Ex Oriente Lux "The sun rises in the East." Symbolically this old saying glorifies the East as the cradle of civilization. In the East also began the history of essential oils; for the process of distillation the technical basis of the essential oil industry was conceived and first employed in the Orient, especially in Egypt, Persia and India. As in many other fields of human endeavor, it was in the Occident, however, that these first attempts reached their full development. If oriental meditation kindled the light, occidental genius and industry kept it burning!
Data on the methods, objectives and results of distillation in ancient times are scarce and extremely vague. Indeed, it appears that the only essential oil of which the preparation (by a somewhat crude distillation) has been definitely established is oil of turpentine and, if we care to mention it in connection with essential oils, camphor. The great Greek historian, Herodotus (484-425 B.C.), as well as the Roman historian of natural history, Pliny (23-79), and his contemporary, Dioscorides the author of the treatise "De Materia Medica" which dominated therapy for more than 1,500 years mention oil of turpentine and give partial information about methods of producing it. They do not describe any other oil.
Until the early Middle Ages (and even later) the art of distillation was used primarily for the preparation of distilled waters. Where this process resulted in a precipitation of essential oils, as in the crystallization of rose oil on the surface of distilled rose water, it is likely that the oil was regarded as an undesired by-product rather than as a new and welcome one.
An extensive trade in odoriferous oils and ointments was carried on hi the ancient countries of the Orient and in ancient Greece and Rome.1 The oils used, however, were not essential oils, nor were they produced by mixing the latter with fatty oils; they were obtained by placing flowers, roots, etc., into a fatty oil of best quality, submitting the glass bottles containing these mixtures to the warming influence of the sun and, finally, separating the odoriferous oil from the solid constituents. Sometimes the flowers, etc., were macerated with wine before the fatty oil was added, and the product obtained by digestion filtered and then boiled down to honey consistency.
      1 Urdang, "Pharmacy in Ancient Greece and Rome," Am. J. Pharm. Educ. 7 (1943), 169.

The same way of preparing odoriferous oils is described in the "Grabaddin" written by the somewhat mysterious Joannes Mesue, and published probably in the middle of the thirteenth century. This very widely used book did not list a single essential oil. However, two oils prepared by destructive distillation (oil of juniper wood or cade, and oil of asphaltum) are mentioned.
The first authentic description of the distillation of real essential oils has been generally ascribed to the Catalan physician, Arnald cle Villanova (1235(?)-1311) who, by including products of distillation other than oil of turpentine, may be said to have introduced tho art of distillation into recognized European therapy. However, it is by no moans certain whether the "distilled" oils of rosemary and sage listed in tho 1505 Venetian odition of his "Opera Omnia" were really mentioned in the original manuscript (written about two hundred years earlier) or were intorpolatod at some lator time. Furthermore, it should be kept in mind that the term "distilled" in ancient and medieval writings did not have the exclusive and particular meaning it has today. It was, as E. Kremers pointed out in his translation of Fr. Hoffmann's historical introduction to E. Gildemeister and Fr. Hoffmann's "The Volatile Oils,"2"a collective term, implying the preparation of vegetable and animal extracts according to the rules of the art, or rectification and separation."
Nevertheless, whether Arnald de Villanova actually had prepared real distilled oils or not, his praise of the remedial qualities of distillod waters resulted in the process of distillation becoming a specialty of medieval and post-medieval European pharmacies a specialty artfully executed and subjected to practical research, as well as to the theories of the time. Distillatio being a means of separating the essential from the crude and nonessential with the help of fire, it met in an almost ideal way the definition of a "chymical" process valid until about the end of the seventeenth century and given a special meaning by the great Swiss medical reformer, Bombastus
Paracelsus von Hohenheim (1493-1541). His theory was that it is the last possible and most sublime extractive, the Quinta essentia (quintessence) which represents the efficient part of every drug, and that the isolation of this extractive should be the goal of pharmacy. This theory undoubtedly laid the basis for research in the preparation of essential oils after his time.
The very name "essential" oils recalls the Paracelsian concept the Quinta essentia.
      * Milwaukee (1900), 22.

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