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What is Frankincense?

By Bronwyn Harris
Updated May 16, 2024
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Frankincense gets much of its fame from the Biblical story in which the newborn baby Jesus receives gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Although many people are able to retell the story, surprisingly few are able to state what exactly this item is. Like myrrh, it is a dried tree sap, or resin, primarily used to make incense.

The deciduous tree Boswellia thurifera produces frankincense. Somalia, Oman, and Yemen are all known for having trees that produce this high-quality resin. In order to collect the sap, the tree bark is cut so that the sap to ooze out, and it is then collected after it dries on the tree. This procedure is repeated two or three times a year, and the resulting resin is opaque if it is of superior quality. The young trees produce higher-quality resin than the older ones.

In some parts of the world, this resin is known as olibanum, which comes from the Arabic word for "the milk," al-lubán. This is most likely referring to the milky color of the sap. In Exodus 30:34 in the Bible, it is referred to as levonah, which can mean "Lebanese" or "white" in Hebrew. In the Western world, the name "frankincense" is a more common term. This name is likely to have been derived from "the incense of the Franks" since it came to Europe via Frankish crusaders.

In the ancient world, this resin was generally used to make incense. It was used to perfume the homes of the ancient Greeks and Romans, while the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians used it in their religious rituals. Frankincense later became a part of Jewish rites, and even later, in the rites of the Catholic Church.

It has also been used throughout history for medicinal purposes. The resin was used in the first century as an antidote to hemlock poisoning. In Iran in the tenth century, it was thought to cure vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and tumors. In China, it is still used today to treat leprosy, gonorrhea, and other ailments.

Frankincense is mixed with spices, seeds, and other items to create the desired scent, and it is still used in incense in the Western world. The essential oil is used in aromatherapy, as some extol its stress-reducing powers. Perfumes may contain the oil, which evaporates slowly, maintaining its scent. The raw chunks of resin may also be directly set on a heat source, such as hot coals, to have the same incense experience as ancient peoples.

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Discussion Comments

By BoatHugger — On Nov 17, 2010

@momothree: Most people don’t realize that frankincense is historically a symbol of purification and sanctification. In a Catholic mass it may be used during the following: entrance procession, beginning of Mass, in order to incense the altar, the proclamation and procession of the Gospel, during the offertory to incense the offerings, altar, priest and people, and at the elevation of the Sacred Host and chalice of Precious Blood after the consecration.

The use of incense in a Catholic funeral Mass is used during the following: to honor the body of the deceased that became the temple of the Holy Spirit at Baptism and the faithful’s prayer for the deceased rising to God.

By momothree — On Nov 17, 2010

How is Frankincense used in the Catholic Church?

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