Frankincense oil, derived from the French ‘franc encens’, literally ‘high-quality incense’, has a long and rich history that goes far beyond being one of the three gifts given to Jesus at his birth as depicted in the Bible. To start, it is not an essential oil at all. It is a resin, tapped from many difference species of the genus Boswellia. The resin ‘tears’ are collected from the trees several times a year, with the last tapping considered to be of the highest quality due to its depth of scent having had time to develop over the summer. The oil form can be derived from this resin through a process of steam distillation. While the resin in considered to have a somewhat earthier scent, the oils are known to be much fresher in their odor. When picking which form to use, either resin or oil, the subtle differences in their respective scents are something to take into account. Depending on your preferred use, ‘earthy’ might be considered superior to ‘fresh’, or vice versa.
Much like the Silk Road of trade connecting Europe and Asia, frankincense had its own highly developed trade routes throughout the ancient world. The center of trade for this resin was in the Arabian Peninsula and Northern Africa, where the trees grow best despite often hostile environmental conditions (a certain species of the tree has been known to take root in solid rock).
Despite—or perhaps because—of its obviously important associated with the birth of Jesus, the Holy Roman Catholic Church banned the burning of frankincense in public services in the early years of the church. Trade and use of the resin/oil declined remarkably in Europe until it was reintroduced during the Crusades by Frankish crusaders (hence its popular name, frankincense). Its use is shown to be integral to the early peoples in the Bible; it was thought to be synonymous with one of the sacred names of God, it was one of the key ingredients in the mix of oils/resins used to scent the sanctuary of the temple in Jerusalem, and was thought to be an emblem of prayer and devotion.
Frankincense was used for many intensely spiritual and religious purposes far beyond that of within the bounds of early Christianity; depictions of its use and trade are found in many old tombs and temples in Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula, including a temple dedicated to the ancient Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut. It was also used for a variety of medical purposes; an aide to digestion, skin care, female hormone regulation, arthritis, wound healing, and purification of the air.
Today, several detailed medical studies have been established to show scientific evidence one way or another of the true medical uses of frankincense; while the results of these studies are still pending, frankincense is still a popular choice for use in oil nebulizers to treat asthma and arthritis, or aide in prayers and meditations. There have been no shown ill effects of using the resin in this way.