Frankincense and myrrh have long links to the sacred. Why has Christianity viewed them with both fascination and suspicion?
In the traditional Christmas narrative, wise men from the East brought gifts of frankincense, myrrh and gold for the infant Christ. Many explanations exist for the choice of these three items. Most centre on the idea that frankincense was for the birth of a divinity, myrrh was for his embalmment after death, and gold was a recognition of his status as king.
I find the plant extracts – frankincense and myrrh – to be particularly interesting. How is it that they existed as both medicinal and ritual substances, and endured as such despite the profound shifts in culture and science over the ensuing centuries? What is it about frankincense and myrrh that caught the imagination of early Christians, and how have their material properties – powerfully alluring and at times highly contested – helped to shape religious behaviour?
Even people familiar with the story of the three wise men might struggle to explain the material origins of their gifts. But if Christmas is a story about the ‘Emmanuel’ (literally, ‘God with us’) being born in human, bodily form, then the physicality of the gifts – and their relation to our human body – is of great importance. The resins of both myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) and frankincense (Boswellia sacra) come from the sap of small trees in the Burseraceae family.
They grow in arid or semi-arid climates, where soil and weather have considerable impact on the flavour and aroma. Frankincense – ‘frank’, simply denoting high quality incense – has a woody, or warm spiced smell; myrrh smells like rose or even sweet basil, but is sometimes said to have a bitter aroma. Both their smells are wildly variant, however, and myrrh especially – even from the same source – can be said to take on various aromas depending on the mood and spirit of the event. In the ritual practice of Orthodox Christianity, which boasts a continuity of tradition across Eastern Mediterranean regions from the 1st century CE, frankincense is most valued as resin pellets, while myrrh usually comes as an oil infusion.
Mediterranean religion in antiquity was rich with olfaction. This held true for Greco-Roman paganism as well as for Judaism. Everybody used incense and unguents in the home and in public buildings; a wide variety of substances were burned in ritual settings – mostly plants, oils and spices, often imported at great cost from Arabia, Africa and India.
At a time when ‘bad air’ was believed to be a cause of disease, perfumes and incense were used to cleanse the air both as prescribed medicine and as a preventative health measure. Aromatics purified the air against disease, and were understood to drive away vermin such as mice and snakes.
The Ancient Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides (c40-90 CE) wrote extensively of the medicinal qualities of myrrh and frankincense. In his five-volume De Materia Medica, he says that myrrh is:
warming, rheum-closing, sleep-inducing, retaining, drying and astringent. It soothes and opens the closed vulva, and it expels the menstrual flow … Rubbed on with the flesh of a snail it cures broken ears and exposed bones, as well as pus in the ears and their inflammation with meconium, castorium and glaucium. It is rubbed on varicose veins with cassia and honey.
Frankincense, Dioscorides continues, is ‘warm’ and ‘astringent’. No less miraculous as a cure-all, he lists its specific uses at length, including its capacity to ‘fill up the hollowness of ulcers and draw them to a scar, and to glue together bloody wounds’. Today, research in the biochemical sciences shows that myrrh works as an antibacterial agent, which might explain its historical use for treating various infections. Frankincense, for its part, has been shown to affect some strains of human cancer cells, as well as to open the neural pathways in mice that stimulate the perception of warmth.