The Magi offered the Infant Jesus frankincense, gold and myrrh. Tradition says that the oldest of the kings, Melchior, presented the gold. Then Balthasar, in his prime, offered frankincense. And the youthful Gaspar gave myrrh.The symbolic nature of the gifts goes back to Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in the 2nd century, who says that the Magi offered Christ “myrrh because it was he who should die for the race of man which was subject to death, and be entombed; gold because he was a King, whose kingdom has no end; and frankincense because he was God, who was both made known in Judah and manifested to those who were not seeking him.”
Derived from tree sap, or gum resin, both frankincense and myrrh are prized for their alluring fragrance. Frankincense is a milky white resin extracted from a species of the genus Boswellia, which thrives in the arid, cool areas of the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa and India. The finest and most aromatic of this species is Boswellia sacra, a small tree that grows in Somalia, Oman and Yemen. The trees have a papery bark, sparse bunches of paired leaves, and flowers with white petals with a yellow or red centre.
Myrrh is a reddish resin that comes from a species of the genus Commiphora, a tree (photo left) native to northeast Africa and the adjacent areas of the Arabian Peninsula. Commiphora myrrha can be found in the shallow, rocky soils of Ethiopia, Kenya, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Somalia. It boasts spiny branches with sparse leaves that grow in groups of three.
In olden times frankincense (photo below) and myrrh were prized for personal, religious and medicinal reasons. They are still used today as common ingredients in modern perfumes and cosmetics, continuing a tradition that has lasted thousands of years.
Scientists are exploring new uses for frankincense and myrrh. Studies suggest that frankincense may be beneficial to sufferers of asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and osteoarthritis. Researchers have also discovered possible benefits of myrrh in the treatment of gastric ulcers, tumours and parasites.
No wonder the ancients valued their medicinal properties – especially in the wilderness.