Posted on Leave a comment

Frankincense and Myrrh

We’ve all heard of Frankincense and Myrrh.  Many of us associate them with the story of Baby Jesus but what the heck are these mystical substances and why would a couple of prophet- like dudes travel across a vast expanse of desert to deliver them to a newborn child? 

What is Frankincense and Myrrh?

Frankincense is a tree resin harvested from the Boswellia species–a rugged 16 foot tall tree native to Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula. Also known as olibanum, the resin oozes from the bark which has been cut with a special knife.

Boswellia Trees in Oman
By Armatus1995 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77757853

After harvesting, the resin dries and hardens into “tears” which are then hand-sorted according to quality. Frankincense tears are a pale yellow color and its aroma has hints of lemon, pine and ginger.

Frankincense and Myrrh resins

Myrrh is similar to frankincense in several aspects. Like Frankincense, Myrrh is a tree resin extracted from the Commiphora myrrha tree–a small thorny species native to northern Africa and the middle East.  Harvesting of Myrrh is the same as Frankincense. However, myrrh resin is a reddish brown with a woody aroma.  

Commiphora myrrha tree

History

We often associate Frankincense and Myrrh with the Three Wise men of biblical lore.  However, according to an article at ScientificAmerican.com we don’t necessarily know that there were three wise men. We assume the presence of three people based upon the arrival of three gifts to baby Jesus. We do know the Ancients considered Frankincense as precious as gold and burned it during ceremonies praising the gods. In fact, Frankincense and Myrrh were so important to early Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks they established extensive trade routes across the Arabian Peninsula to support efficient transport of these tree resins. Interestingly…burning Frankincense and Myrrh during early Christianity was strictly forbidden due to its association with pagan worship even though today we quickly associate it with the Christian story of Baby Jesus.

Frankincense Trade Route

Properties

Boswellic acid is the primary active ingredient in Frankincense which is known to have anti-inflammatory and healing affects (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5801908/). Frankincense also possesses strong anti-bacterial properties leading to its use in oral hygiene products such as toothpastes and mouthwashes (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21992439/).

Like Frankincense, myrrh also possesses anti-inflammatory properties.  However, myrrh may be known more for its anti-oxidant effect and was used by the ancient Egyptians during the process of mummification.  Myrrh has also been used extensively as an antiseptic to keep wounds clean and to staunch the flow of blood.   It is also used as a fumigant in order to relieve bronchitis, colds and coughs.

Back to those Dudes in the Desert

Did the Wise Men set out intentionally to deliver Frankincense and Myrrh to a newborn infant or were they travelling along an ancient trade route to deliver their precious load to the next stop along the way?  Were they following that bright star because it was showing them the way to Baby Jesus or were they using that bright star to navigate an immense desert? 

Though many have found the answers to these questions and more through their religious beliefs, we may never truly know the intent and identification of the dudes in the desert! However, given the cold, damp, dirty environment in which Jesus was born, the therapeutic and medicinal properties found in these precious resins would certainly be a practical addition to a personal apothecary.   Frankincense and Myrrh are still used today to purify the air, heal wounds, and treat gum disease.  And we use it generously in our Frankincense and Myrrh soap for its renowned anti-bacterial properties.  Perhaps the dudes in the desert were indeed, wise men.