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Frankincense - Botany And History

Frankincense is a famed resinous substance that has been mentioned in a myriad of texts since the ancient times. Long-believed by ancient religions to be a sacred and powerful material, it continues to be used to this day for medicinal, religious, magickal, and general purposes. It is among the most wellknown of perfumed resins, having been granted sacred status in a number of Holy Books, namely the Holy Bible, the Al Koran, and the Tanakh and Torah. It has been considered a precious commodity since the time of the Ancient Egpytians, and possibly even earlier, chiefly due to its relative rarity, incomparable aroma, and powerful medicinal properties.

The frankincense resin is derived from a very hardy tree, the Boswellia sacra - a deciduous tree that is known for its ability to flourish in highly unforgiving settings such as rocky outcrops, semidesert areas, and dry, arid ravines. The plant is even known to grow from outside rocks, and is generally anchored by a disk-like swelling found near the base of the trunk, almost near the root-system of the plant. This moderately sized tree, which grows to a maximum of eight metres in ideal settings, and a minimum of one to two metres in more unforgiving terrain is characterised by its highly verdant foliage consisting of oddly numbered, slightly glossy, compound leaves and leaflets that grow opposite one another. The immature leaves of the frankincense tree are also noticeable due to the presence of a light down or furze found both on the obverse and reverse side. It is also highly discernable due to its yellowish to dun-hued five-petaled inflorescence that possesses a unique seemingly dentated centre. The frankincense tree also boasts fruits, which tend to measure only a mere one centimetre in length. The tree conveniently boasts a bark redolent of the texture of paper, with about as close a degree of toughness, allowing it to be readily stripped in order to extrude the prized resinous substance that is housed within it. [1]

The extruded resin is either harvested through traditional means (manually, after allowing the resin to harden due to exposure to air) or otherwise hastened by the use of modern machinery which collect the resins by volume (the latter being more harmful for the tree). The harvesting of frankincense usually begins when the plant has been allowed to flourish for at least eight years, with a continual production of resin, usually in more limited, albeit far more prized, quantities persisting until well into the plant's old age, after which the resinous production slows down considerably. The frankincense tree is fully capable of regeneration even after years of being tapped, although it tends to be a slow process, and more trees die due to overexploitation, combined with natural causes such as animal grazing, severe droughts, and other factors. [1]

Frankincense has been used and traded since the dawn of civilization, and has played an integral role in the early religious and magickal beliefs of various cultures. The use, trade, and eventual sale of frankincense has generally been situated in the Arabian and North African territories, where it has been harvested, and later, grown for more than five thousand years (with production, sale, and lately, even cultivation, continuing to this very day). Due to the finicky nature of its collection and the difficulty in obtaining the resin, it was highly valued in ancient times, and was even considered de facto currency, tradable for any other commodity throughout nearly the whole world. It was a common form of tribute, generally given to royalty and people of renown. It was also frequently employed in religious rituals, and, due to its expensive nature, was a commodity accessible only to the most affluent. In spite of its already expensive and rare status, the ancients furthered its highly covetable nature and apparent rarity by concocting tall tales about the difficulties of its gathering. It was believed that the frankincense tree was a favoured home of highly venomous serpents and those special methods of gathering was necessary in order to collect the resins safely. Such stories, reported by a number of ancient historians such as Herodotus, furthered fueled the appeal and mystique of frankincense, making it among the most prized of all ancient commodities - a status that it retained until well into the Middle Ages. [2]

The use of frankincense extended well beyond the borders of Arabia and North Africa, as it was traded throughout the major empires of the day. It was known to both Western and Eastern courts as a costly substance, and was lauded near miraculous properties. The popularity of frankincense helped to facilitate trade and industry in the Middle East, although by the advent of the Christian Era its usage somewhat declined due to the disinclination of early Christians to employ the substance and was, for a time, limited only to Judaic and Islamic religious groups. Later on, the use of frankincense was reintegrated into the Christian rites and rituals, and the trade soon began to flourish once more, albeit at a lesser rate. It was not until the Middle Ages that the interest and demand for frankincense once again grew, although by that time, it was employed more as a medicinal compound and as an additive for perfumery.

Types Of Frankincense

Frankincense resin is generally graded into different types, depending upon the species of Boswellia from which it was harvested, and depending upon the colour, aroma, age, shape, size, and purity of the resin. The resin may vary in colour from pale yellow, golden yellow, amber, goldenbrown, and even white (generally, the lighter the colour, the more potent the aroma, and the more expensive the variety). Some specimens may even contain impurities that render it checked or freckled in black or brown. Because frankincense sap 'coagulates' the moment it is exposed to air, larger, naturally formed chunks or clumps are more prized that smaller ones, although large clumps are often broken down manually upon harvesting to increase the overall yield. Unbroken clumps of frankincense, depending upon the hue, tend to be more costly than broken ones, in spite of being derived from the same species of Boswellia, and in spite of possessing the same hues. [2]

Nowadays, the three most popular 'artisanal' types of frankincense resin are the Silver, Hojari, and Maydi varieties, although there is conflicting opinions on which of the three should rank as the best. Easterners often attest that Silver frankincense ranks as the finest grade of incense, although Western preferences veer more towards the Hojari variants. Maydi frankincense, while still expensive, is well below the qualities of either Silver or Hojari. One reason for the apparent disparity in opinion may be due to the differences in climate, which can also play an integral role in the quality and fineness of the aromas released by burning incense.

Frankincense - Herbal Uses

Frankincense has long been employed by many cultures as an aromatic substance, almost always consumed as a commodity by burning the fragrant resin in a low fire or ember, generally the help of charcoal, coal, or some other similar substance or method, wherewith it's various volatile essences and its aroma is released. Its use as a fumigator, incense, and aromatic compound has been the mainstay of its usage since ancient times, with the practice having been retained to this very day. It is most commonly used as a ritualistic fumigation substance, reserved for specific rites and rituals of blessing and / or consecration. It is generally considered an indispensible feature of Christian rituals, especially in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches of Christianity, although it also plays an integral role in Judaic and Islamic rites and rituals as well. [3]

Aside from this most basic usage, the aromatic oils and other substances found in the frankincense resin has also been employed by fields such as perfumery and aromatherapy. It has even been used medicinally as a therapeutic, restorative, and preservative substance since the olden days (even having been used as an embalming substance by the Egyptians). Its primary medicinal action was as a fumigating agent, believed in those days to drive away illness, alleviate depression, help decongestion, and cure minor ailments such as headaches and flu. Aside from its use as a fumigator, this resin is also edible, and may be melted, added onto other medicinal remedies, diluted with oil, or its essence otherwise extracted and employed medicinally.

One of the earliest medicinal uses of frankincense can be traced back to Ancient China and the then prototypical system of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The frankincense resin, which was shipped in moderate to moderately large quantities into mainland China from traders in the Arabian peninsula, were employed as fumigators, first and foremost, and as a choice ingredient for stick-incense. The fumigation of frankincense alone was believed to help alleviate anxiety, invigorate the body, promote sleep, help with decongestion, and reduce the recurrence or occurrence of spasms. Being edible, it was commonly given as an oral remedy for bronchitis, abdominal pain, toxemia, and circulatory problems. It was believed by Chinese herbalists to help dispel blood stasis, detoxify the body, and tonify the circulatory and digestive systems. When applied topically, usually diluted in oil and heated, it was employed to help regenerate injured skin, heal minor to moderate injuries, cure sores, acne, carbuncles, and a number of other topical fungal ailments, as well as act as a local topical analgesic and antiinflammatory. [4]

Frankincense, whether applied topically, consumed orally, or inhaled, is also said to invigorate and strengthen the heart, improve the functions of the spleen and liver, and tonify the blood. It is classified as a yang or warming tonic in the system of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and is known for its acrid, bitter, sometimes highly disagreeable taste. [4]

The Ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and Mesopotamians likewise employed frankincense medicinally, although the former, more so than the latter two, used it the most for a wide array of different applications. While the Assyrians and Mesopotamians may have probably employed frankincense chiefly for ritualistic and magickal purposes, the Ancient Egyptians used it as a medicine, although its primary purpose seemed to veer more towards the cosmetic field. The charred remnants of frankincense was employed by the Egyptians as a rudimentary eyeliner called khol (not to be confused with the mineral substance of the same name), and, when infused in powerful spirits or otherwise mixed with organic antiseptic substances, it was also employed as potent disinfectant. Khol was used by Egyptians of all classes to help cut down on the discomfort brought about by the harsh, unforgiving desert sun. The inherent antimicrobial properties found in frankincense also protected their eyes from diseases like conjunctivitis, sore eyes, and other ocular discomforts. It was not until the addition of galena (lead sulfide), sulfur, and other mineral substances during the latter Dynastic Periods that khol soon became toxic and unfit for general usage. [5]

Outside of ocular cosmetics, frankincense was also melted down and used as a primitive dilapitory agent in much the same way that hot waxes, esters, and even caramelized sucrose-based substances are employed today. It was also employed as a balm or salve, usually in its melted state, or otherwise mixed with one's choice of a base oil, and applied to wounds, minor injuries, localised swellings, topical infections, and rheumy or arthritic areas to promote healing, disinfection, and pain relief. In pre and postBiblical times, societies such as the Berber and Bedu often employed melted frankincense as a cosmetic, a beauty agent, and a rudimentary perfume. [6]

In India and the Levant, frankincense resin was employed chiefly for medicinal purposes. In Ayurvedic medicine, frankincense resin is generally melted down with coconut oil and applied topically for therapeutic purposes. It's Ayurvedic medicinal properties are similar to the properties ascribed in Traditional Chinese Medicine, although it is more commonly employed as a fumigating agent more than a topical or oral medicine.

In the Western sphere of alternative medicine, frankincense is used chiefly for perfumery, although it did play a semi-medicinal and semi-magickal therapeutic role in the Middle Ages, where it was considered an analgesic, a rubifacient, and a skin restorative. The most common employ of frankincense in the Middle Ages however was as a religious incense, most frequently preferred by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Well into the latter days of the Middle Ages, until the time of the Enlightenment, frankincense soon became a staple of perfumery, with recent technology for those times having managed to extract the volatile compounds of the resins, allowing it to be mixed with essential oils and other substances for the creation of perfumes. While its employment in perfumery dates back to ancient times, it was not until the latter parts of the 1700s that better methods of extracting its volatile essences were developed. It was initially only used by melting the resins and mixing it with a base oil of choice, along with whatever available organic fragrance was in vogue for the times. The perfumery world still continues to use frankincense is signature perfumes and expensive scents, although its lemonine scent and warm, somewhat spicy aroma tends to be somewhat overpowering and out of favour with more modern preferences, save in perfumes chiefly marketed towards a more masculine or mature audience. [7]

The modern medicinal applications of frankincense remain similar to that of ancient prescriptions, although it is now only rarely taken orally. The most common modern applications for frankincense veers towards the topical more so than the internal, although some rare remedies (such as for bronchitis, general malaise, depression, and toxemia) may advise the internal intake of frankincense. [8] The practice is more commonplace in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, while Western alternative medicines tend to favour topical applications. The resin itself or the steam-distilled essential oil of the resin is often still given to individuals who suffer from colitis, bronchitis, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and intestinal disorders. When employed for aromatherapy, it is generally prescribed for individuals who suffer from depression or anxiety, either as a massage oil, or as a fumigator. Recent studies have reported that burning frankincense resin releases psychoactive substances that help to alleviate depression, anxiety, and stress. Modern herbalists may also create healing balms or salves which contain moderate amounts of essential oil of frankincense and prescribe it for skin toning and rejuvenation. [9] Aside from its minor applications in the modern cosmetic and alternative pharmaceutical industry, frankincense is still employed for religous rites and ceremonies throughout nearly all parts of the globe, irrespective of sect or religious affiliation.

Frankincense - Scientific Studies

Frankincense and cancer: Frankincense contains a number of compounds that hinder cancer cells from spreading or migrating. Immunologist Mahmoud Suhail in a BBC News write-up states, “Cancer starts when the DNA code within the cell's nucleus becomes corrupted. It seems frankincense has a re-set function. It can tell the cell what the right DNA code should be.” [10]

A 2009 study from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center had reported that frankincense oil is effective in suppressing the viability of human bladder cancer cells, inducing death among cancer cells. More to this, frankincense oil appears to exert its anticancer effects without harming the normal bladder cells. [11] These findings are more or less similar to those of a 2012 study from Long Hua Hospital Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, China. This Chinese study had demonstrated too that frankincense essential oil suppresses viability and stimulates cell death among cancer cells (in this case, human pancreatic cancer cells). Human pancreatic cancer cells seem to be sensitive to frankincense essential oil distillate fractions with higher-molecular-weight compounds. [12]

Frankincense - Esoteric Uses

Frankincense is among the most esoterically-employed of all ancient commodities, having been used chiefly for religious and magickal rites since its discovery in the Arabian Peninsula and the African hinterlands. The Sumerians, Akkadians, and even the Assyrians used it for religious and magickal rites - a practice which was adopted by the Ancient Egyptians, and which spread throughout much of the ancient world.

It is a choice item for three major Religions of the Book - namely, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, which have employed it for various purposes since the earliest foundations of their beliefs. Judaism and Islam often employ frankincense as a primary ingredient in sanctifying and blessing oils such as the Ha Ketoret of Orthodox Judaism. Its sister faiths (i. e. Christianity and Islam) also employ similar oils for anointing individuals, either as a rite of passage, or as an act of blessing. The Judaeo-Christian religion in particular often combines it with another aromatic resinous substance - myrrh - in the creation of sanctifying incense mixtures. Religions both within and outside of the Judaeo-Christo-Islamic context also employ frankincense as an offertory item, generally burnt and 'fed' to deities or spirits, or otherwise employed in the belief that it helps to drive away illness, malignant spirits, or misfortune, or 'sacrificed' in the idea that it is found pleasing to a god or gods. It is universally accepted as a very potent protective compound, and is generally used by many religions as an incense used for exorcism rites.

When employed in the purely Western ceremonial magickal context, frankincense plays a major role in empowering, de-hexing, protection, and banishing spells. Its aroma is said to be intolerable to daemons and all other forms of malignant entities, while it is pleasing to any form of holy or sacred entity. NonJudaeo-Christo-Islamic religions generally use frankincense for invocation and evocation, as it is believed to represent fire and masculine force (and hence is offered to many Solar Deities). It is used to charge objects and is among the few magickal substances that banish negative energy and charge or imbue a being or an object with positive energy simultaneously. [13]

In Eastern esoteric practice, sticks of incense made from frankincense resin is burnt to help calm and still the mind, facilitate in focus and mental clarity, as well as drive away illness. It is most often burnt as an aid to meditation, or employed as a consecrating and protective smudge.

Frankincense - Contraindications And Safety

While employing frankincense either topically or internally for medicinal purposes is generally considered safe, pregnant and nursing mothers should avoid the consumption of oral remedies which contain frankincense as it may be detrimental to the proper development of the foetus. Furthermore, individuals who suffer from skin asthma or a severe sensitivity of the skin should also avoid over-using topical remedies containing frankincense for prolonged periods. In spite of its long-standing reputation as a remedy for bronchial complaints and asthma, it should only be used sparingly, lest it aggravate the disease. When used as an incense, or otherwise partaken of topically or orally in minute to moderate doses, it is generally considered safe for long-term usage.

Frankincense - Other Names, Past and Present

Chinese: ruxiang / xunluxiang
Japanese: furankinsensu (onomatopoeia and transliteration of English 'frankincense')
Korean: yuhyang
Sanskrit: gaja-bhaksa / muktimukta
Hindi: dhoop
Arabic: lubban / al-lubban
Hebrew: levonah
French: encens / franc-encens (etymological origin, lit. 'high quality' or 'pure' incense)
Spanish: incienso
Italian: incenso
Filipino: insenso / incenso / pahalina
German: weihrauch
Swedish: rokelse
Latin (esoteric): olibanum / mascula thrua
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Boswellia sacra / Boswellia carteri / Boswellia bhawdajiana (other species exist, each with their own distinct nomenclatures)











[10] Howell J. (2010). Frankincense: Could it be a cure for cancer? BBC World News. Retrieved 15 June 2013 from

[11] Frank M. B. et al. (2009). Frankincense oil derived from Boswellia carteri induces tumor cell specific cytotoxicity. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 9:6. doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-9-6. Retrieved 15 June 2013 from

[12] Ni X. et al. (2012). Frankincense essential oil prepared from hydrodistillation of Boswellia sacra gum resins induces human pancreatic cancer cell death in cultures and in a xenograft murine model. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 12: 253. doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-12-253. Retrieved 15 June 2013 from


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Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt.

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