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What Are Frankincense and Myrrh?

Tree resins used to be highly valued, just like gold.

By
Samantha Enslen, Writing for
2-minute read
frankincense being burned as incense
The Quick And Dirty

There's a reason the three wise men delivered frankincense and myrrh alongside their gold: these tree resins were highly valued at the time for use as medicine, incense, perfume, and more.

Christmastime is almost here. The Christmas story tells of the baby Jesus being visited by three kings who brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We all know what gold is. But in our tidbit for today, we’ll explain what the other two are. 

Frankincense is a tree resin

Let’s start with frankincense. It’s a resin that’s gathered from Boswellia trees—specifically the species B. frereana, B. sacra, B. papyrifera, and B. serrata. They all grow in the dry, mountainous regions of India, North Africa, and the Middle East. 

The resin of these trees has been used as incense in religious ceremonies for centuries. It’s the sweet, citrusy smell thatcan still be found today in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Throughout history, it’s also been used as makeup, for embalming dead bodies, and as a medicine. Ancient texts describe it as a remedy for everything from ringworm to bronchitis. 

The word “frankincense” comes from Old French. It’s a mashup of “franc,” meaning “candid and unreserved,” and “encens,” meaning, well, incense. In this case, the adjective “franc” seems to have served the meaning of “high quality.” 

Thus, “frankincense” refers to top-shelf incense. 

Myrrh is a tree resin too!

Myrrh is also a gummy tree resin. This one comes from African and Arabian trees of the genus Commiphora, especially C. abyssinica and C. myrrha. 

Myrrh was highly valued in ancient times. It was used to make fancy perfumes, incenses, and cosmetics. And it was also used as medicine. In fact, myrrh is mentioned more frequently than any other plant in the writings of Hippocrates. He was the ancient Greek physician and author of the Hippocratic oath, the ethical code that even today guides the behavior of physicians.

The word “myrrh” was borrowed from the classical Latin “murra,” which describes the Commiphora tree. It’s believed to have a Semitic base—the Hebrew word “mar"—meaning “bitter.” And myrrh does indeed give off a sharp, piney odor when burned.  

So, that’s your tidbit for today. The magi who were said to visit baby Jesus brought him gold—and tree sap. But it was sap that was highly valued at the time, both in religious ceremonies and as a healing medicine. 

Sources

Cohen, Jennie. A Wise Man’s Cure: Frankincense and Myrrh. History.com, accessed November 18, 2019.

Encyclopedia Britannica, online edition. Frankincense, Hippocrates, myrrh (subscription required, accessed November 18, 2019).

Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Frankincense, myrrh (subscription required, accessed November 18, 2019).

Siddiqui, M.Z. Boswellia Serrata, A Potential Antiinflammatory Agent: An Overview. Indian J Pharm Sci. 2011 May-Jun; 73(3): 255–261.

About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.

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