Following Christian tradition, the three wise men brought baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; specifically, gold for a king, frankincense for God, and myrrh to embalm Jesus after death. While gold is pretty self-explanatory, have you ever wondered what frankincense and myrrh actually are? The answer is that they are both sap compounds derived from trees! A look at both of these products is interesting and culturally relevant to not only all of the three current, major monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), but also to the ancient, pagan civilizations that preceded them.
Frankincense – Derived from the boswellia tree (usually B. sacra but also B.thurifera), frankincense is created by stripping bark pieces off of the tree trunk and allowing the sap to bleed out and harden. Usually 2 or 3 cuts are made to the same spot on the tree over a period of a few weeks; the longer the wound is exposed, the more opaque (and valuable) the sap. Once the sap has hardened on the tree, it is scraped off and graded for quality.
Originating in the Dhokar region of Oman, the use of frankincense by the Omani dates back to almost 7000 years ago (the origins of the tree itself have been dated as far back as the Paleocene era). It’s usage as a medicinal and ceremonial agent spread over the ages and a flourishing incense trade is documented as early as 5000 years ago. Once one of the most prominent, desirable products in Asia and the Middle East, the frankincense trade route extended throughout Asia and the Middle East, even finding it’s way into Eastern Europe. Caesar Augustus reportedly sent 10 000 men to Oman to invade and secure the trade (unluckily for them, and luckily for the Omani, the desert conditions proved too difficult for the soldiers to traverse.)
Frankincense has been traditionally used for cleansing and curative rites (pagan traditions), religious and political ceremonies (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities all traditionally used frankincense to anoint newborns, for example, as the smoke from burning incense represented life), as a mainstay in perfume, as a popular make-up (charred incense pieces are used to make kohl, the black eyeliner that Middle Eastern women wear under their eyes), and more recently in significant medical research. Far from the mysterious and almost mythical aura surrounding burning incense decanters in religious ceremonies (I myself remember being in awe as a child at the smoky decanter the priest swung up and down the aisles during mass at my grandma’s church), frankincense has many medical applications.
An efficient anti-inflammatory, frankincense (named “frank-incense” after the Frankish crusaders that are credited with reintroducing the substance to a lagging European trade industry in the 4th century AD) has been used in alternative medicines for treatment of Crohn’s disease, gout, and osteoarthritis. Anecdotal studies show it to be a promising treatment for anxiety and depression (activating brain areas that regulate response to stress and depression). Smoke from burning frankincense is effective at warding off mosquitoes and also as a general room disinfectant. What is more, there is promising research into the anti-carcinogenic properties of the substance: initial studies have shown that frankincense inhibits the growth of certain cancer cells, all the while avoiding any damage of healthy cells (as compared to the current stand-by treatment of chemotherapy, which damages the healthy cells surrounding the cancerous cells. If frankincense can be proven and refined to be an effective cancer treatment, wouldn’t it be great to put chemotherapy on the back burner?)
In all, frankincense is amazing. Replete with a history that eclipses seven millennia, crossing every major monotheistic religion and several pagan religions, and seeping into the vast majority of canonic cultural movements in our recorded history, this substance continues to astound with the medicinal properties current research is revealing. I thought I would look into how much essential oil of frankincense is going for nowadays; with a price of anywhere between $5.00 – $500.00 per ounce, I think I need to put a bit more research into the quality factor!