What Are Frankincense and Myrrh?

People have produced frankincense and myrrh for some 5,000 years. For much of this time, these aromatic resins were the region’s most important commodity, with a trade network that reached across Africa, Asia and Europe.

Today, demand for frankincense and myrrh has subsided, but numerous Chinese, Greek, Latin and Sanskrit sources remind us of their past importance in the ancient world.

Frankincense and myrrh were desired for personal, religious and medicinal use. In a time before daily bathing, people would use the smoke from the resins to make themselves smell better. Egyptian women utilized the ash of burned frankincense resin for personal use as well, mixing it into their eye shadow.

Frankincense and myrrh were also widely used in religious ceremonies and burials. According to the Greek writer, Herodotus, the Egyptians used both frankincense and myrrh in the preparation of animal sacrifices and human mummies. Hebrews and Christians incorporated them into their ceremonies in the third century B.C.E. and fourth century C.E., respectively.

Frankincense and myrrh were also used as medicine. In the Papyrus Ebers of 1500 B.C.E., priests recommended both resins for treating wounds. Other ailments they were once reported to cure include hemlock poisoning, leprosy, worms, snakebites, diarrhea, plague, scurvy and even baldness.

The high demand created a booming trade in the Middle East lasting several hundred years. In the first century, around the height of the trade, Pliny the Elder claimed that Arabia produced approximately 1,680 tons (1,524 metric tons) of frankincense and around 448 tons (406 metric tons) of myrrh each year.

One of the most important trade centers surrounded the Shisr oasis in southern Oman. This outpost exported frankincense across Mesopotamia, India and China from about 300 B.C.E. to the third century C.E. The ruins of the settlement remain as a UNESCO World Heritage site known as “The Land of Frankincense.”

Clearly, these resins were widely available when the three wise men visited the baby Jesus around 5 B.C.E., and would have been considered practical gifts with many uses. The expensive resins were symbolic as well. Frankincense, which was often burned, symbolized prayer rising to the heavens like smoke, while myrrh, which was often used in embalming, symbolized death.

So scholars think that frankincense was presented to the baby Jesus to symbolize his later role as a high priest for believers while myrrh symbolized his eventual death and burial.

A close-up of frankincense and myrrh for sale at the spice market.

Adél Békefi/Getty Images

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