|A Camel Caravan Laden with Frankincense Crosses the Desert|
Our Christmas series continues with a study of the second of the Wise Men’s three gifts …Frankincense. We all know what gold is, but what are frankincense and that other stuff, myrrh? We’ll deal with Frankincense today and save myrrh for a later time.
WHAT’S IN A NAME
Before we go any further, let’s start with the name itself, Frank + incense or Frankincense is a name that has become so common that we hardly give it any thought. We know for certain that one of the Wise Men did not lay it before the Blessed Mother and her child saying, “Here is a chest of precious Frankincense.”
|Granules of Frankincense|
The Hebrew term for incense levona comes from a root word lavan, meaning white, which evidently refers to its milky color. White, of course, also carries the connotation of purity. The Greeks term for it, libanos, is derived from the Hebrew word. The Romans called it 0lhmi libanum (oil from Lebanon), which led to another ancient word for Frankincense, olibanum. So how did it get from olibanum to being called Frankincense?
Incense is a Middle English word derived from the Latin incensum, which in turn is derived incendere, to set on fire. In its original form it was ensenz. There are two theories about it came to be called Frankincense. The first claims that the “Frank” is a prefix meaning true, genuine or highest quality. The second suggests that the use of incense was reintroduced to Europe by Frankish Crusaders and the Franks (French) managed to corner the market on the incense trade in Western Europe. Thus, most incense was sold by the Franks, making it Frankincense. I favor the second hypothesis simply because the F in Frankincense is nearly always capitalized meaning it most probably began as a Proper Noun.
Regardless of which is correct, new translations of Bible followed the introduction of Gutenberg’s movable type and the Greek or Hebrew terms were universally translated as Frankincense.
THE HISTORY OF INCENSE USE
The Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Israelites, Babylonians and numerous other cultures used incense. Its use in religious ceremonies is almost as old as mankind. Incense has been trade commodity on the Arabian Peninsula and in North Africa for more than 5000 years. A mural depicting sacks of incense from the Land of Punt adorns the walls of the temple of ancient Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut, who died in 1458 BC.
Consecrated incense, the ketoret is described in the Hebrew Bible and Talmud. It is also referred to as the HaKetoret (the incense). It was offered on the specialized incense altar when the Tabernacle was located in the First and Second Jerusalem Temples. Pythagoras, philosopher-mathematician and priest of Apollo, performed libations and sacrifices to Gods with incense. The writings of Herodotus (330 BC), tell us the Chaldeans of Babylon offered a thousand talents' weight (98,422 pounds) of incense to Bel (Baal) at his yearly festival. By the first century, 3,000 tons of incense were exported to Greece and Rome from Southern Arabia.
EARLY CHRISTIAN USE OF FRANKINCENSE
It is not known when the use of incense was introduced into the Mass and other liturgical rites. At the time of the early Church, the Jews continued to use incense in their own Temple rituals, so it would be safe to conclude that the Christians would have adapted its usage for their own worship. The liturgies of Sts. James and Mark, which in their present form can be traced to the fifth century, mention the use of incense. A Roman Ritual of the seventh century marks it usage in the procession of a Bishop to the altar and on Good Friday. Moreover, in the Mass, an incensation at the Gospel appears very early.
The purpose of incensing and the symbolic value of the smoke is that of purification and sanctification. For example, in the Eastern Rites at the beginning of Mass, the altar and sanctuary area were incensed while Psalm 50, the Miserere, was chanted invoking the mercy of God. The smoke symbolizes the prayers of the faithful drifting up to heaven: the Psalmist prays, “Let my prayer come like incense before you; the lifting up of my hands, like the evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141). Incense also creates the ambiance of heaven: The Book of Revelation describes the heavenly worship as follows: “Another angel came in holding a censor of gold. He took his place at the altar of incense and was given large amounts of incense to deposit on the altar of gold in front of the throne, together with the prayers of all God's holy ones. From the angel's hand, the smoke of the incense went up before God, and with it the prayers of God's people.”
Frankincense is also used at time during Catholic a funeral Masses, the priest at the final commendation may incense the coffin, both as a sign of honor to the body of the deceased which became the temple of the Holy Spirit at Baptism and as a sign of the prayers for the deceased rising to God.
|Flowers of Boswelia sacra - The Frankincense Tree|
The product we have come to know as Frankincense comes from a specific variety of trees in the genus Boswelia. Most trees in the Boswelia genus are aromatic, and many of them produce a scented resinous sap, but only one tree, Boswelia sacra, produces the high grade product known as Frankincense. It comes almost exclusively from trees grown on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula in what is now Oman.
The process is relatively simple. The oldest way is to simply scrape away portions of the bark and allow the resin to flow from this wound. A more modern method calls for a series of slashes in the tree’s outer bark during the cooler months with a specially designed knife. As the weather warms, the resinous sap slowly oozes out of the cuts on the tree in small droplets that steadily accumulate into spherules. These spherules sometimes reach the size of a hen's egg before they are harvested.
|Sap Oozing from a Gash in the Boswelia Tree|
After harvesting, Frankincense is assigned a quality rating based on its color, purity, aroma, age, and shape. Silver and Hojari are generally considered the highest grades. The Omanis themselves generally consider Silver to be a better grade than Hojari, though most Western connoisseurs think that it should be the other way round. This may be due to the fact that Hojari smells best in the relatively cold, damp climates of Europe and North America, whereas Silver is better suited to the hot dry conditions of Arabia. The very highest grades of Hojari are seldom exported.
EFFECTS OF THE INCENSE TRADE
Like so many other trade goodS, Frankincense does not exist in a vacuum. Just as there was the Silk Road, one can also find an Incense Road. There are a number of subsidiary effects that can be traced to incense. First and foremost, it represents a significant source of income for the region where it is produced. It provides jobs in a resource scarce area, so everyone up and down the marketing chain benefits. At many times in history incense was also subject to taxation up to 25% of its value.
Interestingly enough, some people associate the incense trade with the use of camels as pack animals. Around 2000 BCE southern Arabia witnessed a change of climate and the environment began to experience drought and gradual desertification. This coincides nicely with the time camels were domesticated for use in the overland caravan routes. The trade also led to the early adoption of written language and cultural cross-pollination between the Greco-Roman world and the Arabian world.
Next time we’ll be looking at the Biblical tales of two mothers —Mary in the New Testament and Hannah in the Old Testament.
Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings.
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