1902 Encyclopedia > Frankincense


FRANKINCENSE,1 or OLIBANUM (Gr., _____ ,later ____ ; Lat, tus or thus; Heb., _____ AT., ______ ; Turk., ghyunluk; Hind., ganda-birosa ), a gum-resin obtained from certain species of trees of the genus Boswellia, and natural order Burseracece. The members of the genus are pos-sessed of the following characters :—Bark often papyrace-ous ; leaves deciduous, compound, alternate, and impari-pinnate, with leaflets serrate or entire; flowers in racemes or panicles, white, green, yellowish, or pink, having a small persistent, 5-dentate calyx, 5 petals, 10 stamens, a sessile 3 to 5-cham-bered ovary, a long style, and a 3-lobed stigma; fruit trigonal or pentagonal, and seed compressed. Dr George Birdwood (Trans. Lin. Soc., xxvii., 1871) distinguishes five species of Boswellia :—(A) B. thurifera, Colebr. (B. glabra and B. serrata, Roxb.), indigenous to the moun-tainous tracts of central India and the Coromandel coast, and B. papyrifera (Plósslea floribunda, Endl.) of Abyssinia, which, though both thuriferous, are not known to yield any of the olibanum of commerce; and (B) B. Frereana (see ELEMI, vol. viii. p. 122), B. Bhau-Dajiana, and B. Carterii, the "Yegaar," "Mohr Add," and "Mohr Madow" of the Somali country, in East Africa, the last species including a variety, the " Maghrayt d'Sheehaz " of Hadramaut, Arabia, all of which are sources of true frankincense, or olibanum. The trees on the coast of Adel are described by Captain G. B. Kempthorne as growing, without soil, out of polished marble rocks, to which they are attached by a thick oval mass of substance resembling a mixture of lime and mortar : the purer the marble the finer appears to be the growth of the tree. The young trees, he states, furnish the most valuable gum, the older yielding merely a clear glutinous fluid resembling copal varnish. To obtain the frankincense a deep incision is made in the trunk of the tree, and below it a narrow strip of bark five inches in length is peeled off. When the milk-like juice ("spuma pinguis," Pliny) which exudes has hardened by exposure to the atmosphere, the incision is deepened. In about three months the resin has attained the required degree of consistency. The season for gathering lasts from May until the first rains in September. The large clear globules are scraped off into baskets, and the inferior quality that has run down the tree is collected separately. The coast of South Arabia is yearly visited by parties of Somalis, who pay the Arabs for the privilege of collecting frankincense. In the interior of the country about the plain of Dhofar, during the south-west monsoon, frankincense and other gums are gathered by the Beni Gurrah Bedouins, and might be obtained by them in much larger quantities; their lawlessness, however, and the lack of a safe place of exchange or sale are obstacles to the development of trade, (See C. Y. Ward, The Gulf of 'Aden Pilot, p. 117, 1863.) Much as formerly in the region of Sakbalites in Arabia (the tract between Ras Makalla and Ras Agab), described by Arrian, so now on the sea-coast of the Somali country, the frankincense when collected is stored in heaps at various stations. Thence, packed in sheep and goat-skins, in quantities of 20 to 40 lb, it is carried on camels to Berbera, for shipment either to Aden, Makalla, and other Arabian ports, or directly to Bombay.10 At Bombay, like gum-acacia, it is assorted, and is then packed for re-exporta-tion to Europe, China, and elsewhere. Arrian relates that it was an import of Barbarike on the Sinthus (Indus). The idea held by several writers, including Niebuhr, that frank-incense was a product of India, would seem to have origin-ated in a confusion of that drug with benzoin and other odoriferous substances, and also in the sale of imported frankincense with the native products of India. The gum resin of Boswellia thurifera was described by Colebrooke (in Asiaticlc Researches, ix. 381), and after him by Dr J. Fleming (lb., xi. 158), as true frankincense, or olibanum; from this, however, it differs in its softness, and tendency to melt into a mass12 (Birdwood, loc. cit., p. 146). It is sold in the village bazaars of Khandeish in India under the name of Dup-Salai, i.e., incense of the "Salai tree"; and according to Mr F. Porter Smith, M.B. (Contrib. towards the Mat. Med. and Nat. Hist, of China, p. 162, Shanghai, 1871), is used as incense in China. The last authority also mentions olibanum as a reputed natural product of China. Bernhard von Breydenbach,13 Ausonius, Floras, and others, arguing, it would seem, from its Hebrew and Greek names, concluded that olibanum came from Mount Lebanon; and Chardin (Voyage en Perse, &c, 1711) makes

the statement that the frankincense-tree grows in the mountains of Persia, particularly Caramania.
That frankincense, or olibanum, was in ancient times, as now, of West-Asiatic origin there is abundant evidence in the writings of classical authors. It was Sabaean incense that was burnt on the altar of Venus at Paphos (Virg., J2n., i. 416; cf. Georg., ii. 117), and Arabia and the land of Thus were synonymous (cf. Plautus, Trinummus, iv. 2. 89, and Pcemdus, v. 4. 6). Herodotus (iii. 107) and Pliny (loc. cit.) speak of Arabia as the only country that yields frankincense; Strabo (xvi. 4) and Arrian more correctly mention it as an export also of the neighbouring African coast. According to Diodorus Siculus (v. 41), the " Holy Island," at the furthest point of Arabia Felix, the habitation of the Panchaeaus, was the source of frankincense.
In the Scriptures " incense," or frankincense, is noticed as forming part of the merchandise of the Sabseans (Heb. Shebaiim), who inhabited Sheba or Arabia Felix (cf. Is. Ix, 6, Jer. vi. 20, and 1 Kings x. 10). Theophrastus (Opera, ix. 4., ed. F. Wimmer, p. 143) relates that with other spices it was produced by the regions of Arabia about Saba, Adra-myta, Citibsena, and Mamali, and after transportation to the Sabsean temple of the sun was purchased by mer-chants who came thither.
The libanotophorous region of the ancients is defined by Carter (J. Bombay Br. R. Asiatic Soc, ii. p. 387, 1847) as extending between the Sabhan Mountains, in 17° 30' N. lat. and 55° 23' E. long., and the town of Damkote, in the bay of Alkammar, in 52° 47' E. long. The trees there are congregated in two distinct localities—on the Nejclee or high land, two days' journey from the sea-shore, and on the Sahil or plain on the coast. Its ancient evil reputation as a land of fogs and dark atmosphere, where slaves, as a punishment, collected the frankincense (Vincent's Voyage of Nearchus, fee, p. 89, Oxf., 1809), and where the trees that afforded that substance were infested with winged ser-pents of various colours, which could be driven away only by the smoke of storax (Herod., iii. 107), was not impro-bably due to the fertile imaginations of Arabian spice-mono-polists. By their trade in frankincense and other aromatics the SabiBans and Gerrhaai, we are informed by Strabo, be-came the richest of all the Arabian tribes; and it was doubtless from their emporium at Petra that these, with other articles of commerce, were by caravan conveyed into Egypt and Canaan by the Edomites, Idumaaans, or, as they came to be called, Nabataeans, and into the Mediterranean coast-regions by the Phoenician Arabs. (See Dr G. Bird-wood's Handbook to the British Indian Section, Paris Uni-versal Exhibition of 1878, Lond. and Par., 1878, p. 32.) In what is believed to have been the early part of the 15th century B.C. (see EGYPT, vol. vii. p. 737), the ships of the Egyptian queen Hatasu, or Hatshepu, made an expedition to Pun or Punt (held by Professor Diimichen to be the countries on the Arabian coast of the Bed Sea where the Phoenicians were established before they settled on the shores of the Mediterranean), and thence brought to Thebes, together with ivory, gold, silver, dog-faced baboons, leopard-skins, and other of the " magnificent products of Pun," not only incense-resin, but 31 incense-trees, planted in tubs, from the " mountains of the barbarians."

From the frequent employment of frankincense in the sacrifices of the ancients, shown by numerous passages in their prose and poetic writings, it is evident that the trade in that substance must formerly have been very extensive.

A tribute of no less than a thousand talents' weight of it was brought to Darius every year by the Arabs, and the same quantity was yearly burnt by the Chaldseans on their great altar to Bel at Babylon (Herodotus, iii. 97, i. 183). From the spoils of Gaza, in Syria, 500 talents' weight of frankincense was sent by Alexander the Great to Leonidas (see Plutarch's Lives). It was in olden times accounted one of the most valuable of the products of the East. Ten talents' weight of it was one of the precious gifts sent by Seleucus II., king of Syria, and his brother Antiochus Hierax, king of Cilicia, to the temple of Apollo at Miletus, 243 B.C.; and gold, frankincense, and myrrh were pre-sented by the magi from the East to the infant Saviour (Matt. ii.

II). Later, in the time of St Silvester (314-335 A.D.), we find 100 pounds of " aromatum in incensum," or frankincense, mentioned among the costly offerings made by the emperor Constantine in the basilica of St Marcellinus and St Peter at Rome.

4 B. Chishull, Antiquitates Asiaticce Christianam ASram Antece-dentes, p. 65-72, Lond., 1728, fob

5 According to an old Persian legend, and other traditions, the gold signified the kingship, the frankincense the divinity, the myrrh the healing powers of the child. See H. Yule, The Booke of Ser Marco Polo, vol. i. pp. 73-78, 1871.

Frankincense, or olibanum, occurs in commerce in semi-opaque, round, ovate, or oblong tears or irregular lumps, which are covered externally with a white dust, the result of their friction against one another. It has an amorphous internal structure, a dull fracture; is of a yellow to yellowish-brown hue, the purer varieties being almost colourless, or possessing a greenish tinge; and has a somewhat bitter-aromatic taste, and a balsamic odour, which is developed by heating. Immersed in alcohol it becomes opaque, and with water it yields an emulsion. It contains about 72 per cent, of resin soluble in alcohol (Kurbatow); a large proportion of gum soluble in water, and apparently identical with gum-arabic ; and a small quantity of a colourless inflammable essential oil, one of the constituents of which is the body oliben, C10H1S. Frankincense burns with a bright white flame, leaving an ash consisting mainly of calcium carbonate, the remainder being calcium phosphate, and the sulphate, chloride, and carbonate of potassium (Braconnot). Good frankincense, Pliny tells us, is recognized by its whiteness, size, brittleness, and ready inflammability. That which occurs in globular drops is, he says, termed " male frank-incense ;" the most esteemed, he further remarks, is in breast-shaped drops, formed each by the union of two tears. The best frankincense, as we learn from Arrian, was for-merly exported from the neighbourhood of Cape Elephant in Africa (the modern Ras Fiel); and A. von Kremer, in his description of the commerce of the Bed Sea (JEgypten, &c, p. 185, ii. Theil, Leipzig, 1863), observes that the African frankincense, called by the Arabs " asli," is of twice the value of the Arabian "luban." Captain S. B. Miles (loc. cit, p. 64) states that the best kind of frank-incense, known to the Somali as " bedwi" or " sheheri," comes from the trees "Molir Add" and " Mohr Madow" (vide supra), and from a taller species of Boswellia, the "Boido," and is sent to Bombay for exportation to Europe; and that an inferior " mayeti," the produce of the

"Yegaar," is exported chiefly to Jeddah and Yemen ports. The latter may possibly be what Niebuhr alludes to as " Indian frankincense." * Garcias da Horta, in asserting the Arabian origin of the drug, remarks that the term "Indian" is often applied by the Arabs to a dark-coloured variety.

According to Pliny (Nat. Hist, xiv. 1; cf. Ovid, Fast i. 337 sq.), frankincense was not sacrificially employed in Trojan times. It was used by the ancient Egyptians in their religious rites, but, as Herodotus tells us (ii. 86), not in embalming. It constituted a fourth part of the Jewish incense of the sanctuary (Ex. xxx. 34), and is frequently mentioned in the Pentateuch. With other spices it was stored in a great chamber of the house of God at Jerusalem (1 Chron. ix. 29, Neh. xiii. 5-9). On the sacrificial use and import of frankincense and similar substances see INCENSE.

In the Red Sea regions frankincense is valued not only for its sweet odour when burnt, but as a masticatory; and blazing lumps of it are not infrequently used for illumina-tion instead of oil lamps. Its fumes are an excellent insec-tifuge. As a medicine it was in former times in high re-pute. Pliny (Nat. Hist, xxv. 82) mentions it as an anti-dote to hemlock. Avicenna (ed. Plempii, lib ii. p 161, Lovanii, 1658, fol.) recommends it for tumours, ulcers of the head and ears, affections of the breast, vomiting, dysentery, and fevers. Dr Delioux of Toulon (Bull. Gen. de Therap., Feb 28, 1861) considers its curative properties equal to those of other balsamic medicines, and that for cheapness it is preferable for hospital use to the balsams of Peru and Tolu, and, being more agreeable to the stomach, to tar, As a fumigating agent, he advocates its employment in bronchitis and chronic laryngitis. In the East frankincense has been found efficacious as an external application in carbuncles, blind boils, and gangrenous sores, and as an internal agent is given in gonorrhoea. In China it was an old internal remedy for leprosy and struma, and is accredited with stimulant, tonic, sedative, astringent, and vulnerary proper-ties. Its stimulant action appears to be directed chiefly to the mucous surfaces of the body. (See Waring, Pharm. of India, p. 443, &c.; and F. Porter Smith, op. at, p. 162.)

Common Frankincense or Thus, Abietis resina, is the term applied to a resin which exudes from fissures in the bark of the Norway spruce fir, Abies excelsa, DC; when melted in hot water and strained it constitutes " Burgundy pitch," Pix abietina. The concreted turpentine obtained in the United States by making incisions in the trunk of a species of pine, Pinus australis, is also so designated. It is commercially known as "scrape," and is similar to the French " galipot" or " barras." Common frankincense is an ingredient in some ointments and plasters, and on account of its pleasant odour when burned has been used in incense as a substitute for olibanum. (See Fluckiger and Hanbury, Pharmacographia.) The "black frankincense oil" of the Turks is stated by Hanbury (Science Papers, p. 142, 1876) to be liquid storax. (F. H. B,)


Stephen Skinner, M.D. (Etymologicon Linguce Anglicance, Loud., 1671), gives the derivation: "Frankincense, Thus, q.d. Incensum (i.e.) Thus Libere seu Liberaliter, ut in sacris officiis par est, adolendum."

3 So designated from its whiteness (J. G. Stuckius, Sacror. et Sacrifw. Gent. Descrip., p. 79, Lugd. Bat., 1695, fob; Kitto, Cycl. Bibl. Lit, ii. p. 806, 1870): cf. Laben, the Somali name for cream (R. F. Burton, First Footsteps in E. Africa, p. 178, 1856).

"Sic olibanum dixere pro thure ex Graco b AiRavos" (Salmasius, C. S. Pliniance Exercitationes, t. ii. p. 926, b. F., Traj. ad Rhen., 1689, fob). So also Fuchs (Op. Didact., pars. ii. p. 42, 1604, fob), " Officinis non sine risu eruditorum, Graco artieulo adjecto, Olibanus vocatur." The term olibano was used in ecclesiastical Latin as early as the pontificate of Benedict IX., in the 11th century. (See Ferd. Ughellus, ItaliaSacra, torn. i. 108, D., Ven., 1717, fob)
Written Louan by Garcias da Horta (Aromat. et Simpl. Medica-
ment. Hist., O. Clusii Atrebatis Exoticorum Lib. Sept., p. 157, 1605, fob), and stated to have been derived by the Arabs from the Greek name, the term less commonly used by them being Conder: cf. Sanskrit Kunda. According to Colebrooke (in Asiatich Res., ix.
p. 379, 1807), the Hindu writers on Materia Medica use for the resin
of Boswellia thurifera the designation Cunduru.
A term applied also to the resinous exudation of Pinus longifolia
(see Dr E. J. Waring, Pharmacopoeia of India, p. 52, Lond., 1868.
Peieira, Elem. of Mat. Med., ii. pt. 2, p. 380, 4th ed., 1847.
12 " Boswellia thurifera," .... says Waring (Pharm. of India, p. 52), " has been thought to yield East Indian olibanum, but there is no reliable evidence of its so doing."
13 " Libanus igitur est mons redolentie & summe aromaticitatis. nam ibi herbe odorifere crescunt. ibi etiam arbores thurifere coalescunt. qiiarum gummi electum olibanum a medicis nuncupatur."—Perigrv natio, p. 53, 1502, fol.

B. Chishull, Antiquitates Asiaticce Christianam ASram Antece-dentes, p. 65-72, Lond., 1728, fob
5 According to an old Persian legend, and other traditions, the gold signified the kingship, the frankincense the divinity, the myrrh the healing powers of the child. See H. Yule, The Boole of Ser Marco Polo, vol. i. pp. 73-78, 1871.

Of. Theophrastus (op. ext., p. 144): TO jaeV iv T$ ion rh 8' in reus iSiats yeoipyiais inrb T'hv inrc&peiai/."
Cf. King Solomon's imports in the ships of the Phoenician city of Tarsus or Tarshish (2 Chron. ix. 21).
See Dr J. Diimichen, Tlie Fleet of an Egyptian Queen, &c.,
translated by Anna Diimichen, plates ii., iii. xv., xvii.-xix., Leipzig

Vignolius, Liber Pontificalis, t. i. p. 101, Roniffl, 1724, 4to.
Vignolius, Liber Pontificalis, t. i. p. 101, Roniffl, 1724, 4to.
See, on the chemistry of frankincense, Braconnot, Ann. de Chimie, lxvhi., 1808, pp. 60-69; Johnston, Phil. Trans., 1839, pp. 301-305; J. Stenhouse, Ann. der Chem. und Pharm., xxxv., 1840, p. 306; and A. Kurbatow, Zeitsch. fur Chem., 1871, p. 201.
'_' Prfficipua autem gratia est mammoso, cum ha?rente lacryma priore consecuta alia miscuit se" (Nat. Hist, xii. 32). One of the Chinese names for frankincense, Ju'-hiang, " milk-perfume," is ex-plained by the Pen Ts'au (xxxiv. 45), a Chinese work, as being derived from the nipple-like form of its drops. (See E. Bretschneider, On the Knowledge possessed by the Ancient Chinese of the Arabs, &c., p. 19, Lond., 1871.)
The Voyage of Nearchus, loc. cit.

2 "Es scheint dass selber die Araber ihr eignes Räuchwerk nicht hoch schätzen; denn die Vornehmen in Jemen brauchen gemeiniglich indianisches Eäuchwerk, ja eine grosse Menge Mastix von der Insel Seio" (Beschreibung von Arabien, p. 143, Kopenh., 1772).

Vaughan (Pharm. Joum., xii., 1853) speaks of the Arabian Lubän, commonly called Morbat or Shaharree Luban, as realizing higher prices in the market than any of the qualities exported from Africa. The incense of "Esher," i.e., Shihr or Shehr, is mentioned by Marco Polo, as also by Barbosa. (See Yule, op. cit., ii. p. 377.) J. Raymond "Wellsted (Travels to the City of the Caliphs, p. 173, Lond., 1840) distinguishes two kinds of frankincense—"Meaty," selling at $4 per cwt., and an inferior article fetching 20 per cent. less.
" De Arabibus minus mirutn, qui nigricantem colorem, quo Thus Indicum praeditum esse vult Dioseorides [lib. i. c. 70], Indum ple-rumque voeent, ut ex Myrobalano nigro quem Indum appellant, patet" (op. sup. cit., p. 157).

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