Frankincense and myrrh made ideal gifts at the dawn of that first Christmas long ago, gifts only wise and wealthy people were in a position to give. The young, newly married couple taking refuge in a stable for the blessed birth likely couldn't have afforded it if not for the benevolence of their three new friends from afar.
Homer alchemist Michael Francis finds public interest in the two famed essential oils hasn't slowed down since. The owner of Alaska Intuitive Arts on Pioneer Avenue in Homer between Vagabond Café and the Upper Room, Francis combines ancient and modern alchemic knowledge to create oil and incense fusions, as well as salts, soaps and candles containing the oils. Frankincense and myrrh are among the hundreds of earth-based oils he draws from, as well as hundreds of herbs, flowers, crystals, rocks and minerals.
People who want to know more about chemical properties, histories and uses for aromas and other healing tools are quickly learning to head to Francis' downtown shop. In a workshop behind the counter, he creates his own fusions and candles in a manner that probably wouldn't be unfamiliar if a medieval alchemist stuck his head in the door.
The wisemen's gifts, for example, would still be good today for use as a disinfectant -- frankincense warded off the plague -- and it wouldn't hurt to have it along on a camping trip to keep mosquitoes away. But, it also smells heavenly and could be traded like gold or money.
"I have always had an intuitive interest in ancient or universal or cosmic wisdom," Francis said. "When I was eight years old, my family went to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and we went into this place where you could buy a little velvet bag of crystals for $3, or something. I filled my bag and got a booklet about the spiritual properties of crystals."
Back home in Boston, he carried the bag around and talked to people about how the rocks could protect homes or persons, that there were personalities in the rocks.
"I freaked my mom out," he said. "Then she got involved, and my mom went with me to the public library to do research on metaphysics. What I had been saying about the crystals had come to me through intuition, then we found out my intuition was right."
The quest to learn more led him through an unusual childhood of intense study on science, history, religion, art, spirituality and metaphysics as he was growing up Catholic.
His mother, Annemarie Afienko, encouraged him through exposure to Boston's metaphysical and spiritual community. By the time Francis was 14 years old, he had met a successful practitioner making products -- or alchemical spiritual tools -- from her own incense and oils. She ran a well-known business in a four-story brick building in the South End Artist Studios of Boston. "I asked if she would put me to work. I would sweep the floor or wash the windows, anything, just so I could hang out there and learn."
The alchemist, known as Rhiannon, became Francis' first teacher. He spent two years under her apprenticeship, learning ancient formulas, learning how aromatherapy is used for self-transformations and the properties of oils like sandalwood, frankincense and myrrh. All of these are self-help tools, so to speak.
"It's a multi-faceted subject where you learn how you can achieve helping to move energy. How you can learn to trust your own intuition. Sometimes people feel stuck or cursed or undeserving of happiness," Francis said. "This is a way to get perspective, it's asking for assistance like a prayer that sends a message out there."
Francis has managed or help run eight other metaphysical shops. For a time, he also sold his products through his web-based business, Ancient Solutions Fusions, after he moved to Alaska 10 years ago at the age of 20. Michael still ships his Ancient Solutions all over the world. In the past six years he has shipped to almost every state, including Puerto Rico, Germany, London and Australia.
After years of conducting workshops, participating in fairs, festivals and private retreats on the Kenai Peninsula, Francis launched his business on the Homer Spit three summers ago. He rents space at the 158 W. Pioneer Ave., Suite F shop year-round now, and is approaching his second winter at that location. At Alaska Intuitive Arts, he also carries the works of 20 different artists from Homer and around Alaska, such as Jean Steele's drums, rattles and jewelry, Michael Glasgow's star spoon wands, Bobbye Triplett's knitted hats and accessories and music from local musician's like Caressa Starshine and Shawn Zuke. Among the cases is a shelf of well-worn books on the ancient arts.
"This is my lifelong passion, and I love to share it with others. I never want to stop learning," he said.
The bulk of Francis' work is in the hand-manufacturing of his base of incense, oil, soap, candle and salts. He also teaches workshops and gives individual counseling as a spiritual adviser and is a licensed minister of the Universal Church of Life.
But, like the long line of alchemists before him, Francis is busy with new recipes or combinations for fusions.
"There is so much energy around us in our environment, from nature," Francis said, starting on a story. "After (Redoubt) Volcano blew a few years ago, I gathered up the ash and knew I had to make something incorporating the ash from this incredibly powerful force of nature. Ash is made of tiny fragments of crystals like amethysts, garnets and quartz and a whole bunch of things."
Melting ash transforms it back to a form of crystal or volcanic glass called obsidian. Francis inserted the melted ash with wax into a limited line of candles. As the outer-black candles burned, the candle exposed orange, yellow and red colors of wax mimicking lava flow from an erupting volcano, reminiscent of natures "mastery, intellect and strength. Which was the theme of the fusion," he said. The spent candle revealed the piece of obsidian.
A new creation called the "Aurora's Kiss," was inspired by the northern lights, a sight that struck him powerfully when he first moved to Alaska. It is made of a blend of oils including white spruce, forget-me-not, violet, iris, freesia and white musk, along with wild harvest herbs and flowers from Alaska.
He also custom-makes fusions based on an individual astrological reading, which includes interpreting personality based on the position of the moon and sun at the time of the person's birth. A list of questions to answer includes one on the individual's most immediate goal to overcome a specific problem or achieve a goal.
"Sometimes people come into my shop knowing exactly what they want. Sometimes they come in to find out something, or they come in because they are having a bad day," Francis said. One way or another, people are searching for answers. Francis shows how often that answer can be found intuitively with the assistance of ancient tools that can be empowered by your will.
What the Three Wisemen brought to that historic birth, in other words, were heavy symbolic tools meant to help empower the Christ child.
"You can also think of alchemy as a metaphor for the human spirit; achieving a golden state of being," Francis said. "Learn how you can achieve transformation or change the life and consciousness in matter, to help it evolve or solve problems of inner disharmonies."
This article was originally published in The Homer Tribune and is reprinted with permission.