Frankincense and myrrh more than just historic scents

Value of these goods was higher than gold, made Arabia rich

Posted: Friday, December 25, 2009

Remember the three wise men who came from the east, bearing gifts for an infant lying in a manger in Bethlehem? The gifts were gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Gold, we know about. But what about the other two?

For years I was mystified and never got around to looking them up. I vaguely knew that frankincense and myrrh were used for incense, but why was that a big deal and why were they considered to be worthy gifts?

Frankincense and myrrh are plant resins, and both have a long history of use as incense. The trees whose bark produces these resins grow principally in southern Arabia and northeast Africa. A few species can be found in India. We may think of Arabia as a great sand desert, but historically, parts of the south were rich agricultural areas, with vast irrigated gardens which were well-watered from reservoirs. Here is where the Queen of Sheba dwelled, and where the Garden of Eden may have been, hundreds of years before the trek of the three wise men.

Incense has been used for religious purposes for more than 3,000 years; the smoke from burning it was thought to carry prayers aloft to deities on high. In fact, the word perfume comes from Latin words meaning "by smoke." Incense was also thought to drive away evil spirits, was used in medicine and was a symbol of honor when given to someone.

Frankincense and myrrh were important trade goods all over the eastern Mediterranean region, including Greece and Rome. Huge caravans of thousands of camels carried frankincense from Arabia to the shores of the Mediterranean for transshipment. Some trade routes even took these resins to the Far East. The value of these trade goods was higher than that of gold, and kingdoms in southern Arabia became very wealthy. But rains diminished and the people exploited their source of wealth (the incense trees) unsustainably by using them for animal fodder and fuel. Hence, the wealth of the kingdoms was depleted. The heaviest blow to the lucrative incense trade, however, was the official adoption of Christianity by the Roman empire. The emperor forbade the use of incense in offerings to pagan household gods. Only after paganism had largely died away was incense again restored to Catholic services.

Frankincense even has incense as part of its name; the first part of the name means "choice," indicating its value. It comes from Boswellia trees and is still an important export from Somalia in northeastern Africa. It is used in perfume production and as an anti-inflammatory medicine. It's also the major component of incense used at Catholic church services.

Myrrh is collected from trees in the related genus Commiphora. Its high value made it a luxury and a status symbol. Historically, it was used to anoint and embalm the dead in Egypt and Asia Minor. Ancient Egyptians even imported entire incense trees (probably myrrh) and planted them along the Nile. Myrrh is widely used in perfumes and folk medicines, with potentially wider use in conventional modern medicine. One variety of myrrh is also known as the "balm of Gilead." When the queen of Sheba visited King Solomon in ancient Palestine, she may have brought balm of Gilead trees with her.

Other resins were valuable in ancient times, as well. Tar and pitch from various species of pine trees were important to sailors who sailed on wooden ships over 3,000 years ago. Then, as maritime and naval enterprises expanded, so did the need for these "naval stores" of pine resin. Colonies in North America and New Zealand, for example, were important sources of naval stores for the British empire's navy.

Cannabis plants also provide not only hemp and edible seeds, but also drugs of long historical use. Marijuana is derived from the flowers of female plants, and hashish comes from the glandular hairs on the stem. Cannabis was used medicinally by the Chinese at least 4,000 years ago, and trade in Cannabis has influenced many cultures since the Bronze Age. Resin from the related hops plant, however, has a much shorter history, flavoring beer since the mid eighth century.

A very ancient use of resin by people involved amber, which (despite some old, highly imaginative, Greek mythology to the contrary) is fossilized resin often over 40,000 years old. Many kinds of trees have yielded amber all around the world, and deposits of amber are widespread, including British Columbia and the Arctic coastal plain. By 5,500 years ago, in the Stone Age, trade of amber from the Baltic region was well established throughout Europe and into central Asia. Amber was used in medicines, was thought to have supernatural powers and became popular for jewelry and decorative objects. One index of its value comes from a contemporary history of the Roman Empire, which noted that even a very small amber figurine had a value greater than that of a healthy slave. Amber was also a valued trade item in Central America before the advent of Europeans to this side of the Atlantic.

The Maya of Mexico have used resins as incense for at least 2,500 years. Apparently, the principal use was religious and aimed at establishing interactions with deities and ancestors. When the Spanish invaded Mexico, they did not squelch the "pagan" use of incense, unlike the early Roman Christian church. So the use of incense by the Christianized Maya then incorporated both the old traditional meanings and the newer Catholic significance. The culture kept the old along with the new.

The use of resins by Native people in northern areas dates back a long way, perhaps as long as people have lived here. However, documentation probably resides in oral history more than in preserved artifacts. By the early 1600s, European explorers recorded that northern tribes used balsam fir resin as an antiseptic dressing for wounds, sores and also for internal ailments.

Clearly resins have long been a part of human history. Thanks again to Jean Langenheim's book on plant resins.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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