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Smelling Things: Essential Oils and Essentialism in Contemporary American Spirituality

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 September 2021


Contemporary yogis, evangelical Christians, and witches have incorporated essential oils and their aromas into practices as diverse as yoga, meditation, prayer, Bible reading, anointing, and spellcasting in the United States over the past forty years. These groups often view each other with alarm, yet they tread common ground in utilizing essential oils to intensify varied spiritual practices. This article answers two related questions. How do spiritually diverse practitioners justify using the same consumer products to amplify their practices, and why are essential oils considered sacred by these same consumers? Drawing from a diverse archive of essential oil use guides, marketing materials, and social media posts, I argue that spiritual “oilers” are (1) perennialists who mythologize ancient uses of scent to authenticate their postmodern embodied practices, and (2) essentialists who believe that essential oils contain universal, transcendent properties. Consequently, oilers’ beliefs and practices blur classifications between traditions and sharpen our attention to the importance of the sense of smell in contemporary spirituality. This project contributes to studies of spirituality and consumerism by offering a comparative analysis of how three groups use smell, via essential oils, to intensify their individual spiritual practices as well as their collective identities as oilers.

Research Article
Copyright © 2021 by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture

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1 I do not use the term smelly with a negative connotation, as it is often used colloquially. Rather, I invoke the term to emphasize the body's olfactory system at work.

2 Others have attended to the importance of smell as a primary sense through which to understand religious meaning-making. See Kenna, Margaret E., “Why Does Incense Smell Religious? Greek Orthodoxy and the Anthropology of Smell,” Journal of Mediterranean Studies, 15, no. 1 (2005): 5069Google Scholar; McHugh, James, Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Harvey, Susan Ashbrook, Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2015)Google Scholar. However, scholars have not focused on smell in studies of American spirituality to date.

3 Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000)Google Scholar.

4 I borrow the term spiritual marketplace from Wade Clark Roof, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).

5 Classen, Constance, Howes, David, and Synnott, Anthony. Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell (London: Routledge, 1994), 205Google Scholar; Corbin, Alain, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 6Google Scholar; Robert Jütte, “Reodorizing the Modern Age,” in Smell and History: A Reader, ed. Mark M. Smith (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 1999), 185.

6 Mythologizing contemporary practices, such as postural yoga, by emphasizing ancient lineages or diminishing cultural differences, is a key component of American spirituality. See Jain, Andrea R., Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 71, 77Google Scholar.

7 Heelas, Paul, The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1996), 2, 68Google Scholar.

8 Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983)Google Scholar.

9 Kathryn Lofton has argued that delineating between the consumer marketplace and the “spiritual marketplace” is futile if not unnecessary. See Lofton, Consuming Religion (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017); and Lofton, “Why Religion Is Hard for Historians (and How It Can Be Easier),” Modern American History 3 (2020): 69–86. Previously, Schmidt argued that the marketplace is not inherently “profane,” as earlier scholars and religious practitioners often believed. See Schmidt, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 6. In addition, I reference Benedict Anderson's concept of “imagined communities” here because product and brand loyalty provide consumers with the sense that they share core identity characteristics and values with others who they do not know in real life.

10 Logan, Dana, “The Lean Closet: Asceticism in Postindustrial Consumer Culture,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 85, no. 3 (2017): 600–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Lofton argues that corporations are “sects” in a religious sense because they create a form of “cohesion, of particularism, of branding a communal whole as something that functions in seeming unison on its own behalf.” Lofton, Consuming Religion, 203.

12 Daniel Vaca argues that “authority is not hegemony” when it comes to reading texts produced for contemporary consumers. Texts, such as essential oil use guides, are granted authority by the readers who take their authors’ advice, create meaning from it, and apply it to their own personal rituals. Vaca, “Believing within Business,” The Business Turn in American Religious History, eds. Amanda Porterfield, Darrin Grem, and John Corrigan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 38.

13 Rachel Monroe, “How Essential Oils Became the Cure for Our Age of Anxiety,” The New Yorker, October 2, 2017.

14 Albanese, Catherine L., A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 504Google Scholar.

15 Robert N. Bellah and colleagues famously coined the term “Sheilaism” to explain the individualistic nature of spirituality. See Bellah, Robert N., Madsen, Richard, Sullivan, William M., Swidler, Ann, and Tipton., Steven M. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996)Google Scholar. Postmodern spirituality is often a solo endeavor. See Roof, Spiritual Marketplace, and Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). However, others have shown that “spiritual” groups challenge the notion that individual experience is not shared in collective settings. See Ammerman, Nancy Tatom, Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014)Google Scholar; Bender, Courtney, The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; McGuire, Meredith B., Lived Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Jim Drobnick refers to the historical and material use of scent in religious rituals to transform a physical place from “the ordinary to the ceremonial.” See Drobnick, ed. The Smell Culture Reader (London: Routledge, 2006), 87.

17 The vast majority of primary sources I cite are not produced by corporations except for product names and descriptions.

18 Feminized direct selling has a long history in American evangelical networks. See Vaca, Daniel, Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), ch. 4Google Scholar. For more on gendered aspects of MLMs, see Biggart, Nicole Woolsey, Charismatic Capitalism: Direct Selling Organizations in America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mullaney, Jamie L. and Shope, Janet Hinson, Paid to Party: Working Time and Emotion in Direct Home Sales (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012)Google Scholar; Kate Shellnutt, “The Divine Rise of Multilevel Marketing,” Christianity Today, November 23, 2015, accessed February 14, 2021,; Jane Marie, The Dream: Season One, podcast audio (2018), accessed June 11, 2021,

19 Daryl Lindsey, “How Mormon Culture Made Utah a Hotbed for Multi-Level Marketers,” KUTV Utah, September 8, 2016, accessed June 11, 2021,; Mette Harris, “10 Reasons Mormons Dominate Multi-Level Marketing Companies,” Religion News Service, June 20, 2017, accessed June 11, 2021,; Marinda Risk, “Mormon Moms Balance MLMs, Family Life,” The Daily Universe, May 15, 2018, accessed June 11, 2021,

20 For more on the profit structures of MLMs, see Robert Fitzpatrick and Reynolds, Joyce K., False Profits: Seeking Financial and Spiritual Deliverance in Multi-Level Marketing and Pyramid Schemes (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 1997)Google Scholar; Biggart, Charismatic Capitalism. Others have explored the negative aspects of the MLM business model. See Laura Richards, “How MLMs Are Destroying Women's Friendships,” Washington Post, January 21, 2019, accessed June 11, 2021,; Casey Bond, “MLMs Are a Nightmare for Women and Everyone They Know,” HuffPost, June 27, 2019, accessed June 3, 2021,

21 By “noncorporate consumers,” I mean that they are individual customers, not corporations purchasing essential oils in bulk for use in other consumer goods. It is important to note that middle-class white women are not the only consumers of essential oils in the contemporary United States. However, they are the main “oilers” I investigate in this article based on their relatively high representation in MLMs and in the three groups discussed. There is a long tradition of religious practitioners who use oils in sacred rituals and self-care, often in Afro-Caribbean traditions, such as Yoruba. See Queen Afua, Sacred Woman: A Guide to Healing the Feminine Body, Mind, and Spirit (New York: Ballantine Books, 2000). Additionally, women of color are also key demographics for essential oils, as evidenced by numerous articles about oil purchase and use in Essence magazine, a mainstream publication whose target demographic is African American women, as well as in other publications and social media accounts that speak directly to women of color.

22 Vaca and Matthew S. Hedstrom each argue that women were the primary purchasers of religious and spiritual books during the middle to late twentieth century. Vaca also argues that evangelical women were valuable colporteurs, or sellers, of Christian books in the early twentieth century. Vaca, Evangelicals Incorporated, ch. 4; Hedstrom, The Rise of Liberal Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 204. For more on the religious practice of matching “internal states” with external appearances, see Gerber, Lynne, Seeking the Straight and Narrow (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Griffith, R. Marie, Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Lavabre, Marcel, Aromatherapy Workbook (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1996), 1Google Scholar.

24 Taves, Ann, “Non-Ordinary Powers: Charisma, Affordances, and the Study of Religion,” in Mental Culture: Towards a Cognitive Science of Religion, eds. Xygalatas, Dimitris and McCorkle, William (London: Acumen, 2014), 83Google Scholar.

25 Lavabre, Aromatherapy Workbook, 1.

26 Worwood, Valerie Ann, The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy (Novato, CA: New World Library, 1991), 2Google Scholar.

27 Tisserand, Robert B., The Art of Aromatherapy (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1978), 8Google Scholar.

28 Young, D. Gary, Aromatherapy: The Essential Beginning (Mercer Island, WA: Essential Press, 1996), iiiGoogle Scholar.

29 Lau, Kimberly J., New Age Capitalism: Making Money East of Eden (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 30CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Barcan, Ruth, “View of Aromatherapy Oils: Commodities, Materials, Essences,” Cultural Studies Review, 20, no. 2 (2014): 141–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Lavabre, The Aromatherapy Workbook; Gillerman, Hope, Essential Oils Every Day (New York: HarperElixir, 2016)Google Scholar; Greer, Mary K., The Essence of Magic (California: Newcastle, 1993)Google Scholar; Rhind, Jennifer Peace, Essential Oils, 2nd ed. (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2012)Google Scholar; Worwood, The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy; Keville, Kathi and Green, Mindy, Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art (Canada: Crossing Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

31 Schnaubelt, Kurt, The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1999), xiiGoogle Scholar.

32 Huxley, Aldous, The Perennial Philosophy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1945)Google Scholar; Smith, Huston, The Religions of Man (New York: Harper and Row, 1958)Google Scholar.

33 Smith, The Perennial Philosophy; McCutcheon, Russell T., Studying Religion (London: Equinox, 2007), 21Google Scholar.

34 Schmidt, Hearing Things.

35 Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant, 6. Also Reinarz, Jonathan, Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2014), 56CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 I use the term transcendent in reference to Birgit Meyers's understanding of religion as accessing the transcendent through media. Meyers, Birgit, Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion, and the Senses (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 11CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 Gillerman, Essential Oils Every Day, 32; Young, Aromatherapy: The Essential Beginning, 22.

38 Walter J. Freeman, III, “The Physiology of Perception,” Scientific American 264, no. 2 (1991); Reinarz, Past Scents, 7.

39 The therapeutic and, in this article, spiritual uses of essential oils differentiate them from perfumes or scents that are worn on the body for aesthetic purposes.

40 Hedstrom, The Rise of Liberal Religion. Hedstrom argues that “middlebrow” book culture in the twentieth century both created and reflected transformations in American spirituality. Accordingly, reading practices informed spiritual ideas and interests. While this article does not analyze the particular presses that publish books on essential oils, it is notable that Healing Arts Press in Rochester, Vermont, has published many of the titles cited as primary sources here.

41 Kate Shellnutt, “An Anointed Trend? Christian Women and Essential Oils,” Christianity Today, January 9, 2015, accessed on February 14, 2021,

42 Young, Mary, D. Gary Young: The World Leader in Essential Oils (Salt Lake City, UT: Young Living Essential Oils, 2015)Google Scholar; Rachel Fobar, “Frankincense Trees––of Biblical Lore––Are Being Tapped Out for Essential Oils,” National Geographic, December 13, 2019.

43 Cerulo, Karen A., “Scents and Sensibility: Olfaction, Sense-Making, and Meaning Attribution,” American Sociological Review, 83, no. 3 (2018): 361–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 Schmidt, Hearing Things.

45 Ingold, Tim, “Back to the Future with the Theory of Affordances,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 8, nos. 1–2 (2018): 39Google Scholar. According to Ingold, “Affordances are the ways in which things come into the immediate presence of perceivers, not as objects-in-themselves, close in and contained, but in their potential for the continuation of a form of life.”

46 Zoe Weiner, “Yoga and Essential Oils: What to Sniff for a Better Practice,” Well + Good, February 14, 2019, accessed February 14, 2021,

47 Godfrey, Heather Dawn, Essential Oils for Mindfulness and Meditation (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 2018), 36Google Scholar.

48 Godfrey, Essential Oils for Mindfulness and Meditation, 36.

49 Godfrey, Essential Oils for Mindfulness and Meditation, 37.

50 Godfrey, Essential Oils for Mindfulness and Meditation, 36–37. Scholars have noted the trend of conveying mythological or sacred histories as marketing and authenticating devices on spiritual wares, including essential oils.

51 Oilers often refer to studies first conducted by Young Living in the early 1990s that concluded that essential oils vibrate at exceptionally high bioelectrical frequencies, as measured in hertz. Young Living founder, D. Gary Young, touts the innovation here: D. Gary Young, Aromatherapy, 35–40.

52 Deepak Chopra is commonly cited by New Age writers. His conceptions of health and wellness combines ideas drawn from quantum physics and Eastern metaphysical philosophies. Chopra, Quantum Healing (New York: Bantam Books, 1989).

53 Covington, Candice, Essential Oils in Spiritual Practice (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 2017), 61Google Scholar.

54 Based on my sources, I cannot extrapolate corporate strategies for product development. Companies may seek to create niche markets, or they may respond to emerging markets with new products. In this article, the existence of spiritually branded essential oils, and their product descriptions, serves as primary source data.

55 dōTERRA, “Using the dōTERRA Yoga Collection,” dōTERRA (blog), accessed October 1, 2020,; Melody Watts, “New Yoga Collection,” Melody Watts (blog), September 26, 2017, accessed October 1, 2020,

56 Neither Rocky Mountain Oils nor Aura Cacia are MLMs. Aura Cacia operates on a co-op model.

57 Rocky Mountain Oils, “Chakra Blends Kit,” accessed October 1, 2020,

58 Orsi, Robert A., History and Presence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 35CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

59 Young, D. Gary Young; Shellnutt, “An Anointed Trend?”; Shellnutt, “The Divine Rise of Multilevel Marketing.”

60 For examples, see Stewart, David, Healing Oils of the Bible (Marble Hill, MO: Care Publications, 2003)Google Scholar; McNeal, Erica, What the Bible Says: Oils and Spices Revealed (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015)Google Scholar; Minetor, Randi, Essential Oils of the Bible: Connecting God's Word to Natural Healing (Berkeley, CA: Althea, 2016)Google Scholar; Zielinski, Eric L., Using God's Medicine for the Abundant Life (Biblical Health Publishing, 2016)Google Scholar; Warner, Felicity, Sacred Oils: Precious Oils to Heal Spirit and Soul (London: Hay House UK, 2018)Google Scholar; Secrest, Teri, Essential Oils: God's Extravagant Provision for Your Health (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2019)Google Scholar; and Camp, Dawn, It All Began in a Garden: A Practical Guide to God's Gift of Essential Oils (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2020)Google Scholar.

61 Hervieu-Léger, Danièle, Religion as a Chain of Memory (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 84Google Scholar.

62 For examples of arguments by Christians against Christian use of essential oils, see Mike Miller, “Essential Things to Know about Essential Oils,” Samaritan Ministries (blog), June 3, 2013, accessed on February 14, 2021,; Amy Spreeman, “The Christian and Essential Oils?” Naomi's Table Bible Studies (blog), July 29, 2014, accessed on February 14, 2021,; Chuck Cohen and Julie Cohen, “Aromatherapy: Biblical Path to Healing or Demonic Deception,” 2014, accessed on February 14, 2021,

63 Roseann Dennerlein, “Fragrant Worship and Intimacy With God,” Oils of Shakan (blog), June 7, 2017, accessed on February 14, 2021,

64 Jennifer McGahan, “How to Combine Essential Oils with Prayer for Divine Connection,” My Team Connects (blog), October 31, 2015, accessed on February 14, 2021,

65 McGahan, “How to Combine Essential Oils with Prayer for Divine Connection.”

66 Minetor, Essential Oils of the Bible, 12.

67 Minetor, Essential Oils of the Bible, 12.

68 Brooke Magee, , Instagram, August 6, 2020. The song Magee cites in the post is “Peace in Christ” by McKenna Hixon. Accessed February 14, 2021,

69 Kaell, Hillary, Walking Where Jesus Walked: American Christians and Holy Land Pilgrimage (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 5CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

70 McDannell, Colleen, Material Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995)Google Scholar.

71 An exception to this broad rule is some nondenominational evangelical churches’ adoption of Eastern Orthodox icon veneration. See Wigner, Dann, “Icons: A Case Study in Spiritual Borrowing between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Emergent Church,” Spiritus 18, no. 1 (Spring 2018): 78–101CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

72 Minetor, Essential Oils of the Bible, 17.

73 Hannah Crews, , Instagram, May 6, 2020, accessed February 14, 2021,

74 Arin Murphy-Hiscock, The Green Witch (New York: Adams Media, 2017), 15. The forms of witchcraft discussed in this article are less formalized than Neo-Pagan or Wiccan traditions, although they are clearly influenced by these traditions (Murphy-Hiscock 2017, 15). This contemporary witchcraft is also heavily influenced by African, African American, and indigenous Caribbean and Latin American cultural traditions whose practices have been appropriated by an overwhelmingly white, young, female cohort of new witches. See Bianca Bosker, “Why Witchcraft Is on the Rise,” The Atlantic, March 2020; Elisabeth Krohn, “Inner Witch,” Sabat Magazine, September 6, 2018, accessed on February 14, 2021,

75 Burton, Tara Isabella, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (New York: Public Affairs, 2020), 117Google Scholar.

76 Burton, Strange Rites, 18. Burton breaks “Remixed Religion” into three identity categories: Spiritual But Not Religious, Faithful Nones, and Religious Hybrids. These categories also resemble the ethics and aesthetics of what sociologist of religion Gordon Lynch calls the “progressive spirituality” of the twenty-first century. See Lynch, The New Age Spirituality, (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007), 10.

77 Greer, The Essence of Magic, 109.

78 Mailhebiau, Philippe, Portraits in Oils: The Personality of Aromatherapy Oils and Their Link with Human Temperaments (London: C. W. Daniel, 1995)Google Scholar; Mary Young, D. Gary Young; Fischer-Rizzi, Susanne, Complete Aromatherapy Handbook (New York: Sterling, 1990)Google Scholar.

79 Heath, Maya, Magical Oils by Moonlight (Newburyport, MA: Weiser, 2008), 95Google Scholar.

80 Blackthorn, Blackthorn's Botanical Magic, 2–5.

81 See Heath, Magical Oils by Moonlight; Van de Car, Niki, The Wellness Witch (New York: Running Press, 2019)Google Scholar; Diaz, Juliet, Witchery: Embrace the Witch Within (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2019)Google Scholar; and Herstik, Gabriela, Inner Witch: A Modern Guide to an Ancient Craft (New York: TarcherPerigree, 2018)Google Scholar.

82 Heath, Magical Oils by Moonlight, 168.

83 Heath, Magical Oils by Moonlight, 184.

84 Diaz, Witchery, 40.

85 Diaz, Witchery, 40–41.

86 Heath, Magical Oils by Moonlight, 22.

87 Heath, Magical Oils by Moonlight, 20.

88 Herstik, Inner Witch.

89 While fee-for-service tarot card reading is traditionally done in person, the Internet provides ways to connect customers and readers digitally and multilingually.

90 Greer, The Essence of Magic, 111.

91 Greer, The Essence of Magic, 34.

92 Greer, The Essence of Magic, 133–37.

93 Giddens, Anthony, Modernity and Self-Identity (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991)Google Scholar; Lofton, Consuming Religion, 2.

94 I refer to sacred in a Durkheimian sense––essential oils are believed to be “set apart” or qualitatively different from mundane, everyday material substances. See Durkheim, Émile, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Cosman, Carol (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

95 Prothero, Stephen, God Is Not One (New York: HarperOne, 2010)Google Scholar.

96 Travis M. Andrews and Fred Barbash, “I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke: The Story Behind the World's Most Famous Ad, in Memoriam of Its Creator,” Washington Post, May 17, 2016, accessed June 11, 2021,

97 Lofton, Consuming Religion, 6.

98 Anderson, Imagined Communities, 1983.

99 McCutcheon, Studying Religion, 16; Lofton, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 6; Lofton, “Why Religion Is Hard for Historians,” 76.

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