Sniffing Out Frankincense and Myrrh

Contrary to popular belief, the three wise men, or kings, as some traditions maintain, did not present the baby Jesus with a mad scientist who fashioned a monster out of dead body parts. So what exactly is frankincense? And myrrh too?

Frankincense and myrrh are actually resins, by-products of the sap which ooze out of the Boswellia (frankincense) and Commiphora (myrrh) trees. Both were extremely valuable, more so than gold, the third gift bequeathed by the magi on the child in the manger. Frankincense was considered “the purest incense” and thus had a higher trading value, while myrrh was exported to faraway lands for its therapeutic properties. Frankincense is mentioned more than 50 times in the Bible, while Myrrh scores a little over 20.

Both were thought to cure all sorts of diseases. Myrrh was an antidote for colds, asthma, worms, bad breath, and even cancer. Frankincense could soothe the senses – alleviating stress, sedate patients, and combat anxiety. Yesteryear’s Botox, it reduced wrinkles too.

Both were used as perfumes, as well as in funeral preparations. Myrrh was part of beauty treatments, and was also linked to lovemaking. Frankincense, on the other hand, had to do with more spiritual matters. It was burnt alongside temple offerings, and accompanied Roman processions when they emerged victorious in battle.

Other tots might be content with a teddy bear, but Jesus was different. These gifts were symbolic, myrrh a foretelling of his death, which then “healed” his people of their sin like a medicinal balm; frankincense because he grew up to be a priestly figure; and gold, the only gift we still give today, representing his kingship and purity.

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