COMMON NAMES: Frankincense Tree, Ana, Incense Tree, Kundara (Persian), Lebona (Hebrew), Libanotis (Greek), Mohr (Somali), Neter Sonter (Egyptian), Olibanum (Roman), Seta Kundura (Hindi)
The frankincense tree is small, growing from 13-15 feet tall. It has a sturdy trunk and dark brown bark that sheds and regrows repeatedly. The leaves are pinnate and grow in clusters at the ends of the branches. The flowers are small and whitish with five petals and ten red stamens. The fruits are small, light brown capsules (Ratsch 1998, 91).
The Boswellia plant grows in Somalia and southern Arabia. Methods of cultivation are well-protected secrets of the peoples who live by collecting frankinense. It is said that the ancient Egyptians attempted to plant frankincense trees in Egypt, but were unsuccessful in doing so, despite their great knowledge of gardening (Dixon 1969).
TRADITIONAL USES: The frankincense tree is renowned for the beautifully scented golden resin that may be harvested from incisions made in the bark. This resin was the most precious of all ancient incenses, and was also used in ancient times to prepare cosmetics and perfumes. Frankincense was widely used by the ancient Assyrians, Hebrews, Arabs, Greeks, and Egyptians, and was burned as an offering to the gods in every ceremony and festival. The Assyrians specifically associated the incense with the goddess Ishtar and the gods Adonis and Bel (Ratsch 1998, 92).
The Bible refers to frankincense as a sacred incense and a key element in trading. It was one of the gifts given to the baby Jesus by the Magi, and was also an ingredient of the holy incense given to Moses by God. It is presently the most important incense of the Catholic Church, and the scent is said to be a manifestation of the presence of god (Ratsch 1998, 92).
Egyptian and Greek magicians used frankincense smoke to conjure demons to use as servants. The Egyptians considered frankincense to be sacred to Amun of Thebes and to Hathor. The Romans also used frankincense in every one of their ceremonies, and said that it allowed one to recognize god. Frankincense was sacred to the god Apollo and the goddess Aphrodite (Ratsch 1998, 92).
Frankincense has long been thought to have psychoactive properties. It has therefore been consumed, smoked, and burned in both Europe and Arabia, often in combination with opium, up until the present (Ratsch 1998, 91).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: Frankincense resin is gathered by making long, deep incisions in the bark of the tree with a special instrument called a mengaff that looks like a scalpel. The resin is collected during the hottest time of the year. Frankincense is an ingredient in many psychoactive incenses. It has also been used to flavor wine, and is an ingredient of Oriental joy pills (Ratsch 1998, 91).
MEDICINAL USES: Frankincense was used for many medicinal purposes in the ancient period, and was praised by many writers of the day. It was used to make an oil which was a treatment for colds, constipation, frostbite, burns, scabies, and other skin inflammations. More recently, extract of frankincense has been used with success to treat rheumatoid arthritis (Etzel 1996). Essential oils distilled from frankincense are considered to be very important in aromatherapy.
Frankincense is used as a stimulant in Traditional Chinese Medicine and is prescribed for leprosy, skin diseases, menstrual cramps, coughs and lower abdominal pain. It has also been used as a mood enhancer, and is said to remove sorrow and strengthen the heart. In Ethiopia, frankincense is burned to treat fever and is also used as a tranquilizer (Ratsch 1998, 92).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: Frankincense contains 5-10% essential oil, as well as a variety of alkaloids. It has been claimed that frankincense produces THC when burned, but studies have not found this to be the case. Frankincense incense has long been said to have inebriating, euphoric and mood-enhancing effects. Medical literature still contains cases of “olibanum addiction”, and it is entirely possible that many people attended Catholic Church services due in part at least to the inebriating effects of frankincense incense (Ratsch 1998, 93). One individual reported having a hard time walking, with opioid-like effects after heavy use of frankincense essential oil in a vaporizer in an enclosed space (Voogelbreinder 2009, 103). A 2008 study even confirmed the psychoactive and anti-depressant effects of frankincense incense (Science Daily 2008)!
“Burning Incense Is Psychoactive: New Class Of Antidepressants Might Be Right Under Our Noses.” Science Daily: News & Articles in Science, Health, Environment & Technology. Web. 19 Apr. 2011. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080520110415.htm>.
Dixon, D.M. “The Transplantation of Punt Incense Trees in Egypt.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 55 (1969): 55–65.
Etzel, R. “Special Extract of Boswellia Serrata (H 15) in the Treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis.” PHytomedicine 3, no. 1 (1996): 91–94.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.