Ceremony & Ritual

© dwij 2001

Aromatherapy and Ritual
Article 8: Peter O'Rourke
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The tree is of to-day,

the flower is old,

it brings with it the message

of the immemorial seed.


Aromatherapy and Ritual

The ritualistic use of aromatherapy has been practiced in some shape or form for over 4000 years. Archaeological evidence found throughout the world shows that although our distant ancestors did not possess the means to distill essential oils, they had discovered the magical properties of aromatics. Seated around their campfires they noticed that when certain woods, herbs and berries were burning those who inhaled the smoke experienced mystical journeys, visions and healing. Believing that the Earth Goddess provided them with all of their needs they would gradually refine this casual accident into a ritual, using perfumed smoke to communicate with, to appease, and receive blessings directly from their Gods. Few written records exist to tell us which plants these ancient people employed, but fossil remains in coal deposits point to Artemisia, Cedars, Junipers and Sage being the likely candidates for this early 'incense.'

Native Americans still value the sacred properties of this group of plants, and we honor an ancient tradition each time we 'smudge,' using smoldering herbs to cleanse auras and sacred space.

In Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine with their unbroken traditions spanning almost 5000 years, herbal smoke is used as a cure for sickness of the respiratory system and to purify the air in sickrooms. Western herbalists still prescribe herbal cigarettes containing Coltsfoot and Elecampane for the relief of Asthma and Bronchitis. By 2000 BC Ayurvedic practitioners had compiled over 8000 healing remedies.

There is a legend from India which may be the earliest record of the collection of an essential oil. It tells of a Kashmiri noble who observed, while boating on the fabled floating gardens, "a film of aromatic oil on the surface of the lake," and he commanded this oil (said to be Rose) to be collected, and stored for the use of his court.

We can only surmise that the steam generated by the heat of the sun on the water dissolved fractions of oil from the blooms, which condensed back onto the surface in the cooler parts of the day. This may be a fanciful story, but the fragrance of the Rose and its profound effect on the senses has made it one of the most sought after oils in history.

We know from the tombs and papyrus of ancient Egyptians that the ritual use of aromatics played a vital role in their existence, from birth to death, and beyond. A manuscript, possibly 6000 years old, tells of "fine oils and choice perfumes" and of incense burned in the temples, sending messages of love to the Gods. Men and Women wore cones of perfumed beeswax on their heads, which literally bathed the wearer in healing, uplifting scents as the wax melted in the sun.

The Pharaohs spent fortunes importing plants and aromatics such as Frankincense, Myrrh and Cedarwood from Africa; Spikenard, Cinnamon, Cloves and Sandalwood from India. Cleopatra is said to have drenched the sails of her barge with oils of Cinnamon and Cedar as she sailed to greet Mark Anthony, who she then seduced on a bed strewn with Rose petals.

In death, Styrax, Frankincense, Galbanum, Cinnamon and Myrrh were used to purify the bodies of nobles during the ritual of mummification. When the process was complete, but before the mummy could be sealed in the tomb, precious unguents and incense were employed in the 'opening of the mouth' ritual, performed to reawaken the senses of the deceased person as they began their journey through the afterlife.

From the Egyptians, this knowledge of magic and medicine passed to the Greeks and the Romans. Hippocrates of Asclepios is credited with being the founder of modern medicine, and his fellow countryman Dioscorides is associated with the compilation of the first written 'Materia Medica' in 87 AD. Greek physicians served in the armies of Rome, and it was the Romans who carried these precious works, now translated into Arabic, to Constantinople in Turkey and the Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt—opening the door to academic study.

One such student was Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Abd Allah ibn Sina, a brilliant Arab physician. Frustrated, perhaps by the unpredictability of herb harvests, he began experimenting with the process of distillation. (It is widely believed that earlier cultures knew of the process, but without metal stills and suitable non-permeable vessels to store the distillates in, the process was largely ignored.) Avicenna it seems was not hampered by these limitations and he is credited with successfully producing the first true essential oil circa AD 1000.

The journey for aromatherapy from then to the present was far from smooth, particularly in the Western world where, in the 16th and 17th centuries, those who practiced 'whychcrafte' were hounded, tortured and roasted alive by the clergy as 'Devil Worshippers' and more recently, with the advent of 'modern' medicine, the use of herbs and essential oils is often dismissed as 'an old wives tale.' Indeed, the secrets of this ancient science may have been forgotten altogether had it not been for a French Chemist/Perfumier, Renee-Maurice Gatefosse. An accident in his laboratory resulted in a badly scalded hand. Desperate to ease the pain he plunged his hand into a vat of Lavender oil. The pain quickly subsided, and his hand healed rapidly with little or no scarring. Intrigued, he began to reexamine the healing properties of plant oils. His research lead to the publication of the first scientific paper on the subject, and with its publication in 1928 the word 'aromatherapie,' entered into the vocabulary.

So how, you will ask, does all this connect with ritual aromatherapy, and what is ritual? For most of us the commonest 'ritual' is the act of worship: Is it pure coincidence that in churches throughout the world Frankincense and Myrrh are burned to induce the quietness of mind required for prayer and meditation? That we 'smudge' with Sagebrush and Cedar to clear away negative energies from our person and our homes? That in many European countries the aroma of Garlic is still used to protect homes and villagers from evil spirits? (Which is doubly interesting, as Garlic is renowned for its powerful antibiotic properties—Do we perhaps still perceive illness as demonic possession?)

In yoga and meditation, where the goal is often the union of the 'self' with the 'higher self' and ultimately the 'higher consciousness,' we learn the importance of the Chakras, and how, by anointing the chakra points on our bodies with sacred oils we can unblock the channels along which Qi or Kundalini (vital energy) flow. Behaviorally, we are following the ancient traditions of China and India where man is viewed philosophically as in integral part of the continually changing process of nature, calling upon the spiritually connecting properties of Sandalwood (Santalum album), Agar wood (Aquilaria agallosha), and Buddha Wood (Eremophilla mitchelli) to aid our journey into the realms of cosmic understanding.

The biblical Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi), of which it is said Mary Magdalene anointed the feet and person of Jesus at the last supper, possesses energies so powerful that they can ease the fear of death itself and has found a place with those involved in hospices working with those on the threshold of transition.

To the Therapeutic Aromatherapist, the process of healing is a very special kind of ritual, where one seeks not only to heal, but to involve the subject directly in the conscious act of healing. During consultation, the trained therapist will be guided by information and intuition to the seat, or root, of the 'sickness.' Experience has shown that so many 21st century maladies are caused by the immense emotional pressures that we are subjected to in the modern world; that global pollution, in virtually everything we eat and breathe, further depletes the immune system to the point where our body can no longer, naturally heal itself; and that simply suggesting an analgesic to hide the pain is not a solution. Once the condition of the subject has been evaluated as a 'whole,' the therapist can begin to select the oils indicated as most helpful to that condition, and advise the subject as to how the properties of those oils may be employed in rebalancing body, mind and spirit so that natural healing becomes possible.

Most, if not all of us, at some time during our earthly lives, will actively participate in those two most ancient of rituals; that of seeking, and securing a mate, and the most sacred act of creation. In the first ritual we will seek to make ourselves suitably attractive both physically and emotionally to another. We will preen our bodies, don our finest raiments, and anoint our bodies with scented unguents (which will usually contain components which are, or mimic, pheremones—those mystical aromas that arouse the senses in the presence of a prospective partner). In the very act of putting on your 'perfume' you are unconsciously following a time honored ritual of 'connecting - par fume' (by smoke). If we are successful in this quest, then sexual union and the act of creation may well follow. Sometimes, even when we are suitably matched, psychological pressures (the most usual cause of sexual dysfunction) may dull the spontaneity or actuality of that moment, and we may seek recourse in the form of yet another ancient remedy, the aphrodisiac. Remember Anthony and Cleopatra on their cloud of Cinnamon and Roses? Napoleon Bonaparte and the Empress Josephine reputedly had different tastes when it came to the pleasures of the boudoir. That is, so history has it, until he procured a bottle of Egyptian Jasmine which cured her 'headaches.'

It is intriguing to consider that, perhaps, as we pursue the quest for a miracle elixir which will enable us to live forever, their is the possibility that we are simply reenacting the ritual brought to its zenith by the ancient Egyptians.

In closing, I ask you to meditate on this thought: Despite the fires which destroyed the libraries of Alexandria, the pograms of the witchfinders in medieval Europe and the incalculable loss of knowledge that has perished with Aboriginal peoples worldwide, the ancient lore pertaining to the use of aromatics has survived virtually intact. Is the Earth Goddess reminding us that we are active players in the greatest of all rituals—life itself?

Peter O'Rourke

© Peter O'Rourke 2000

Peter O'Rourke BSc trained as an herbalist and aromatherapist in England, where he was a practicing consultant for 20 years. Peter now resides in Venice, Florida. He is a consultant aromatherapist, teacher, and producer of 'Open Sky' Aromatherapy natural remedies.

For information contact:

Peter O'Rourke
 - Open Sky Aromatherapy
(941) 497-6636 or eMail: openskyaromatherapy@hotmail.com

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