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Frankincense and Chocolate – Ancient Ties

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Remember the three wise men who came from the east, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the baby Jesus? Well, if this event took place on the other side of the world, in Mesoamerica, it would be a slightly different story. The wise visitors at that time would have likely brought gold, jade and chocolate! (cocoa beans to be exact).

Just as Frankincense was a rare commodity at the time of Jesus’s birth, chocolate also held a place as a luxury commodity in Mesoamerican society. And with their similar uses in trade, in spiritual rituals, for medicinal purposes, and among royalty, frankincense and chocolate have A LOT of ancient ties.


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MONETARY VALUE

FRANKINCENSE - At the time Jesus is thought to have been born, frankincense was so prized and so rare that it may have been worth more than its weight in gold. (1)

CHOCOLATE - Both the ancient Maya and Aztecs had great interest in Gold and Silver as a currency, but historians argue that the cocoa bean emerged as a more valid and efficient currency of trade. In fact, the cocoa bean became so valuable as a currency, that traders began counterfeiting cocoa nibs in an effort to cheat people out of money. This led to gold and silver winning the currency battle of that time. (2)

ORIGINS & SOURCE

FRANKINCENSE - Frankincense has been traded on the Arabian Peninsula, in North Africa, and Somalia for more than 5000 years. Once residing only in the “depths of the remotest mountains” the frankincense tree produces a resin which flows from the trunk when notched. The resin is then collected into lumps and dried to make incense. (3)

CHOCOLATE - The use of chocolate began in the New World with the ancient Olmec civilization (1500 BC-500 BC), in Mesoamerica, and continued on through the time of the Maya and Aztecs before making its trek across to the Old World in the 16th century. (4) All parts of the tree are used, but chocolate is made from the seeds of the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree. (5)

CULTURAL AND RITUAL VALUE

FRANKINCENSE - According to the Hebrew Bible, frankincense and myrrh were components of the holy incense ritually burned in Jerusalem’s sacred temples during ancient times. The ancient Greeks and Romans also imported massive amounts of the resins, which they burned as incense. (1)

CHOCOALTE - Because cocoa beans were valuable, they were given as gifts at ceremonies for the gods and for events such as a child's coming of age and other religious occasions. Cocoa beans were also burned as part of funeral and puberty rites. (5)

MEDICINAL USES

FRANKINCENSE - By the time Jesus was born, medical practitioners had recognized and documented Frankincense’s antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, prescribing them for everything from indigestion and chronic coughs to hemorrhoids and halitosis.

Today frankincense has been investigated as a possible treatment for some cancers, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, anxiety and asthma, among other conditions. (1)

CHOCOLATE - In Mesoamerica and Northern South America, there were 5 major ways cacao was used as medicine:

1)Stimulant (treatment for fatigue)

2)For weight gain

3)As emollients (softening or soothing dry or damaged skin)

4)Antiseptic (killing microbes around bites or wounds)

5)Anti-inflammatory (used as snakebite remedy)

Research today has identified many compounds in cocoa that support the health benefits claimed by these ancient civilizations, including 12 compounds that act as pain killers (analgesics), 2 compounds that can produce a loss of sensation (anesthetics), 14 compounds that can kill or inhibit the growth of microbes (antiseptics), 1 compound that has antibacterial properties (antibiotics), 26 anti-inflammatories, vasoconstrictors (narrow blood vessels), and astringents. (5)

OTHER FUN FACTS ABOUT CHOCOLATE

  • The first chocolate drink may have been a fermented chocolate “wine” beverage
  • Later fermented chocolate drinks were often frothed to give a high head of foam–apparently intended to inhale.
  • The cocoa fruit is approximately the size and shape of an American football
  • Each pod contains around 40 seeds (‘beans’) that are dried to make cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and chocolate
  • Aztec’s liked their chocolate unheated, while Mayans preferred their chocolate heated
  • Chocolate often had hot chilies, maize, vanilla, spices, and flowers added for flavor and texture.
  • Chocolate drinks were often colored intense red with achiote or annatto in keeping with its association with human sacrifice.
  • Cocoa served as money for the Aztecs
  • King Montezuma had a veritable Fort Knox in his storerooms at Tenochtitlan–nearly a billion beans, according to one Spanish informant. (6)

FRANKINCENSE AND CHOCOLATE TODAY

Although Frankincense and Chocolate once shared strong ties in value and medicinal use, the flood of cheap chocolate today has become an embarrassment to the nutrient rich chocolate of yesteryear. The same could be said of poor-quality Frankincense essential oils, but not to the same extent.

Chocolate’s healthy benefits have been widely lost as cheap chocolate today is produced with less and less cacao, lots of sugar, fillers, and with artificial colors, flavors and aromas.

Luckily for us there is a strong movement today to bring back the true goodness and healthy benefits of chocolate. Quality chocolate products now focus on short, natural ingredient lists, cacao content, origin, and quality sourcing.

You could prove that both Frankincense and Chocolate are experiencing revivals today–Frankincense is becoming more widely known as a natural health remedy, and Chocolate is starting to be recognized as a healthy delicacy again–when produced properly.

Even though there is a great divide between the perceived benefits of Frankincense and Chocolate in our world today, nobody can dispute that both have withstood the test of time.



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