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“The sense of smell is the most important factor in the laying of spells on people: magic, in order to achieve the greatest potency, must enter through the nose”

R. Lovell, A Complete Herball, 1665

The custom of celebrating Halloween on the 31 st October began as the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. At the end of summer, the Celts thought the barrier between our world and the realm of the unseen became weak: their solution to this problem was to have a big party, which would scare away the ghosts and spirits! Later on, this former Celtic festival was transformed into a Christian celebration known as All Hallows' Eve - the day before All Saint's Day on the 1st November. Under the influence of Christianity, former pagan rites were amalgamated into Christian rituals. At the same time herbal knowledge was condemned, because many aromatic plants were ascribed ‘magical’ powers according to ancient herbal lore, based on direct experimentation, observation about the manner in which they grew and their healing potential.

In England, for example, a sprig of rosemary placed under the pillow, was thought to protect the sleeper from nightmares, whereas a bunch of mugwort brought vivid dreams. St. John’s wort was believed to drive away evil spirits and it became a common custom to hang a spray of the herb above the doors of houses and churches on the ‘Eve of St John’s’ on the summer solstice, another important pagan festival. Garlic, was renowned as the supreme protection against vampires – a plant now recognised as having powerful bactericidal and anti-infectious properties. In Scandinavia, it was common until very recently to carry a lump of crude camphor as a protective measure during times of infectious illness based on knowledge of its prophylactic powers. Camphor was also one of the main ingredients in the miraculous ‘anti-dote’ carried by the four thieves during the Black Death in England during the 14 th century, which effectively protected them from infection. Their recipe consisted of a combination of cinnamon, cloves, camphor, eucalyptus, rosemary and lemon. All these essential oils were subsequently tested at Weber State University (Utah) in 1997 and found to have 99.96 % effectiveness against airborne bacteria!

The origin of the numerous magical beliefs surrounding aromatics and herbs is clearly based on their inherent healing potentiality. One of the most famous women in the early European herbal tradition was Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century Benedictine nun, who wrote a innovatory medical text called ‘Causae et Curae’. In this visionary text, astrology, magic, religion and herbal lore were combined into a complete philosophical system where humanity was perceived as divine and at one with nature itself. In fact, plants have formed the basis for all forms of medical practices since the birth of civilization … it is just the language and their manner of preparation and usage, which have changed over the centuries. Modern scientific studies have largely de-mythologized their former magical status by expanding our understanding of how they work based on pharmacology. Yet in many parts of world, we can still see the effectiveness of shamanic-type approaches to healing where the use of certain herbs and the ‘power of suggestion’ are inextricable entwined. The overall effectiveness of this type of ritual practice depends largely on what would be called the ‘placebo effect’, from a scientific point of view.

Today the psycho-somatic foundations of many types of disease are being recognised. It is now acknowledged that the fundamental cause of many illnesses can be traced back a person’s negative outlook or underlying fears. Emotional distress eventually has a degenerative effect on our entire organism. Mental states such as anxiety, irritation or anger cause physical changes in the body including an increase in heart rate, breathing and muscle tone. Complaints such as asthma and hypertension are often directly related to mental disturbances, such as stress, which is at the root of so much of our 21st century disease. This is the reason why the use of essential oils such as lavender, chamomile or rose are so effective in helping to soothe both mind and body simultaneously.

Aromatherapy is unique in that scent is directly processed by our limbic system, the emotional centre of our brain whilst simultaneously influencing the systems of our body physiologically as the molecules are absorbed into our bloodstream via the lungs. Consequently, when we breathe in the vapours of a stimulating essential oil such as camphor, clove or rosemary, their specific bio-chemical constituents also exert a powerful anti-infectious and bactericidal effect on our entire system. Unique to our sense of smell is also the fact that our assessment of an aroma by-passes our rational mind, unlike our sense of sight for example, and instead is processed by our primitive brain. Scent is therefore beyond conventional analysis! Seen in this light, aromatherapy is a vital part of our ancient legacy of herbalism where essential oils as invisible ‘messengers’ are perhaps the true inheritors of the magical part of that tradition.