What ARE Frankincense, Myrrh and Gold, Anyway?


In Western cultures, this time of year is full of references to “Frankincense, Myrrh and Gold.”  Why?  According to tradition, those are gifts that the Three Kings or Magi brought to the newborn Jesus in Bethlehem.  Christian teachings tout this as a sign of great respect and homage, since frankincense and myrrh were both very expensive, and gold was, well… gold.  For any Magi, king or other random stranger to bring some to a newborn was pretty much unthinkable, unless that newborn was very, very important.  So, alright, we get it–frankincense and myrrh are not the typical gift you might find under a tree.  So what are they, really?  The answer is: resin.

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Frankincense comes from the Boswellia sacra tree, also called the olibanum tree.  (“Olibanum” is another word for frankincense resin, sometimes reserved for the higher grades of it.)  This tree, which averages 6m in height, is grown in the arid woodlands of Yemen and Oman, primarily.  The sap is harvested and made into a sweet, pale yellow resin or gum.  Aromatherapy credits frankincense as being excellent for bringing calm and easing breathing difficulties.  Numerous spiritual traditions (including Catholicism, Judaism, and Wicca) claim that burning frankincense is exceptional for blessing an area, dispelling negativity, and bringing forth heavenly or spiritual beings.

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Myrrh comes primarily from the Commiphora myrrha plant.  This thorny bush provides the fragrant gum which is used in medicine, as well as incense.  It has an earthy fragrance, with hints of sweetness and dryness, but a bitter, pungent taste.  Herbal tradition notes that it is excellent as an antibiotic and antimicrobial, of particular use against gum disease.  Many spiritual traditions credit myrrh as a powerful anti-cursing and spiritual cleansing agent.

 

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Both resins are typically heated on lit charcoal to release the fragrant smoke.  This is a picture of frankincense resin in its natural state.  It comes in the form of hard, pale pellets which melt gradually when exposed to heat.  In this state, both resins form a fairly sticky goo which is great to scent the house, but terrible to scrape off something.  So if you are going to heat frankincense or myrrh, make sure you are using a heat-proof container that you do not mind being permanently coated in resin.  (A hanging incense burner made of brass is ideal for this purpose.)

 

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