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Jan Kusmirek 

The Art of Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy has shot to popularity around the world.  It has become a fashion in body care salons and no sensible spa would operate without a resident aromatherapist.  From Miami to Tokyo people’s bodies are being scented with oils and unguents with exotic sounding names of far away places.  Their stress is soothed away as mind, body and spirit are relaxed by massage. 

Aromatherapy is a world of delight, sensuality and expression.  It has truly been a phenomenon of the nineties.  At the same time, essential oils and aromatherapy can be found in orthodox medicine, not only in palliative care but in instances of disease treatments.  The value of essential oils as antibiotics is under serious investigation  The reason why aromatherapy seems to work is a matter of research at a number of universities.  In medicine, essential oils are applied both topically and internally. 

At the same time one may enter a shopping mall or airport lounge anywhere from Dubai to London and notice a fragrance that most find relaxing or calming or soothing.  This is the world of environmental fragrancing – mass aromatherapy, certainly not the world of perfuming where you are forced to smell something, but rather a subliminal world, the world of the art of just touching sensibility, of communication and conveying message.

Then again, one may visit a home from Oslo to Taipei and find a room scented by candles, rich in essential oils or find the room wafting fragrance from a special burner that has essential oils floating in the heated water – a contribution to the serenity and security of home life or perhaps provoking a meditative state of mind.  At the same time on finds essential oil diffusers in doctors waiting rooms, in health clinics and sports gyms, volatising essential oils purely for their cleansing or bactericidal effect.  Yet in a lingerie fashion house in Tokyo, the gentle aroma of essential oils wafted in the changing rooms purely for their delight and to stimulate our sense of pleasure. 

What then is aromatherapy?  The English language certainly captured the word from the French who with a typical Napoleonic view loved to codify matters.  The French term “aromatherapie” principally refers to medicinal applications whereas the English speaking world, which after all is the dominant language of the 21st Century and a language which encapsulates the fashion and trend setters of the world uses the term “aromatherapy” in a much wider and broader sense.  The term therapy in English is as much to do with the original Greek meaning as anything else.  This is certainly not a term that is confined to medicine and never should be, rather it conveys the meaning of doing good or using something to feel better at any level, improving well being which may indeed have benefits to health.  The original meaning of the term therapy conveys the idea of service, of ministration rather than cure and as the world centres around global economics and multi national brands, local legislation will have to learn to cope with international definitions in consumer packaging, whether that be clothes, commodities, perfumes, toiletries, cosmetics or indeed medicines.  Aromatherapy is then a new word borrowed from the French by the English and now encompasses a vast scope of exciting possibilities.

If we review aromatherapy only in the sense of so called science, then analysis in strictly traditional forms would apply.  Whilst it is reasonably easy to analyse the content of an essential oil which is a compound of aromatic volatiles, it is not so easy to confirm the activity for a number of reasons.  Yes, it is possible to run antibacterial tests simply and with obvious results.  The application of the results is not so easy.  Indeed, why should one person find Lavender sleep inducing and another find it stimulating?  Essential oils which are at the heart of aromatherapy are very complex.  Their effect upon humans must be seen in three forms – mind, body and spirit.  An essential oils molecule placed upon the skin can enter the blood stream.  If it is breathed in, it can also enter via the lungs.  They can be taken as food supplements and of course are found in every spice that we eat as a natural component. 

But oh, how easy it is to slip into concentrating upon that word therapy and the routes of ingestion into the human organism.  To concentrate in that way is to miss the point.  Let’s refer again to the first word “aroma”.  Those who work with essential oils, or indeed perfumes, are familiar with the idea of identifying the quality of the aroma, the quality of the essential oil by nose alone.  In the stores there are cheap lavenders, cheap essential oils, there are expensive ones and one can be fooled into thinking that all essential oils are the same, therefore cheap is better.  Not so, far from the truth - your nose can tell.  What is true is that chemically, one essential oil may look just like another in its analytical form.  However, your nose tells you something different.  One brand has just that something else.  In practical terms, a lavender grown at 1200 metres is distinctly different from one grown at 1600 metres.  However, the last form is very rare and quite uncommon and expensive.  Mostly what we find in stores is an adulteration, sometimes a semi-synthetic or even indeed a synthetic.  These are cheap and cheerful and may be quite appropriate for perfuming drawers or cupboards but they don’t have that something else, that quirk that affects the mind. 

Why is this?  Firstly, we don’t understand the sense of smell too well.  There are a number of theories of how we smell and depending on what country you live in, one theory is normally promoted as fact.  Equally in the last few centuries, smell has been pushed to the bottom of the table of our senses and our reliance upon sight has increased.  We take most of our information in by sight.  Then if we think about it, smell often precedes vision – we often smell something before we see it.  In simple terms our sense of smell affects our mood, our hormones, even our likes and dislikes of other people, of places.  It is closely connected with our memory and it is a very old basic instinctual sense.  That being said, we use the sense of smell every day in a different way and for most people, an unexpected way.  Every nuance of food or drink is in fact smell.  What we call taste is mostly smell.  Taste runs from sweet to sour whereas all the other indescribables, those feelings, those things that make things luscious are a result of smelling through our mouth (retrograde to our nasal passage). 

So smell does give us some excitement but what is it’s connection to art?  Well these days most people will accept that there is an art therapy.  We are all familiar with the fact that a good artist will capture even more life than the original seems to have, the visual image stimulates something deep within us.  Perhaps this is not only in the form that the artist creates, but also in the colour. 

Similarly, aromatherapy is not just the simple use of one single substance, like lavender, but as with the art of perfumery, the effect is in the blending.  Some people are simply artists, they have a sense of being able to bring together materials to create a blend that is harmonious and takes us to a dream time.  Imagine that in the hands of a good masseur.  The effect does take one out of the world and into a realm of imagination and dream. 

This is nothing new.  The Japanese using incense rather than essential oils have a tradition called koh, whereby a group of people have a small warmed pot which they pass round from person to person.  Each person breathes deeply from the aromatic fumes that are given off by various woods used as incense.  Stimulation of the limbic area enables the group to tell stories, to participate in the same dream in effect.  As the pot is handed from one person to another, each contributes to the dream or story of the whole group.

We could look at aromatherapy as an active form of perfumery.  Perfumery itself has a long history.  The term perfume in Latin means through or by the smoke and is a term that we use today to cover one of our most desired cultural luxuries.  Originally perfumes or incenses, aromas or fragrances were the food of the gods.  In Christian tradition, prayers are symbolised by the sacrificial smoke and most Catholic and Orthodox churches still use incense today as part of their ceremony or ritual. 

It is difficult in our times to realise how different our thinking has become.  We assume that people thought the same way in the mediaeval period as they do today.  This is not so.  There was, for example, far more of a reliance upon odour and its connection to memory in the mediaeval time than today, where the written word has taken over as the form in which we store data.  Perhaps in our earliest times, memory was even more important.  Certainly there are traditions of story telling and in Celtic lands it is clear that the Druidic teachers, which had their own segment from priests to scientists, were heavily reliant upon memory.  It is unsurprising then that fragrance in history had far more relevance than it appears to have today.  No educated man in antiquity, whether doctor or philosopher, would be above dealing with aromatics or perfumery or what we today would call aromatherapy.  There are well documented accounts of the use of perfume in the Roman Empire, where there were fragrant orgies.  The body, hair, clothing, bed were all scented, the slave, the horse, the dog, the tiles of the house, the roads, the water – everything was scented.  It was a different world, it was a world of visualisation, a world where scent was used not only for its sensuality and delight but also for what it could bring to us in a different reality. 

It would be easy to spend our time here documenting the rise of alchemy and the rise of chemistry and so on but the intention of the article is to concentrate our minds on the interface of east and west.  In the connotation of the past two centuries, perfume had a slight decadence, a tinge almost of danger.  The Commonwealth of Lithuania and Poland has always served as an interface between east and west so unsurprisingly there are many traditions of sensuality, this overlay of decadence, to be found in this geographical area.  In perfuming history, Hungary Water is laid alongside Eau de Cologne as the turning points in modern perfumery and aromatherapy.  The Balto-Slavic countries have been to many people surprisingly influential in creating aromatics and perfumery.  It is quite arguable that aromatherapy itself traces its origin back to these countries rather than to France, certainly in the sense of modern day aromatherapy and its use of massage techniques.

At the turn of the nineteenth century throughout the then Russian empire, there was an immense flowering of art form, which was eventually given the French title of art nouveau.  We could take the Czech Alphonse Mucha as a credible starting point for this art form.  If we look at his picture, Salammbo, in 1896 we can identify the use of incensers, form and fluidity as recognisable by intuition to encapsulate everything that is different about aromatherapy.  The lazy movement of the smoke, the idea of invocation, the clear use of Slavic motifs combines quite correctly the traditions of Constantinople and before that, Byzantium and before that Rome itself and before that the Ptolemaic Egypt of Cleopatra.  All this is combined in the wonderful world of space and freedom that the old Commonwealth was familiar with and those that were its predecessors in ancestral times.

At around the same time we were looking at the flowering of a primitive revival.  Perhaps we could take the notorious Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as our touch point.  This in turn reminds us of Diaghilev and his Ballet Russe, the famed dancer Nijinsky and so on.  The ballet, as it does today, relies heavily on massage and scented oils.  As everyone knows, dancers are subject to stresses and strains and performers are subject to a whole variety of mental stresses.  How delightful then, to import into France the idea of aromatherapeutic massage - something that that had the sensuality of the Balts and Slavs, the long, languorous movements, the use of sensible touch that evoked and provoked rather than just rubbing down with some form of liniment!  If you think about this, you can reflect the same long stroking movements, the same idea, because it is a conveyance of idea, in the art nouveau motifs.  The Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris owed something to the flowering period of the romanticism coming from what is now known as eastern or central Europe. 

At this period the English did not produce any great dynamic in perfume, but the French did.  Arguably they took over the word flirt from the English, with all its overtones and innuendo.  Returning to Mucha, in 1899 he epitomised this in a very famous design for a luxury tin of biscuits.  Unsurprisingly the period was full of great perfumes.  This romantic age seemed to need a new scent, a new dynamic and those working with volatile materials, with essential oils were correctly seen as artists in their own right.  As with the visual arts, it was not just a question of something that smelled nice but rather something that evoked and stirred us to our deepest emotions and feelings.  Something which we could savour time and time again, something we could return to, something that did something for us, that influenced us to the heart of our soul, perhaps our innermost thoughts.  This is the true art of aromatherapy.

In other words, different styles and traditions will be found around the world, as with aromas and perfumes.  The tradition that comes from our part of the world here in Lithuania clearly belongs to that strange middle way that it has occupied for centuries.  In aromatic terms it can be seen as soft, opulent, something that provokes a desire to lay back in another world of dream and unreality.  Not the world of William Morris and his precision or the hard myth of the pre-Raphaelite movement but rather the dream time of Nicholas Roerich and his evocation of not only the spiritual but also the temporal found with the rhythm of Stravinsky.  The aromatic tradition is seen so clearly in the works of Mucha and the passion and drama that is found in the music of Konstantinas Čiurlionis.

Aromatherapy then in its true form is highly individualistic.  It is not a question of buying a fashion name or a fashion bottle from a shelf.  It is not a question of buying a brand image.  It is rather has that brand captured, like the great perfumes, the spirit of the moment, the spirit of its age.  That is what distinguishes on blend from another. 

Certainly we are a long way from medicine in the pharmaceutical sense but we have moved very clearly to a position whereby relaxation or stress relief, another world or reality allows the body to heal itself.  Simple physical terms.  It may be true also that the immune system may be stimulated.  However our concentration should be to look back at traditions that clearly show us that aromatherapy is an evocation of ideas, stimulation of our senses, perhaps long forgotten and that we should learn to enjoy aromatics and fragrances for what they are.  What is more delicious than the scent of new born babies to their parents, or the soft human smell as one nuzzles a lover, perhaps tinged with that spice of desire or romance or whatever the chosen perfume has been of the day.  Here is the correct use of aroma, just as with food – the spicing of the day to enhance, to make life better.  Indeed, we were evidently born to live in a fragrant world, a world of communication, a world of odour that sends us signals.  How pleasurable it would be to have all those signals harmonious and enhancing our life style.

© Jan Kusmirek  January 2001