We’ve all heard the adage that appearances can be deceiving, and this is particularly true in the case of frankincense. Despite resembling lumps of dried earwax, this precious material has been prized for thousands of years, and it still plays important roles in the world today.
Frankincense is the harvested resin of trees from the genus Boswellia, usually the Boswellia sacra native to the Horn of Africa and the southwestern Arabian Peninsula. It was long believed that this temperamental plant could not survive outside of its native region, making its resin a highly desirable commodity and the region’s rulers fabulously wealthy from its trade.
The word incense comes from the Latin “incendere”, meaning “to burn”, and the true value of frankincense becomes apparent when it is placed on the fire; the thick, curling tendrils of aromatic smoke have long been used to please the divine and to carry the prayers of the faithful to their deities. This practice crossed cultural boundaries and was used in a wide variety of religions:
*In the 15th century BCE, Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt organized a massive trading voyage to – among other things – obtain frankincense for use in her country’s temples.
*In some versions of her story, the Queen of Sheba is placed as a ruler on the incense trading route, and this precious resin was among the gifts she brought to King Solomon in Jerusalem.
*Prior to the rise of Christianity and the emergence of burials as the preferred method of dealing with the dead, frankincense was used to cleanse the deceased’s body and even burned on funeral pyres- the Roman emperor Nero allegedly used up an entire year’s supply of the stuff for the funeral of his wife Poppaea Sabina.
*Frankincense was one of the three gifts – along with gold and myrrh (another aromatic resin) – brought to the infant Christ, and the burning of frankincense still plays a part in certain Christian ceremonies today.
Outside of its more sacred uses, frankincense also had a practical function; the smoke was equally useful for clearing bad smells out of the air, a highly beneficial function in places where ventilation technology was primitive and hygiene was not optimal. A form of this practice is still alive today, as the oil of frankincense is used in the manufacture of certain aromatics and perfumes.