WHAT IS LUBAN? FRANKINCENSE ( BOSWELLIA CARTERII / SERRATA): FRANKINCENSE USES AND HISTORY
Frankincense is the dried gum of the frankincense tree, Boswellia carterii, or serrata, (the Indian frankincense tree).These are the main trees of the Boswellia genus used for their sweet-smelling gum which, when dried, pounded and burned makes incense as used by Hindus and the Roman Catholic church in their rituals. It was highly prized in the ancient world and was more valuable than gold. It is probably best known because the Three Wise Men or Magi, of Kings, took gold, frankincense and myrrh as gifts to the new-born Jesus. It seems that academics are now wondering if the ‘gold’ described in the Bible was in fact Balsam oil which was “more expensive than gold” in the ancient world. It would make sense if the baby had been presented with precious oil as well as the two other resins which were so valuable in the ancient world. It seems that balsam trees are now extinct though, so we may never discover the truth of the gift of ‘gold’ as given to Jesus.
As for the English word frankincense there is some debate surrounding its origins. It was believed to mean the incense of the Franks, and they were reputed to have taken it back to Europe with them after the crusades. It may mean pure kindling as franc means pure or abundant in Old French, and the Latin, incensus means to kindle or begin to burn.
It is and was native to Oman, Somalia and Yemen, and it is still cultivated in those countries today. It doesn’t need much soil to grow, is more of a large shrub than a tree, and grows out of marble rocks on the Somali coast. The frankincense tree-growing area in Wadi Dawkah and the remains of the caravan oasis of Sisr/ Wubar, with the affiliated ports of Khor Rori and Al-Baleed in Oman were very important trading posts and routes in the ancient and mediaeval world. The ports and oasis are outstanding examples of mediaeval fortified settlements in the Persian Gulf area and were listed by UNESCO in November 2000 and are on the World Heritage list.
The best frankincense is still said to come from Oman and Yemen .In 300 BC frankincense was much more valuable than gold (the metal) and it has been used for over 5000 years for spiritual healing. In ancient Egypt it was used in the embalming process, and was used in religious rituals especially in the worship of Ra the sun god and Utchat the sacred, primeval all-seeing eye that burned with judgment. The Egyptians imported the trees in 1480 BC in attempts to grow them in Egypt, but they didn’t flourish because of the rain, which they do not enjoy. They get their water from moisture in the air.
Frankincense was used in the homes of the ancient Greeks and Romans to perfume the air. The Assyrians and the Babylonians also used it in their religious ceremonies, and later it was adopted by the Jews, and of course the Roman Catholic Church. In ancient Rome, myrrh was 5 times, more expensive than frankincense, which was much more popular and used in religious and state ceremonies. Pliny mentions that frankincense was an antidote for hemlock but knowing that didn’t help Socrates.
In Iran in the 10th century Ibn Sina (Avicenna to Westerners) says that it was used for a variety of ailments including vomiting, diarrhoea, fever and tumours. In China today it is still used to treat leprosy, gonorrhea, and other illnesses. It is also used there as incense as it is elsewhere.
Like sandalwood its aroma has soothing properties and it is used to treat anxiety, paranoia, feelings of guilt and confusion and the grief of mourning. It contains sesquiterpenes which help stimulate the brain’s limbic system and the hypothalamus (which controls the release of some hormones into the body). These are the primitive parts of the brain which are associated with emotions. In Europe frankincense is being investigated to discover if it assists in bone growth.
It is mentioned in the Bible many times and this extract is from The Song of Solomon”:-
“Who is this coming up from the wilderness
Like palm-trees of smoke,
Perfumed with myrrh and frankincense?”
“Till the day doth break forth,
And the shadows have fled away,
I will get me unto the mountain of myrrh,
And unto the hill of frankincense.”
Herodotus who lived in the 5th century BC said this: -
Arabia is the only country which produces frankincense, myrrh, cassia and cinnamon…the trees bearing the frankincense are guarded by winged serpents of small size and various colours.”
But Herodotus loved a good tale and believed in the phoenix and other mythical beasts. We know that frankincense was traded in the Middle East at least since 1500 BC and then found its way to China, where it was first mentioned in 500 AD in the Mingyi Bielu (miscellaneous records of famous physicians) saying that it was used for mourning the dead. It was also mentioned in the Ebers papyrus dating from the 6th century BC in prescriptions and recipes for them.
It was and is used in Egypt as kohl, with women using the charred resin from frankincense to blacken their eyes. They also used it as a depilatory and make a paste from it and other ingredients to perfume their hands. It is also widely used in perfumes and in toiletries for men. The Roman Catholic Church use this recipe for their incense: - 10 ounces of frankincense, 4 ounces of benzoin and 1 ounce of storax chopped into small pieces, mixed together and burned.
Frankincense can be made into pastilles and chewed to sweeten the breath and an inhalation of the steam can be used to help bronchitis and laryngitis. It also has many other medical uses and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries to cure ulcerative colitis and asthma. In Arab nations it is chewed as a gum and if you suck on a granule of Olibanum it will relieve nausea. You can soak two or three small lumps of the resin in water, and then drink the strained liquid to help with stomach disorders, ulcers and inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. It has been used in folk medicine as a uterine tonic in pregnancy and during labour. However when ingested there might be side effects which can include diarrhoea, skin rashes and nausea, but this would only happen if you ingested a large quantity of frankincense. If you inhale the smoke, or just the perfume, you will be able to breathe more deeply and feel the claming benefits of the incense. It is said in a legend that God gave Adam gold, frankincense and myrrh as compensation for being kicked out of the Garden of Eden.
Modern medical research has found that “The evidence for the effectiveness of Boswellia serrata extracts is encouraging, but not compelling.” This means that Professor E Ernst was not prepared in 2008 to say definitely that frankincense is useful for treating asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, osteoporosis or collagenous colitis. However in the same year it was reported in the Arthritis Research and Therapy Journal that osteoarthritis sufferers’ pain decreased after 7 days of being treated with enriched extract of Olibanum or Frankincense. It probably can assist in the diseases it has been used for treating for centuries, but modern medical research has been slow to undertake trials to prove that it can work. They do say that it seems safe though, although it could make some people feel nauseous, and could cause a mild stomach upset.
It certainly smells good and can lift your mood, so buy a few incense sticks and waft them around your home this winter!