What are Frankincense and Myrrh, Anyway?


Gold, frankincense and myrrh.

In the standard Christmastime narrative of Jesus’ birth, he’s born in a manger and visited by, among others, three “wise men.” These guys are sometimes referred to as Kings from the East or the Orient, and sometimes as Magi (followers of Zoroaster and/or astrologers).

The Bible doesn’t give up much about these guys, and church tradition has had to fill in a lot of detail in the time since, including their names and places of origin—Melchior from Persia, Caspar from India and Balthazar from Arabia. What’s clear from the get-go, though, is that they came bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. That first one is something most people are familiar with, but what the heck are those other two?

Both lack the glitter and cache of gold, being dried tree saps, or resins. Frankincense comes from the deciduous trees of the genus Boswellia, and myrrh from some species in the genus Commiphora, all of which are found on the Horn of Africa and the coastal countries of the Arabian Peninsula.

Extracting the sap for both frankincense and myrrh is essentially the same: Harvesters make a vertical cut in the tree’s trunk, piercing the sap reservoirs inside the bark. The sap oozes out and drips down the trunk and is left to dry and harden. After a few days or weeks, harvesters come back and collect the resin.

Both resins have traditionally been used as incense and medicine. Frankincense has a woody, fruity smell that’s been used to perfume the homes of ancient Romans, the rituals of ancient Egyptians, and modern Catholic masses. In the ancient world, it was used medicinally to treat everything from poisoning, to diarrhea, to leprosy. In some Asian traditional medicines, it’s still used to aid digestion and relieve inflammation.

Myrrh, meanwhile, has a medicinal, kind of bitter smell and was used often used to dress wounds because of its astringency (that is, it causes tissue to constrict). Today, it’s still used to prevent and treat gum disease and sometimes shows up in toothpastes and mouthwashes.

Myrrh can also be used in drinks, and was sometimes added to wines and liquors for flavor. It’s used to make some brands of fernets, the Italian liqueur that’s a sort of unofficial national drink of Argentina.

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December 21, 2012 - 4:30am
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