FRANKINCENSE – The traveler, the pilgrim on the Way of Life…

by Jessica North-O’Connell

While it is perhaps an understatement to say that I am in love with scent – a useful quality in an aromatherapist! – I have to say that I certainly have my favorites, and Frankincense (Boswellia carteri) is certainly at the top of my list, along with Rose and a small selection of others. The smell of Frankincense is “home” to me – it “makes my heart glad” – and I’m passionate about it; its myriad uses to keep it in its premier place in my healer’s accouterments.

So, with such a dedication to this amazing essential oil, I thought I might share some of its fascinating story with you.

Having one of the longest recorded histories of all fragrances, Frankincense was highly prized in the ancient world, five times more in demand than Myrrh, another valuable and much sought-after resin.

The tree which produces Frankincense is native to the Middle East, India and northeast Africa, especially Somalia and Ethiopia. It is described as a small tree or bush with pinnate leaves and flowers of pale pink or white. The oleo gum resin is harvested by cutting a deep incision in the tree trunk and peeling away a five-inch piece of bark to allow the sap, a milky juice, to dry in the air. The incision is then deepened to allow more resin to accumulate. Gathering season is from May through September. The larger globules are considered the best quality, with greater surface area to allow for the volatilization of the essential oil.


Also known as Olibanum, Frankincense was widely used in antiquity. The Egyptians used it in their religious ceremonies, two of which were the worship of the Sun-god Ra and the daily sunset rituals, the resin being an important ingredient in the Temple incense known as Kyphi[ii].  People used the charred gum, a black powder called ‘khol’, for the cosmetic purpose of painting the eyelids, which also protected their eyes from infection and helped to minimize the effects of the sun’s glare.[iii]

Later Frankincense was adapted to sacramental use among the Hebrews, said to be one of four substances used in making holy oil, along with Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), Galbanum (Ferula galbaniflua) and Onycha (Styrax benzoin). The Bible mentions Frankincense twenty-two times, and also indicates that the Hebrews traded other aromatic plants, which they gathered while wandering during the Diaspora, in exchange for it. According to legend, it was among the original “Christmas gifts,” being offered to the Christ child at his birth by one of the three Magi, along with Gold and Myrrh – a gift fit for a king, as precious as gold. Frankincense is still widely used in the present-day Catholic Church Mass.

According to Herodotus (Greek historian, 5th Century, B.C.E.), it was burned on the altar at the Tower of Babel, a temple constructed at the city of Shinar (Babylon) by Noah’s descendants. The Babylonians reputedly burned 57,200 pounds of Frankincense every year; the Assyrian annual feast of Baal used approximately 60 tons[iv], though at one time all herbs burned as incense were called “Frankincense,” so it is more likely that this was the case in these instances.

Frankincense was also burned on the Greek altars of Zeus and Demeter at Eleutherae, having been imported to the city-states by the Phoenicians during the time of the Macedonian king, Alexander the Great, according to Theophrastus (370-285 B.C.E.). The Roman Emperor Nero was said to have burned all the Frankincense produced that year in Arabia at the funeral of his wife Sabina Poppae in 65 C.E.

It was carried by caravan and ship along the Incense Road from Yemen on the southwestern peninsula of Arabia, where the best resin was produced. Because the Frankincense trade was so profitable, some of the powerful governments of the time sought to monopolize the market, thus provoking wars. There is a story about the Somalian Queen of Sabah herself traveling the 1,200-mile road along the Red Sea to protect her trade route and to appease the Israeli King Solomon, around 1000 B.C.E.

The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 C.E.) and Avicenna, the Arabian physician, philosopher and inventor (980-1037), were both knowledgeable about the medicinal properties and uses of Frankincense, as were the Chinese and Southeast Asians, who employed it in Ayurvedic medicine, the world’s oldest continuous form of medical practice. According to biochemist Richard Alan Miller and his wife Iona, “[Frankincense]…has been proven devoid of active medicinal properties….”[v] And Susanne Fischer-Rizzi admits “…little is known today about the uses and benefits of frankincense…”[vi] presumably in comparison to what our forbears knew, though she goes on to say: “Frankincense and many other herbs burned as incense have very strong disinfectant properties, something important, since when people gather in temples and churches the dangers of contracting infectious diseases are quite real….” In antiquity, Frankincense was indeed used to fumigate the sick and to drive away the offending spirit of illness.

Image by ProFlowers


The production and distillation of essential oils pre-date information we have about Avicenna’s refinement of the distillation process through his invention of the refrigerated coil. In 1975, an archeological expedition to research the early civilization of the Indus Valley (modern-day Pakistan) unearthed a perfectly preserved terracotta distillation device and vessels used for oil containment dated circa 3000 B.C.E.

The religious and medicinal uses of Frankincense in no way restricted its employment in the perfume and cosmetics industry, however; its characteristic bouquet is described as balsamic, spicy, woody with a lemony top note blending well with many scents and making it a good fixative in perfumes. It is used in the manufacture of fragrances for both genders.

The oil of Olibanum, another name for Frankincense, is extracted from the resin through a variety of methods for different purposes. Olibanum resinoid, which is benzene-extracted using either a hot or cold process, yields an almost solid substance which is reddish brown, dark amber or orange in color. The resinoid extracted using a petroleum ether is lighter, though not easily poured, requiring the addition of a plasticizer. It is used as a fixative in perfumery, especially in floral, spicy, woody, powdery, aldehydic, citrus, and oriental blends. Olibanum Absolute is created using alcohol extraction. Those which are commercially available are usually tinctures of Olibanum which are unfiltered and therefore more difficult to use, as the inclusions are insoluble. It is also used in some food products, the production of incense and in some pharmaceuticals such as throat lozenges and liniments.

Olibanum essential oil used in Aromatherapy is steam-distilled from the oleo gum resin, yielding an oil which is pale yellow or pale greenish-yellow, the principal constituents of which are mainly monoterpene hydrocarbons: pinene, octyl acetate, dippentenen, limonene, octanol, thujone, phellandrene, cymene, myrcene, terpinene, incensole and others.

Frankincense essential oil is used to bolster the immune system against colds, flu and some forms of cancer [vii]and for respiratory conditions, (asthma, bronchitis, catarrh, coughs, laryngitis, sinusitis); genito-urinary and reproductive system conditions (cystitis, dysmenorrheal, leucorrhea, metrorrhagia, PMS); digestive disorders (chronic diarrhea, dyspepsia, eructation, stomach upset); the nervous system (anxiety, stress, nervous-tension, anti-depressive); muscular & skeletal system (rheumatism); cardio-vascular & lymphatic system (varicose ulcer, hemorrhoids) and for skin care (blemishes, dry/mature skin, wrinkles, wounds, scars, inflammation). It is used in diffusers and inhalers, skin care preparations such as facial masks and bath, body/massage oils.

Its properties are listed as anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, astringent, carminative, cicatrizant, cytophylactic, digestive, diuretic, emmenagogic, expectorant, sedative, tonic/general, tonic/uterine-specific and vulnerary.

Oriental medicine considers this essential oil to be Yang in nature, implying that Frankincense is supportive of the intellectual, out-going, joyous, confidence-inspiring and energizing aspect. It has a warming and balancing effect upon the emotions and a drying and cooling energy. It is associated with the formative/concretizing Earth element and secondarily with the interactive and dynamic exchange characteristic of the Metal element. Chinese medicine practitioners have prescribed it in the treatment of leprosy.

Ayurvedic medicine also uses Frankincense to anoint the dead and dying, so as to assist with the soul’s transition while keeping the soul connected to the Divine essence, and to support the sixth charka, (to clarify one’s perception and assist in the development of clairvoyance). It is also used to balance the Doshas[viii], reducing Vata (e.g., spaciness, light-headedness) and increasing Pitta (e.g., passion, physical energy).

Image by Luz


The Western Magical Tradition considers Frankincense to be ruled by the Sun and to be representative of Fire and/or Air elements. It is associated with the Qabala Sephira 6 (Tiphareth, the solar center on the Asherah, or Tree of Life) and Path 19, represented by the Strength (Leo) card in the Tarot, again showing a solar influence. It is used in clairvoyance, consecration, contacting other planes of existence, divination, exorcism, to increase luck and the power of spells, to invite inspiration, to release fear of progress, to attain knowledge, magic, psychic development, meditation, growth and protection,  to break spells, to clear away emotional debris, to support transformation, for rejuvenation of the spirit, to realignment with one’s values, as well as for the attainment of wisdom and success. Archangels associated with Frankincense include Chamuel, Gabriel, Iophiel, Michael, Raphael, Raziel, Uriel, Tzadiel and the Metatron.

“Frankincense has, among its physical properties, the ability to slow down and deepen the breath….which is very conducive to prayer and meditation.[ix]

Interestingly, a discovery made in 1981 by members of Leipzig, Germany’s Academy of Science found that Frankincense, when burned, produces trahydrocannabinole, a psychoactive substance which expands the subconscious. Dr. Michael Stoddard, an Australian scientist, found a substance in Frankincense resembling sex hormones which, according to Stoddard,  stimulates sexual and ecstatic capacities in humans.[x]. The psychoactive state coupled with the sublimated sexual drive, which often occurs in traditional religious rituals, may truly enable participants to experience a communion with Spirit, which practitioners of ceremonial magic have long acknowledged.

As always, do not presume that this essential oil is “harmless.” The same caveats pertain here as to all other essential oils, so please proceed with the usual cautions: there are ingestible Boswellia extracts, so do not ingest the essential oil; do not apply neat on the skin (I recently “burned” myself with a single drop).

And enjoy!

[i]               Maureen Farrell, cited in Valerie Ann Worwood, “The Fragrant Mind” p 310.

[ii]               Susanne Fischer-Rizzi, in Complete Aromatherapy Handbook: Essential Oils for Radiant Health, says that Kyphi, an incense which is still in use today, “…was said to remove the worries of the day, relax and calm any fears or anxieties and bring sweet dreams….This incense mixture became so famous that when Greeks and Romans later created and marketed the first commercial perfume, they named it Kyphi,” p.233. Marcel Lavabre, in Aromatherapy  Workbook, states “Kephi…was an antiseptic, a balsamic, and a tranquilizer that could be taken internally…..” p.3


[iv]              Susanne Fischer-Rizzi, p. 230

[v]               Richard Alan Miller and Iona Miller, The Magical and Ritual Uses of Perfumes, p.59

[vi]              Susanne Fischer-Rizzi, p. 231

[vii]             Robert Tisserand, Frankincense and Cancer in Perspective

[viii]             A dosha (Sanskrit) literally, “a thing which can go wrong,” is the manifestation of Prana or life force within the body. There are three doshas and seven sub-doshas, each representing a constitutional type.

[ix]              D. Hoffman, The New Holistic Herbal, cited in Julia Lawless The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, p. 97

[x]               Dr. Michael Stoddard is a zoologist whose main area of focus is scent:

See also:

Jessica North-O’Connell is founding Priestess of Faerie Mound Mystery School and Great Goddess Alive! Alchemical Arts & Services. She has been a practicing aromatherapist for 20 years, a Reiki and Soul Realignment practitioner, as well as a Tarot and Rune reader. She offers classes and programs and has aspirations of opening a Retreat center for creative recovery. Find her at and