Frankincense & Myrrh
Since this course is typically taught in the autumn, by now,
it’s December and almost the end of the course. This time of year, many
people in this country are beginning to sing the song, “We Three Kings,”
which mentions frankincense and myrrh, yet most people know very little about
these two plant resins.
Frankincense comes from the plant Boswellia sacra (B.
carterii is a frequently-used synonym), and myrrh comes from
Commiphora myrrha (C. molmol is a frequently-used synonym).
To the Magi (in ancient Persia, these were a priestly caste who
were astrologers and thought to have occult powers), gold symbolized
royalty/kingship (vs. 2 of the song says, “Gold I bring to crown him
again;”), the frankincense, because of its use in religious rituals,
symbolized divinity (vs. 3 of the song says, “Frankincense to offer have I;
/ Incense owns a deity nigh;”),
and the myrrh, commonly used as an embalming agent, was a symbol of
death (vs. 4 of the song says, “Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume /
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;”).
(text & tune: John Henry Hopkins, Jr., PD)
Boswellia and Commiphora spp. are all scrubby trees in the family Burseraceae (bursa = a hide or purse), and grow in arid areas near the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula. Ideal conditions are hot tropical sun, limestone soil for frankincense and basaltic soil for myrrh, and salty dew blown in from the Arabian Sea. It is thought that 2000 years ago, this area exported about 3000 tons of frankincense annually to just Greece and Rome, but today only a few tons are produced each year, yet even the sands of the beaches near the ancient ports still smell of frankincense. The bark of these trees is chipped away so that the milky sap oozes out, and after several weeks is hardened and ready to be collected. Frankincense hardens into translucent yellowish lumps, while myrrh is a reddish-brown color.
Frankincense has been used in religious rites in many of
the Middle-Eastern religions from Egypt, Greece, and Rome, to Israel,
Lebanon, Iran, India, and beyond. It has also been used in perfumes and
other cosmetics — both frankincense and myrrh were ingredients in the sacred
anointing oil of the Israelites. The Romans in Nero’s time used it to mask
the odor in their cremation rites. Historically, it has also had a number
of other medicinal uses. In modern Arabia it is used as an infusion for
upset stomach, burned as incense while the men are sitting around talking
after dinner, and chewed because it is thought to be good for the teeth and
gums. Considering the blended aroma of sewage, garbage, dung, dead animals,
etc. baking in the noontime sun in ancient cities, the burning of
frankincense and other incenses probably was a necessity for other
Frankincense is still used medicinally as an anti-inflammatory and in treatment of bronchial asthma and ulcerative colitis, and has been found to have antineoplastic effects, inhibiting growth of certain types of human leukemia cells. It also may have some antihyperlipidemia and weak antifungal effects.
The name “myrrh” is derived from the old Hebrew and Arabic
word mur, meaning bitter (myr also means ointment or perfume).
Traditionally, demand for myrrh was less and the cost higher than
frankincense, although, today it is much more widely used medicinally (both
for humans and in veterinary medicine). Myrrh has been used as an anointing
oil, a fumigant and incense, in cooking and embalming, and medicinally. It
preserved and perfumed the royal mummies of Egypt. Due to its antiseptic
properties, myrrh is still used as a mouthwash and gargle for inflammations
of the mouth and pharynx and used in some tooth-powders. It is also used
externally on wounds. Burning myrrh is said to repel mosquitoes. Myrrh
contains constituents that stimulate gastric secretions and promote
peristalsis, thus some people believe it is an aid to digestion.
Historically, it has been used for cancer, leprosy, syphilis, and as an aid
in chest and menstrual problems, but there is inconclusive evidence that it
really works for these conditions.
Myrrh is known or thought to have antimicrobial, ansringent, carminative, expectorant, anticatarrhal, antiseptic, and vulnerary properties. It has traditionally been used for pharyngitis, respiratory ailments, common cold, mouth ulcers, and gingivitis, and is still used for topical treatment of mild inflammations of the oral and pharyngeal mucosa. Tests on both normal and diabetic rats revealed that it does have a hypoglycemic effect, and thus may be of use in treating diabetics.
Examining Frankincense and Myrrh:
Examine the resins, taking notes on their appearance, smell (and taste?).
Your instructor will demonstrate “burning” the resins to release their odors. Note that they are not actually set on fire, but rather, heated until they smolder. In normal use, pieces are placed on smoldering charcoal, but for our purposes, they will be heated in a glass petri dish on a ringstand (with a ring and wire gauze) over a Bunsen burner. Frankincense has a “sweeter,” more “incense-like” smell, while myrrh, as its name would imply, has a more bitter odor.
Take notes on your observations of these resins (appearance, smell, etc.). Which of the smells do you like better?
You are encouraged to do online searches for more information and photographs of these trees. Here are a few interesting ones that I found: