No matter your faith, you’ve most likely noticed frankincense and myrrh resins, incense, and essential oils start to pop up this time of year. Many first heard of these resins through the story of the Three Wise Men (Magi) and their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh at Jesus’ birth; thus the connection to Christmas time.
While it may be easy to understand gold being a precious gift, in truth, the value of frankincense and myrrh far outweigh that of gold, and this extends far beyond biblical lore.
Frankincense is a sweet smelling gum resin derived from certain Boswellia trees which, at the time of Christ, grew in Arabia, India, and Ethiopia. Tradition says that it was presented to the Christ Child by Balthasar, the king from Ethiopia or Saba. The frankincense trade was at its height during the days of the Roman Empire. At that time this resin was considered as valuable as gems or precious metals.
Myrrh is an aromatic gum resin which oozes from gashes cut in the bark of a small desert tree known as Commifera Myrrha or the dindin tree. The myrrh hardens into tear-dropped shaped chunks and is then powdered or made into ointments or perfumes. This tree is about 5-15 feet tall and 1 foot in diameter. Legend says Caspar brought the gift of myrrh from Europe or Tarsus and placed it before the Christ Child. Myrrh was an extremely valuable commodity during biblical times and was imported from India and Arabia.
People in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula 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.
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.