FRANKINCENSE & MYRRH: MORE VALUABLE THAN GOLD
Two of the most influential plants in human history are frankincense and myrrh. This is their story.
The Classic Tale of Three Gifts
You don't have to be a biblical scholar to have heard the classic tale of the three wise men. As the story goes, the young prophet Jesus was born in a barn outside of Bethlehem, because there was no room in the nearby Inn for Mary to give birth. Three wise men from the East, or magi, heard of the young King's birth, traveled day and night, following the Star of Bethlehem, until they finally arrived at the barn. They carried with them three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, offerings for their new King.
These gifts were very expensive during that time, and were a boon for Jesus's young family. Gold was valuable then as it is now, a precious metal. Frankincense was a perfume and spiritual incense, burned in temples throughout the East. Myrrh was a sacred anointing oil. Frankincense and Myrrh are both mentioned in the biblical book of Exodus as sacred articles in the early Jewish and Christian faiths.
A Frankincense tree perched on a hilltop in modern-day Oman.
How did they become so valuable?
Frankincense and myrrh are both tree resins, or gummy sap that oozes from the bark of two different trees native to the Arabian Peninsula and Northeast Africa. Incisions are made in the bark of the tree during important times of year, and the sap pours out.
The sacred trees that produce Frankincense and Myrrh are almost impossible to grow outside of the Arabian Peninsula, which meant they were constantly in short supply and high demand. According to a famous Roman historian, the sap made the Arabians the richest people on earth by Jesus’s time, more valuable than gold. Frankincense alone is responsible for creating the trade routes linking southern Arabia to India, the Mediterranean, and the Silk Road in China.
The demand for Frankincense and Myrrh waned with the rise of Christianity, which forbade burning of incense because of its associations with pagan worship. The resins would return to the Catholic Church as a ceremonial incense many years later.
Used in ceremony and medicine for over 5,000 years
- Since ancient history, Frankincense and Myrrh have been used as perfume and incense in spiritual ceremonies throughout the world. Frankincense is sweet and citrusy, while Myrrh is piney and bitter.
- Noted in herbalism and Chinese medicine for their antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, the resins are often used in salves for wounds and sores, for indigestion, chronic coughs, and to embalm bodies.
- Today, in Western Oman where the trees flourish, Frankincense is used in deodorant, toothpaste, and as a flavoring agent in food and drink.
- Recent studies have shown that Frankincense and Myrrh can help treat high cholesterol, Crohn's disease, anxiety, and asthma, among other illnesses.
Roman Catholic censors, still used in important ceremonies to burn Frankincense.