The Mysterious Frankincense
Used for many thousands of years, the Sandalwood Oil tree has perhaps the greatest association with spiritualpractice of any plant on earth. In most of the great ancient cultures, it has played a role inreligious and domestic life. Frankincense has been sought after by kings and valued as highly as gold. Morerecently, the essential oil is gaining popularity with spiritual seekers and natural healers alike. What isso special about this tree that its ‘pearls’ were given as a gift at the birth of one of history’s most reveredprophets?
The Hardy Tree and its Tears
The Frankincense tree, or Olibanum, upon first glance, may seem rather unremarkable. It appears as agiant shrub, with many knurled branches topped with abundant slender leaves and occasionally, small white flowers.A native to northern Africa, it looks like it belongs in the desert, growing in some of the world’sharshest conditions. But it is not the tree itself, but rather its sap that has such profound lore surroundingit. Whenthe tree’s bark is pierced with a knife (known traditionally as a ‘Mingaf’), a milky-white oleoresin is exuded- thought the tree is not harmed. The resin forms droplets known as ‘tears’ or ‘pearls’, which harden intothe orange-brown gum known itself as Frankincense. The English name of this natural incense is derivedfrom the medieval French ‘franc’,meaning ‘pure’ or ‘free’, and from the Latin ‘incensium’, meaning ‘to smoke’.
History’s Most Popular Incense
For more than 5000 years, the hardened resin has been burned in temples throughout; the Catholic church continues to use it today during Mass. It is one of the four main ingredientsin Jewish ceremonial incense, forming an important part of the Sabbath day offerings. The smoke of Frankincense(as with other ritual incense) is thought to carry prayers to heaven upon it’s smoke. It is also said todeepen the breath and still the mind, making it useful for meditation and yogic practice. Theincense may have health benefits as well, producing a highly antiseptic smoke, keeping churches and churchgoersfree from disease.
According to ancient documents, the great Baal temple of Babylon consumed 2 and a half tons of Frankincensea year. The Frankincense trade was of immense importance in ancient times, peaking about 2000 years ago.Caravans grew to as many as 2 to 3 thousand camels in size. Cities grew up along the trade routes, and heavytaxes and fees for protection, lodging and camel fodder raised the cost of the resin considerably, so muchso that it was valued as much as gold. The wealth involved inspired Alexander the Great to plot to control theregion, though his death happened to precede the invasion.
Frankincense resin is thought to have a bounty of health properties – it was an ingredient in a rejuvenateface mask in ancient Egypt (it was also charred and used as the classic heavy eyeliner seen in much ancientEgyptian art), and at one time was “used to treat every conceivable ill to man”. In ayurvedic medicine itis known as salaiguggul,used for centuries to treat many conditions, including arthritis. Modern science has isolated the activecompounds found to have anti-arthritic properties. Called boswellic acids, these components inhibit theinflammatory process, improve blood supply and prevent further cartilage reduction.
Frankincense Essential Oil
Modern natural medicine and aromatherapy have taken to the use of the essential oil of Frankincense. The oil, havinga warm, woody, sweet aroma with a hint of citrus, is steam or CO2 distilled from the resin.It is used for respiratory conditions such as bronchitis, catarrh and asthma; for wrinkles, wounds and dryskin, and in cases of rheumatism, cystitis and leukorrea.
The most important effect of the essential oil may be on the nervous system. Regarded as an antidepressant,the aroma can both relax and revitalize, and can help in cases of nervous tension and exhaustion. Frankincenseoil contains sesquiterpenes, which stimulate the limbic system, the hypothalamus, the pineal and the pituitaryglands. The oil is now being researched for it’s ability to increase human growth hormone production. Further,it is considered to strengthen the immune system, which may in-fact occur as a result of it’s uplifting properties.
Frankincense essential oil can be used in a manner similar to burning of the incense in spiritual practice.Warming in a candle lamp or direct application to the temples and third eye will quiet the mind, deepen thebreath, and promote meditative stillness. It is often blended with Sandalwood, Myrrh and Cedarwood for suchuses, and the single-pointed concentration it invokes is thought to allow the spirit to soar.