage. In cold enfleurage, animal fat is spread over a large glass surface, after which the perfumer spreads flower petals or entire plants over the fat. Over the course of several days, the fat absorbs the organic compounds from the botanicals. The botanicals are then removed and replaced by fresh plants repeatedly until the fat has absorbed the desired concentration of compounds.

In hot enfleurage, botanicals are stirred into fat that has been heated to liquid form. The mixture is repeatedly strained and the botanicals are repeatedly removed and replaced by fresh plants until the fat is sufficiently saturated with the botanical compounds. This fat could also be used topically or aromatically.

Over the centuries continued innovations produced methods such as cold pressing, soaking botanicals in alcohol, and rudimentary steam distillation. Young Living Founder and CEO D. Gary Young studied with scientists in Europe who had spent many years researching essential oils, such as Dr. Jean-Claude Lapraz, Dr. Paul Belaiche, and Dr. Daniel Pénoël. Later, he met and studied with Marcel Espieu and Henri Viaud, experienced distillers of essential oil.

Gary continued to learn while experimenting with growing, harvesting, and distilling as he developed Young Living’s proprietary Seed to Seal process, which includes selecting the highest quality of seeds, cultivating the highest quality aromatic plants, distilling to ensure that the beneficial plant compounds in each batch of essential oil remain uncompromised, testing to ensure the oils meet demanding specifications, and carefully sealing and inspecting each bottle of essential oil.

The Seed to Seal distillation process is the realization of over 30 years of hard work, research, and trial and error by Gary Young; and it produces today’s purest and most potent essential oils.

From simple boiling methods, to crushed powders, to animal fats, to solvents, to steam distillation, humans have tried many methods to extract essential oils from plants. Today we’re fortunate to enjoy the improved descendant of those early methods: low-pressure steam distillation in our Seed to Seal process, created by D. Gary Young.

Thank you for joining me as we explored the history of essential oils in the ancient and modern world!

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