The name alone evokes an image of Three Wise Men crossing a vast desert as they follow a star. Frankincense, one of the gifts they carried, had been scenting Egyptian temples for thousands of years before the birth of Christ. The ancients perceived that the smoke rising from the glowing aromatic substance had an elevating and soothing effect on the mind and emotions. Such rare quality caused frankincense to be reserved for religious rites. And a tradition born in antiquity has lived on to perfume many contemporary church services.

The English name comes from Old French franc encens: franc, pure, and encens, incense. The fragrant gum resin is extracted from small trees that chiefly flourish in Somalia — the land Egyptians called Punt. Herodotus, writing in the 5th century B.C., mentions the lively trade taking place throughout the Middle East, “…the Chaldaeans alone offer something like two and a half tons of frankincense every year at the festival of Bel.” Such a treasure was destined eventually to escape sacred precincts and find its way into the secular world.

Frankincense resin burned on a charcoal block remains the traditional way to fume an atmosphere. Luckily, aromatherapy’s rise in popularity has made the scent widely available in the form of essential oil. Robert B. Tisserand’s The Art of Aromatherapy, a standard reference guide, recommends the smell of frankincense to alleviate depression, melancholy, confusion, indecision and the dwelling on unpleasant past events. Essential oil is too strong to apply directly to the skin, but may be enjoyed in a variety of ways. A tiny amount achieves an exquisite result: half a teaspoon to a cup of sweet almond oil for a scented massage and a scattering of seven drops to perfume a warm bath. Sprinkle a few drops in a small bowl of hot water to inhale or pour a similar mixture into a plant mister to diffuse the air.

The strange elusive odor of frankincense engages the mind in a subtle manner; it erases doubts that cloud the present and gives hope for the future.

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