Anyone celebrating Christmas, commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, will probably be familiar with the substances frankincense and myrrh. According to the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12), the infant Jesus of Nazareth was visited in Bethlehem after his birth by Magi bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
At this time in history, frankincense and myrrh were considered to be worth more than their weight in gold. Both had been traded in the Middle East and North Africa for upwards of 5,000 years. It is believed that the Babylonians and Assyrians burned them during religious ceremonies.
Both frankincense and myrrh are derived from the gummy sap that oozes out of the Boswellia and Commiphora trees when their bark is cut or tapped. The sap hardens and forms beads or "tears." These trees grow in areas like Oman, Yemen and the Horn of Africa, including Somalia and Ethiopia. Both substances are extremely fragrant, and when they are burned as incense, frankincense gives off a sweet, citrusy scent and myrrh produces a piney, bitter odor.
Historically, they were also used in burial rituals as an embalming material, an offering to the departed, and as a means to cover the odor of the dead body. Ancient medical practitioners recognized and documented that both substances had antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. They were prescribed for everything from indigestion and chronic cough to hemorrhoids and bad breath.
Today, there are still people around the world who use them for a variety of ailments.
The trade in these two fragrances became the most lucrative in the world from around 1000 B.C. through A.D. 400. For a time, it made southern Arabia the richest place on Earth. However, despite their significance in the New Testament, the substances fell out of favor in Europe with the rise of Christianity and the fall of the Roman Empire.
In the early years of Christianity, incense was expressly forbidden because of its association with pagan worship. Later, however, some denominations, including the Catholic Church, would incorporate the burning of frankincense and myrrh and other aromatic items into specific rites. The fall of the Roman Empire essentially obliterated the thriving trade routes for these items that had developed over many centuries.
Larrie Stone is a retired Dana College science professor.