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Frankincense and Its Historical Development Essay

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Updated: Jul 9th, 2021

Myrrh and incense filled the carcass of a bull sacrificed to Isis in ancient Egypt. In honor of the sun god Ra in the same sunny city, Heliopolis, incense was lit three times a day: at dawn amber, at the time of the solar zenith – myrrh, at sunset – a complex mixture consisting of many ingredients, which included incense – kifi (Litke 311). The Periplus states “that incense was in use is sufficiently clear from the early ritual” (120). As in honor of the gods, on special occasions, incense was incensed in honor of the pharaohs. Incense and myrrh were used, including in embalming. The office Sebni said, “descended to Wawat and Uthek, and sent on the royal attendant Iri, with two others, bearing incense, clothing, one tusk, and one hide” (121).

Since ancient times, incense has been used in religious ceremonies. It was believed that it contributes to immersion in prayer and detachment from worldly problems and that it is the scent of meditation and immersion in the inner world. A person feels peace and tranquility with the assistance of the given plant (Mukherjee 109). Aromatherapists use not only the resin of incense but also the essential oil, which is a dense yellowish liquid with a resinous balsamic aroma. It is obtained by steam distillation from incense.

The Egyptians often mixed incense with oil of brown frankincense and rubbed the mixture to relieve pain in the extremities, and also included incense in rejuvenating masks. The Chinese considered it an effective remedy for scrofula and leprosy. Nowadays incense is used in the manufacture of perfumes as a fixative. (Schoff 119)

In the Bible, a substance called pure frankincense is incense in the modern sense. From the origins of Christianity, the smoking composition was four-component, where incense was one of the equal parts (Litke 291). Over time, the frankincense in the Christian church was called in one word which is incense. Thus, the name has become unifying for a large group of different substances and complex compositions.

The Romans used incense not only in religious ceremonies but also for state and household purposes. When making important government events incense was smoked: it was thought that its smell “opens” the soul. This is an important component of oriental incense and an anti-inflammatory component of medicines mentioned in the ancient texts of Ayurveda. Incense, sandalwood and myrrh are already mentioned in the Old Testament. Gold, frankincense and myrrh are described in the Bible as gifts of the Magi to Jesus (Mukherjee 101). Christianity has significantly increased the market for this incense, where it is widely used in religious ceremonies.

Ayurvedic texts recommended the Bosai “salai gugul” adhesive exudate for diseases and funerals (Mukherjee 97). The Periplus states “likewise in funerals were its virtues required” (124). In the first century, Pliny referred to incense as an antidote to hemlock. Pliny said, “it is the luxury which is displayed by man, even in the paraphernalia of death, that has rendered Arabia thus happy” (124). The gathering process was different from other incense plants.

Moreover, Pliny explained, “there is no country in the world that produces frankincense except Arabia, and indeed not the whole of that” (124). In China, incense was used in the treatment of leprosy. Holy Hildegarde Bingen used the plant for hearing loss. It was used in religious ceremonies in ancient Persia, Babylon, Greece, and Rome. Herodotus reported that the Arabs brought 1,000 talents of incense to Darius each year as a gift, which was used at religious festivals in Babylon.

Works Cited

Litke, Andrew W. “Following the Frankincense: Reassessing the Sitz im Leben of Targum Song of Songs”. Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha, vol. 27, no. 4, 2018, pp. 289-313.

Mukherjee, Rila. “Ambivalent engagements: The Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean world”. International Journal of Maritime History, vol. 29, no. 1, 2017, pp. 96-110.

Schoff, Wilfred H. The Periplus of The Erythrean Sea. Longmans, Green, and Co., 1912.

Wickramasinghe, Chandima S. M. “A Study of Anthropological and EthnographicalInformation in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea”. Indian Historical Review,vol. 45, no. 1, 2018, pp. 151-167.

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