So What Exactly Are Frankincense and Myrrh?

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Podcast Transcript

The bible talks of three wise men who traveled to Bethlehem bringing gifts to the infant Jesus. These gifts were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 

I think most of you probably have a good conceptual grasp of gold, but what is the deal with frankincense, and myrrh? Were they really that big of a deal that they would bring it as a gift? 

Learn more about frankincense and myrrh, what they are and why they were such a big deal, on the episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

This episode is sponsored by the American Myrrh Producers.

When you buy American myrrh, your money goes to support the men and women who produce some of the finest myrrh in the world. 

Myrrh is as American as cricket or Baba ghanoush. Whether you use myrrh as a healing balm, an ointment, a perfume, or perhaps to anoint a monarch, you’ll know your money is staying in the US of A.

American myrrh ensures that we are not depending on foreign sources of myrrh and that the nation’s strategic myrrh stockpile is kept full. 

The American Myrrh Producers. We put the myrrh into Murrica. 

The association of frankincense and myrrh come to us from the Bible, in particular, the passages about the three magi who visit the infant Jesus. 

The subject of who the three wise were I’ll leave for a future Christmas episode. For the purposes of this episode, I’m just going to focus on their gifts.

The entire episode is only given a few lines in the Bible, in particular, it comes from Matthew 2, verses 1–12. 

It says, and I’m going to edit it a bit for length, 

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” ….When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another path.

So, they brought Jesus three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 

I think most of us have a pretty good grasp on gold. We know what gold is, we know why it would have been brought as a gift, and if someone offered us gold as a gift, we would probably gladly accept it.

But what is the deal with frankincense and myrrh? Most of us don’t have a lot of frankincense and myrrh sitting around and it isn’t something most of us have on our shopping lists. 

Even if you have an even rudimentary knowledge of ancient history,  frankincense and myrrh might still not be something that would top the list of gifts you’d give someone. 

Sliver, precious gems, exotic animals, and expensive cloth would probably be higher up the gift chain in the ancient world. 

To figure this out we first have to know what frankincense and myrrh are because to be totally honest, most people don’t really have a clue what they are.

Both frankincense and myrrh are tree resins.  In fact, they both come from trees in the Burseraceae (Burs-race-e) family. 

Let’s start with Frankincense. 

Frankincense comes from the Boswellia tree. Its English name comes from the Old French phrase “franc ensence” which meant high-quality incense.

The Boswellia tree is a rather scraggly tree and getting resin from it isn’t like getting maple syrup. You can’t just tap it to get what you want. 

In order to harvest frankincense you have to injure the tree, but not kill it. This is done by placing incisions into the bark of the tree. If it is done properly, it will induce what is called gummosis. 

As the name implies, the tree will then gum up the wounds in the bark with resin. This gummy substance is then harvested as frankincense. 

Because the trees are rather small, it grows in an arid region, and there are only so many cuts you can put on a tree, frankincense production is limited. 

The primary region for producing frankincense is southern Arabia, in particular, what are today the countries of Oman and Yemen. There are also production areas on the other side of the Red Sea in Somalia and Djibouti. 

Frankincense has been described as looking similar to white raisins, at least the high-quality stuff is. 

There was an entire ancient trading network set up to transport frankincense from Southern Arabia to areas all over the known ancient world which took to China, as well as the farthest reaches of the Roman empire. 

So, what is it used for? 

It had many uses. The Chinese used it as an anti-bacterial agent as well as for pain relief and an enormous number of other uses. The Egyptians used it in mummification. It can be distilled into an essential oil which is also used for medicinal purposes today.

However, the overwhelming use of frankincense was and is incense. If you have ever been to a church service that used an incense burner, and it had that distinct church smell, it was almost certainly frankincense. 

I remember shopping in the souk in Muscat, Oman and one of the most popular items for sale was frankincense and incense burners. 

Today frankincense really isn’t terribly expensive. You can buy a pound of it on Amazon for $15. 

So what about myrrh?

The word myrrh comes from various Semitic languages including Hebrew and Arabic and the word means bitter. The word in English comes from the bible.

Myrrh comes from the tree Commiphora myrrha. It is also grown in southern Arabia but much more is grown in Eastern Africa, particularly Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. 

It is a darker color than frankincense and often had a reddish color. 

The process of harvesting myrrh is pretty much the same as what is used for frankincense. Trees are cut so the resin will fill in the cuts, and the gummy resin is then chipped off the tree. 

The primary historical use of myrrh was as a perfume. It is mentioned several times in the old testament. In addition to being one of the gifts of the magi, it was also offered to Jesus during the crucifixion, as well as being used to prepare his body for burial. 

Likewise, it was also used and still is today as incense. 

As with frankincense, there are also medicinal uses for myrrh. It has blood-moving properties in Chinese medicine, as well as uses in Indian and Arab medicine. 

Ok, frankincense and myrrh are nice smelling tree resin. It still doesn’t answer the question of why these would have been selected as valuable gifts. 

The answer is because they were valuable at the time. Any exotic substance which had to travel long distances was prized. Just think of the distances people traveled, and the money invested, just to get spices. Something that you buy for cheap at any grocery store. 

Today, doing some back of napkin calculations, gold is about 2,000x times more valuable than either frankincense or myrrh. However, 2,000 years ago, they were probably much closer in value, and some historians have theorized that they might have been near equal value by weight. 

So, the reason why gold, frankincense, and myrrh were brought as gifts is that at the time, they were all considered to be very valuable. 

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett. 

Today’s review comes from listener Alex. T.D over at Apple Podcasts in Great Britain. They write:

Addictive education

This podcast is excellent and I have learned so much. I found it when wondering about San Marino after England played them in the euros, now I have listened to over 300 episodes in a matter of weeks!

Thanks, Alex! True story, I was once in Paris and I walked past a pub at night that had a bunch of rowdy Brits in it. I stepped in was a bunch of English football fans watching them take on Andorra. It hardly seemed like a fair fight. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send in a question, you too can have it read on the show.