The deeply meditative aromas of frankincense and myrrh evoke ancient tombs and temples. Their fragrances, like the breath of a prayer, create an olfactory link to the dawning of civilized human society.
The earliest recorded use of frankincense is found in an inscription on the tomb of a 15th century BC Egyptian queen named Hatshepsut. Ancient Egyptians burned frankincense as incense and ground the charred resin into a powder called kohl. Kohl was used to make the distinctive black eyeliner seen on so many figures in Egyptian art. Egyptians also used myrrh resin as incense and as an important ingredient in the embalming process, sometimes placing the crude resin in the eviscerated body cavities of mummies.
Frankincense and myrrh are familiar botanical products in the east, where they've been used for millennia. Most people in the west are unfamiliar with the true identity of these enigmatic substances -- even though they are frequently mentioned in historical texts, especially scripture, (frankincense is mentioned 22 times in the Bible).
Frankincense and myrrh essential oils are distilled from the resin of two separate but related trees of the burseraceae family. Plants of this family are often sculpted into natural bonsai by the extreme conditions of their desert environments, with eerily contorted trunks and stubby leafless branches.
There are many different species of frankincense (Boswellia) and myrrh (Commiphera) growing from east Africa through southern Arabia and into northwestern India. The general consensus of botanists identifies four main species of Boswellia and two of Commiphera.
Boswellia carteri comes from Somalia. B. sacra comes from southern Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman. B. frereana also grows in Somalia. Its resin and essential oil are known as African elemi, (not to be confused with true elemi essential oil, which comes from a Philippine tree). B. serrata grows in India. Its resin and essential oil are known as Indian olibanum.
Commiphera myrrha or true myrrh occurs in Somalia and the Arabian peninsula, along with about eight other species which are often mixed together in commercially available crude resin.
The trunks of both frankincense and myrrh trees exude a sticky substance called oleo gum resin. This oleo gum resin is made up of roughly 65% gum, 30% resin and 4% essential oil (frankincense), and 45% gum, 30% resin and 4% essential oil (myrrh). The tree trunks are incised by collectors to expedite the release of the resin, which dries in the hot desert sun into hard knobby masses called tears -- a fitting name considering what the tree goes through, and in light of the fact that myrrh traditionally symbolizes suffering. (Frankincense symbolizes divinity.)
The crude resin of frankincense and myrrh can be treated in one of two ways to produce liquid aromatics. The resin is soluble in chemical solvents and the essential oil can be steam distilled. The solvent extraction process produces a viscous, almost solid substance called a resinoid. Resinoids are soluble in high-grade, odorless alcohols. Alcohol dissolved resinoids are sometimes passed off as distilled essential oils. Resinoids are often used in perfume making. Steam distilled essential oils of frankincense and myrrh are most appropriate for use in aromatherapy.
Oil of frankincense is slightly viscous, yellow to green with a deeply balsamic, fresh-resinous aroma. Sweet-lemony or green apple-like notes add complexity to the overall aroma profile of good quality frankincense oil. Thin, turpentine or solvent-like, weak, short-lived aromas are indicative of poor quality or adulterated frankincense oil.
Oil of myrrh is slightly viscous, yellowish to amber orange with a warm-spicy, balsamic fragrance. Overly viscous, dark brown oils may be extracted resinoids and not steam distilled essential oils, which are more useful in aromatherapy applications. Myrrh resinoids are more appropriate as perfume fixatives.
Aromatherapy uses of frankincense and myrrh draw on the deeply meditative quality of these oils. A gentle diffusion of a blend of equal proportions of both can evoke emotional balance in cases of anxiety or stress. Such a blend is also appropriate as an adjunct to prayer and meditation. In fact this usage is consistent with the long history of frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense and myrrh can be useful in less relaxing blends as well. Outstanding and unusual aromas can be created by blending the two oils with citrus oils -- lemon and bergamot work well with frankincense; orange and tangerine with myrrh. The citrus oils produce a lighter, cleaner, more uplifting aroma, more inspiring and less introspective than using frankincense and myrrh alone. These citrus frankincense and myrrh blends are useful when seeking emotional inspiration. Frankincense and myrrh alone are best used when seeking emotional insight.
One of the most appropriate ways to use frankincense and myrrh may be to burn the crude resin on hot coals as the ancients did. This simple ritual will release a distinctive aroma and sinuous trails of fragrant incense that hold a mysterious presence in the room. The curling tendrils of burning frankincense and myrrh have measured the passage of history, and facilitate the navigation of inner and outer spiritual.