Monday, 11 October 2010 16:00

Frankincense and Mirth

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In our incense-making workshop during our September esbat, I explained that there is a science and a technology about witchcraft - that we use certain plants, certain phases of the moon, certain substances and so on to achieve certain effects.  Witchcraft is a blending of mental, spiritual and physical tools, perhaps moreso than any other form of magic, save for alchemy. Much of our craft has to do with working within the real world to achieve effects in the real world, and doing so while working toward our highest ideals.

I was delighted to learn that the smoke of frankincense resin, which has always gone in most of my incenses, has been shown in scientific studies to elevate moods and relieve symptoms of depression. I suppose it's no wonder that I have used it in many of my incense formulae all along.  How better to get in the right frame of mind for exploring some beautiful realms, dancing with the gods, and playing in that realm between the world of men and the world of phantasm?

I'm always pleased when the scientific world catches up to what we witches have known all along.



Burning Incense Is Psychoactive: New Class Of Antidepressants Might Be Right Under Our Noses

ScienceDaily (May 20, 2008) — Religious leaders have contended for millennia that burning incense is good for the soul. Now, biologists have learned that it is good for our brains too. An international team of scientists, including researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, describe how burning frankincense (resin from the Boswellia plant) activates poorly understood ion channels in the brain to alleviate anxiety or depression. This suggests that an entirely new class of depression and anxiety drugs might be right under our noses.

"In spite of information stemming from ancient texts, constituents of Bosweilla had not been investigated for psychoactivity," said Raphael Mechoulam, one of the research study's co-authors. "We found that incensole acetate, a Boswellia resin constituent, when tested in mice lowers anxiety and causes antidepressive-like behavior. Apparently, most present day worshipers assume that incense burning has only a symbolic meaning."

To determine incense's psychoactive effects, the researchers administered incensole acetate to mice. They found that the compound significantly affected areas in brain areas known to be involved in emotions as well as in nerve circuits that are affected by current anxiety and depression drugs. Specifically, incensole acetate activated a protein called TRPV3, which is present in mammalian brains and also known to play a role in the perception of warmth of the skin. When mice bred without this protein were exposed to incensole acetate, the compound had no effect on their brains.

"Perhaps Marx wasn't too wrong when he called religion the opium of the people: morphine comes from poppies, cannabinoids from marijuana, and LSD from mushrooms; each of these has been used in one or another religious ceremony." said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal. "Studies of how those psychoactive drugs work have helped us understand modern neurobiology. The discovery of how incensole acetate, purified from frankincense, works on specific targets in the brain should also help us understand diseases of the nervous system. This study also provides a biological explanation for millennia-old spiritual practices that have persisted across time, distance, culture, language, and religion--burning incense really does make you feel warm and tingly all over!"

According to the National Institutes of Health, major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the United States for people ages 15--44, affecting approximately 14.8 million American adults. A less severe form of depression, dysthymic disorder, affects approximately 3.3 million American adults. Anxiety disorders affect 40 million American adults, and frequently co-occur with depressive disorders.

Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.