Conversations with good friends can often meander in many directions. When the conversational paths recently converged repeatedly towards Frankincense, it piqued my interest.
Why were so many people so taken with Frankincense?
The journey of discovery into the widespread appeal of Frankincense took me back further than 6 000 years: I was time travelling.
Along the way I came across historical figures like Herodotus, Hatshepshut, Nero and Zhao Rukuo. The path meandered across continents, and the use of Frankincense was charted from antiquity to modern times.
History of Frankincense
Frankincense, sometimes referred to as olibanum or luban, has a rich, varied history.
Once worth more than its weight in gold, it was traded in parts of Northern Africa and the Arabian peninsula for more than 6 000 years.
It is commonly associated in western culture with the biblical account of the birth of Jesus, being one of the gifts borne by the Magi for the infant:
“…Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11)
Nero is reputed to have burnt a year’s harvest at the funeral of his favourite paramour. The Egyptians used frankincense as part of their mummification processes, paradoxically, also using the charred and ground resin as eye makeup.
In an apparent attempt to eliminate the long trade routes involved in obtaining it, Hatshepsut, one of two documented female pharaohs, tried unsuccessfully to cultivate her own orchard of Frankincense trees in 1500 BC.
Frankincense is used in some Judaeo-Christian rituals, is an integral part of Ayurvedic and Unani medicine, and was mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus as well as Zhao Rukuo, a 13th century Song dynasty official.
Industrial use of frankincense
This desirable commodity is still used industrially in aromatherapy, perfumery and skincare, with research into applications in the pharmacological industry increasing in the past 20 years. Demand for the resin may well, therefore, become greater with the resurgence of interest in its medical applications.
Where does it come from?
Frankincense resin is tapped, akin to rubber, from the trees of the Boswellia genus. There are five main species of Boswellia from which true frankincense resin is harvested: Boswellia papyrifera (Eritrea, Ethiopia), Boswellia serrata (India), Boswellia sacra (Oman, Yemen), and Boswellia carterii (Somalia). Most species grow in the arid regions the Middle East, Africa, and India.
Resin quality depends on the time of harvesting as well as on the species being harvested. Slight variations are observed between species in the composition of the chemical compounds present.
Trees are traditionally harvested in the wild and can be tapped until 50 – 60 years old. Sap production usually starts when the tree is between 8 – 10 years old.
To meet demand harvesters tend to make more incisions per tree to extract a greater volume of sap. In addition, sap is gathered year round instead of seasonally. Thus there is very little or no recovery period for the trees, and their number is steadily decreasing.
In 2017, BBC Earth reported on a Boswellia species in Ethiopia, B.neglecta, which appears to be more resilient than the other species and shows two growth rings per year. These properties of B.neglecta imply that it could replace the dwindling numbers of the other Boswellia species, but studies must be done to determine whether the seeds can be germinated and, indeed, if the species can be grown in nurseries.
In Israel, Guy Erlich has a successful orchard of 1 000 B.sacra trees. Given that it will still be a few years before the trees produce resin in any viable quantity, he currently uses them to produce Frankincense honey.
Fair Trade Frankincense
Fair Trade Frankincense is a movement spearheaded by Dr. Anjanette DeCarlo, a researcher and activist, which is working towards saving the Boswellia trees in Somalia and attempting to replenish their numbers.
A cursory internet search will reveal myriad uses for frankincense; Websites including healthline.com and Medical News Today allude to anecdotal support for the successful treatment of a diverse range of ailments.
Ancient texts and archaeological evidence
Alain Touwaide, scientific director at the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions, is quoted as saying “We have textual—and also archaeological—evidence that both frankincense and myrrh were used as medicinal substances in antiquity.” According to its website, the researchers at the institution “…explore ancient books in libraries across the globe, bring to light and investigate their texts, and create on this basis a new knowledge that will ultimately lead to new discoveries and procedures for the integration of traditional resources into contemporary medical research.”
Religious and spiritual practices
Incense burning is an integral part of many religious and spiritual practices, with various connotations attributed to the practice. Frankincense resin/extract is often one of the components of the incense or the sole aromatic component. The burning of frankincense resin is recommended as a spiritual practice to ward off ‘negative energies’ and to instill a sense of calm and well-being.
Smell and emotion
In 2008 Science Direct reported that burning frankincense resin may alleviate depression and anxiety by working on the central nervous system. Ethiopians believe it acts as a tranquilliser. In December 2018, a study from John Hopkins University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, stated that frankincense extract ‘…may have some healing abilities when it comes to managing a restless mind.’
The Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia found a link between smell and emotion which may be measured with changes in body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure. A smell is basically a chemical message that travels along the olfactory nerve to the amygdala and hippocampus areas of the brain.
Smell, memory and emotions are linked strongly; think about the emotions evoked when you inhale a familiar comforting scent from your childhood or when you smell a particular perfume.
Sweet smells, in particular, are known to relieve pain by activating the opioid receptors in the brain. The process of smell begins with the presence of volatile aromatic compounds.
Frankincense resin is rich in such volatile aromatic compounds with some studies reporting greater than 300 identifiable compounds. One compound in particular, incensol (and its acetate derivative) is recognised as being able to activate ion channels within the brain that help alleviate depression and anxiety. It also has a psychoactive effect.
Therefore, the centuries old religious practice of burning incense may have a more scientifically proven basis for its popularity, instead of being merely symbolic.
Perhaps its value lay (and still lies) not only in its high price, but in the small comforts it may bestow?
This piece was edited by Mark Young and it appeared in another form in The Witness on 25 March 2019