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Frankincense and Myrrh Treasures of Kings

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

Gather, children, and hear the story of the Three Kings.   August personages (wise men or “astrologers”, in the New English Bible), these eminent men traveled far to find Jesus, and when they found him, according to the Gospel of Matthew, “they opened their treasures and offered him gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.” While the names and number of these wise men are not specified in the Gospel, this is the origin of the story of the Three Kings.  January 6, the feast day of the Three Kings, also known as Twelfth Night or Epiphany, has become a gift-giving celebration in many traditions.

Frankincense (from the Old French for “Noble Incense”), comes from the resin of any of a number of small, scrappy desert trees of the genus Boswellia.  These trees are so hardy they can grow on solid rock.  Resin is produced and harvested when the bark is slashed, producing “tears”.  These resins can be harvested two or three times a year from mature trees. It from this practice that Frankincense derives it’s Arab name, al-lubān, and al-bakhour, which translates to “that which is milked.”

Frankincense has been harvested and valued for over 6,000 years. Murals depicting the import of Frankincense are found in the Egyptian tomb of Queen Hatshepsut. It is mentioned often in both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament.

This resin comes at a cost to the trees: they survive, but are much less likely to produce viable seed.  Frankincense producing trees are in decline, in part because of overharvesting, but also because their habitat is increasingly being converted to agriculture.

What makes this tree sap the gift of kings? Frankincense has antibacterial properties, was used in the Egyptian mummification process to cleanse the body, and its essential oil is used in some perfumes. But it is the use of burnt frankincense resin to mark spiritual awakening and progress that makes it something really special.  Holy, in fact. In the Hebrew tradition, the scent of burning frankincense represents the name of the divine.  Christian and Islamic traditions also anoint infants and initiates with frankincense-infused oil.

Like frankincense, myrrh comes from the resin harvested from gashed trees; in this case it is from the genus, Commiphora. Its name derives from the Arabic word for “bitter.” Like frankincense, the scent of burning myrrh has been associated with spiritual attunement and growth, and the two resins are often found in combination. Myrrh has also long been used for its antibacterial properties. It is still used in dental preparations and veterinary medicine to reduce infection and inflammation. It may act somewhat like opium in easing pain.

While the gospel of Matthew mentions the presence of myrrh at the beginning of Jesus’ life, in the gospel of Mark it appears at the end of Jesus’ life as well.  As he is dying on the cross, Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh, in an attempt to dull his pain. He does not drink.

The Gospel of Luke, chapters 23-24, tells the story of the women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee, who (along with his disciples) ventured forth at dawn on the morning after the Sabbath to anoint his body “with the spices that they had prepared.” The names and origin of those spices are not known. But there is a tradition that those spices included the frankincense and myrrh from Jesus’ cradle gifts.  Who knows?  The idea has a round and satisfying shape to it.