Today I’m going to take you on a journey back in time, to a mystery that remains unsolved to this day.
The deeper I go into this mystery, the more curious I’ve become. Let’s find out what you think. Is this a myth, a legend, or somehow based in truth?
When I first joined Young Living in September 1998, I remember Gary telling us about an amazing legend of a venomous serpent that lived in the Frankincense tree, and protected the tree from anyone who came to harm it.
Naturally, this legend did a great job of deterring people who were thinking about unlawfully harvesting Frankincense resin. But is there any truth to the story? Let’s find out….
A Bleeding Tree gifts its life blood to us
In my last bulletin, I shared how Frankincense oil is made. When a Frankincense tree is 7 to 10 years of age, it is mature enough to be “tapped” for its resin. The tree itself will live to over 800 years of age, gifting 1 to 3 kg of Frankincense resin every single year, depending on its age.
National Geographic published an article about Arabia’s Frankincense Trail in October 1985, Volume 168 Number 4. I have an original copy of this magazine, which Noel and I found in a second hand bookstore. By now, this magazine is almost as precious as Frankincense oil!!! And how did we know to look for it? It’s because Gary Young talked about it in one of his seminars, and we were fascinated and wanted to know more.
The author of the article, Thomas J. Abercrombie, describes how the Frankincense resin is harvested:
“With a few deft strokes of his spatula-like chisel, Haj Mahana bin Salem chipped away the gray, papery outer bark, smoothing a patch the size of his hand. Magically, milk white tears welled on the green wound.”
“The old Bedoin began scraping another branch. With his bowl he moved from tree to tree, pursuing a harvest unchanged for thousands of years. at some trees, tapped three weeks earlier, Haj Mahana collected handfuls of precious ooze, now hardened to a translucent golden hue: pure frankincense.
“All morning I followed him through the fabled groves. Each a clump of thick trunks, the trees (Boswellia sacra) seemed from a distance more like large bushes, barely taller than the camels that nibble on their sprays of small, succulent leaves. Here grows the world’s best frankincense, in the narrow strip of Oman’s desert plateau that borders the green mountains of the Dhofar region. Only here do the trees find conditions ideal: a steady tropical sun, pale limestone soil, heavy dew from the monsoon.”
This is how Young Living harvest their Frankincense resin
Watch this video, but make sure you return to this bulletin to read the rest of the exciting mystery!
Frankincense under threat
In traditional farming practices, the Frankincense trees are cut no more than 12 times a year to keep them healthy. But with the world demand for Frankincense essential oil escalating, unscrupulous suppliers are cutting their trees up to 120 times.
Why cut the tree? The resin oozes out and seals the tree’s wound so it can heal without infection. But as with our human body, there’s always a tipping point. 120 cuts is going to stress any tree.
According to the New York Times¹, as more and more people discover the magic of Frankincense oil and resin, the Frankincense tree is being pushed closer and closer towards the brink of collapse.
According to a study conducted by Frans Bongers, an ecologist at Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands, Frankincense is exported by the thousands of tons each year. As demand increases, over-exploitation and ecosystem degradation are bringing populations to the brink of collapse. The study’s authors estimate that without new trees to replace the old, half the intact forests and half the frankincense they produce will be gone within 20 years.
Is Young Living’s Frankincense at risk?
Fortunately one of Young Living’s pillars that make up their Seed to Seal promise is that they use only sustainable sourcing practices.
Young Living has engaged independent environmental auditors SCS Global, so that we as the end-user and essential oil lover can be guaranteed that our essential oil comes only from sustainable, ethically-sourced origins.
To my knowledge, Young Living is the only essential oil company in the world to use independent environmental auditors, and this is a testament to their integrity and their commitment to sustainability. It’s what allows them to set the Gold Standard in essential oil production and sourcing.
The mysterious legend of a flying serpent….
Maybe this isn’t the first time that Frankincense has been under threat. Could it be that this legend was simply created to deter poachers from cutting the Frankincense tree in a bygone era?
The “Legend” was first written about a few hundred years before Christ. There was a great Greek chronicler called Herodotus, who lived from 484 to 424 BC. He became fascinated by Egyptian tales of flying snakes.
According to his writings, the Frankincense groves were protected by brightly-coloured winged serpents known as Drakontes (Ophies pteretoi). These venomous flying snakes lived in and under the Frankincense trees and guarded the trees from intruders.
They were apparently drawn to the Frankincense tree’s delicious aroma. However, this also made it much more difficult for the owners of the trees to harvest the previous resin. Herodotus wrote that the only way to drive the snakes away was to burn the resin of the Liquidambar tree (Styrax). This made the gathering of Frankincense resin a particularly dangerous art!
Herodotus described the flying serpents as being shaped like a water snake. They were small and had variegated markings, and had a wing-like membrane like bat wings.
“I went to try to get more information about the flying snakes,” says Herodotus. He ended up in the region of “Boutos” in Arabia, where he was shown a “narrow mountain pass leading to a broad plain which joins the plain of Egypt.” There he saw “heaps of skeletons and spines in incalculable numbers; some skeletons were large, others smaller, and others smaller still.”
Ready for some gruesome details?
The Arabs told Herodotus that these creatures would reach plague-like proportions except for two reasons. Firstly, the female kills the male serpent during mating by “biting clean through his neck.” And secondly, the female gives birth to live young. Herodotus writes, “they are born by eating their way out of the womb thus killing their mother”.
The snakes are also the prey of Ibis birds. These jet-black birds gobble up the serpents as they fly east from the desert towards Egypt in Spring.
The Arabs were most likely referring to either the Glossy Ibis or the Northern Bald Ibis, both birds being a jet black colour.
It sure is starting to sound like a great story told to deter unwanted trespassers!
It’s interesting that a similar story was told by Strabo, a Greek geographer, philosopher and historian. He wrote:
“….the trees which bear the frankincense are guarded by winged serpents, small in size, and of varied colours, whereof vast numbers hang about every tree. They are of the same kind as the serpents that invade Egypt; and there is nothing but the smoke of the styrax which will drive them from the trees. The Arabians say that the whole world would swarm with these serpents, if they were not kept in check… Such, then, is the way in which the Arabians obtain their frankincense”.
So is it really a myth?
If you wanted to spin a tale to deter poachers, what better way to do so than to invent a mystical winged serpent who would throw itself onto unsuspecting passersby and kill them with its venom?
But is it really just a myth?
It’s strange that even today, there are people in the Dhofar region of Southern Oman who believe in flying snakes, although not specifically in connection with Frankincense. And because these stories are largely dependent on oral tradition, it strengthens the argument that there is some truth to the story.
One author said they had spoken to locals in Dhofar who had personally known people who as late as 1987 saw creatures they identified as flying snakes.²
This author writes: “For example, just after the monsoon in 1987, a Dhofari man was walking at night to his village near Tawi Attair and was using a torch, when he spotted what he thought was a flying snake.”
In 1985, another local man believed he saw six or seven flying snakes in a wadi 20 km east of Salalah. He said they were about 20 cm long and jumped 3 metres from tree to tree. He did not see any wings on them but he saw them jumping and making a noise similar to the buzz of a bee. One of this man’s friends had reportedly killed one of these animals a year earlier.
“Some of the characteristics which are commonly believed about flying snakes are: they are about 30 cm long and live in trees; their head is a similar shape to a snake’s; they can fly or jump up to 10 metres from tree to tree; they are very dangerous; they sometimes jump onto the heads of unsuspecting passers-by. If they do they almost always inflict a fatal injury on the victim.”
Of course, there could be other explanations. There are lizards which can jump several metres, but they are not venomous, and therefore unlikely to be our “flying snakes”.
Interestingly, fossils bones have been found from Spinosaurus, a large theropod dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous period, 95 million years ago. Its most striking feature is a set of dorsal spines which most likely supported a sail-like membrane like that of a bat. Hmmm…..interesting! And the first specimen discovered by archeologists was found in Egypt on the Mediterranean Coast.
Or there’s CrysIopelea, commonly known as the flying snake or gliding snake (pictured below). This is a genus that belongs to the family Colubridae. For Australians, that family also includes our Green Tree Snake and Brown Tree Snake.
Flying snakes are mildly venomous, through the venom is dangerous only to their small prey. Their range [today] is in Southeast Asia, Southernmost china, India and Sri Lanka….but is it possible that their range once extended to Arabia? The only thing is, these flying snakes don’t have bat-like wings, and the ones in Asia are not highly venomous. So it’s unlikely they are our Winged Serpent.
So the closest thing to the description of the flying snake is the Spinosaurus. Could there be descendants of these dinosaurs still living amongst us today? It’s like the Australian mystery of the Tasmanian Tiger – although declared extinct in 1936, there have been sitings of it as recently as 2017 and 2018! ³
According to Gary Young, the story of a flying serpent is purely Legend, with no truth to it at all. He said the legend was started by the local families who owned the Frankincense trees, in order to keep outsiders away from their trees. That makes sense, too…but if that’s the case, this “Legend” dates back more than 2,000 years, and no one is alive to tell the real story.
Adrienne Mayor, a Research Scholar in Classics and HIstory of Science at Stanford University, ponders the origin of the Winged Serpent⁴:
“What about the winged snakes?” she writes, “Was the lore based on legendary hordes of large flying insects, perhaps locusts, preyed on by huge flocks of birds? Was there once a population of “parachuting” lizards or “gliding” snakes in the Sinai? (Draco volans and Chrysopelia, respectively, are now only found in southeast Asia). Note that Herodotus was never shown live specimens, only heaps of jumbled bones of different sizes. Could the Egyptian tales have arisen to explain mysterious fossil deposits of Spinosaurid dinosaurs (with a membrane “sail”), or a large mixed deposit of fossil birds and reptiles eroding out of a salt valley now obliterated by the Suez Canal? The true identity of the winged snakes of ancient Arabia remains a tantalizing unsolved enigma.”
Would you love to know the benefits of Frankincense oil?
Once every 4 weeks on my spiritual platform “Raw Divinity”, I’m doing a segment called “Oil Love”. You’ll see my very first Oil Love blog come out next week. If you want to learn more about the emotional and spiritual benefits of essential oils like Frankincense, and if you love the topic of plant and animal wisdom and spiritual insights, please follow me there (as well as here at The Oil Temple). You’ll also see some fabulous recipes, tips and amazing facts posted on Raw Divinity’s Instagram and Facebook. So if you love essential oils, follow me on both.
Think you might like to try some Frankincense oil?
Here’s how to Order….
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