The story of three wise men bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant baby Jesus is no doubt familiar to those who celebrate Christmas. Year after year, the story is retold in churches or school plays, sometimes with a melodious accompanying carol. Words have been learned by heart, and props have been created for Nativity scenes, but there remains a curious question that keeps getting asked: what are frankincense and myrrh? Gold is known enough in appearance and value to summon a visualization, but frankincense and myrrh sadly don’t share its fame.
What Are Frankincense and Myrrh?
Frankincense and myrrh are saps which are derived from different species of plants, both of which can be found on the Arabian Peninsula and surrounding areas. When the bark of a Boswellia sacra tree is cut into, the first batch of sap is discarded and the following droplets are collected and dried into solid yellow nuggets of frankincense. A similar process is used to collect myrrh from Commiphora trees, but the sap usually dries into a solid red-brown color.
The biblical Magi are told to have presented three gifts—which led to the story having three wise men despite the actual number not having been writ—and they were of equal value. As the carol “We Three Kings” goes, frankincense was used as incense and myrrh was used in perfumes. So why present them to a king? From the outside, these dried chunks of resin don’t seem like much compared to gold. But what makes frankincense and myrrh so special actually lies in their molecular makeup.
What Are Frankincense and Myrrh Used For?
In addition to smelling good, Frankincense and myrrh both have medicinal properties that make them especially valuable. Frankincense contains boswellic acids that combat inflammation and arthritis. And some molecules in myrrh have been found to dull pain in mice. Some scientists also believe that molecules within in myrrh could have potential cancer treatment applications.
Though traditionally both frankincense and myrrh have been burned, today, they are preferably used as diffused oils extracted from distilled resins. Easily accessed from any store that sells essential oils, frankincense may be used to boost the immune system, lower cholesterol, treat asthma or anxiety, or reduce scars. Myrrh, on the other hand, may aid the immune system, improve dental and gum health, decrease the risk of infection, and treat hypothyroidism. With all these properties, you’d wonder why they’re not more valuable than gold.
Frankincense and Myrrh in History
Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote back in AD 1 that the dried sap of frankincense “had made the southern Arabians the richest people on earth” as Greeks and Romans imported mounds of resins for use in rituals. Previously, frankincense and myrrh were used by Egyptians as ingredients in salves, eyeliner, insect repellent, and even in the process of embalming. Thousands of years have passed and we’re still discovering different uses of frankincense and myrrh. Grouping them with gold in an offering to baby Jesus seems like a mistake, but perhaps therein lies the truth behind why they were offered in the first place.
Symbolically, gold is representative of kingship, while frankincense and myrrh serve as respective reminders of priesthood and—thanks to its use in embalming—death. One tree may have been the downfall of Adam and Eve, but here the infant Jesus was given the products of two trees that importantly served as reminders of his role in life and the reason for his birth: to save his people from what Adam and Eve once unleashed. After all, even though Jesus was the son of God, he was still human, with a fallible heart and body.
Acting as symbolic reminders of purpose and remedies for bodily ailments, frankincense and myrrh may have overcome the blinding gleam of gold. Perhaps it’s time to pay attention to resin.