Time Traveling with the Ancient Art of Essential Oils


I’m tossing and turning — sleep won’t come. Knowing that I’m in for a fitful night, I arise to await the unknown adventure I sense coming on the reason I’m awake while others sleep.

I gaze into my crystal ball. A vision appears of ancient Egyptians extracting oils from plants, using them in everything from hair treatment to embalming the dead. It’s surreal. Backpacking physicians from the world over are traveling to Egypt to learn its aromatic techniques. I blink in awe or disbelief and I’m transported to Greece where toga-wound alchemists divulge that it was they who discovered how to distill oils through boiling and steaming.

My eyelids flutter and the crystal becomes cloudy. When it clears again I see a gnarled, burnt hand plunging into a vat of lavender oil … OUCH! Must be an experiment gone wrong. But in the lab of French chemist Rene Maurice Gattefosse, the lavender oil soothes the pain. This finding will lead him to extensive research into essential oils and he’ll coin the word “aromatherapy.” (Boy, this beats astral traveling!)

Blink! I’m dispatched into the ’50’s home of Austrian beauty therapist and biochemist Marguerite Maury. Working side-by-side with her husband, a homeopathic doctor, I see this couple introduce the benefits of aromatherapy to Europe. Marguerite will be responsible for establishing the first aromatherapy clinics in Britain, France and Switzerland.

Another flash and the scene is familiar, yet disorienting. It’s me and my mum knocking on the front door of Margaret Steven’s cottage, buried beneath rose vines. It’s 1966 in Johannesburg, South Africa, and I’m anticipating my first massage. Natural light streams though the windows and onto the massage table where I lie waiting. Mum has been enjoying this therapy for years, and I am soon to be a convert, fascinated with the way Margaret customizes recipes by extracting oils from her very own garden. She is 68 and even looking back through time-travel, I can see that she doesn’t look a day over 35.

It was an auspicious meeting under the vines: Aromatherapy holds my interest for the rest of my life. The vision I now behold in the crystal of a day some 30 years ago is testimony to the power aroma has to induce memories, long forgotten. Or that some you could only imagine. (for instance, what would jazz smell like? Or a first kiss?)

Though its rituals have changed over the centuries, the art of oils remains one of the few ancient crafts that remains true to its original form. Alternately used for conjuring good will, good health and lively spirits, it also has the power “tranceport” you to a desirable place in any century.