For thousands of years, the fragrant swirls of Frankincense incense have woven their way through the entirety of human civilization, leaving an undeniable mark on our cultural, spiritual, and medicinal landscapes. Revered by ancient civilizations from its homeland in the Middle East, Africa, and India, to the temples of Egypt and beyond, this aromatic resin has been cherished not only for its captivating scent but also for its aromatic medicine and its role in religious rituals. 

As modern science begins to unravel the mysteries of Frankincense incense, its timeless allure continues to enchant and inspire, bridging the gap between ancient wisdom and contemporary wellness and spiritual practices. In this article, we dive into the rich history, diverse uses, sustainability concerns, and enduring significance of Frankincense resin, exploring why this ancient treasure remains revered and respected in our modern world today.

What is Frankincense Incense?

Frankincense is a resinous oleo-gum-resin derived from various species of Boswellia trees. These trees grow to heights of approximately 9 to 22 feet and feature narrow leaves along with white or pale pink flowers. Frankincense incense is often called “tears” due to its appearance after the harvesting process. Harvesters make small incisions in the bark of the Boswellia tree, known as “tapping,” and in response, the tree secretes a milky-white substance. This is a protective mechanism, designed to heal the wounds created by the cuts and protect the tree from infections, insects, and more.

The substance hardens and solidifies into droplets that look like tears, ranging in color from pale yellow to deep amber or brown, depending on the tree species and environmental conditions, which are carefully collected after a few weeks.

History & Folklore of Frankincense

Frankincense is one of the oldest, most well-known, and most revered incense in the entire world – the word “incense” is in its name, after all. Frankincense received its name from the medieval French word “franc,” meaning “pure” or “free,” and the Latin “incensium,” “to smoke.” It has played a role in many religions and cultures, including Ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, and more.

The ancient Egyptians were quite fond of Frankincense and used it as a fumigant, temple incense, medicine, in cosmetics, perfumery, and even for burial ceremonies and embalming. It was one of the main ingredients of Kyphi, the renowned temple incense blend traditionally burned at sunset. Frankincense incense was also commonly charred to create a black powder, called kohl, which was used as an eyeliner by ancient Egyptians.

Frankincense is a key ingredient in Ketoret, a Jewish ceremonial incense offering that authorized priests burned at Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple. For centuries, it has formed an integral part of the Sabbath day offering. In ancient Judaic texts, it is said to have been one of the plants that originated from the Garden of Eden, along with Myrrh. 

Frankincense is mentioned in the Bible at least 22 times, most famously as a gift to the newly born baby Jesus, along with Myrrh resin and gold, by the Wise Men or Magi. In Catholicism, Frankincense and Myrrh have been commonly used in religious rites since their formation and are still present in the church today. 

Frankincense incense has long been associated with intuition, spiritual connection, and godly work, which is why it is used so widely in many spiritual rituals and religious ceremonies. It is said to establish a stronger connection to the divine, to the Creator, and the inherent wisdom within. Many religions and cultures believe burning incense is like a rising prayer, as the fragrant smoke drifts up to the heavens, serving as a bridge that links the material and spiritual worlds.

Frankincense Benefits in Aromatic Medicine

Frankincense has an affinity for the nervous system and mental health, with a unique ability to both relax and revitalize, soothing both nervous tension and exhaustion. For centuries, practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Tibetan Medicine, and Ayurveda have turned to Frankincense for its ability to alleviate nervous tension, stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and related ailments. 

Contemporary research echoes the age-old wisdom surrounding Frankincense benefits, particularly its nervine and calmative qualities. A recent scientific investigation discovered that Frankincense incense exhibited anxiety-reducing and antidepressant-like properties in mice, validating the traditional beliefs regarding its therapeutic potential [1].

Frankincense exudes a calming and warming energy, rebalancing the body's vital energies, and paving the way for calm contemplation and unbiased reflection. Burning Frankincense incense helps to promote feelings of calm and comfort within. Through its fragrant smoke, Frankincense encourages mental clarity and heightened awareness, serving as a cherished aid in meditation practices and concentration. Across cultures and millennia, Frankincense has remained a trusted ally for promoting emotional well-being and enhancing spiritual pursuits.

Aromatherapist Gabriel Mojay writes about Frankincense: “On a day-to-day level, it may be called upon for states of mental agitation and worry, or whenever the mind is distracted and overwhelmed by a cacophony of thoughts. Whenever we have allowed ourselves to become oppressed by the mundane or tied to the past – indeed, restricted or weighed-down by any form of over attachment – Frankincense can help us to break free.” [2]

Traditional Medicinal Uses

Frankincense Benefits for Skin

Frankincense is known as a cicatrisant, which is a substance that promotes the healing of the skin. In ancient cultures, Frankincense was applied to wounds to speed healing, prevent infection, and reduce scarring and pain, thanks to its analgesic, anti-infectious, and anti-inflammatory properties. 

Frankincense resin is also traditionally used topically in salves or ointments to alleviate pain from arthritis, rheumatism, muscle tension, joint stiffness, menstruation, carpal tunnel syndrome, and various injuries. Its powerful anti-aging and skin rejuvenation properties have made it a popular ingredient in skincare and beauty products for thousands of years. Frankincense resin can be made into herbal oil infusions, salves, and other skincare items, or the essential oil can be diluted into a carrier oil for topical use.

Frankincense Benefits for the Lungs

Since biblical times, Frankincense has been widely used for its antibacterial and antiseptic properties. Many cultures burned Frankincense incense around the dead or in infirmaries during plagues to control the spread of disease. It has been utilized as incense and in teas to soothe respiratory conditions such as bronchitis, asthma, sinusitis, and laryngitis, helping to combat infections and aid the body's recovery.

Frankincense is also known as an expectorant, which is an herbal medicinal classification given to plants that help clear the airways of congestion and mucus. For this reason, Frankincense can help soothe coughs and relieve tightness in the chest. Local tribes in North Africa have historically used Frankincense as both tea and incense to combat respiratory infections, soothe sore throats, and boost the immune system. It has also been traditionally consumed as a tea for general health benefits and to promote healthy digestion.

Frankincense Benefits for Immunity

Due to its well-known immune-boosting properties, Frankincense has been the subject of numerous scientific studies investigating its anti-cancer effects. A recent scientific review found that the boswellic acids found inside Frankincense have anti-tumor effects and can help limit cancer growth. The study also noted the anti-inflammatory effect of Frankincense resin is helpful in cases of ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), bronchitis, and sinusitis [3]. So far, scientific studies suggest that Frankincense may be helpful for fighting brain tumors and leukemia, as well as breast, prostate, pancreatic, skin, and colon cancers [4] [5] [6]. (Note: Many of these scientific studies were done in test tubes or mice, and more research in humans is needed to confirm these findings.)

Safety & Contraindications

Before using Frankincense internally, it is generally recommended to consult with a healthcare practitioner, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, have allergies or are taking prescription medications. Always dilute an essential oil before topical use to avoid skin irritation. If any allergic reactions occur, stop usage. Refer to our Essential Oil Dilution Chart for more guidance.

Sustainability

Due to its popularity and worldwide use, many of the Boswellia tree species are struggling in the wild, and some are now threatened or even critically endangered. On top of overharvesting from world demand for Frankincense incense and essential oil, the trees face various threats due to climate change, grazing, insect attacks, improper harvesting practices, and other issues [7]. In recent years, local Frankincense cooperatives in Somalia have provided training to local harvesters on proper harvesting techniques and plant stewardship to help preserve the species.

Frankincense trees are culturally, economically, and ecologically important for both the local communities of Somalia, as well as the people worldwide who cherish this sacred incense resin. Supporting the eco-friendly, sustainable trade of this powerful and symbolic ancient incense helps preserve and protect the Boswellia tree species.

Experience Frankincense Incense

Our incense company, Higher Mind Incense, has partnered up with Somalia tribal cooperatives to bring you sustainably harvested and ethically sourced Frankincense resin (Boswellia carterii, B. neglecta, and B. rivae). These wild harvesters are trained in healthy caretaking of the trees and even help to expand their populations. 

The Boswellia carterii species of Frankincense is renowned for its bright, citrusy, & slightly piney scent with warm, honey-like undertones. Its resin pieces, typically golden-yellow to light amber, add a visually stunning element to any incense blend. They can also be incorporated into perfumes or other herbal preparations like infused oils & salves and are of course, simply divine when burned as incense & enjoyed on their own. 

Discover the soothing secrets of sustainable golden Frankincense resin today!

FRANKINCENSE

Latin Names: Boswellia carterii, B. sacra, B. frereana, B. serrata, B. thurifera, B. neglecta, B. dalzieli, B. papyrifera, B. rivae
Other Common Names: Olibanum, Oleo, Oliban, True Frankincense 
Genus: Boswellia
Plant Family: Burseraceae 
Parts Used: oleo-gum-resin 
Herbal Energetics and Actions: analgesic, anti-bacterial, anticatarrhal, anti-depressive, anti-infectious, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, astringent, calmative, carminative, cicatrisant, expectorant, immune tonic, nervine, sedative, stomachic, vulnerary  
Body Systems AffiliationS: nervous system, respiratory system, immune system, digestive system, muscular system, integumentary system (skin) 
Aroma: fresh, resinous, rich, balsamic, sweet, citrusy-pine, woody, slightly camphoraceous, warm-floral

References

1. Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. (2008). “Burning Incense is Psychoactive: New Class of Antidepressants Might be Right Under Our Noses.” Science Daily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080520110415.htm

2. Mojay, Gabriel. (1997). “Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit: Restoring Emotional and Mental Balance with Essential Oils.” Healing Arts Press. Rochester, Vermont. 

3. Al-Yasiry, A.R. & Kiczorowska, B. (2016). Frankincense – therapeutic properties. Postepy Hig Med Dosw. Jan 4;70:380-91. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27117114/

4. Hakkim, F.L., Bakshi, H.A., Khan, S., Nasef, M., Farzand, R., Sam, S., Rashan, L., Al-Baloshi, M.S., Abdo Hasson, S.S.A., Jabri, A.A., McCarron, P.A., & Tambuwala, M.M. (2019). Frankincense essential oil suppresses melanoma cancer through downregulation of Bcl-2/Bax cascade signaling and ameliorates heptotoxicity via phase I and II drug-metabolizing enzymes. Oncotarget. May 28;10(37):3472-3490. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6544398/

5. Yoo, Y.J., Huh, S.E., Kim, Y., & Jang, H.J. (2019). Anti-cancer Activity of Boswellia Carterii Extract Alters the Stress Functional Gene Expression in the Pancreatic Cancer Cell. BioChip J 13, 191–201. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13206-019-3210-y

6. Liu, Y.Q., Wang, S.K., Xu, Q.Q. et al. (2019). Acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic acid suppresses docetaxel-resistant prostate cancer cells in vitro and in vivo by blocking Akt and Stat3 signaling, thus suppressing chemoresistant stem cell-like properties. Acta Pharmacol Sin 40, 689–698. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41401-018-0157-9

7. Save Frankincense. (2020). Frankincense Decline. https://www.savefrankincense.org/frankincense-decline

Article Written By Melissa Szaro

© 2024 The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All rights reserved.

*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.

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