Myrrh aromatic gum is one of the four herb ingredients in the Holy Anointing Oil. Myrrh resin exudes from the stems and branches of more than 150 species in the Commiphora genus of the Burseraceae family (e.g., Commiphora myrrha, Commiphora molmol, Commiphora gileadensis). These species, which are rare today, are distributed across eastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, including Ethiopia, Eritrea, Yemen, and Somalia. C. myrrha, regarded as the most popular source of myrrh, grew abundantly in this region.
Like other desert species worldwide, the plants are leafless for much of the year. The yellowish-red resin oozes from the stem, either naturally or from artificially induced wounds. It has a bitter taste and a sweet smell. About 50 species of Commiphora (e.g., Commiphora abyssinica, Commiphora foliacea, Commiphora playfairii) in Africa yield an oleoresin, which is often mixed with the other species mentioned previously. Other species, such as Commiphora wightii and Commiphora africana, were sources of low-quality oleoresin products called bdellium and Indian myrrh. Both myrrh aromatic gum and bdellium are the same class of resins.
Myrrh was a highly prized and valuable plant. In India, the Sushruta Samhita mentions myrrh as an herbal medicine. Chandranandan translated Sushruta Samhita into Tibetan in the 8th century AD. According to Pliny, myrrh was the royal perfume of the Parthian Empire, encompassing modern-day Iran, Iraq, and neighboring territories. Ancient Egyptian papyrus writings from 2000 BC mention using myrrh aromatic gum to embalm the dead. Burning myrrh was a popular method to prevent fleas and odors. In ancient Rome, the price for myrrh was five times that of frankincense. Herodotus references myrrh as a disinfectant, an incense, and medicine in Greece during the 5th century BC. Myrrh was burnt in funeral pyres to mask the smell. Nero burnt vast quantities of myrrh and cinnamon, a year’s supply by some accounts, for his wife Poppaea’s funeral. In Traditional Chinese medicine, myrrh was imported from the Persian region via the Silk Road and thought to be useful in improving circulation and treating arthritis, rheumatism, and uterine disorders.
The Talmud (Keritot 6a) describes the following incense recipe: 70 manehs of balm, onycha id=”E310″>, galbanum, and frankincense; 16 manehs of myrrh, cassia, spikenard, and saffron; 12 costus; 3 aromatic rinds; 9 manehs of cinnamon nine; and lye obtained from 9 leek kabs. It further specifies that if Cyprus wine is unavailable, old white wine may be used instead. Salt of sodom and an herb to make the incense smoke rise were then added in minute quantities.
Myrrh is referred to in Exodus 30:22-24 as one of the components of the Holy Anointing Oil.
Moreover, the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Take also for yourself the finest of spices: of flowing myrrh five hundred shekels, and of fragrant cinnamon half as much, two hundred and fifty, and of fragrant cane two hundred and fifty, and of cassia five hundred, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and of olive oil a hin.….”
Myrrh oil was a special perfume in ancient times. There is a reference to this in Esther 2:12 Now when the turn of each young lady came to go into King Ahasuerus, after the end of her twelve months under regulations for the women– for the days of their beautification were completed as follows: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with spices and the cosmetics for women—
It was brought by them as gifts on the birth of Jesus, referred to in the Bible as the Pilgrimage of the Magi: Mathew 2:11 After coming into the house, they saw the Child with Mary, His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Him.
Myrrh had pain-alleviating properties. There is a reference to this in verse related to the Crucifixion of Jesus, but he refused to take it. Mark 15:23 They tried to give Him wine mixed with myrrh, but He did not take it.
Myrrh aromatic gum, like many other spices, was an important commodity of ancient trade. This we learn from Genesis 37:25 “Then they sat down to eat a meal. And as they raised their eyes and looked, behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing aromatic gum and balm and myrrh, on their way to bring them down to Egypt.”
There are many other references to myrrh in the Bible. John says that Nicodemus brought a 75-pound mixture of myrrh and aloe to anoint the body of Jesus before laying it in the tomb.
Bible verses, such as this one from Song of Solomon, describe the use of myrrh as a sensuous incense: “I rose up to open to my beloved, and my hands dropped with myrrh and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh upon the handles of the lock” (5:5). Psalms (45:8) states: “All thy garments smell of myrrh.” References like those mentioned in the Song of Solomon can be interpreted differently by religious and scientific scholars. The former look at these references with devotion, while the scientist describes the aromatic properties of the herb. Some Christian sects still use myrrh for religious ceremonies.
Published in On Jewish Matters Magazine