African Heritage and its Relationship with Aromatherapy

African Heritage and its Relationship with Aromatherapy

Guest Author & Researcher: Renii Modisette, Certified Professional Aromatherapist

Aromatherapy has been appreciated for its benefits for hundreds of years. It has been an integral part of the African diaspora. In this research paper, I aim to explore the uses of essential oils throughout Africa while tying it to my familial journey from Ethiopia to Nigeria. Furthermore, I will include the teachings I learned from my grandmother about our family’s healing traditions, which sparked my curiosity to dive deeper into the history of Egyptians and other African countries. Africans believe that the causes of ill- health could be natural and spiritual.

Growing up, my grandmother commonly used botanicals and herbs for healing. My ancestors, who arrived in Mississippi as enslaved Africans, used herbs and botanicals as medicine. My grandmother was taught by her mother, my great-grandmother, who learned from “family” living on a plantation because she was sold and separated from her mother. Interestingly, As Camille Yarbrough said, “Since the most ancient of times, African priests and priestesses and the common people believed in and used magic, medicine, and religions to protect themselves from evil forces and to attract good ones.” My grandmother believed that magic began with using botanicals and herbs as a healing power for the body. This belief in magic and medicine is part of African plant wisdom and aromatherapy, which influenced practices like incense, rubs, washes, and scented baths.

My grandmother gardened by trial and error and learning from others. She matured her garden from moving into the family home in 1958 until she was 70 years old while raising five children and my grandfather, who worked in the steel mill. My grandmother believed in natural healing because she did not go to or fully trust doctors. According to my grandmother, “Not too many people went to the doctor in Mississippi because there

weren’t many colored ones. We healed ourselves, and midwives delivered our children.”

Personally, I learned a great deal about plant wisdom from my maternal grandmother. Many of the botanicals and herbs grown in her garden helped me at some point in my life, and I’ve used the same recipes for my children and now my grandson. My grandmother often said, “Nana, sometimes the doctor can help you, but always be able to help yo’ self. It’s all right ‘ere”. With this in mind, I wanted to learn about early pioneers.

Egyptians are among the early pioneers of aromatherapy. The Egyptians used smudging with smoldering herbs during prayer, meditation, clearing, and healing, particularly in treating women’s reproductive ailments. Egyptians also used plant essences in fixed oils through maceration, pulverization, soaking, burning, fermentation, water-based infusion, decoction, and lotions. I find it delightful that even today, baths, rubs, tinctures, poultices, body wraps, and teas are home remedies that began during this time.

Egyptians used fragrant plants for medicinal and spiritual purposes. Hippocrates, often called the father of modern medicine, developed most of his knowledge from Egyptians. The Queen of Sheba, whose empire included upper Egypt and Ethiopia, brought frankincense, Boswellia carterii, and myrrh, Commiphora myrrha, when meeting King Solomon. Solomon was captivated by her, and he built a crystal palace for her visits. The palace was washed down entirely in fragrant floral waters. When the couple married, wedding gifts included cinnamon, cassia, an attar of roses and neroli,

sandalwood, aloe vera, olive oil, and sweet almond oil. Through research, I’ve learned more about the following aromatic herbs used in Africa:

Angelica Root, Angelica archangelica, is said to be a gift from Archangel Michael to empower women and protect children by carrying the root as a protection amulet in mojo bags. (Illes, J. 2000). Also called the root of the Holy Ghost, angelica is chewed in North America to keep evil away and to prolong life.

Castor oil, Ricinus commnis, was used by the Egyptians 6,000 years ago in oil lamps for headaches and hair conditioning. Today, black Americans commonly use it as a laxative, emollient, lotion, and hair growth aid. As a child, I used castor oil to moisturize my hair when I had digestive issues and as a lotion on my knees and elbows before leaving the house, especially when going to church. My grandmother always said, “My mother taught me that castor oil is the healer of many things.”

Black cumin seeds, Nigella sativa, are known to have been used by Ethiopians with butter to wrap the body in cloth or sniff for headaches. Strewn among linens, it serves as a moth repellent. Cumin remains an important African herb. Cumin seeds are packed with essential fatty acids, linoleic acid, zinc, proteins, and carbohydrates. It is said that Mohamed declared black seed the remedy for “every disease except death” (Parker, S, 2014).

My grandmother initially introduced me to Nigella sativa when I was 13 years old when I started my menses. My grandmother believed in its antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties for headaches and bloating. On the first night of my menses, she would massage my scalp, temples, neck, and belly. It was our ritual until I was 16,

when I felt comfortable doing the gentle massage myself. I did the same when my daughter received her menses until she was 16. I don’t have any granddaughters yet, but I hope to share the ritual with my future granddaughter.

Orris Root, Iris pallida, is the oil used in the nostrils as a styptic and near the heart for murmurs and other ailments. According to JennScent’s Holistic Aromatherapy Comprehensive Guide, the orris root is a perennial plant used by the Egyptians to symbolize faith, love, power, and majesty (Pressimone, J. 2019). Today, Black Americans also use Orris root powder in healing medicine, enhancing the powers of other herbs and stones.

The dried leaves of Lemon Verbena, Aloysia thriphylla, hold a special place in spiritual practices. They were burned during invocations to attract good influences and assist divination, a practice deeply rooted in many cultures. Aloysia thriphylla can also promote deep thought, aiding in self-reflection and boosting self-esteem when one feels overwhelmed.

Myrtle, Myrtus communis was used for physical ailments like skin disorders, tumors, breast and genitals, and sinus infections in early Egypt. From an emotional perspective, it is said that Myrtle is used to inspire peace and invite blessings and generosity. The Gullah people use an indigenous form of Myrtle, Myrica cerifera, an aromatic evergreen that grows in wet, sandy pinelands and bogs in the Carolina Lowlands and Sea Coast Islands for diarrhea, dysentery, uterine bleeding, and as a gargle. Black Americans use Myrtle by inhaling warm vapors from the tea or a poultice to relieve head pains caused by a severe cold or flu.

Dill, Anethum graveolens, said to be called arakhou by Egyptians, is noted for its analgesic qualities. Additional benefits of dill include digestive and respiratory issues and lactation encouragement when used as a preventative. According to Tchatchouang et al., studies have shown that Anethum graveolens has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. I use Anethum graveolens as an insecticide for my garden, which I learned from my grandmother.

In ancient times, Rose, Rosa damascena, was used for headaches, toothaches, and ointment for uterus disease. Rose has also been used as a nervine, systemic tonic, refrigerant, and aphrodisiac. Black Americans burned dried petals alone or in an incense blend to attract good luck.

Aromatherapy has been a helpful aid to physical, mental, and emotional well-being. The active ingredients extracted from plants, roots, bark, or other parts of the plant possess healing powers that have been used for centuries. From a generational perspective, my grandmother shared the many benefits of healing ailments from our enslaved ancestors, which for me is generational wealth and well-being.

The pleasant smell of essential oils has healed within the body tissues. Essential oils are concentrated, even potent, and work on pressure points and rejuvenate the body. The study of aromatherapy has enhanced my knowledge, and as I continue to pursue my clinical aromatherapist certification, I am reminded more and more of my grandmother. I am grateful to train and study to become a level 3 aromatherapist, and I can reminisce about the special moments with my grandmother every weekend in her garden. It is with this sentiment that I dedicate this research paper to her.

References & Works Cited

Bird, Stephanie, African Aromatherapy: Past, Present and Future Applications, 2014.

Amarachi Nnachi Ukoma et al, IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science (IOSR-JHSS) Volume 21, Issue 6, Ver. 6 (June. 2016) PP 21-28

Halder, B. B. Barik, R.K. Dasgupta, S. Deb Roy, Aromatherapy: An Art of Healing, Indian Research Journal of Pharmacy and Science; Editorial

Pressimone, Jennifer, JennScents Holistic Aromatherapy Comprehensive Guide, 2019.

Author Bio:

Dr. Renii Modisette, DHEd, certified Positive Psychology Practitioner, Certified Professional Aromatherapist, Mindfulness and Meditation Teacher, and Founder of Mind Escape Vibe®. Renii’s story includes not putting herself first, only to discover she was not fully present and savoring the blessings bestowed upon her. 

Mind Escape Vibe® was born from a desire to be free. Renii took “what if” out of the equation to energize her love for being a conduit for self-discovery to create a secure and encouraging atmosphere where individuals and groups can learn how to cope with stress and cultivate positive emotions, mindfulness, and empathy towards themselves and others. Her story is rooted in gratitude, resilience, faith, and forgiveness so she could show up whole. 

Our mission is to activate Mental Victory Vibes ® ️ Action by offering MTO tools to empower you to dedicate 15 minutes a day to self-care with aromatic and mindfulness solutions. 

Renii is a Certified Professional Aromatherapy graduate from the JennScents Aromaversity, and currently pursuing her Clinical Aromatherapy Certification.

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