When I was a child, I loved the Christmas story of the three wise men (magi), who came to visit the infant Jesus in the manger. They were bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. I visualized three men, dressed in robes of silk and velvet, mounted on camels adorned with colorful trappings.
I knew that they came from afar, following a bright star. (In the New Testament they are described in the book of Matthew, which is thought to have been written in 80 A.D.)
I didn’t quite understand the gifts – gold, of course, but the others? Frankincense and myrrh? Exotic scents? Where did they come from? And why were they so precious they were given to Jesus? I was puzzled.
Many years later, I have found the story.
Fragrance much valued in ancient times
Perfumes and scents were much more important in ancient times than they are now. They were used to give a sense of celebration at weddings, banquets and important events, and, at times, to cover up bad odors of domestic life. They were an essential part of religious rituals and practices by many faiths.
Frankincense, myrrh and other aromatics are said to have been used in the Middle East for around 5,000 years. A mural in the temple of the Egyptian Queen Hatshipsut in (1458 B.C.) shows frankincense trees she had imported to grow in her garden.
The early chapters of the Hebrew Bible mention myrrh, and it is cited in the Song of Solomon. It was one of the ingredients in the oils used in Hebrew rituals in the Temple.
Many different botanical ingredients went into these aromatics, depending on the local habitat – a variety of tree barks and resins, petals, leaves, roots. The ones we are familiar with are cinnamon bark, pine resin, rose petals, aloes and sandalwood. Myrrh, as well as resin from the pine cones of Cedars of Lebanon, was used in embalming mummies in Egypt.
What are frankincense and myrrh?
Both substances are little balls of dried tree resin that produce fragrance when burned or added to oils. They were available in the Middle East long before Jesus’ time, and were a lucrative object of trade. Skirmishes were fought between ancient tribes to control the places where they grew. Each resin comes from a different species and both are from thorny little trees growing in desolate dry habitats in southern Arabia (Oman) and Somalia.
The resin is produced by tapping into the tree (much like maple sugaring), then letting the resin come out and harden into little chips. The local farmers gathered these chips over a period of several weeks. Then they were loaded onto camels or elephants and transported to ports on the Red Sea. From there they went all over the Middle East and east on the Silk Road to India and China.
Frankincense (Latin name olibanum)
Frankincense must be burned to release its scent, described as balsamic, spicy, slightly lemony. It is best burned on small charcoal bricks.
Frankincense was burned in censers and on special altars in Hebrew temples, in mosques, and in Christian churches. Beautiful censers were crafted in metal and ceramics for domestic and religious use.
Myrrh, the Temple Menorah, and Hanukkah
The story of Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday also referred to as the Festival of Lights, revolves around this sacred oil. In 160 B.C., when the Maccabees drove the Syrians from Jerusalem and entered the desecrated Second Temple, they found only one day’s supply of consecrated oil for the sanctuary lamp that should burn continuously. But after it was filled, it burned for eight days, the time needed to produce additional consecrated oil. It is this miracle that is celebrated on Hanukkah.
In China and India, both myrrh and frankincense were used extensively in medicinal mixtures, and may still be used today.
Who were the Wise Men?
As the story of the wise men spread into Christian traditions, they began to be known as “kings,” usually identified as the kings of Arabia, Persia and India. We do not know who the wise men were, although some experts believe they were astrologer/priests from Persia. Astrologers would have been among the first to notice the new star that arose in the East, traditionally referred to as the “Star of Bethlehem.”
Various images pictured the wise men according to the time and place of the maker. Beginning in medieval times, one of these was portrayed by artists as a black man. My favorite is an image from a mural (565 A.D.) in a Byzantine church in Ravenna, Italy. The Persian dress is a far cry from the kingly robes in Renaissance paintings.
I’ve dug around in Wikipedia and other internet sources to find the information in this article. I’ve enjoyed trying to go back to ancient times. But I’m no expert, so if you find errors, let me know.
And now I’m going to buy a vial of frankincense-scented oil and one of myrrh, to see what they smell like!
A contributor to Forest Hills Connection since our launch in 2012, Marjorie Rachlin writes about the diverse plant and wild animal life making their homes in the city. Marjorie is an avid birder who also enjoys keeping her eyes to the skies when the stars come out.