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European depiction of the Persian (Iranian) doctor Al-Razi, in Gerardus Cremonensis "Recueil des traités de médecine" 1250-1260. A surgeon (left) holds the matula, a vessel for collecting the urine. (Public Domain) Frankincense. (CC0) Past civilizations knew how to use frankincense in different ways for medical and ritual purposes.

Frankincense: How to Use Ancient Wonder Cure for Healing

Frankincense is famous for being one of the three gifts presented by the Magi to baby Jesus (the other two being gold and myrrh). Several thousand years ago, people knew how to use frankincense to cure several ailments. The ancient Babylonians and Assyrians are also believed to have burned frankincense during their religious ceremonies and Hatshepsut’s famous reliefs depicting the ‘Expedition to Punt’ show not only frankincense, but also the trees themselves being brought back to Egypt. Ancient civilizations understood how to use frankincense in rituals and for healing.

Frankincense and the Incense Route

Frankincense (also known as olibanum) is the dried resin obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia, specifically Boswellia sacra and Boswellia carterii . These trees are grown in Oman, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa, and frankincense was one of the commodities that fueled the Incense Route . The status of frankincense as a luxury object, and its high value in the market during ancient times is understandable, considering the various ways in which it was used.

Frankincense tree, Yemen. (Rod Waddington/CC BY SA 2.0)

Frankincense tree, Yemen. (Rod Waddington/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

Frankincense fueled the Incense Route and brought great wealth to the lands producing it, as well as the cities along the route. For instance, Southern Arabia grew so rich that it was referred to by the ancient geographers as Arabia Felix (meaning ‘Arabia the Blessed’). The Romans, who wanted a share of the lucrative trade, sent an expedition to conquer the region during the 1st century BC. Due to the harsh climate of the region, however, they were forced to turn back.

Frankincense’s Ritual Usage

Frankincense is perhaps best known for its use in religious ceremonies. In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, frankincense would be burnt as an offering to the various deities. Additionally, due to its association with the divine, frankincense was also burnt for the dead. The aroma of the incense also served to mask the odor of the decaying flesh.

Incense. Frankincense on coal. (Spacebirdy/Myndir/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Moreover, the ancient Egyptians made use of frankincense for embalming the dead. During the process of mummification , the internal organs of the mummy would be removed. The cavities in the body would then be packed with frankincense, so as to prevent decomposition, in addition to masking the odor. 

How to Use Frankincense for Healing

Nevertheless, frankincense was used for non-religious purposes as well. For instance, ancient physicians were aware of the medicinal properties of frankincense. They found that frankincense had antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic properties, and therefore prescribed it as a cure for a variety of ailments, including indigestion, cough, and halitosis (bad breath). The famous Roman writer, Pliny the Elder , even wrote about how to use frankincense as an antidote for hemlock poisoning .

Frankincense. (Public Domain) The famous Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, even wrote about how to use frankincense as an antidote for hemlock poisoning.

Frankincense. ( Public Domain ) The famous Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, even wrote about how to use frankincense as an antidote for hemlock poisoning.

Although frankincense was often burned as incense, it could also be used as oil. Once more, the healing properties of frankincense have been highlighted. For example, due to its antiseptic property, frankincense oil could be applied to wounds to prevent them from developing infections. Frankincense may even be ingested to aid the recovery of internal wounds.

Glass vial containing Frankinsence (Boswellia carteri) Essential Oil. (Public Domain)

Glass vial containing Frankinsence (Boswellia carteri) Essential Oil. ( Public Domain )

Modern Science Tunes in and Expands on Ancient Knowledge

In more recent times, the healing properties of frankincense have been studied by scientists. Thanks to chemical analysis of this product, we now have a better understanding of the components found in frankincense and the healing effects they may have on the human body. For example, monoterpenes such as alpha- and beta-pinene are an important component of frankincense. It has been found that this compound helps to eliminate toxins from the liver and the kidneys.

Be that as it may, the medicinal properties of frankincense have yet to be fully understood. According to a 2010 report by the BBC, scientists have observed that frankincense stopped cancer from spreading and cause cancerous cells to close themselves down. The report also stated that the compound in frankincense responsible for this had not been identified, but scientists were trying to isolate it.

To conclude, it may be said that frankincense has come a long way since it was first used by ancient societies. Whilst the healing properties of frankincense were recognised in the past, analysis of this precious substance using modern chemistry could lead to the discovery of new ways in which frankincense may be used for medicinal purposes.

Top image: European depiction of the Persian (Iranian) doctor Al-Razi, in Gerardus Cremonensis "Recueil des traités de médecine" 1250-1260. A surgeon (left) holds the matula, a vessel for collecting the urine. ( Public Domain ) Frankincense. ( CC0) Past civilizations knew how to use frankincense in different ways for medical and ritual purposes.

By Wu Mingren

References

Axe, J., 2018. What Is Frankincense Good For? 8+ Essential Oil Uses & Benefits for Healing. Available at: https://draxe.com/what-is-frankincense/

BBC, 2010. Frankincense: Could it be a cure for cancer? Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8505251.stm

Cohen, J., 2011. A Wise Man’s Cure: Frankincense and Myrrh. Available at: https://www.history.com/news/a-wise-mans-cure-frankincense-and-myrrh

Main, D., 2012. What Is Frankincense? Available at: https://www.livescience.com/25670-what-is-frankincense.html

Mercola, J., 2016. Frankincense Oil: The 'King' of Oils. Available at: https://articles.mercola.com/herbal-oils/frankincense-oil.aspx

Middle East Institute, 2018. The Story of Frankincense. Available at: http://www.mei.edu/sqcc/frankincense

Patil, K., 2018. 15 Proven Health Benefits Of Frankincense Oil.  Available at: https://www.organicfacts.net/health-benefits/essential-oils/health-benefits-of-frankincense-essential-oil.html

Comments

Frankincense was mostly grown in India and India was the largest producer of it in the ancient world, how come this is isn't mentioned?

Nice article, but what it fails to mention is that the trees that frankincense comes from are in danger of extinction.
https://www.gardendesign.com/holiday/frankincense.html

Since Frankincense was used as incense and as offerings for the dead, I'd like to know if anyone has ever smoked it? And if so, what are its effects?

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