The earliest written information about therapy by bathing with decoctions of aromatic herbs dates back to 1500 B.C.E. Ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians and Hebrews widely applied the practice for hygienic and medicinal purposes. After bathing they would apply perfumes and ointments from cinnamon, peppermint, white lily, sweet marjoram, Indian frankincense and oils from almond, castor, olive, and sesame.
Hippocrates, known as the Father of Medicine, learned about the healing properties of aromatic baths from the ancient Egyptians. He subsequently developed teachings about using water as a form of treatment, which he called hydrotherapy. Medicinal bathing is also called thalassotherapy or hydrotherapy (water cure). The name thalassotherapy may come from the ancient Greek thalassa (small sea) or from the Greek philosopher Thales (circa 636-546 B.C.E.), who believed that the physical world derives from a single underlying substance - water (1).
Ancient scholars recommended aromatic baths for urological and genital disorders, as well as for tumors, wounds, colds, bad mood and fatigue (2).
During the Renaissance and Reformation, the Church nearly rendered the European bathhouse extinct. Only the Finnish, Russian and Scandinavian peoples continued their traditions of herbal bathing. Russians applied a kind of herbal therapy in their bathhouses: they vigorously thrashed each other with switches of green birch twigs (so called Birch Broom). It was believed that such "birching" in a bath improves circulation and rejuvenates an organism (3).
The Finnish bath (sauna) resembled the traditional Russian bath, but its principal therapeutic effect was associated not with hot water, but with steam. An old Finnish proverb says, "The sauna is the poor man's apothecary."
Many large public bathhouses had a staff of masseurs for the purpose of applying aromatic herbs. It was believed that massage alleviates physical and mental tiredness, and improves circulation (4).
Ancient manuscripts provide evidence that during the 9th-14th centuries the aromatic oils of about 50 species of herbs and flowers were used for treatment through bathing. Many forgotten recipes have been revived and deciphered. Comparative analysis of medieval and modern sources shows that recent investigations support the possible medicinal effect of some very ancient recipes.
In veterinary medicine, garlic is often added to otiotic herbal mixtures for its antibiotic properties (5).
Excerpted from an article by Farid U. Alakbaron appearing in Herbalgram Number 57, The Journal of the American Botanical Council
1. Franchiment P, Juchmes I, Lecomite J. Hydrotherapy: Mechanisms and indications. Pharmacol Ther 1983:20:79-93
2. Salmela DW. The Sauna. Minnetonka (MN): Otsa Press, 1995
3. Hutchens AR. Indian Herbology of North America, Boston & London: Shambala Press; 1991
4. Ibn Sina A. Kanun fi at-Tibb (Cannon of Medicine) (in Russian). 3rd volume. Translated from Arabic by Bulgakov PG, Sayle MA. Tashkent, Uzbekistan: FAN Press; 1980
5. Kidd R. Herbal help for ear infections. Herbs for Health 2000; 5 (20):6407
Farid U. Alakbaron, Ph.D., graduated from the Biological Department of the Baku State University and holds degrees of Doctor of Philosophy and Doctor of Sciences, As the Head Scientific Officer at Baku's Institute of Manuscripts, his main fields of research focus upon the history of medicine, and traditional and folk medicine and pharmacy. He has authored 78 scientific and educational articles.