What are frankincense and myrrh?

Extracted from tree sap, frankincense is burned like incense and is prized for its alluring fragrance. See pictures of trees.

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 are unavoidable, decorating churches and shopping malls alike. But don't let the shiny tinsel and festive candy canes distract you from the real question: What exactly are frankincense and myrrh?

Derived from tree sap, or gum resin, both frankincense and myrrh are prized for their alluring fragrance. Frankincense is a milky white resin extracted from species of the genus Boswellia, which thrive 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 is a reddish resin that comes from species of the genus Commiphora, which are 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 sap 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. These beads are collected after two weeks.

Now that you know what frankincense and myrrh are, click over to the next page to find out more about how they're used and exactly what role they play in the Bible.

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.

Is your nose still itching for facts about these aromatic resins? Visit the next page for more information.

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  • "Boswellia sacra (frankincense)." Natural History Museum, London. 2011. (April 25, 2011)http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/species-of-the-day/scientific-advances/industry/boswellia-sacra/index.html
  • 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
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  • Spinner, Jackie. "What Is Frankincense?" Slate. Dec. 14, 2010. (April 25, 2011)http://www.slate.com/id/2277424/
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  • Tucker, Arthur O. "Frankincense and Myrrh." Economic Botany. October-December 1986. (April 25, 2011)http://www.jstor.org/pss/4254901
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