Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Frankincense and Myrrh

The gifts of the Magi were three: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
We all know why gold was valuable,
but what about frankincense and myrrh?

First of all, both frankincense and myrrh are resins
harvested from a couple of very scrubby trees, historically in Arabia and Somalia.
Each tree exudes a sticky resin that dries into tears;
myrrh turns reddish brown after several days.
Frankincense is traditionally harvested in the autumn,
according to Gus W. Van Beek,
author of the article "Frankincense and Myrrh"
published in an edition of The Biblical Archaeologist, 
Volume 23, No. 3, Sept 1960, pp. 82 - 86.

This limited harvest helps explain in part the high demand for it centuries ago.
Van Beek says that frankincense was primarily valued
in ancient times because of its fragrance
and for its use as an ingredient in incense used for religious offerings.
The incense was regarded as holy, so it was reserved for honoring Yahweh.
But not only was frankincense important for temple rites,
archaeological evidence reveals numerous small frankincense burners
in homes in Egypt and Palestine.
Van Beek interprets the prevalence of individual burners
as evidence for frankincense burning during individual devotions.
But frankincense was also commonly burned during funeral rites
and was even found in King Tutankhamun's grave.
Frankincense was also valued for medicinal purposes,
including as an antitode to poison.
These multiple uses and limited availability
may help explain the great demand for frankincense
before and after the common era.

Frankincense Tears 

Van Beek says that myrrh was also used for incense, 
but not as frequently as frankincense.
Myrrh was primarily valued for its fragrance.
In Assyria, it was burned in a censer over a sick bed,
Yet, Van Beek says myrrh was equally important as a cosmetic and perfume.
Beauty regimens relied on the perfume and lotions made of myrrh.
For Van Beek this is evidence that the ladies of the day 
regarded myrrh as a mark of "gracious living."
Myrrh also had multiple medicinal uses
and was an important substance for embalming and mummification.

Myrrh resin

 Frankincense and myrrh were fragrant, medicinal, and funerary,
and as Van Beek suggests, the two had many more daily and ritual uses
that are lost to modern researchers.
Once a year harvest, long trips along trade routes, and universal appeal
made both resins extremely valuable.
Fit for a king.

No comments: