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see incense-treeincense-tree,
common name for members of the Burseraceae, a family of sometimes deciduous shrubs and large trees found chiefly in tropical America and NE Africa. The name derives from the characteristic aromatic oils or resins that occur in all parts of the plant.
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The sap of the frankincense tree (Boswellia carteri or Boswellia thu-rifera) dries into hard, yellowish brown lumps of gum resin known as frankincense. In biblical times frankincense was prized as the very best kind of incense. It was one of the gifts that the Magi presented to the baby Jesus.

The English word "frankincense" comes from the Old French words franc encens, meaning pure or high-quality incense. Although it was most commonly used as incense in ancient times, frankincense was also prescribed as a medicine to treat a wide variety of ailments. Many ancient peoples, such as the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Jews, and Babylonians, burned incense in home and temple worship. The rising fumes from burning incense may have offered worshipers a visual image of prayers ascending to heaven. Scholars speculate that this imagery explains the widespread use of incense in worship. Frankincense is mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament and was one of the four components of the sacred incense burned by the Jewish priests in the Sanctuary. Because of its close relationship with worship, the Magi's gift of frankincense has traditionally been interpreted as a recognition of Jesus' divinity. Another interpretation suggests that it predicts Jesus'future role as a high priest.

In ancient times, Arabia supplied the Mediterranean and Asia with most of their myrrh and frankincense. These products were so highly valued and so difficult to obtain outside of Arabia that they became a luxury affordable only by the rich. Thus, the Magi's valuable gift of frankincense may also have signified their recognition of Jesus'great worth.

Until the mid-1700s tradition dictated that the British monarch offer a gift of frankincense, gold, and myrrh at the Chapel Royal on Epiphany. Heralds and knights of the Garter, Thistle, and Bath accompanied the King on this reenactment of the Magi's pilgrimage. Under the unstable King George III (1760-1820) the procession was abandoned, although the monarch's gift of gold, frankincense, and myrrh is still sent to the Chapel Royal by proxy. A similar royal offering was at one time customary in Spain.

Today frankincense trees can be found in Arabia, Ethiopia, Somalia, and India. Frankincense is still primarily used as incense. Frankincense is a component of the incense burned in Roman Catholic and Orthodox church services. It may also be found in other scented products, such as soap.

Further Reading

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. De Hoghton, Charles. "Incense." In Richard Cavendish, ed. Man, Myth andMagic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural. Volume 8. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1970. Groom, Nigel. Frankincense and Myrrh: A Study of the Arabian Incense Trade. London, England: Longman, 1981. Peattie, Donald Culross. "Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh." Saturday EveningPost 264, 6 (November 1992): 56.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(also olibanum), an aromatic resin extracted by tapping the bark of Boswellia carterii (family Burseraceae) of East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Frankincense crumbles into small yellowish lumps upon hardening; its constituents include gum, essential oils, and bitters. It is partially soluble in water and organic solvents and sublimates upon heating. Frankincense is used as an incense in religious ceremonies.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


an aromatic gum resin obtained from trees of the burseraceous genus Boswellia, which occur in Asia and Africa
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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