Biblical Essential Oils: Should You Believe Everything They Say About the Good Book?

May 4, 05:34 PM

by Katharine Koeppen, RA

I live in an area known as "the buckle of the Bible belt", so I get a lot of inquiries about "biblical" essential oils. Various essential oil companies and Christian-based healing touch organizations use these oils as a marketing ploy to get deeply religious people interested in aromatherapy. While I am all for getting the word out on aromatherapy for healing and self-empowerment, I am amazed at many of the claims made for various "biblical essential oils", and the willingness of many to buy into these claims without question.

First of all, true essential oils weren't used in biblical times. The process of steam distillation was at least eight centuries away from refinement and popular use. Healing oils and unguents of the biblical age were infused oils, made largely from macerating plant matter in olive oil, palm oil, or tallow. These infusions are still manufactured in the traditional manner by contemporary herbalists, and have very valid use in phytotherapy, although infused oils do not possess the potency of steam distilled essential oils (There is evidence that primitive distillation units were used by the Harappans of the Indus Valley, but it is believed that they distilled beers for ritual use rather than essential oils. In any event, their technology was largely forgotten and did not make headway in the Middle East until the 9th century.).

Secondly, many of the Bible-based claims for essential oils are positively bizarre. I know of one company which issued an educational recording claiming that hyssop essential oil was the cure for AIDS. Their rationale for this claim is that hyssop branches were used to spread lamb's blood over the doors of Israelites, protecting their homes from the 12th plague cast upon the Egyptians during the time of Moses. There is no scientific evidence whatsoever that AIDS existed in the age of the Old Testament, nor that this disease was the particular scourge known as the 12th plague of Egypt. Unfortunately, desperately ill people and their loved ones are willing to buy into these stories. 

Lastly, the Bible has undergone numerous translations in many languages, and information has often gotten lost in translation. Plants and infused oils mentioned in the Bible have been the subject of intense study by a number of ethnobotanists, who have determined that many of these plants aren't familiar to us by their biblical names. For example, the hyssop cited above was not the plant we know today as hyssop (Hyssop officinalis), but likely common garden sage (Salvia officinalis). The aloes repeatedly mentioned in both Old and New Testaments are not Aloe vera as many mistakenly believe, but agarwood (Aquillaria, various species). The composition of the precious oil of nard, originally assumed to be spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi) is still unknown. Ethnobotanists believe that nard may have been an infused blend of several rare and highly valued plants and resins.

Healing plants are not exclusive to the Bible, but are mentioned in a number of venerated old texts, including the Koran, Torah, Kaballah and Gilgamesh epic. We know that these plants were highly valued in antiquity, and some of the ancient healing attributes given to substances such as frankincense (Boswellia carterii) and myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) have turned out to be true. However, just as much knowledge has been lost, or is yet to be rediscovered. Genetic testing of plant residues found at archeological sites is sure to yield some interesting future discoveries. In the interim, don't believe everything you hear regarding miracle cures using "biblical essential oils". Use common sense to evaluate such claims. Bible-based or otherwise, if an essential oil tale sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

 

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