1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Frankincense

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FRANKINCENSE,[1] or Olibanum[2] (Gr. λιβανωτός, later θύος; Lat., tus or thus; Heb., lebonah;[3] Ar., lubān;[4] Turk., ghyunluk; Hind., ganda-birosa[5]), a gum-resin obtained from certain species of trees of the genus Boswellia, and natural order Burseraceae. The members of the genus are possessed of the following characters:—Bark often papyraceous; leaves deciduous, compound, alternate and imparipinnate, 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-chambered ovary, a long style, and a 3-lobed stigma; fruit trigonal or pentagonal; and seed compressed. Sir 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 mountainous tracts of central India and the Coromandel coast, and B. papyrifera (Plösslea 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. x. p. 259), B. Bhua-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 Somali coast 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.[6] To obtain the frankincense a deep incision is made in the trunk of the tree, and below it a narrow strip of bark 5 in. 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.[7] In the interior of the country about the plain of Dhofār,[8] 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 Sakhalites in Arabia (the tract between Ras Makalla and Ras Agab),[9] 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 ℔, 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-exportation to Europe, China and elsewhere.[11] Arrian relates that it was an import of Barbarike on the Sinthus (Indus). The idea held by several writers, including Niebuhr, that frankincense was a product of India, would seem to have originated 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 Asiatick Researches, ix. 381), and after him by Dr J. Fleming (Ib. xi. 158), as true frankincense, or olibanum; from this, however, it differs in its softness, and tendency to melt into a mass[12] (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, Florus 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.

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% 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, C10H16. 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).[14] 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 frankincense”; the most esteemed, he further remarks, is in breast-shaped drops, formed each by the union of two tears.[15] The best frankincense, as we learn from Arrian,[16] was formerly 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 Red Sea (Aegypten, &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 frankincense, known to the Somali as “bedwi” or “sheheri,” comes from the trees “Mohr 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.[17] The latter may possibly be what Niebuhr alludes to as “Indian frankincense.”[18] 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.[19]

According to Pliny (Nat. Hist. xiv. 1; cf. Ovid, Fasti 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 illumination instead of oil lamps. Its fumes are an excellent insectifuge. As a medicine it was in former times in high repute. Pliny (Nat. Hist. xxv. 82) mentions it as an antidote 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. 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 properties. It is not used in modern medicine, being destitute of any special virtues. (See Waring, Pharm. of India, p. 443, &c.; and F. Porter Smith, op. cit., 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, D.C.; 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 Flückiger 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.) 

  1. Stephen Skinner, M.D. (Etymologicon linguae Anglicanae, Lond., 1671), gives the derivation: “Frankincense, Thus, q.d. Incensum (i.e. Thus Libere) seu Liberaliter, ut in sacris officiis par est, adolendum.”
  2. “Sic olibanum dixere pro thure ex Graeco ὁ λίβανος” (Salmasius, C. S. Plinianae exercitationes, t. ii. p. 926, b. F., Traj. ad Rhen., 1689 fol.). So also Fuchs (Op. didact. pars. ii. p. 42, 1604 fol.), “Officinis non sine risu eruditorum, Graeco articulo 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, Italia sacra, tom. i. 108, D., Ven., 1717 fol.)
  3. So designated from its whiteness (J. G. Stuckius, Sacror. et sacrific. gent. descrip., p. 79, Lugd. Bat., 1695, fol.; 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).
  4. Written Louan by Garcias da Horta (Aromat. et simpl. medicament. hist., C. Clusii Atrebatis Exoticorum lib. sept., p. 157, 1605, fol.), 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 Asiatick Res. ix. p. 379, 1807), the Hindu writers on Materia Medica use for the resin of Boswellia thurifera the designation Cunduru.
  5. A term applied also to the resinous exudation of Pinus longifolia (see Dr E. J. Waring, Pharmacopoeia of India, p. 52, Lond., 1868).
  6. See “Appendix,” vol. i. p. 419 of Sir W. C. Harris’s Highland of Aethiopia (2nd ed., Lond., 1844); and Trans. Bombay Geog. Soc. xiii. (1857), p. 136.
  7. Cruttenden, Trans. Bombay Geog. Soc. vii. (1846), p. 121; S. B. Miles, J. Geog. Soc. (1872).
  8. Or Dhafār. The incense of “Dofar” is alluded to by Camoens, Os Lusiadas, x. 201.
  9. H. J. Carter, “Comparative Geog. of the South-East Coast of Arabia,” in J. Bombay Branch of R. Asiatic Soc. iii. (Jan. 1851), p. 296; and Müller, Geog. Graeci Minores, i. p. 278 (Paris, 1855).
  10. J. Vaughan, Pharm. Journ. xii. (1853) pp. 227-229; and Ward, op. cit. p. 97.
  11. Pereira, 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 quarum gummi electum olibanum a medicis nuncupatur.”—Perigrinatio, p. 53 (1502, fol.).
  14. See, on the chemistry of frankincense, Braconnot, Ann. de chimie, lxviii. (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. für Chem. (1871), p. 201.
  15. “Praecipua autem gratia est mammoso, cum haerente lacryma priore consecuta alia miscuit se” (Nat. Hist. xii. 32). One of the Chinese names for frankincense, Jú-hiang, “milk-perfume,” is explained 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.)
  16. The Voyage of Nearchus, loc. cit.
  17. Vaughan (Pharm. Journ. xii. 1853) speaks of the Arabian Lubān, 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% less.
  18. “Es scheint, dass selber die Araber ihr eignes Räuchwerk nicht hoch schätzen; denn die Vornehmen in Jemen brauchen gemeiniglich indianisches Räuchwerk, ja eine grosse Menge Mastix von der Insel Scio” (Beschreibung von Arabien, p. 143, Kopenh., 1772).
  19. “De Arabibus minus mirum, qui nigricantem colorem, quo Thus Indicum praeditum esse vult Dioscorides [lib. i. c. 70], Indum plerumque vocent, ut ex Myrobalano nigro quem Indum appellant, patet” (op. sup. cit. p. 157).