Frankincense and Myrrh
by Carolyn Donnelly
Many associate frankincense and myrrh with the biblical story of the three wise men bringing gifts in honor of the birth of the baby Jesus. However, frankincense and myrrh were sacred scents to many cultures around the world long before the advent of Christianity. Originating in Arabia and Africa, the valuable properties of these scents have been recognized and utilized for both religious and non religious purposes for at least 5000 years. Modern science is only just beginning to investigate the health and medicinal benefits of frankincense and myrrh that have been documented in ancient medical texts from Egypt, Europe and India.
What is Frankincense and Myrrh?
Frankincense and myrrh are both aromatic resins that are collected to make perfume and incense. A resin is simply dried tree sap. Frankincense resin comes from trees of the genus Boswellia and Myrrh from the genus Commiphora. Both of these trees are found in eastern Africa, mostly Somalia and in Southern Arabia. Myrrh is a reddish colored resin with an oily consistency and a bitter taste. Frankincense has a yellow color and has a sweet taste.
The word 'incense’ describes the aroma released with the smoke of any odoriferous substance when burnt. Frankincense is a French word meaning 'pure incense'.
How are these incenses made?
Resin is collected by cutting or peeling back the tree's bark. This causes the sap of the tree to ooze out from the cut. The sap emerges slowly and is allowed to dry on the tree where it hardens into yellow colored ’tears’. It takes around three months for the resin to acquire the right consistency. When ready, the ‘tears’ are scraped off the trunk of the tree. The resin is collected from the younger trees as they exude the most valuable resin. The trees probably produce the resins as a response to trauma, with the resin acting as a temporary dressing for damaged bark. A single tree may yield several kilograms of resin each year.
India and the Far East have always been the biggest exporters of the resins, and Europeans once referred to frankincense as 'Indian incense'.
Both frankincense and myrrh have been prized by most of the great ancient civilizations around the world. The resin of both of these incenses has been collected for over 5000 years. Frankincense and myrrh were both once ranked along with gold, ivory, spices and textiles as valuable commodities for trade, reflecting the scarcity of these resins.
Both frankincense and myrrh were important resins for use in ceremony, religious and non-religious, as well as for use in medicine, beauty, and to warm and scent the home. The first documented use of these resins is from Egypt where both frankincense and myrrh were used for purification, which was achieved by standing over the burning incense. However, both resins were also used by the Chinese, Hindu, Bantu and Bactrian cultures where the incenses had religious significance.
Egyptian women used frankincense to enhance their beauty. They painted their eyelids with the black kohl made from charred frankincense. This resin was also melted and used as a hair removal product. Combined with other ingredients in a paste, frankincense was used as a perfume. In cold weather, the Egyptians burnt frankincense in a brazier (large metal container) to warm their rooms.
Early Egyptian legend describes frankincense as the 'tears of Horus', the god of the Sun and Moon. It is thought that the Egyptians came by both land and sea to collect these resins before 2000 BC and trade reached as far as Rome and China. Descriptions of this trade are detailed in later scripts of Greek, Roman and Indian authors. With domestication of the camel in 1100 BC, trade in frankincense and myrrh greatly increased as the camels could take the odiferous resins across the Arabian landscape.
Great quantities of these incenses were burnt at ceremonies. During the Roman rule these resins were demanded in tax from the people of Arabia for use in Roman ceremonies. In Jewish ceremony, frankincense is one of four 'sweet scents,' and formed part of the meet offering. It was also presented with the shew-bread every Sabbath day. Religious use of incense was also common in ancient Persia, Babylon and Assyria. The incense was brought by the Arabs every year as a tribute to Darius, the King of Persia in the 5th Century. The Parsis, who fled Persia to escape persecution at the hands of Arab conquerors in the 8th Century, brought the resin with them to India. Modern Parsis of Western India still preserve the ritual of burning the incense. Christian churches adopted various uses for the incenses from preceding cultures.
Frankincense and myrrh were commonly used throughout history as medicine. The Papyrus Ebers, the oldest preserved medical document that comes from Egypt around 1550, describes how the resins were used for mummification and for treating wounds and skin sores.
Historically, frankincense was taken orally as a stimulant. Early century healers used it as a cure for hemlock poisoning, tumors, ulcers, vomiting, dysentery and fevers. In China it is used for leprosy. Celsus, the author, presumed Roman, who lived around the turn of the current era compiled the most extensive medical encyclopedia of this time. His records recommend frankincense for treating wounds, bleeding, bruising and as a possible antidote to poisoning by hemlock.
During the 17th century, distillates of the resin, called the 'oils of olibanum', were popular among the surgeons, apothecaries and alchemists. Frankincense was used at this time to treat stomach ulcers and as an ointment for bruising. In India, people applied it to wounds and used it to treat rheumatism. Chinese healers incorporated it into remedies for bruises and infected sores, including those caused by leprosy. It was used in Kenya for dressing wounds and as a treatment for worms. English alchemists recommended frankincense to live a longer life.
Myrrh has been a versatile treatment for a variety of medical uses throughout history. The Indian myrrh, known as guggulu, is described in the ancient Ayurvedic texts as a medicine to ease the symptoms of coughs and chest infections and as an aid in weight loss. It was also used to treat rotten teeth by the early Sumerians and infections of the mouth teeth and eyes by the Greeks. The Greeks also suggested that myrrh could stop bad breath and protect against the plague. Myrrh was believed to have preservative qualities and was used to extend the shelf life of wine.
Turkish healers recommend myrrh as an aphrodisiac, and both frankincense and myrrh were recommended as protection against sorcery. Arabic doctors mixed myrrh with vinegar as a cure for baldness.
Use of myrrh for health and medical purposes in Europe goes back to the Celtic 'leechdoms', or healers, who recommended myrrh for healing wounds and coughs. In medieval times in England myrrh was used for nausea and diarrhea and to treat thrush. Myrrh was included as an ingredient in the Elixir of Vitriiol on all navy ships until 1795 to treat scurvy and was also used to treat hemorrhage. Myrrh and borax were also mixed together to produce a toothpaste during Victorian times.
Incense is still used in churches around the world as part of religious ceremony. Christian churches in England use frankincense and myrrh mixed with additional ingredients to produce the desired scent. Pure frankincense and myrrh is presented by the Queen to commemorate the manifestation of Christ. The Parsees of northern India still use the resins in religious ceremonies: myrrh symbolizing self-denial, frankincense representing spirituality, and gold the wealth of humankind.
Many of the ancient traditions involving these incenses still exist. Frankincense and myrrh are still used by some modern Pagans in ritual and ceremony for purification and intensification of energies during meditation and ritual as well as for healing. The traditional medieval tradition of blessing a new bell by burning both myrrh and frankincense inside it still occurs today. Frankincense is still used in toiletries as a perfuming and hardening agent and myrrh is still used widely in throat lozenges and cough mixtures as well as in perfume.
Modern science has found that both frankincense and myrrh do indeed have many of the medicinal qualities that ancient traditions espoused. Biochemists have found myrrh contains a number of compounds that help to reduce inflammation and enhance the immune response. Eating resin or oil from guggulu has been found to lower levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood supporting the ancient belief that myrrh can assist in weight loss and perhaps extend the length of your life.
Frankincense and myrrh have both been found to have antiseptic, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties and so they make valuable dressings. Inhalation of steam laden with the oils of these resins has been found to result in dilation of the bronchii of the lungs. This may support the ancient recommendation that these resins can relieve the symptoms of bronchitis and other chest infections.
As with many of the ancient natural and herbal remedies, the application of which was once widespread, frankincense and myrrh is fairly absent on the prescription list of most modern doctors. This could be changing as the medicinal qualities of these two resins, like so many other natural remedies, are being explored by todays medical researchers. This wisdom, that has been handed down from our forefathers (and foremothers) and has continued in the realms of natural therapy and new age practices could soon become revived for mainstream medicine.
Carolyn owns Placid Moon, an online shop selling new age products and gifts. Placid Moon features a range of natural incense resins, including both Frankincense and Myrrh, at very reasonable prices. You will also find a range of incense sticks and cones in a variety of scents as well as stunning incense burners from hanging brass burner to large asian temple bowls. Visit our shop at www.placidmoon.com
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