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Frankincense tree in Muscat ( Oman )

Frankincense (from Middle High German / Old High German wīhrou [c] h , holy incense ',' frankincense ',' Boswellia resin ' ; to wīhen :' holy, consecrating ') is the air-dried gum resin that is obtained from various types of Boswellia . Frankincense is not only used as a cultic incense , but also medicinally as a phytotherapeutic . The smoke that is produced when it is burned is also known as incense. Frankincense resin is coarse-grained to lumpy and has a translucent brown-yellow to reddish-brown color. Other names are Olibanum (originally a very light incense resin, Latin Thus album , indicative) and Latin Thus , ( English Frankincense ).


The resin is mainly obtained from Boswellia sacra , Boswellia papyrifera , Boswellia serrata , Boswellia frereana , each of which produces a slightly different type of resin. Lesser known varieties such as Boswellia dalzielli , Boswellia nana , Boswellia neglecta and Boswellia rivae are also harvested and used . Different locations and climatic conditions also influence the respective resin quality. A sticky, milky liquid escapes through cuts in the trunk and branches, which, when dried in the air, creates the incense resin. Incense production begins between the end of March and the beginning of April and lasts for several months. Some types of frankincense are harvested all year round , except for the monsoon season . The first harvest results in a very poor quality resin that was previously not used but is now marketed. Only three weeks later is an acceptable quality harvested, which becomes better and purer over the next few weeks. The resin yield per tree depends on the age, size and condition of the tree and is between two and ten kilograms. The survival of the frankincense trees, however, is seriously threatened. More than 82% of the frankincense production comes from Somalia , the rest comes from neighboring southern Arabia, Eritrea and Ethiopia , Sudan and other central African countries.


Three types of frankincense resins left: cheap and inferior first harvest. Middle: typical inexpensive mixture from the first harvest with anise and Styrax (balm) for incense in the liturgy (“church quality”). Right: almost white, expensive later harvest of the highest quality

Frankincense consists of a mixture of essential oils , resins, mucus and proteins , the amounts of which vary depending on the species. The proportion of pure resin is around 50 to 80%, a large part of the resin is made up of terpenes , which also include boswellic acids. The proportion of rubber in the resin is 10-30%, depending on the variety, the proportion of essential oils is between 5 and 12%.

Frankincense in size comparison: first and last harvest (Oman, 2009)

The size comparison shows the differences between the first and last harvest: The resin droplets from the first harvest are sometimes only a few millimeters in size and almost black to amber in color. They were considered unusable until the middle of the 20th century, were thrown away and did not find their way onto the market. The resin droplets from the last harvest, on the other hand, are about one centimeter in size and almost snow-white. They are up to fifteen times more expensive than the resin drops from the first harvest. When smoking, the last harvest develops a very intense, heavy scent with a hint of lemon.

The traditionally used in Indian Ayurvedic medicine, from the salai tree ( Boswellia serrata ) obtained "Indian incense", also listed in the European Pharmacopoeia (Ph. Eur.) Contains

  • approx. 5–9% essential oil ( α-thuja , β- myrcene , p -cyymol , methyleugenol and others)
  • approx. 15-16% resin acids [such as boswellic acids , lupanic acids and tirucallenic acids; at least 1% each of 3- O -acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic acid (AKBA) and 11-keto-β-boswellic acid (KBA)]
  • up to 20% mucilage

Cultic use

Incense on charcoal
Hortus sanitatis , Mainz 1491, illustration for the chapter Thus - incense

Frankincense was already used by the ancient Egyptians for cultic purposes, for the mummification of outstanding and wealthy people and at least in wealthier circles in everyday life as an aromatic, disinfectant and anti-inflammatory incense and remedy . When it burns up ( smoking ) it develops an aromatic, fragrant smoke and has been used in various religions , including the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, for cult activities since the middle of the first millennium , mostly mixed with other incense such as benzoin , myrrh , galbanum , rockrose , styrax , Laurel . In the past, other incense resins were also called frankincense.


The smoke and the scent that develop when burning incense made incense a component of cultic practices from ancient times . Historically, the use of incense in Christianity is traced back to the parallel in the cult of the Israelites , in whose temple Ketoret was burned twice a day . Originally from the Canaanite cult of incense, incense was initially rejected as an "innovation" in ancient Israel. Only later did it find its way into the temple service. At the latest in the post-exilic second temple of Jerusalem (from around 540 BC ) the smoke offering altar was located in front of the curtain of the holy of holies, where a smoke offering was made in the morning and evening.

In the different epochs of the Egyptian pharaohs , incense was used in many cult acts and in mummification . The ancient Egyptians called the resin pearls of incense the "sweat of the gods". Many other ancient religions and the oriental and Roman rulers' cults knew frankincense. During the republican era , burning incense replaced the ancient, prescribed sacrifices among the Romans . For prayers of supplication and thanksgiving, the incense grains were burned in specially designed vessels, acerra , in the fire. Incense was carried before emperors and governors when they moved into a city - as a token of homage, but also to dispel the stench of sewers . The Roman emperors allowed themselves to be venerated as Dominus et deus “Lord and God” and asked for a smoke offering in front of their image.

The early Christians rejected this divine worship of the emperor and had to endure persecution for it. For this reason incense was frowned upon in the Christian liturgy ; the church fathers explicitly spoke out against it. However , incense was also used by Christians at church funerals . Frankincense was accepted only after the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire and with the adoption of elements of the Roman imperial cult in Christian worship.

The Constantinian turning point led to a profound change in the organization of the hierarchy of the Church. The clergy , especially the bishops , were given a completely new legal status. They had now become Reich officials and in a very high position. To this end, the bishops received from Constantine in 318 the mandate to judge the highest court in certain civil proceedings. This increase in rank was probably accompanied by the right to the associated status symbols. Hence the custom of sending candlesticks and incense holders ahead of the bishop's entry . This is the form in which we encounter frankincense for the first time in a written source in the Roman liturgy. The fumigating the altar , however, was still unknown in Rome mid-ninth century. The current use of incense in the Catholic Church penetrated the Roman one primarily through the Gallican liturgy . This does not have to mean that this later development was exclusively the result of Carolingian changes to the liturgy. Because the Gallic forms of the western liturgy were strongly influenced by Constantinople . For example, the liturgy of St. Denis brings many direct quotations from the Greek liturgy; including four forms of incense.

In ancient times, regular smoking of the house with various aromatic mixtures was also common in private life. In the ancient Egyptian cult of the dead , incense was said to have a banishing ( apotropaic ) effect against the power and smell of death. The Sumerians , Babylonians and Persians also knew frankincense.

Incense Route

In ancient times, frankincense was a highly paid and sought-after commodity and was traded on the frankincense route ( Oman - Yemen - Hejaz - Gaza - Damascus ) and in long-distance trade to almost all regions of the ancient world and played a role in most of the religions and cultures of that time Role. The origin of the incense was kept secret and the trade routes were monitored.

Roman rite

Frankincense symbolically stands for purification, adoration and prayer. According to Psalm 141.2 EU and other biblical texts , such as Rev 8,3  EU , it describes the believers' prayer ascending to God . In the sense of 2 Cor 2: 14–16  EU , it indicates that God, through Christ's devotion, has filled the world with the “fragrance of life that promises life”.

The Roman Rite brings the incense use, among other things expressed that man is a unity of body and soul. The service is aimed at all senses. Because the word of God became man in Jesus Christ (“incarnation”), the worship service must also express itself in a physically tangible way (incarnational principle). Frankincense is therefore regarded as a sign of the presence of God and the waving of the Holy Spirit . According to Catholic teaching, Jesus Christ is truly and permanently present in the eucharistic forms of bread and wine ( real presence ).

Holy Mass, Liturgy of the Hours and Eucharistic Adoration

Two Thuriferare incensing in Cologne Cathedral

In the liturgy of the Latin Church, as well as in the Eastern Catholic Churches with the Byzantine rite , incense is used primarily in Holy Mass and in Lauds and Vespers of the Liturgy of the Hours , as well as to worship the Blessed Sacrament , for example during processions or sacramental devotion . Two do acolytes who Thuriferar (from ancient Greek θύος thýos , "incense, incense" Latin tus (also THUS ) "incense" and ferre "carry") with the censer and the Navikular with the incense boat , the service of incense.

The Eucharistic gifts and figures as well as all symbols of Christ - such as the altar , the gospel book , priest , the altar cross , the Easter candle and the Christmas crib - and the believers are incensated with the incense . At the church funeral the coffin and the open grave with the coffin inside are also incensated with the words “Your body was God's temple. The Lord give you everlasting joy. "

The requirement to use incense in high mass, which has been in force since at least 1570 , made incense a characteristic of festivity. Since 1970 frankincense can again be used in all holy masses, as has always been the case in the Eastern Churches ; this brings out its symbolic references more clearly.

Altar consecration

In the rite of the consecration of an altar , one of the "interpretative signs" accompanying the consecration prayer is the lighting and burning of incense in five places on the altar. When the relics are placed in the altar, these three grains of incense are also added.

Incense donation, incense offering

Incense in bowl
The Boswellia Sacra Tree from Oman

In celebrations of the Word of God or the Lucerne , incense can be lit in a bowl in front of the altar or the exposed Holy of Holies while singing the "Incense Psalm " ( Ps 141.2  EU ) to praise and thank . Even with intercessory prayer in such divine services, incense can be placed in the bowl to burn for individual requests by the leader, the speakers of the intercessions or all fellow celebrants.

Other liturgies

In the Orthodox liturgy , such as the Byzantine Rite, the Antiochene Rite and others of the Oriental Orthodox Church , incense is used as a fragrance from heaven. According to ancient oriental beliefs, an encounter with God is connected with a scent experience. In the Slavic Orthodox churches, however, the incense mixture often contains mainly benzoin and little or no actual incense.

Among the Protestant churches, the Evangelical Lutheran churches count the use of incense as a non-binding ceremony to the Adiaphora . Partly associated with the doctrine of real presence, its use was suppressed in the Age of Enlightenment . In the course of the 19th century it almost completely disappeared from Evangelical Lutheran worship. In more recent times, incense, based on Psalm 141 , is sometimes used again as a sign of prayer. Like almost all sensual adornments in worship, incense was rejected in the Reformed churches from the start.


Antiquity and the Middle Ages

In ancient times, medicine and religion were closely related. Traces of it can still be found in the language today: If something heals, then it is sacred . The first indications of the use of frankincense can be found in three and a half thousand year old texts from the Nile Valley. The Egyptians used frankincense to smell the air, for ointments and to treat wounds. Three thousand years ago there were already established trade routes, the incense routes, which brought the precious resin from its homeland of southern Arabia (especially Oman , next to Yemen ) and from the island of Socotra in the Horn of Africa to Egypt and Mesopotamia . Frankincense from southern Arabia was one of the gifts of the biblical three kings .

The Roman Empire was a big consumer of incense. Hippocrates and other Greco-Roman doctors used incense to cleanse wounds, to treat respiratory diseases and to treat digestive problems. Nothing was known about the mechanisms of action, but the practical successes were probably numerous enough that the expensive drug was still used as medicine in the Middle Ages, including by Hildegard von Bingen

In the Arabic-language textbooks of the Middle Ages that take up Greek medicine, especially Dioscurides , for example in the canon of medicine , the al-Qanun fi t-Tibb by the Persian doctor Avicenna , the internal use of incense resin beads ( Boswellia serrata , Boswellia sacra ) is used for "Strengthening the Spirit and Mind" recommended.

From antiquity through the Middle Ages to the 18th century, frankincense resin was used directly as a powder or as an ingredient in a healing plaster to treat wounds and erosions .

It was not until the development of synthetic chemical drugs, especially in the classes of antibiotics and corticoids , that frankincense as a drug was forgotten. In connection with the return to natural remedies and by promoting research into natural remedies, medical research has been intensified. At the University of Jena, target structures are being researched on a molecular and cellular level in order to make the pharmacological effects of frankincense therapeutically useful.

Eastern Africa

In East Africa , frankincense has traditionally been used to treat diseases such as syphilis , schistosomiasis and stomach ailments. The effectiveness has not been proven. Swahili on the East African coast used frankincense against insufficient urine excretion . In a text book by the Ethiopian healer Gerazmač Gäbräwäld (1869–1939), incense appears in various mixtures with leaves, seeds, honey, salt and butter as a remedy for numerous diseases. In addition to herbal medicine, obsession cults are one of the traditional healing methods in Ethiopia. A tsar spirit is recognized and appeased in the mentally ill patient . This is done with the help of frankincense or other smoked goods.


In Indian Ayurveda , frankincense ( Salai Guggal ) has been used in folk medicine for around 5000 years, for example for arthritis , sciatica , rheumatic diseases or joint and muscle problems.

Classic European naturopathy

In classical European naturopathy , frankincense was mainly used to alleviate rheumatic diseases. Frankincense was still to be found in pharmacological books in 1850 for internal and external use and in 1870 only for external use . After 1875, incense was forgotten. Sebastian Kneipp announced in 1886 that resin beads made from fir or spruce resin strengthened "the chest and [...] had a strange strengthening effect on the inner vessels" and could also be replaced with "white incense" if necessary.

Modern medicine

In modern medicine, preparations made from frankincense with a standardized content of active ingredients are examined in the treatment of chronic inflammatory diseases such as Crohn's disease , ulcerative colitis or polyarthritis . Initial clinical study results suggest an efficacy of frankincense preparations in Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. So far, only individual case reports and pilot studies are available on therapeutic attempts in bronchial asthma and rheumatoid arthritis , from which no sufficiently reliable proof of efficacy can be derived. Study results presented in 1994 from a treatment for polyarthritis (reduction in pain, joint stiffness and swelling) could not be confirmed; a randomized, double-blind study, for example, showed no advantage over placebo . Only in the treatment of knee arthritis was a small, randomized, double-blind study on 30 patients able to demonstrate a significant analgesic and decongestant effect of the incense preparation H15 from the Indian company Gufic compared to placebo. The long-term effects of taking frankincense have not yet been studied. Reports of side effects are based on individual reports and are not necessarily causally related. In addition, antiproliferative effects on various tumor cell lines (such as melanoma , glioblastoma , liver carcinoma ) based on the induction of apoptosis could be shown for boswellic acids in vitro . A positive effect of frankincense preparations on the accompanying edema of brain tumors has been described in smaller clinical studies; however, the results are controversial due to methodological deficiencies. The main active ingredients are the boswellic acids contained in Indian frankincense .

The Indian frankincense is described as herbal drug in the European Pharmacopoeia, approved finished product is available in the EU countries do not, except for homeopathic preparations. In Germany, pharmacies can produce incense capsules as prescription drugs on prescription or on customer request . Since up to now only Indian frankincense has been listed in the pharmacopoeia, only this may be used for medicinal purposes; other types of frankincense such as African frankincense ( Boswellia sacra , Olibanum) cannot be qualified for use in the formulation due to a lack of specification. There are no assessments by Commission E or the Committee of the European Medicines Agency . The ESCOP describes the alcoholic dry extract from Indian frankincense for the treatment of painful osteoarthritis in doses of 250 mg to 1200 mg / day and in doses of 900 mg to 3600 mg / day for the treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases (children> 12 years).

The health claim “Joint Health” for foods containing frankincense was applied for from the European Food Authority EFSA , whereby the Federal Ministry for Consumer Protection assigns frankincense to the pharmaceutical sector (List B). Individual supervisory authorities have also classified capsule preparations with the extract from Indian frankincense as medicinal products because of their objective intended use, in some cases even expressly advertised by the sales companies for therapeutic use.

Results of a study suggesting an effect of frankincense pearls in the form of an increase in learning and memory performance in animal experiments were published in an Iranian journal in 1999. Similar results, confirming Dioscurides' recommendations and other results from another animal study, were presented at a congress in 2004.

Mechanisms of Action

In 1991, the Tübingen pharmacologist Hermann Ammon and his colleagues found the anti-inflammatory agent acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic acid (AKBA) in the resin. This intervenes in the inflammatory process by reducing the leukotriene biosynthesis .

According to a study published in 2012 by the working group of Oliver Werz (University of Jena, formerly University of Tübingen), boswellic acids reduce the inflammatory reaction by preventing the synthesis of prostaglandin E2 . Prostaglandin E2 is responsible for mediating the immune response. Boswellic acids inhibit the enzyme responsible for its synthesis. Extracts from the resin of the species Boswellia papyrifera proved to be particularly effective - this occurs mainly in northeast Africa (Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea ) and on the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen, Oman). In other studies, the resin of the African frankincense Boswellia carterii was also found to be highly effective. The problem is that boswellic acids are difficult to produce synthetically, but at the same time the existence of frankincense trees as their only natural resource is severely threatened.

Studies have shown that plasma concentrations of 3-OH-11-keto-β-boswellic acid (KBA) and 3-O-acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic acid (AKBA) after oral administration, even at high doses, were far below concentrations that are necessary for in vitro inhibition of 5-lipoxygenase .


Incensol , another ingredient of frankincense resin and contained in frankincense at an average of 2.7%, showed effects in animal modelsthat were similar toan anxiolytic and antidepressant effect. Incensol is an effective agonist of the transient receptor potential vanilloid -3 channel ( TRPV3 ), an ion channel that is involved in the perception of heat stimuli in the skin. TRPV3 mRNA was found in neurons of the brain, but it is still unclear what role TRPV3 channels play there. An antidepressant effect of incensol in the human brain has not yet been proven. In the federal research project of the universities in Tübingen and Saarbrücken with AureliaSan GmbH (Bisingen) it was shown that Incensol is extremely unstable and the degradation products of Incensol and Incensol acetate are more effective than the two pure substances.

The 1988 book Frankincense and Myrrh suggests that frankincense contains the psychotropic tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) found in cannabis . According to the authors, two GDR toxicologists and a FRG ethnologist, THC may be formed if the two ingredients verbenol and olivetol combine with each other through combustion. Despite extensive tests, this thesis could not be confirmed in practice, which is why a corresponding connection is considered unlikely.

Health risks

Incense smoldering as incense contains (just like tobacco smoke ) the carcinogenic substance benzo [ a ] pyrene . A Taiwanese study found a benzo [ a ] pyrene concentration in a temple in Tainan that was 40 times higher than in tobacco-smoked apartments. Comparable Asian studies are based on the incense sticks used there, to which the incense is fixed by means of a binding agent. It is presumably this binding agent that causes the increased levels of pollutants. For churches in the Christian culture, however, nothing comparable could be proven.

Frankincense essential oil

Frankincense Perfume from Oman (2009)

The essential oil is extracted from the resin by means of steam distillation . Its ingredients are 75% monoterpenes , sesquiterpenes , monoterpenols , sesquiterpenols and ketones . Arabic frankincense oil has a full balsamic and sweet fragrance , while Indian frankincense oil has a fresh smell. The perfume industry , which uses frankincense oil in cosmetic products and as an addition to medicinal products, describes frankincense oil as "a balsamic, spicy, slightly lemony and typical incense scent with slightly coniferous and cheeky undertones".

See also



  • Simla Basar: Phytochemical Investigations on Boswellia Species. Comparative Studies on the Essential Oils, Pyrolysates and Boswellic Acids of Boswellia carterii Birdw., Boswellia serrata Roxb., Boswellia frereana Birdw., Boswellia neglecta S. Moore and Boswellia rivae Engl. (Dissertation) Universität Hamburg, 2005 ( online )
  • Klaus D. Christof, Renate Haass: incense, the scent of heaven. Röll, Dettelbach 2006, ISBN 978-3-89754-252-5 .
  • Albert Dietrich : Lubān. In: Encyclopaedia of Islam . New Edition , Volume 5. Brill, Leiden 1986, ISBN 90-04-07819-3 , pp. 786a-787a.
  • Susanne Fischer-Rizzi : Message to Heaven. Application, effect and stories of fragrant incense (= Heyne books, 13; Heyne esoteric knowledge. Esoteric healing methods, 9796). Heyne, Munich 1999, ISBN 3-453-15504-1 .
  • Heidelore Kluge, Charles Fernando: Frankincense, Gold and Myrrh. Use the healing treasures of nature. Haug, Heidelberg 1999, ISBN 3-7760-1751-1 .
  • Heidelore Kluge, R. Charles Fernando: Frankincense and its healing properties. Haug, Heidelberg 1998, ISBN 3-7760-1720-1 .
  • Michael Pfeifer: The incense. History, meaning, use. Pustet, Regensburg 1997, ISBN 3-7917-1566-6 .
  • Ralph Regensburger: incense. Fragrance of the knowledge of Christ. An aid to the background and use of incense in the liturgy. Regensburger, Berchtesgaden 2008, ISBN 978-3-00-024715-6 ( online ; PDF file; 35 KB).
  • Jürgen Tubach, Peter Wünsche:  incense . In: Theologische Realenzyklopädie (TRE). Volume 35, de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2003, ISBN 3-11-017781-1 , pp. 472-477.

Web links

Wiktionary: Frankincense  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Incense  - Album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Hans Eggers : German language history. I – IV, Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg 1963–1977, Volume I, 5th edition, 1970, p. 154.
  2. Hieronymus Brunschwig : The book of the Cirurgia. Strasbourg (Johann Grüninger) 1497, sheet CXXVIII: “Thus daz we are also a gumi, and are two things, one knowing then the other. The most knowledgeable is called olibanum "
  3. Dieter Martinetz, Karlheinz Lohs , Jörg Lanzen: Weihrauch and Myrrhe. Cultural history and economic importance; Botany, chemistry, medicine. Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft, Stuttgart 1989, ISBN 978-3-8047-1019-1 , pp. 13, 31, 39, 43-82, 101-139 and 181-183.
  4. ^ W. Blaschek, G. Schneider (Ed.): Hager's Handbook of Pharmaceutical Practice. Volume 2: Drugs A – K , Springer, 1998, ISBN 3-540-61618-7 , p. 246.
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  9. ^ Albert Gerhards , Klaus Wintz : Consecration of the altar . In: Walter Kasper (Ed.): Lexicon for Theology and Church . 3. Edition. tape 1 . Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau 1993.
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  11. Hildegard von Bingen, Physica . in print from 1533 ( Book 3, Chapter 8 ) "et naribus suis sepe apponat: ipsum confortat, oculos suos clarificat, cerebru eius implet."
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  16. Tsehai Berhane Selassie :: An Ethiopian Medical Text-Book Written by Gerazmač Gäbräwäld Arägahändäga Damot. In: Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Volume 9, No. 1, January 1971, pp. 95-180.
  17. ^ Dorothee Pielow: Defense against demons using the example of the "Zārs" and the Islamic amulet system. In: Journal of the German Oriental Society. Volume 147, No. 2, 1997, pp. 354-370, here p. 364.
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  31. Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety: Foreword to the list of substances in the “Plants and plant parts” category .
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