The Three Kings, or Magi, brought gold frankincense and myrrh to baby Jesus. That gold is valuable is obvious, but what are frankincense and myrrh, and why would they be such valuable gifts? First: frankincense.
What is Frankincense?
Frankincense is a resin that comes from the frankincense tree (Boswellia carteri). The tree is native to North Africa and some areas of the Middle East. When the bark of the tree gets damaged, drops of resin trickle out. The resin has been used for thousands of years as incense, in cosmetics and in perfumes, and it is also used to produce frankincense essential oil. The word frankincense is thought to come from Medieval French and means “real incense.”
The ancient Egyptians burned frankincense during important ceremonies. They used it cosmetics, in perfumes and in medicine, and they also used it for embalming. Jars containing ointments and pastes have been found inside Egyptian pyramids with the contents of the jar still intact after thousands of years, and the scent of frankincense (and some other resins) has been strong enough to be recognised. The Egyptians bought their frankincense from the Phoenicians, and it was very expensive. The gift of frankincense to the baby Jesus was a valuable offering.
Frankincense is a popular ingredient in incense. It is burned in churches and in temples, and it is made into incense sticks. In the past, the smoke from frankincense was believed to drive out evil spirits. One of its main benefits, however, is its ability to slow down breath. This is why frankincense or incense sticks made of frankincense are often burned during prayer and meditation.
Frankincense Essential Oil
In aromatherapy, frankincense essential oil is used to relieve problems in the respiratory system, such as coughs, bronchitis and asthma. It can be added to steam inhalations (although steam may not be suitable in asthma) and it can be made into a chest rub. Because it helps to deepen and slow down the breath, frankincense has a calming effect on the mind and the emotions. It is an excellent oil to use during stressful times. Burn it in an essential oil burner or put a drop on a handkerchief and inhale the scent. Frankincense oil blends very well with orange essential oil, and you only need a drop or two to enjoy the scent and its benefits.
Frankincense essential oil is also valuable in skin care. It can tone the skin and is especially useful for older skin. As it is believed to help to prevent wrinkles, it is added to many anti-aging creams. If you are going to use frankincense in skin care, make sure you buy a cream or an oil that contains actual frankincense essential oil and not a synthetic imitation (such as “nature-identical” oils). Alternatively buy quality frankincense oil from a reputable aromatherapy supplier (such as the Tisserand Frankincense Essential Oil) and make your own creams.
Patricia Davis: Aromatherapy: an A-Z (Random House, UK, 2004)
Frankincense photo: Liz Lawley (Wikimedia Commons)