Posts Tagged ‘myrrh’

A Little Bit About Myrrh

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

I wrote some time back about gold and frankincense, so to complete the trio, here are some notes on myrrh.

Some religion

“Moreover the Lord spake unto Moses saying, take thou also unto thee principal spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even two hundred and fifty shekels, and of sweet calamus two hundred and fifty shekels, and of cassia five hundred shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of oil an hin: and thou shalt make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil.” Exodus 30: 22-25

“And when the wise men were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” St. Matthew 2: 11

“And they gave him to drink wine mingled with myrrh: but he received it not.”* St. Mark 15: 23

“And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred weight.  Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.” St. John 19: 39-32

[Note: there any references to myrrh in the Bible but not in the Koran, but can it be found in other religious texts? Should someone know, I would like to include other examples]

The gifts given to Christ by the Magi are symbols for his life, being gold for royalty, frankincense for holiness and myrrh for suffering.  Even today the first two still are symbols for power and religion, but myrrh is much less well known now yet is used to a very limited in medicines.  But what is myrrh?

Some details

There are a few myrrh-type oleo-gum-resins produced in Arabia and Somalia from the Commiphora genus, all of which were probably lumped together as myrrh in ancient times and still are used to adulterate modern day myrrh.  C. myrrha is the chief source of myrrh today, while C. erythraea was probably the “ntyw” (myrrh) of the ancient Egyptians and the “scented myrrh” of Pliny.

Commiphora species are native trees of northeast tropical Africa in the region from Somalia to Egypt.  The myrrh trees form dwarfish thickets often with Acacia and Euphorbia.  And from a trade perspective, myrrh is mainly shipped through Aden, Djibouti, Massau and Port Sudan.

Common myrrh (C. myrrha) is a large shrub that grows to about 9ft.  Its branches are knotted with branchlets that are pointed and perpendicular to the main branches.  The trifoliate leaves are small and scanty, and are shed in the dry season.  It has whitish-gray bark that is filled with the myrrh oleo-gum-resin reservoirs, which is then collected by incisions of around 10cm (5 inches) being cut into the bark in much the same way as frankincense and rubber are tapped from other trees.

Myrrh Trees

Myrrh Trees

Myrrh Resin Tears On Myrrh Tree

Myrrh Resin Tears On Myrrh Tree

As the resin comes into contact with the air, it hardens into “tears”. Myrrh is a natural resin comprising: 3-8% essential oil, 30-60% water-soluble gum and 25-40% alcohol-soluble resins.  Myrrh has a reddish-brown colour, is hard to touch and has little aroma, but a mildy woody balsamic base note.  Myrrh burns readily with little smoke and gives off a white and pleasantly pungent aroma that is not as heady as frankincense.

Myrrh Tears

Myrrh Tears

Some ancient and modern business information

Myrrh has been used for incense and embalming since ancient times, with ancient Egypt importing large quantities as far back as 2500BCE.  Based on Pliny, myrrh comes from the western and west-central areas of South Arabia and in coastal Somaliland.  Per Pliny, the total production of myrrh in ancient times was approximately 450-600 tons per annum.  Pliny also states that the trees were incised twice every year to tap the myrrh resin, as well as mentioning that there were several kinds of myrrh with a wide range of prices from 3 – 50 denars a pound.

Much has been written about the trade routes for both frankincense and myrrh, however the detail is pretty much that these resins tapped into the general trading routes for general goods such as fish & pottery, and more exotic goods such as pearls (Oman), silks (China) and spices (India).  So after a land route to the major ports of Arabia, they went by sea to other major ports throughout Africa, Arabia and India then into the Mediterranean and by land to those places that could not be reached initially by sea.  These routes were intertwined and complex, so for example in ancient times, along these trade routes, cinnamon could move from Sri Lanka to Egypt to appease the gods after the death of Rameses III, and later throughout Arabia and the Mediterranean per Pliny with Petra at the centre of a global supply chain that stored and then distributed incense, silks and spices to feed demand from the Greek and Roman elite for luxury goods.

The aroma of myrrh is exotic, warm-balsamic and sweet and when fresh spicy-aromatic, sharp and pungent.  As such, myrrh is used by perfumiers as a flavour in Oriental-spicy perfumes and for woody bases, forest notes and pine fragrances.  Myrrh blends really well with geranium, musk, patchouli and woody spices and some strong floral bases such as rose.  For example, myrrh is used in branded perfumes like Fidji by Guy Laroche, KL by Karl Lagerfeld, Le Jardin by Max Factor and Gianni Versace by Charles of the Ritz.  In ancient times, myrrh was used as a base for perfumes that were used by royalty, so for example it was used as a fragrance (Song of Solomon 1:13, 5:5; Esther 2:12) and in Egypt by Hatshepsut, as well as gifts to Amenhotep and Akhnaton.

While myrrh defeated the inventive Heston Blumenthal in his “Perfect Christmas” programme, it is used in some products as a flavouring, for example toothpastes, mouthwashes, gargles and mouthsprays.  In these, myrrh is characterised by an acrid-aromatic taste that works well against clove, eucalyptus, mint, thyme and other cleansing and medicinal flavours.  It is interesting that some herbalists use tincture of myrrh as an astringent for the mucous membranes of the mouth and throat, which is similar to how it used in oral hygiene.

From a culinary perspective, Pliny points to the spicing of wine with myrrh among the Romans (catissima apud priscos vina erarit murrae odore condita; Pliny, Nat. Hist. 14.92), acting as a preservative and imparting a slightly bitter taste.  Also, wine is still mixed with resins (retsina in Greece), spices (mulled wine across Europe), and some wine can taste like burnt tyres (Chateau Musar White to my palate) but is still drunk; in life now, we all have different tastes and in the developed world we probably eat and drink less bitter foods and drink than in other parts of the world and perhaps should for our health, veering to sweet and salty foods.  In fact, Roman wine would have been highly aromatic as wine amphorae were lined with a resin from pine trees, so imparting a distinctive flavour to some of the long-hauled wine in the Roman Empire, which is basis for retsina idea today.

However, it was also mixed with wine for medicinal reasons.  Myrrh’s medicinal use in ancient times included 54 references to its use in Hippocratic literature.  Per Wikipedia, myrrh is used for blood ailments because of its purported blood-moving properties (Chinese medicine) and as a tonic in Ayurvedic medicine [interestingly Ayurvedic medicine has it as contraindicated for uterine problems, which are specifically promoted as a positive area by Chinese medicine].  The mixing with wine may simply be a red herring, with wine being the simplest method for dissolving the myrrh before using it as a medicine and takes about 10 minutes to dissolve in wine, within which time it has not dissolved in water.  So one finds it is used to cure wounds (Herodotus 7.181), as a soporific (Pliny, Nat. Hist. 34.140), or mixed with other substances as an analgesic (Columella 6.38; Pliny 28.179 and 29.137), but these qualities are not particularly strong.  But when mixed with wine it makes the wine unpalatable tasting like vinegar, so perhaps it could have been a cruel joke for someone gasping for a drink.

Finally, it was also used in embalming in Egypt and the region, being quoted by Herodotus as an ingredient for the most expensive embalming techniques.

* It is interesting to note that in the Babylonian Talmud wine is mixed with frankincense not myrrh, and it was given by the women of Jerusalem for those condemned to death to numb the senses – “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto the bitter in soul.”

References – general

van Beek (1958) Frankincense and Myrrh in Ancient South Arabia, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 78 (3), 141 – 152, Boston, USA

van Beek, G. (1960) Frankincense and Myrrh, The Biblical Archaeologist, 23 (3), 70-95, Boston, USA

Koskenniemi, E., Nisula, K., Toppan, J. (2005) Wine mixed with Myrrh (Mark 15.23) and Crurifragium (John 19.31-32): Two Details of the Passion Narratives, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27.4, 379-389, London, UK

Tucker, A. O. (1986) Frankincense and Myrrh, Economic Botany 40 (4), 425-433, New York, USA

Wikipedia (not dated), Myrrh, published on the Internet at (Downloaded December 2011)

Smells But No Bells

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Since time immemorial, incense has been used for religious purposes and to cleanse the air in homes as well as in places of worship.  Much of the incense is based on fragrant gums like frankincense and myrrh and come from Arabia and India.  When you go to India, places like Bangalore almost seem infused with the rich smells of sandalwood.

At Steenbergs, you can get the practical benefit of incense sticks from India that come in a huge range of flavours.  I particularly like frankincense and sandalwood, but you can have more exotic aromas like patchouli and ylang-ylang.  I burn them every so often to cleanse the house and burn them over our fish shaped incense stick holders.

Incense Stick On Fish Shaped Holder

Incense Stick On Fish Shaped Holder

Incense Burner For Gums

Incense Burner For Gums

But what I really like are the incense burners and the charcoal that comes in handy 10 briquette packs that are remarkably good value.  These charcoal circles can be made hot over a candle or a gas flame to get to a burning temperature, then placed into the beautiful clay burners – we have the Mysore shape.  You can then drizzle over some pieces of frankincense for a sweet, turpentine-like smoke or myrrh for a bittersweet flavour.  Or you can mix them together into an aromatic base, where I use a ratio of 2:1 of frankincense to myrrh.  Then perhaps you can make a truly cleansing aroma by breaking some cinnamon or sandalwood bark over these resins to add another flavour to the whole.

Frankincense On The Burner

Frankincense On The Burner

Myrrh Gum Burning On Hot Charcoal

Myrrh Gum Burning On Hot Charcoal

Mysore Burner With Frankincense Smoke Erupting

Mysore Burner With Frankincense Smoke Erupting

For more recipes of do-it-yourself incense mixes, you could do worse than go to or .

Follow the frankincense trail

Sunday, February 7th, 2010
A Bedouin checks a frankincense tree

A Bedouin checks a frankincense tree

With deft strokes, a Bedouin chips away the grey, papery bark, then smoothes a green patch the size of your hand on the tree; it’s a scrubby, scraggly and unpretentious tree.  As if by magic, milky white tears of gum-resin start welling up in the freshly made green wound.

The Bedouin moves to another tree continuing his harvest.  At some of the trees, the Bedouin man finds trees that he has recently tapped and from these he removes handfuls of precious sap that has now hardened to a golden hue – this is frankincense, one of the world’s most precious substances that is now so rarely used in the developed world.

The trees that the Bedouin would have tapped are Boswellia sacra and we were in an imaginary walk through the fabled frankincense groves of Oman’s desert plateau that borders the green mountains of Dhofar.  This is where the best frankincense is grown as this is where the ideal conditions are – a steady tropical sun, pale limestone soil and an heavy dew from the monsoon.

Omani frankincense has a subtle aroma of balsam that recalls distant shrines or northern pine forests.  The trade in frankincense struggles like many of the ancient spice and ingredients trades as they are hard work for the money that you can make – in the Middle East, young men would rather work in the oil fields rather than the frankincense fields, while in Sri Lanka, young men would rather work in a bank than learn to prepare cinnamon bark.

Chunks of frankincense

Chunks of frankincense

From these chunks of golden resin, a whole economy flourished along the frankincense trail, from ancient Arabia to distant Greece and Rome.  On the back of the camel, this river of incense built up fabled kingdoms with names that have a haunting romantic quality and litter the texts of the Bible – Main, Hadramawt, Nabataea, Saba (of the fabled Queen of Sheba) and Qataban.

These ancient city states had their own languages, their own histories, their own law and religions, their own art and architecture and they created dams and irrigation to develop agriculture to feed their peoples and water systems to provide pure, luscious water for their people.  Then their kingdoms collapsed before slipping into the dust of ancient history, becoming forgotten tales and monuments (like at Petra) for tourists to gawp at.

The Egyptians used the “perfume of the gods” for temple rites and as a base for perfumes; frankincense is first recorded on the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut from the 15th century BC, where it says that she had sent an expedition to the land of Punt (perhaps in Somalia) to go and get some frankincense.  In 450BC, Herodotus, the Greek Father of History, mentioned the aromatics of Arabia – “The whole country is scented with them and exhales an odour marvellously sweet.”  In the Roman world, incense perfumed cremation rites and Nero lavished a whole year’s production of frankincense on the funeral of his consort, Poppaea.

The trade in frankincense nowadays is obscure and a very small niche, but in 100 – 200AD, Southern Arabia sent over 3,000 tons every year along the frankincense trail to Greece and Rome.

The Hadramawat city of Shibam

The Hadramawat city of Shibam

This 2400 mile trail began in Hadramawt in South Yemen around the ancient of Sabota.  Pliny the Elder wrote “Frankincense…is conveyed to Sabota on camels…The Kings have made it a capital offence for camels so laden to turn aside from the high road”.  The camels would have collected the frankincense from the valley of Wadi Hadramawt with its cities, Shibam, Sayun and Tarim.  From Sabota, the camel trains would go to Qana for shipment overseas and trading with India for spices or north to Timna and then through Saba, the ancient kingdom of Sheba.  After Marib, they would travel to Main and then to Mecca, al Medina and finally to Petra, where the ancient Nabatean Kingdom traded incense and spices with the Roman Empire.

Was it from one or more of these ancient frankincense kingdoms, that the magi brought their wisdom and their gifts worthy of a prince.  Along the trail, the caravans would collect myrrh, salt and indigo.  For the Magi, frankincense symbolised divinity, an offering equal in importance to gold and myrrh.

Today, the best frankincense comes from Oman, with Hadramawt long gone as the centre of the trade.  Frankincense is also grown in India, Somalia and the Yemen.

The Three Wise Men Give Gold, Frankincense And Myrrh

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

We went to the pantomine at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle last weekend, and as usual it was fantastic with good songs, amazing costumes and some great contraptions – a flying pegasus that pulled Cinderella’s coach was a highlight.  Then there were the normal slapstick scenes and great local humour, led along by Clive Webb, Danny Adams and the Dame (Chris Hayward), who as last year were a complete hoot. 

Anyway, having parked in Pilgrim Street, we made the traditional detour via the Fenwick’s Christmas display which this year was of the Nativity Story. 

It was beautiful with amazing puppetry, delightful scenes and some hidden humour, such as the wife with a rolling pin carved into the Roman sculptures of a temple in the background, as well as directions to Caesar’s Palace (as in the one in Los Angeles).  Two of the scenes included the Magi – one with King Herod and one giving their three gifts to Jesus – and it got me to thinking about these gifts. 

I apologise for the length of the next quote, which is taken from St Matthew, Chapter 2, verses 1 to 12 from an old St James’s Bible that belonged to my Great Aunt, Elfie Steenberg, and is signed by her and dated “Nov 10 1903”; however, it is the best and almost only way to introduce the concept of “gold, frankincense and myrrh“. 

So here is the story of the three wise men, which must be one of the most famous passages within the Bible and one that all Christian children and adults learn from a very early age:

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

When Herod the king heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

And they said unto him, in Bethlehem of Judæa: for thus it is written by the prophet, and thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.  And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

The three magi giving gifts in our crib

The three magi giving gifts in our crib

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.”

What remains interesting in this familiar Biblical passage?

The key things for me in the passage despite its familiarity are: 

(i) they are not kings but wise men or magi in spite of the Christmas carol “We three kings of Orient are” etc;
(ii) we do not know their names or where they came from save that they came from the east;
(iii) we don’t actually know how many wise men their were except that they gave three gifts and so it has always been assumed that there were three;
(iv) they gave gifts of “gold, frankincense and myrrh”.

The names of the three wise men have become in my mind “Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar” as whenever I went on holiday to Bavaria when I was young you would see chalked above the door frames of the main rooms the date and the initials “C  M  B”, so for 2010, you would see “20 C M B 10”.

When I asked what it meant, I was told that on Twelfth Night (Epiphany), which is the traditional date for the arrival of the wise men and the old date for Christmas Day, the Catholic priest would come and would bless the house with holy water and write the initials above the doors.  I read on the web that some people say that it actually means “Christus mansionem benedicat” (Christ bless this house), but that’s not what I was told nor what the people we stayed with believed.

It is also the traditional date for adding the three wise men to your crib and for taking down your Christmas decorations.

Twelfth Night is also the old date for Christmas Day and the day when the Holy thorn of Glastonbury, faithful to the old Calendar, is said to blossom exactly at midnight.  

Nowadays, it’s not much of a day, but in older times it was a festival of great importance.  In Gloucestershire, 13 fires were lit in the fields in honour of Jesus and his 12 Apostles, with the fire named for Judas stamped out immediately while the others were left to burn right down.  In Herefordshire, the wassail-bowl was taken to the cow-byre and the cattle were toasted.  Sometimes a cake with a hole in the middle was hung on the horns of an ox; if he tossed it behind him, the mistress of the house had it, if in front, it went to the bailiff or headman of the farm.

In Somerset and Devonshire, on Twelfth Night (and in some places on old Twelfth Night i.e. January 17th) the apple trees may be “wassailed” with bands of men going into the orchards at night and fire guns through the trees; cider is poured round the roots of the trees and cake or toast soaked in cider is set in the fork of the tree.  The object of this ceremony is to urge the apple trees to greater efforts in the coming year.  Sometimes, they would even be sung to:

“Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mayst bud, and whence thou mayst blow,
Whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
Three score bushels full!
And my pockets full, too!
Huzza! Huzza! Huzza!”

For more on wassailing, follow this link.

And then there are the gifts of “gold, frankincense and myrrh”, but why these gifts and why are these gifts so important for an important “young child” who shall become “a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.”

Gold – the metal of kings

Gold still evokes the riches of kings and seems a good thing to offer the Lord Jesus.  Even in its rather more debased form of nowadays, gold still holds some allure – it’s the store of wealth that people turn to when times are bad.

Aztec Gold Xipe Totep Mask

Aztec Gold Xipe Totep Mask

But gold still looks fabulous and conjures up the wealth of ancient kingdoms.  For example, the death mask of Tutankhamun from 1325BC or the fabled gold of the Aztecs pillaged by Cortes such as this Xipe Totep Mask which is pure gold.

Gold is said to represent the divine, immortality and purity.  All of these seem sensible symbols of something that the Magi might wish to give Jesus.

Frankincense and myrrh

But what of frankincense and myrrh?  I shall come to those in separate blogs.