As a child, I sang Christmas carols and played with Nativity figures: tiny mangers, camels and sheep. I loved the festivities of Christmas although there were many little details I did not understand—for instance, if there really were twelve days of Christmas, how come we only got presents once? And what good is myrrh as a Christmas present?
It all relates back to the Nativity story from Matthew 2:9, where Magi from the East follow a star, arrive in Bethlehem, and offer the infant Jesus their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Of course, as I grew older and even more curious, I learned and studied a lot, about cultures and music, religions and languages. Allegedly, our entire Christmas shopping season, and even Chanukah gifts and Kwanzaa celebrations, grew out of those first gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In the Christian calendar, the Magi arrived in Bethlehem with their gifts twelve days after Jesus' birth, on Epiphany, January 6, today. In many cultures, it is the Three Kings who give out gifts to children on January 6, and children leave grass in their shoes or in boxes for the donkeys or camels on the night before. (It seems that because there are three gifts specified in the Bible, there must have been three Magi, but the Scripture never specifies. The Magi could have numdered anywhere from two to 200!)
Gold is easy to understand—portable, valuable in every culture. So just what are frankincense and myrrh?
The term frankincense was probably not used for 1300 to 1400 years after Jesus' birth! Before that it was called, after the milky white appearance of the hardening drops of sap, a Hebrew or Semite word which I don't have the characters for here, but a word that means white and came down through Greek and Latin as olibanum. Frankincense seems to have meant "pure incense" or "noble incense."
I always assumed frankincense had some connection to the inexpensive, smelly sandlewood incense I used to burn when I considered myself a hippie. Well, I was sort of correct. The ultimate product, frankincense, pictured right, is a resin, which can be in a solid, powder or oil form, from Boswellia sacra (left), a desert shrub from Oman and Yemen. It is harvested (something like maple syrup) by deliberately wounding the tree and waiting for the sticky, resinous sap to ooze out and harden. Frankincense was used by ancient Hebrews for the burnt offerings as described in the Torah or Leviticus. The incense from Boswellia sacra resin was burned thousands of years before the birth of Jesus by Egyptians (who used the smoky soot remaining after the smoldering resin had burned, or "kohl," as eyeliner). Greeks also favored its sweeter aroma to perfume their less fragrant activities. It is mentioned quite regularly in ancient texts.
Frankincense is burned today at special Christian church services in some denominations, including Greek Orthodox, Christian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Anglican, and probably others. For some, its fragrance is "the smell of the Middle East." Other people associate it with church, which may or may not be a positive memory. In fact, apparently churches' demand for frankincense is so high that the supply coming out of the ancient sources of Oman, Yemen and Ethiopia is being depleted.
Frankincense harvested from various species of Boswellia shrubs is used in Indian or Ayurvedic medicine as an internal tonic or external poultice commonly today. Traditional Chinese medicine also uses imported powdered frankincense or oil of frankincense taken internally. It is reportedly being investigated for western medical use as an anti-arthritic .
I highly recommend following the link below if you are curious about the actual harvesting and economy of this plant; it is an article by Tony Walsh, both in English and Arabic.
Although it is possible to cultivate Boswellia plants away from their native Middle East, it is difficult. I certainly haven't tried it—zones 10 or 11 are needed!
The word myrrh comes, apparently unchanged, from Aramaic to Hebrew to Greek to Latin. The spelling got stuck in the Greek form, for this is the modern English spelling, but the pronunciation seems the same, so if you're ever time travelling in ancient Babylon and need some myrrh, you'll know what to say. The original word simply means "bitter." Myrrh is similarly tapped by deliberately wounding a resinous tree and harvesting the sap, this time Commiphora myrrha.
Myrrh is actually a key ingredient used in embalming mummies and was used this way in ancient Egypt and by early Hebrew people. Early Jews wrapped their dead in linen soaked in "spices and oils;" well, the spice being referred to is myrrh. Myrrh was associated with death in the all the ancient cultures of the East. The Torah calls myrrh "a kingly fragrance."
At the time of Jesus' birth, according historians' estimates, myrrh was worth far more than its weight in gold. Whether it was meant as a gift of prophecy or whether it was simply an extremely valuable gift is up for the theologians and historians to debate. Perhaps it was meant to be useful for boyhood scrapes and scratches!
Today, myrrh is sometimes an antiseptic ingredient in dental preparations. Myrrh is used in Indian or Ayurvedic medicine as an internal tonic or external poultice today, and likewise, traditional Chinese medicine uses imported powdered myrrh or oil of myrrh externally and internally.
These ancient ingredients are also burned by spiritualists and used in aromatherapy. If you still want some frankincense and myrrh to add to your gold this Epiphany, January 6, Amazon.com and many other websites are happy to sell them to you, together or separately.
Please, use caution and the advice of your own physicians before using any new herbal preparation.
PHOTO CREDITS: timrann, photo of Boswellia; botanical drawing of myrrh in Public Domain; photo of grains of Frankincense available under Creative Commons.