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What are frankincense and myrrh?

A Brief History of Frankincense and Myrrh

People in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have produced frankincense and myrrh for some 5,000 years [source: Michie]. For much of this time, these aromatic resins were the region's most important commodity, with a trade network that reached across Africa, Asia and Europe. Today, demand for frankincense and myrrh has subsided, but numerous Chinese, Greek, Latin and Sanskrit sources remind us of their past importance.

Frankincense and myrrh were desired for personal, religious and medicinal use. In a time before daily bathing, people would use the sweet smoke from the resins to make themselves smell better. Egyptian women utilized the ash of frankincense for personal use as well, mixing it into their eye shadow. These substances were also widely used in religious ceremonies and burials. According to the Greek writer, Herodotus, the Egyptians used both frankincense and myrrh in the preparation of animal sacrifices and human mummies. Hebrews and Christians incorporated them into their ceremonies in the third century B.C. and fourth century A.D., respectively. Frankincense and myrrh also had medicinal uses. In the Papyrus Ebers of 1500 B.C., priests recommended both resins for the treatment of wounds. Other ailments they were once reported to cure include hemlock poisoning, leprosy, worms, snakebites, diarrhea, plague, scurvy and even baldness!

The high demand for frankincense and myrrh created a booming trade in the Middle East lasting several hundred years. In the first century, around the height of the trade, Pliny the Elder claimed that Arabia produced approximately 1,680 tons (1,524 metric tons) of frankincense and around 448 tons (406 metric tons) of myrrh each year [source: Simpson]. One of the most important trade centers surrounded the Shisr oasis in southern Oman. This outpost exported frankincense across Mesopotamia, India and China from about 300 B.C. to the third century A.D. The ruins of the settlement remain as a UNESCO World Heritage site known as "The Land of Frankincense."

Clearly, frankincense and myrrh were widely available when the Magi visited the baby Jesus around 5 B.C., and would have been considered practical gifts with many uses. The expensive resins were symbolic as well. Frankincense, which was often burned, symbolized prayer rising to the heavens like smoke, while myrrh, which was often used for burials, symbolized death. Accordingly, a mixture of wine and myrrh would be offered to Jesus during his crucifixion.

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