Both frankincense and myrrh are prized for their alluring fragrance, and both are derived from tree sap, or gum resin. Frankincense (a milky white resin) is extracted from species of the genus Boswellia, which thrive in arid, cool areas of the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa and India. The finest, most aromatic of this species is Boswellia sacra, a small tree that grows in Somalia, Oman and Yemen. These plants grow up to 16 feet tall with papery bark, sparse leaves that are grouped in pairs, and white petaled flowers with yellow or red centers.
Myrrh on the other hand, comes from species of the genus Commiphora, which are native to northeast Africa and the adjacent areas of the Arabian Peninsula. Commiphora myrrha, a tree commonly used to harvest myrrh (a reddish resin) is found in the shallow, rocky soils of Ethiopia, Kenya, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Somalia. It grows up to 9 feet tall, has spiny branches with sparse leaves that grow in groups of three. Myrrh is an oleoresin, meaning that it is a natural blend of an essential oil and a resin. Myrrh gum is waxy when it first begins to run, but it coagulates quickly, then, after the harvest, the gum becomes hard and glossy. It begins by looking yellowish, either clear or opaque, but it darkens as it ages, and white streaks emerge too.
As previously stated, the processes for extracting the sap of both the Boswellia (for frankincense) and the Commiphora (for myrrh) trees are essentially identical. Harvesters make a longitudinal cut in the tree's trunk that pierces the gum resin reservoirs that are located within the bark. As the sap slowly seeps from the cut and drips down the tree it forms tear-shaped droplets that are left to harden on the tree. These "tears" are then collected after two weeks and taken to market.
The quality of the resin, especially with the myrrh, is dependent upon the variety of the tree that it is harvested from. Myrrh from the Commiphora gileadensis is the Biblically referenced Balm of Gilead while many of the Commiphora and Balsamodendron species are used as perfumes, medicines (such as aromatic wound dressings), and incense ingredients. But a lesser quality myrrh is bled from the Commiphora erythraea tree, and "myrrh beads", while fragrant, are actually made from the crushed seeds of Detarium microcarpum, a completely unrelated West African tree.
So why did the wise men take frankincense and myrrh as gifts for the King of Kings? Both of these resins were fairly expensive at that time, and held great symbolic value, as well as many practical uses. Frankincense and myrrh were highly desirable for personal, religious and medicinal uses. In this time, before bathing was a daily event, people would use the [sweet] smoke from the resins to make themselves smell better, a historic perfume so to speak. And ancient Egyptian women used the ash of frankincense to mix into their eye shadow. According to the Greek writer, Herodotus, the Egyptians used frankincense and myrrh in the preparation of animal sacrifices, and also in the preparation of human mummies, which was how humans were prepared for burial. Hebrews and Christians then incorporated frankincense and myrrh into their ceremonies during the third century and used then in both their religious ceremonies and burials.
Frankincense, which was often burned, came to symbolize the people's prayers rising to heaven like the smoke, and the myrrh, which was often used in burials, symbolize death. (It is said that a mixture of wine and myrrh was offered to Jesus during his crucifixion).
Medicinally, the priests of Papyrus Ebers in the 1500's ( BC) prescribed both resins for the treatment of wounds. They were prescribed to cure many ailments, including; hemlock poisoning, leprosy, worms, snakebites, diarrhea, plague, scurvy and even baldness! The high demand for these "all purpose" healers created a booming trade in the Middle East which lasted several hundred years. At one point Arabia was recorded as producing approximately 1,680 tons of frankincense, and around 448 tons of myrrh each year. They exported frankincense across Mesopotamia, India and China from about 300 B.C. well into the third century, where the resins became entrenched in other cultures spiritual and medical history.
In fact, both of these resins are still used in traditional Chinese medicine, where myrrh is classified as bitter and spicy, with a neutral temperature. And is said to have special efficacy on the heart, liver, and spleen meridians, as well as "blood-moving" powers to purge stagnant blood from the uterus. It is therefore recommended for rheumatic, arthritic, and circulatory problems, and for amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea, menopause, and uterine tumors. Its uses are similar to those of frankincense, and the two are quite often combined and used together in various decoctions and liniments, as well as incense. When they are used in concert, myrrh is considered "blood-moving", while frankincense is said to move the Qi, making it useful for arthritic conditions.
They are often combined with herbs such as notoginseng, safflower, angelica, cinnamon, and Salvia, and are usually mixed in alcohol. They are used internally, as well as externally.
In Africa, myrrh is very commonly used as an antiseptic in mouthwashes, gargles, and toothpastes. It is used as an active agent in the prevention and treatment of gum disease. Myrrh is also (currently) used in some liniments and healing salves, meant to be applied to abrasions and other minor skin ailments. There it is also recommended as an analgesic, for use in cases of toothaches, and, in liniments for bruises, aches, and sprains.
Laboratory studies have been done to determine how myrrh improves sugar tolerance, after Kuwaiti diabetics were found to get positive results from a traditional herbal formula. The myrrh and aloe gums were found to effectively improve glucose tolerance in both diabetic and non-diabetic rats. Additionally,
myrrh was shown to produce analgesic effects on mice that were subjected to pain. Research showed that a couple of the terpens found in the myrrh affect the opioid receptors in the mouse's brain, which influences the pain perception. In human testing, myrrh has been shown to lower the bad cholesterol, LDL, while increasing the HDL, the good cholesterol.
Then there is an Egyptian drug called Mirazid, which is made from myrrh, and it has been investigated as an oral treatment for some parasitic ailments.
As you can see, while frankincense and myrrh may not be as popular as they once were, they are still used today, and in some ways that you may not expect. Both resins are still common ingredients in modern perfumes and cosmetics, continuing a tradition that began thousands of years ago. But scientists are finding new uses for them as well. Recent studies suggest that frankincense may be beneficial to asthma sufferers, people with rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, osteoarthritis and collagenous colitis. Researchers also have discovered possible benefits of myrrh in the treatment of gastric ulcers, tumors and parasites. Frankincense has been clinically researched to combat cancer, and for its value as an antidepressant. It is being researched for its ability to simulate human growth hormone production, and to assist in hormone balance. In fact, frankincense is commonly used in European hospitals.
Frankincense and myrrh are used in essential oil form as a natural treatment for the skin, to strengthen the immune system and fight viruses and bacteria, and for emotional and spiritual benefits. Myrrh has been said to represent mother energy, and frankincense father energy. They are still used for spiritual “anointing” and in energy work, where the vibrational frequency of these oils can uplift the spirit, draw on spiritual and emotional protection, and aid in meditation. They may be diffused in the air, as at holiday time, or applied on the chakras or energy tapping treatment points.
No matter how you look at them, frankincense and myrrh are much more than old resins, and much better than good smelling resins. So this holiday season, when you smell the aroma of frankincense and myrrh, think about the history they've been a part of and wonder about the history they are currently making.