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, which are rare today, are distributed across Eastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, including Ethiopia, Eritrea, Yemen, and Somalia.
According to Pliny, myrrh was the royal perfume of the Parthian Empire, which encompassed modern-day Iran, Iraq, and neighboring territories. 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.
In ancient Rome, the price for myrrh was five times that of frankincense. The Bible contains three prominent references to myrrh. The first is when the three Kings brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant Jesus soon after his birth. The second is when Mark notes that Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh to stop the pain of his crucifixion, but Jesus refused to take it. Finally, the third reference is when John says that Nicodemus brought a seventy-five-pound mixture of myrrh and aloe to anoint the body of Jesus before laying it in the tomb.
One of the most well regarded of the ancient incenses, frankincense has a fresh pine-lemon scent with resinous and woody overtones that emanates from the milky white latex of the stem and branches. The name frankincense comes from the French words francencens, which means “pure incense” or “free lighting.” This name originates from the Frank Crusades of the eleventh century, when the Franks were believed to store large quantities of frankincense, for use as incense and medicine. In Arabic, it is called Luban, which means “white” or “cream” and olibanum, which means “oil of Lebanon.” In Hebrew, it is called lebonah.
Frankincense resin is produced from multiple Boswellia species, the aromas of which vary. The resin is extracted by steam or carbon dioxide distillation. Boswellia sacra syn B. carterii has terpenic and pine flavor; Boswellia papyrifera is fruity and citrus, with soft orange notes; Boswellia frereana has a pungent scent similar to cumin; Boswellia neglecta has a soft, earthy, and slightly musty aroma; Boswellia rivae is soft, woody, and elegant; and Boswellia serrata has fresh lemon, citrus, and pine notes.
Multiple references to frankincense in the Bible indicate its importance. The King James Bible contains 17 references to frankincense. Frankincense was widely used by people in the Mesopotamian, Arabian, and Mediterranean regions. Itsinebriating, euphoric, and mood-enhancing effects have been recognized for a long time. Some studies have confirmed the psychoactive and antidepressant effects of frankincense incense. The oil aids in treating skin ailments like acne and warts.
Holy Herbs: Modern Connections to Ancient Plants