What the Hell is Frankincense and Myrrh Anyway

What the Hell is Frankincense and Myrrh Anyway


At this time of year it is hard to escape the old Biblical myth of the Three Wise Men. They rode their camels across an ancient desert, looking at the star of Bethlehem, while trying to deliver gifts to Jesus, who was somewhere in a stable, probably crying his head off…


While Christmas is becoming increasingly secular and more about the time of year, rather than about old religious rituals, occasionally we will get a reminder of times past. One of these reminders is when we see nativity displays in shopping centres. These can seem quite old fashioned when compared to more modern ideas of Christmas. (No, it’s not a war on Christmas, it is just fashion. The Christmas tree itself has only been around for a hundred years or less.)

Some schools still put on nativity plays. Nowadays though, Christmas plays are drifting towards more secular interpretations of the season… like adventures involving Santa (which to be fair are more inclusive of everyone’s ideological position at this time of year, from religious to not religious and everything in between.) So perhaps it is good that a festival which started as Midwinter has ended up as a light adventure set in a pole full of reindeer.

So back to the camel-riding, gift-bearing dudes with high intellect. While old stories are nice, it’s not good for anyone to believe they actually happened. The worship of wise people is good though. There seems to have been so few in history. We need more and fast.

The wise men of this ancient tale stumped up some decent presents for Jesus. They were valuable items of their day… gold, frankincense and myrrh. We all know what gold is. It is something you invest in to escape a crashing euro. But frankincense and myrrh? Even the names sound like something from an ancient book full of crazy stories about talking snakes and magical apples and the parting of seas with bare hands.


Frankincense – dried sap from the Boswellia tree.

Both frankincense and myrrh are derived from tree sap, and are prized for their alluring fragrance. These items featured in Biblical stories because they were valuable at the time. Daily bathing in the desert was not a thing. So to make people less whiffy, these two substances were burned and then people would stand in the sweet smoke to get the whiff away. Myrrh is mentioned as a rare perfume with intoxicating qualities. Frankincense and myrrh were also used for other things: Egyptian women used the ash of frankincense as eye shadow, for example.


Myrrh is the aromatic resin of a small thorny tree.

Frankincense and myrrh also had medicinal uses. In the Papyrus Ebers of 1500 B.C., priests advised people to use them for wounds, leprosy, worms, snakebites, diarrhoea, plague, scurvy and baldness. These substances were also used in religious ceremonies (what were they worshipping? Jesus had not been born yet?) Frankincense was burned to symbolise prayers rising to the heavens like smoke, while myrrh was used for burials. In Egypt it was used in the mummification process.

At the time when Jesus was supposedly born, Arabia was busting out 1,524 metric tonnes of frankincense every year, using trees in the area, and 406 metric tonnes of myrrh.

While most of us have never come across frankincense and myrrh in their natural form, you might be surprised to learn that these two substances are still big business. In the West, they are used in the perfume, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. Frankincense is also used as an essential oil, with claims that it cures anything from insect bites to cancer. This is all largely unproven, of course.

In the Middle East and North Africa, Frankincense is used in Christian churches to anoint newborn infants, and initiate members entering into new phases of their spiritual lives. It is also used in traditional medicines in Africa and Asia for digestion and healthy skin. In Ayurvedic medicine frankincense has been used for hundreds of years for treating arthritis.

Ethiopia alone trades around 4000 tonnes of frankincense every year. This is all the more remarkable because a single tree from which the resin is harvested will typically yield just 200g per year. While it seems crazy that anyone would need frankincense and myrrh in modern times, there is so much harvesting going on in Ethiopia that the trees are in danger of being killed off from over-production.

Frankincense is harvested by wounding the bark of trees and collecting the resin that is subsequently released from the wound, a process known as tapping. Tapping is carried out at several spots along the stem, using a traditional type of tool that resembles a chisel. High demand means that many trees are being over-exploited, threatening the livelihoods of villagers who depend on them.

Botanists led by Motuma Tolera are trying to secure a future for the trees. Tolera explains, “In some areas, the high demand for frankincense is causing over-tapping, which is bad for a couple of reasons. Tapping the tree creates wounds in the stem that take resources to be healed, and more wounds create more opportunities for insects to attack the tree. It’s not a surprise that some trees die. This is bad for the tree but also for the people living in those areas, since they depend on the resin production, both economically and culturally.”

The botanists have worked out a better way to tap the tree that puts it in less danger. The findings will have practical applications for the people of Ethiopia and other frankincense producers. Tolera says, “Our results suggest that tapping can become more efficient. I hope everyone in Ethiopia will benefit from what we have found.”

Back in Ireland, we will probably never have the urge to give frankincense and myrrh as a gift. But gold is one item recommended by the Three Wise Men that will always be in demand. Gold and wisdom… may they never be out of fashion.


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