If you’ve ever heard the Biblical Christmas story, you already know that three Magi – or Wise Men – saw a vivid star on Jesus’ birth, followed it to the manger where he laid in swaddling clothes, and prostrated themselves before the newborn King of Kings. For gifts they brought some of the most precious of their day; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Today we’re concerned with that middle one, which many people might be unfamiliar with outside of the biblical tale. What does this have to do with Cannabis? It turns out, frankincense and cannabis share more history than you might expect.
What is Frankincense?
Thousands of years after the tale of the Magi, gold remains a symbol and demonstration of wealth. Myrrh, a sap-like substance from trees is still around today and used to make medicine.
But it’s frankincense that seems to have the most mystical, ritual connotations. The aromatic spice begins as a hardened resin from the trunk of the Boswellia tree to be made into a perfume and incense. In Biblical times – and at direct instruction from God to the Israelites – frankincense was used in the most holy place in the tabernacle.
Native to Oman, Yemen, and Somalia in Africa, frankincense today is frequently used for aromatherapy, a practice that utilizes essential oils like lavender or lemon, for example, that are either inhaled or used on the skin for potential therapeutic benefits. In aromatherapy, frankincense has been loosely associated with therapeutic benefits for cancer, asthma, arthritis, inflammation, and oral health.
Frankincense and Cannabis Connection
While cannabis is not specifically used for aromatherapy (unless the smell of a joint makes you really happy), frankincense and cannabis have a lot in common dating back thousands of years. In at least one instance, in fact, the two of them showed up together.
According to the journal Tel Aviv, analysis of material found on two Iron Age altars at the entrance to a shrine at Tel Arad in Israel found both cannabis and frankincense laying at the shrine’s entrance, or the “holy of holies.” Lead author of the study Eran Arie said, “This is the first time that cannabis has been identified in the Ancient Near East; its use in the shrine must have played a central role in the cultic rituals performed there.”
Study researchers suggest that cannabis was used at shrine ceremonies as a deliberate psychoactive. Arie went on to say that the discovery of frankincense at a second altar provided the earliest evidence of ritual, cultic use of the aromatic spice.
The father of cannabis research, Israeli scientist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, is most famously known for the identification of the cannabinoid THC. But a study he conducted on frankincense suggested that an ingredient in the spice may ease anxiety, elevate mood, and alleviate symptoms of depression, just as cannabis does for some consumers.
Separately, cannabis and frankincense have been used by humans for literally millennia. Frankincense for its aromatic and sacred applications, and cannabis for its use in ritual and as food, fiber, and medicine.
Frankincense has its star turn in the Bible in the story of the birth of Jesus, and is otherwise mentioned 22 times. In Exodus 30:34-38, it is written:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take for yourself spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, spices with pure frankincense; there shall be an equal part of each. With it you shall make incense, a perfume, the work of a perfumer, salted, pure, and holy. You shall beat some of it very fine, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I will meet with you; it shall be most holy to you”.
While it is probably impossible to verify if cannabis is mentioned in the Bible as well, there is some argument that talk of the herb arises in Exodus 30:23-25, when the Lord provides to Moses instructions on how to make a holy anointing oil that includes cannabis – referred to in the Bible as calamus.
Take the following fine spices: 500 shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much (that is, 250 shekels) of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant calamus, 500 shekels of cassis – all according to the sanctuary shekel – and a hint of olive oil. Make these into a sacred anointing oil, a fragrant blend, the work of a perfumer. It will be the sacred anointing oil.
Both frankincense and cannabis have spent time as outlaws. At the birth of Jesus, frankincense was worth more than its weight in gold, but as Christianity rose and the Roman Empire fell, trading routes that frankincense traveled became impassable and incense forbidden because of its affiliation with pagan worship rituals.
Cannabis, of course, has been under direct attack since the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, and the War on Drugs that made cannabis a Schedule I substance since 1971 has inflicted horrendous damage – particularly on medical cannabis patients and communities of color – that has yet to be undone.
So next time you uncap that bottle of frankincense essential oil or spark up that joint, remember that you are but one participant in eons-old rituals that connect our current moment to a shared past.