Ingredient Feature: The History of Frankincense

Frankincense may seem like an odd gift choice for a brand new baby, but according to the New Testament, that’s what one of the wise men chose to bring when welcoming newborn Jesus. What was the purpose or meaning behind this gift of the magi? What uses does frankincense have in our modern world? Learn more about the history of frankincense and its purported benefits both as an essential oil and as an ingredient in ancient plant-based medicine.

The history of Frankincense is long and varied.
Frankincense has been widely used throughout the ages.

What is frankincense?

Frankincense is an extremely fragrant extract from the sap of Boswellia trees. It’s procured by cutting the bark from the tree, allowing the leaking resin to harden, and then scraping the tear-shaped drops from the trunk of the tree. It is then used either in its dry form or to make essential oils. This fragrant sap is actually edible, and can be chewed like gum.

There are different varieties of frankincense since there are multiple Boswellia species from which it can be collected, but they generally produce the same sweet, heady, citrusy fragrance. Boswellia trees are native to certain regions of the Middle East, including northeast Africa and the Arabian peninsula, which may explain the prevalence of frankincense in Eastern medicine.

Boswellia trees in the Middle East.
Frankincense is derived from the Boswellia tree.

The Benefits of Frankincense

Frankincense has been an essential ingredient of traditional Chinese medicine since at least 500 B.C. and has been traded in the Middle East and North Africa for more than 5,000 years. Its uses in medicine, daily life, and religious rituals are well-documented throughout history.

“We have textual—and also archaeological—evidence that both frankincense and myrrh were used as medicinal substances in antiquity,” stated Alain Touwaide, a historian of medicine at the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions and the Smithsonian Institution. 

Although well-known for its use as incense during religious ceremonies, frankincense has also been proven to have antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties and have been used to treat everything from dental infections to more serious ailments like leprosy.

Ancient Egyptians had a wide range of uses for frankincense, including fragrance, insect repellant, healing ointments, as an ingredient of kohl eyeliner, and as part of the embalming process.

Ancient Greeks and Romans had a greater understanding of the antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties of frankincense and relied on it heavily in medicine, using it to treat everything from chronic halitosis (more commonly known as bad breath) to hemorrhoids. Pliny the Elder even recommended it to treat hemlock poisoning.

So, although most of us would choose gold if offered the choice between frankincense, myrrh, or a precious metal, the history of frankincense demonstrates that it was actually a very useful, valuable, and practical gift at the time.

Frankincense was often used as incense.
Frankincense has been used as incense for religious ceremonies since ancient times.

Frankincense continues to be a popular ingredient in aromatherapy today due to its use in relieving congestion, and for its calming, mood-enhancing aroma.

Frankincense has been celebrated for its wide range of uses throughout history. Incorporate it into your aromatherapy routine to explore the ancient benefits of this interesting fragrance.

Along with bergamot and ylang ylang, frankincense is one of the featured ingredients of our calming aromatherapy blend, Meditate.

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