Frankincense and Myrrh
Nature Bulletin No. 548 December 13, 1958
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist
FRANKINCENSE AND MYRRH
The Bible says that when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, "behold, there
came wise men from the east". It does not say how many but tradition
has it that they were three magi or, perhaps, three kings "And when they
were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary its
mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened
their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense,
At the end of His life on earth, after the crucifixion, we are told that
Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, "about an hundred
pound weight", which they placed in the linen shroud, "as the manner of
the Jews is to bury".
Throughout the Bible, including the 37th chapter of Genesis and the
18th of Revelations, those two exotic spices -- frankincense and myrrh -
- are mentioned again and again. When Jehovah spoke unto Moses on
Mount Sinai, specifying how the tabernacle, the ark and the altar must
be built. He also commanded that the holy ointment should contain
prescribed quantities of pure myrrh and three other spices mixed with
olive oil; further, the sacred perfume or incense should contain equal
quantities of pure frankincense and three "sweet spices".
These and other ordinances in the Mosaic Law were probably
influenced by customs and observances in Egypt where the Children of
Israel had lived for 430 years and Moses had grown up as a prince in
Pharaoh' s court. For thousands of years, spices had been brought to
Egypt by camel caravans from India, Arabia and eastern Africa. From
them, by secret formulas, the priests prepared several perfumes and
ointments for religious rites and domestic use. At the feast of Isis the
burnt offering was an ox, its body filled with frankincense and myrrh.
When embalming their dead, the body was filled with myrrh, cassia and
other fragrant materials, dried, wrapped in fine linen, and placed in a
painted wooden case.
is a fragrant gum resin obtained from three or more of
five species of trees -- the Boswellias -- that grow in Abysinnia and
Somaliland in Africa, southern Arabia, India and the East Indies.
Usually of small or medium size, they are related to the terebinth or
turpentine tree and their compound leaves, with 7 to 9 glossy leaflets,
are similar to those of a mountain ash.
The gum, obtained by making deep gashes in the trunk and branches,
and peeling back a few inches of bark below each cut, oozes in large
white or amber "tears". After 3 or 4 months exposure they become hard,
brittle, and are collected. During handling and shipping they become
covered with white dust from rubbing against one another. They ignite
readily, burn with a clear white flame, and give off a fragrant balsam-
like odor because, in addition to resin and gum, they contain a volatile
inflammable oil. The incense burned in a censer or thurible during
rituals of Roman and Greek Catholic churches is a mixture of
frankincense imported from India, Egypt and Somalia.
Myrrh, also a fragrant gum resin, is obtained by similar methods from
two species of shrubs or small trees that grow on rocky places in
Abyssinia, Somaliland and Arabia. Their bark and wood have a strong
fragrance. The gum, as it oozes from the stems and branches naturally
or from the incisions made, is at first a soft, sticky, somewhat oily,
white or yellowish brown resin very bitter to the taste. It soon hardens
into reddish-brown beads.
No. 549 will be issued January 10. Meanwhile, have a Merry
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Update: June 2012