In the Christian tradition, the Magi or Three Wise Men traversed across the Israel-Pakistan border bearing precious gold, frankincense and myrrh, to greet the birth of Jesus Christ. Traditionally offerings to a king, myrrh commonly used for anointing and embalming, frankincense for perfume and gold for money, these precious gifts also possessed deep spiritual symbolism for mortality, god and man, respectively, or suffering, prayer and virtue, in the same order.
Evolve Asia explores the world of incense, specifically Frankincense and myrrh this December with a feature by Incense lover WS who takes us on an introduction to incense, what it is, how it is collected, its benefits and uses in the modern world. And now..
Early in the morning of the drought season, a resin collector scales a steep sandy slope and clambers towards a dried wizened tree. With his chisel-like blade, he makes a few shaving cuts into the reddish bark of the tree, and in a matter of minutes, tiny white beads of milky sap oozes out on the cut surface. The collector leaves the tree, and returns the next day. By then the sap would have oozed out sufficiently to form grape size globules, which is gummy in texture in its semi-dry state.
Both frankincense and myrrh are harvested this way throughout winter to early summer, tediously secreted by desert trees of the Boswellia and Commiphora species respectively. Since ancient times, these highly sought after resins, mainly produced in Yemen and Oman, travelled on camelback over thousands of miles across treacherous mountainous hot desert terrain, to be traded along the Silk road. The value of these resins then was worth its weight in gold, undoubtedly, very worthy gifts offered when three wise men from the east paid their reverence during Jesus’s birth.
Even till today, demand for these resins often out shadowed supply. The smoke of burning frankincense and myrrh, connects people to the divine. Frankincense when burnt, gives off a citrusy, sweet, light pine-like and mildly creamy smoke, whilst myrrh gives off a bitter and slightly more medicinal scent.
In ancient Egypt, the Pharoah offered frankincense to the gods in ritual processions. Temples of the Romans and Babylonians burnt frankincense in copious amounts to please their gods. During the reign of Augustus Caesar, the Romans were eying the lucrative frankincense trade, but fortunately large stretches of desert and unforgiving terrain between the Mediterranean and the frankincense producing countries prevent any possible invasion. Orthodox and Catholic churches have also been burning frankincense and myrrh as holy incenses since the time of Christ. In the frankincense and myrrh producing countries, typically both Yemen and Oman, desert tribes often burn these resins to dispel evil spirits and fumigating themselves with the smoke to cleanse themselves in purification rituals.
Apart from spiritual uses. frankincense and myrrh have excellent medicinal properties that have been utilized since early civilization. Frankincense is employed in the treatment of pains, arthritis, whilst myrrh is used to treat open wounds, sores, infections due to its analgesic and pain killing effects. In Chinese Medicine, frankincense and myrrh are essential components in many therapeutic prescriptions. When used together, these resins strongly augments each other’s effects in promoting blood circulation and the flow of “qi”, reducing blood stasis, dispersing of swellings, alleviation of inflammation, opening up the meridians, and relieving pain.
Modern research has further substantiated the beneficial properties of frankincense and myrrh. Published in FASEB in 2008, a collaboration between the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the John Hopkins University in the USA, presented data that demonstrated the ability of frankincense, particularly the component incensole acetate to relieve anxiety and depression. The compound is released into the air when frankincense is burnt, and when inhaled and transported by blood to the brain, was able to act on ion channels in the brain to achieve their therapeutic effects. In mice, myrrh have been shown to be strongly analgesic and provides pain relief. There is ongoing research on the use of these two resins in other human ailments such as cancer and chronic pain management as well.
In modern society, where stress levels are high, and many people having desk bound occupations, one can benefit from the use of frankincense and myrrh. These aromatic resins can be purchased online, or simply from any shop that dispenses Chinese medicine. To enjoy them, one can either burn them directly on a hot burning coal, or use them in an electric incense heater. Essential oils of these resins can also be easily obtained from many reputable essential oil companies for use in essential oil diffusers. But if that is deemed too inconvenient, Japanese incense companies, such as Shoyeido, Tennendo and Minorien makes excellent pure frankincense incense sticks.
Kyarazen/WS is an incense obsessed hobbyist based in Singapore engaged in the attempt to revive incense culture worldwide through his website www.kyarazen.com. His main interests revolve around fragrant woods such as agarwood, kynam, their authentication and appreciation with the alignment of incense culture and practices from Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese traditions."