Myrrh is the aromatic gum or resin that 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, rare today, are distributed across Eastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, including Ethiopia, Eritrea, Yemen, and Somalia.
Ancient Egyptian papyrus writings from 2000 BC mention using myrrh to embalm the dead. Burning myrrh was a popular method to prevent fleas and odors.
C. gileadensis is believed to be the first plant that the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba brought to Israel. It was highly prized. According to Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, Rome made large profits from myrrh’s sale and trade from plantations in and around Jericho. In fact, when the Romans attacked the Jews of Jerusalem, the latter attempted (unsuccessfully) to destroy the myrrh plantations. Over time, the economic value of myrrh decreased as alternatives arose.
The plant was used to treat a wide range of disorders: headache, stomach ailments, early-stage cataracts, impaired vision and hearing, respiratory ailments, and gynecological ailments. Jews and Romans mixed the sap with old wine or water to make a tonic, which was believed to restore strength, and maintain health.
Written references to myrrh as a perfume and herbal medicine date back to Herodotus in the fifth century. Myrrh acts on the mucosa and has antiseptic properties, so Greek and Roman soldiers used it to treat wounds and sores. In addition to its use as a general tonic and disinfectant, myrrh was also used to treat indigestion, syphilis, and gonorrhea. It was used as an expectorant to treat respiratory ailments. Because it was believed to promote menstrual flow, it was also used as an abortifacient.
Read more on plants from the Bible: