As a child, I was always fascinated by the three wise men and their gifts. I could see the logic in gold, but what on earth were frankincense and myrrh, and wouldn’t it have been a lot more sensible if they had brought blankets, soap and a nice pot of stew instead? Well, after looking into saffron for a recent blog, I decided to find out the facts about these two strange sounding gifts…
People in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have produced frankincense and myrrh for over 5,000 years. For much of this time, these aromatic resins were the region’s most important commodity, with a trade network that reached across Africa, Asia and Europe.
Derived from tree sap, or gum resin, both frankincense and myrrh were highly prized for personal, religious and medicinal use. In a time before people washed every day, they would use the sweet smoke from the resins to make themselves smell better. Egyptian women used the ash of frankincense to make their eyeliner – think of all those amazing mummies with their dramatically black–lined eyes!
Frankincense and myrrh also had medicinal uses and both resins were recommended for the treatment of wounds. Other ailments they were reputed to cure included hemlock poisoning, leprosy, worms, snakebites, diarrhoea, plague, scurvy and even baldness!
The high demand for frankincense and myrrh created a booming trade in the Middle East lasting several hundred years. In the first century, around the height of the trade, it is recorded that Arabia produced approximately 1,680 tons of frankincense and around 448 tons of myrrh each year.
So frankincense and myrrh were widely available when the three wise men visited the baby Jesus and would have been considered practical gifts with many uses. The expensive resins were symbolic as well. Frankincense, which was often burned, symbolized prayer rising to the heavens like smoke, while myrrh, which was often used for burials, symbolized death.
Frankincense and myrrh may not be as popular as they once were, but they’re still used today in products and in ways that might surprise you. They’re common ingredients in modern perfumes and cosmetics, continuing a tradition that has lasted thousands of years. Scientists are finding new uses for the substances as well and recent studies suggest that frankincense may be beneficial to sufferers of asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, osteoarthritis and collagenous colitis. Researchers have also discovered possible benefits of myrrh in the treatment of gastric ulcers, tumours and parasites.
So, three very wise men indeed…