Frankincense is a gum resin that emits a strong aromatic odor when burned. It's extracted from leafy forest trees with flowers that are white or pale rose native to southern Arabia and northern coastal region Somalia of the genus Boswellia Thurifera. They grow without soil, out of polished marble rocks, to which they are attached by a thick oval mass of substances resembling a mixture of lime and mortar. The young trees furnish the most valuable gum, the older yielding merely a clear, glutinous fluid.

To harvest the frankincense, the bark is peeled away and long and deep, incision is made in the trunk of the tree. When the milk-like juice, which seeps out has hardened from exposure to the air, the cut is prized deeper. In about three months the resin has reached the desired degree of consistency, hardening into yellowish tears. Then the sizable, clear droplets are scraped off into baskets. The poorer quality resins that have run down the tree are collected separately. The season for gathering the resin lasts from May until the seasonal rains in the middle of September begin and signaling the end of the harvest for that year.

Annually parties of Somalies pay the Southern Arabians for the privilege of collecting frankincense along the coastal regions as well as near the plain of Dhofar. During the southwest Monsoon, frankincense and other gums are gathered by the Bedouins. *

Medicinally frankincense was popularly used as a stimulant, but seldom used now internally. Pliny mentions it as an antidote to hemlock. Avicenna from the 10th Century recommended it for tumors, ulcers, vomiting, dysentery and fevers. Inhalation of steam laden with the volatile portion of the drug is said to relieve bronchitis and laryngitis and in China it was used for leprosy. Modern day usage is commonly is in the manufacturing of pastilles and incense. It may also used in plasters and sometimes as a substitute for Balsam of Peru or Balsam or Tolu.

A Brief History

    The ceremonial incense of the Hebrews was compounded of four sweet scents, of which pure Frankincense was one, pounded together in equal proportion. It is frequently mentioned in the Pentateuch. Pure frankincense formed part of the meet offering and was also presented with the shewbread every Sabbath day. With other
    spices, it was stored in a great chamber of the House of God at Jerusalem.

    According to Herodotus, frankincense to the amount of 1,000 talents weight was offered every year, during the feast of Bel, on the great altar of his temple in Babylon. The religious use of incense was as common in ancient Persia as in Babylon and Assyria. Herodotus states that the Arabs brought every year to Darius as tribute 1,000 talents of frankincense, and the modern Parsis of Western India still preserve the ritual of incense.

    Frankincense, though the most common, never became the only kind of incense offered to the gods among the Greeks. According to Pliny, it was not sacrificially employed in Trojan times. Among the Romans, the use of frankincense (alluded to as mascula thura by Virgil in the Eclogues) was not confined to religious ceremonials. It was also used on state occasions, and in domestic life.

    The kohl, or black powder with which the Egyptian women paint their eyelids, is made of charred frankincense, or other odoriferous resin mixed with frankincense. Frankincense is also melted to make a depilatory, and it is made into a paste with other ingredients to perfume the hands. A similar practice is described by Herodotus as having been practiced by the women of Scythia and is alluded to in Judith x. 3 and 4. In cold weather, the Egyptians warm their rooms with a brazier whereon incense is burnt, frankincense, benzoin and aloe wood being chiefly used for the purpose.

In ancient Israel, frankincense was intermixed with other aromatics to make incense (Exodus 30: 34-38), used as an element in offerings to Yahweh ( Leviticus 2: 1-2), and set out with the bread of the Presence (Leviticus 24:7). In the New Testament, frankincense is one of the symbolic gifts of the Magi to the infant Jesus (Matthew 2: 11). Throughout antiquity frankincense was a profitable object of of long distance trade between the Levant and southern Arabia (Isaiah 60:6; Jeremiah 6:20).

Frankincense, has always been easily available in Europe in larger quantities than any other Eastern aromatic imports as a common incense. Although there is no established formula for the incense used today in the Christian churches of Europe, it is suggested that frankincense should enter into the service as much as possible. Olibanum alone is used in Rome and Benzoin is primarily used in the Russian Othodox Church.

An example of a formula for an incense used in the Roman Catholic Church: Olibanum, 10 OZ. Benzoin, 4 oz. Storax, 1 OZ. To prepare: Break into small pieces and mix.

See also: Myrrh

*The incense of Dhofar is alluded to by the Portuguese poet, Camoens.


Pliny, Natural History 12:30-32.

The Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993.

Frank"in*cense (?), n. [OF. franc free, pure + encens incense.]

A fragrant, aromatic resin, or gum resin, burned as an incense in religious rites or for medicinal fumigation. The best kinds now come from East Indian trees, of the genus Boswellia; a commoner sort, from the Norway spruce (Abies excelsa) and other coniferous trees. The frankincense of the ancient Jews is still unidentified.


© Webster 1913.

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