If you've heard of frankincense and myrrh, it's probably thanks to the biblical account of the birth of Jesus. According to the book of Matthew, Chapter 2, Magi, or wise men, followed a bright star in the east to Bethlehem where Jesus had been born:
And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).
During the Christmas season, depictions of this event decorate churches and shopping malls alike. But don't let the festive candy canes and shiny tinsel on the Christmas tree distract you.
Both frankincense and myrrh are resins derived from tree sap. During ancient times, they were considered valuable commodities and were prized for their aromatic resins.
Frankincense is a milky white resin extracted from the Boswellia tree, or Frankincense tree, which thrives in arid, cool areas of the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa and India.
The finest and most aromatic of this species is Boswellia sacra, a small tree that grows in Somalia, Oman and Yemen. These plants, which grow to a height of 16 feet (5 meters), have papery bark, sparse bunches of paired leaves, and flowers with white petals and a yellow or red center.
Myrrh resin is a reddish color and comes from species of the genus Commiphora, which is native to northeast Africa and the adjacent areas of the Arabian Peninsula. Commiphora myrrha, a tree commonly used in the production of myrrh, can be found in the shallow, rocky soils of Ethiopia, Kenya, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Somalia. It boasts spiny branches with sparse leaves that grow in groups of three, and can reach a height of 9 feet (3 meters).
The processes for extracting the resins of Boswellia (for frankincense) and Commiphora (for myrrh) are essentially identical. Harvesters make a longitudinal cut in the tree's trunk, which pierces gum resin reservoirs located within the bark. The sap slowly oozes from the cut and drips down the tree, forming tear-shaped droplets that are left to harden on the side of the tree. The resin is collected after two weeks.
A Brief History of Frankincense and Myrrh
People have produced frankincense and myrrh for some 5,000 years. 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 in the ancient world.
Frankincense and myrrh were desired for personal, religious and medicinal use. In a time before daily bathing, people would use the smoke from the resins to make themselves smell better. Egyptian women utilized the ash of burned frankincense resin for personal use as well, mixing it into their eye shadow.
Frankincense and myrrh 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.E. and fourth century C.E., respectively.
Frankincense and myrrh were also used as medicine. In the Papyrus Ebers of 1500 B.C.E., priests recommended both resins for treating wounds. Other ailments they were once reported to cure include hemlock poisoning, leprosy, worms, snakebites, diarrhea, plague, scurvy and even baldness.
The high demand 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.
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.E. to the third century C.E. The ruins of the settlement remain as a UNESCO World Heritage site known as "The Land of Frankincense."
Clearly, these resins were widely available when the three wise men visited the baby Jesus around 5 B.C.E., 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 in embalming, symbolized death.
So scholars think that frankincense was presented to the baby Jesus to symbolize his later role as a high priest for believers while myrrh symbolized his eventual death and burial.
Frankincense and Myrrh Today
Frankincense and myrrh may not be as popular as they once were, but they're still used today in some ways that you might not expect. Their essential oils are used in modern perfumes and cosmetics, continuing a tradition that has lasted thousands of years. You can also buy frankincense essential oil on its own (the same goes for myrrh essential oil, of course) or resins that can be burned.
Scientists are still finding new medicinal uses, and both have been used in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries.
A 2016 study found frankincense was a good anti-inflammatory (which can help with pain relief), and a 2019 study suggests that frankincense and myrrh essential oils may have analgesic effects. The researchers of the latter study determined that when the two are combined, they have amazing anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer pharmacological effects, though they acknowledged more studies are needed to verify the synergistic efficacy.
Originally Published: Apr 1, 2000
Frequently Answered Questions
What is frankincense and myrrh made from?
Frankincense is made from the resin of the Boswellia tree, while myrrh is made from the resin of the Commiphora tree.
Gurley, Doc. "Frankincense and Myrrh: The Wise Men Brought...Healthcare?" San Francisco Chronicle. Dec. 24, 2009. (April 25, 2011)http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/gurley/detail?entry_id=53958
Herodotus. "The History of Herodotus." The Internet Classics Archive, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 2011. (April 25, 2011)
History and Special Collections, UCLA Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library. "Frankincense/Myrrh." Spices, Exotic Flavors, and Medicine. 2002. (April 25, 2011)http://unitproj.library.ucla.edu/biomed/spice/index.cfm?displayID=28
Michie, Colin. "Pharmaceutical Magic from the Magi." New Scientist. Dec. 23-30, 1989. (April 27, 2011)http://books.google.com/books?id=yINSqbNUNM0C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
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