One Wise(man) Gift: Frankincense

As my family collapsed in the living room last night, stuffed and exhausted from a day of visiting and eating and eating and presents and more eating my father asked me a trivia question (which is how my family celebrates every and all holidays and gatherings): “Hey Sarah, what is another name for Boswellia?”

I was stumped. “I’ll give you a hint,” he told me, “it’s an herb…” And still, I had nothing.

So then he retreats to the kitchen and comes back with his bottle of Boswellia serrata – Frankincense. Who knew? Of course it was Christmas themed plant trivia.

Boswellia sacra

Boswellia sacra

Apparently, Frankincense is derived from many different species in the Boswellia genus, so different blends of extracts and powders come from different plants. But all of the Boswellia genus produces the aromatic resin and when the trunk is slashed or tapped (like the process of retrieving latex) the resin oozes out and hardens into nuggets of pure frankincense, called tears, after a few months.

Medicinally, it has been used for thousands of years for a variety of ailments such as arthritis, bronchitis, ulcers, vomiting and fevers. Mrs. M Greive (who wrote A Modern Herbal in 1931) states that Pliny considered it an antidote to Hemlock poisoning. My father takes is to ease joint pain and claims it has worked wonders for him, and he might be onto something as studies have shown it has the same effect on the body as modern NSAIDS.

It’s also really good to have around if you’ve offended your god of choice as they all seem to really go for burnt offerings of the stuff (see Exodus 30:34 and the Egyptian Book of the Dead to start).

The Kohl jar of Queen Hatshepsut

The Kohl jar of Queen Hatshepsut

More recently it was used to combat late stage Ovarian Cancer cells and it’s potency was resistance to the damaging effects of chemo. It will be exciting to watch that research develop into a potential treatment.

And of course the sexy tidbit you’ve all been waiting for: Kohl. The first recorded use of frankincense was by the Egyptian Queen Haptuchut who took the resin, charred it, and applied the blackened powder to her face. Her act caused the women of the 18th dynasty to embrace makeup for rituals of beauty and not just protection against insects and the evil eye. And makeup has never really fallen out of fashion since. Plus, she was badass – the first female Pharaoh of Egypt.

(Kohl jar photograph from the collection of the Met)

Finally, it seems that Frankincense is known to be an emmenagogue and abortificient, meaning it can stimulate blood flower in the uterus and can end pregnancy respectively. However, the jury seems to be out on the truth behind those claims and evidence is conflicting. I would suggest staying away from frankincense if you are pregnant and would like to continue to be, just in case. And if you don’t want to remain pregnant, well, there are better options out there, as well.

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