History of Myrrh and Frankincense

Myrrh and frankincense have had spiritual significance since ancient times and they also were adopted as medicines for physical ailments. When referring to this pair of herbs, Westerners might immediately think of their historic importance in religion. The herbs are best known through the story of the Three Wise Men (Magi) delivering gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the baby Jesus; myrrh was also used to anoint Jesus’ body after the crucifixion. These herbs, valued like gold, were mentioned repeatedly in the Old Testament, in instructions to Moses about making incense and anointing oil, and in the Song of Solomon, where, among other references, are these:

“Who is this coming up from the wilderness
Like palm-trees of smoke,
Perfumed with myrrh and frankincense,
From every powder of the merchant?”

“Till the day doth break forth,
And the shadows have fled away,
I will get me unto the mountain of myrrh,
And unto the hill of frankincense.”

St. Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia (now in Turkey) was a 4th-century miracle-worker, known also for the healing myrrh that flowed from his sacred relics. A prayer to St. Nicholas is:

With divine myrrh the divine grace of the Spirit anointed thee, who didst preside as the leader of Myra, and having made the ends of the world fragrant with the myrrh of virtues thou holiest of men, through the pleasant breathings of thine intercessions always driving away the evil stench of the passions. Therefore, in faith we render thee great praise, and celebrate thine all-holy memory, O Nicholas….

In like manner, icons associated with him have been reported to be myrrh-streaming: leaving off a gentle flow of myrrh each day. In 1998, such a phenomenon was reported in Russia for an icon of Czar Nicholas II and from another icon of his family, both originally retained at a church dedicated to Nicholas the miracle-worker.

  St. Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra
Map of the Arabian Peninsula

The origins of myrrh and frankincense are traced to the Arabian Peninsula. According to Herodotus (5th century BC): “Arabia is the only country which produces frankincense, myrrh, cassia and cinnamon…the trees bearing the frankincense are guarded by winged serpents of small size and various colors.” Diodorus Siculus writes, in the second half of the first century BC, that “all of Arabia exudes a most delicate fragrance; even the seamen passing by Arabia can smell the strong fragrance that gives health and vigor.” He also mentioned gold mines so pure that no smelting was necessary. The Magi, carrying myrrh, frankincense, and gold, came from the East: Arabia. The frankincense trade route, with transport by donkeys and later by camel caravans, reached Jerusalem and Egypt from the Dhofar region of what is today Oman, through Yemen, turning north to follow the Red Sea coast. It is likely that the same or similar species of the resin-bearing plants grew across the Red Sea in the area that is now Somalia and Ethiopia, while the collection of the gum resins was initiated in Arabia.

In these ancient times, myrrh had been used in Egypt for embalming the bodies of Pharaohs, and frankincense had been used in India to make incense for worship (in India, a related species of plant is indigenous, though it produces an inferior product). Myrrh and frankincense, traded throughout the Middle East at least since 1500 B.C., eventually came to China. There is mention of myrrh in a 4th century (A.D.) Chinese book that is no longer existent but is quoted directly in a later text. As in the Middle East, myrrh and frankincense were used in China for making incense, and are so used even today. But, in characteristic Chinese fashion of finding a medicinal use for virtually everything, these herbs were soon employed as medicines.

  Areas of frankincense production

In the Chinese medicine books, frankincense was first mentioned in the Mingyi Bielu (Miscellaneous Records of Famous Physicians; ca. 500 A.D.). It was called fanhunxiang(calling back the soul fragrance) and ruxiang (nipple-shaped fragrance); the latter name has been retained, but the former is true to the original use of frankincense as incense for mourning the dead. Myrrh, already known in China, entered the formal herb books somewhat later, in the Kaibao Bencao (Materia Medica of the Kaibao Era, 973 A.D.). Its name,moyao, indicates the medicine (yao) of mo, the Chinese pronunciation of the Arabic name murr, meaning bitter. In modern Chinese Materia Medica, these two resins are classified as herbs for vitalizing circulation of blood and are utilized for treating traumatic injury, painful swellings, masses, and other disorders related to stasis syndromes. Their source remains the Middle East, though frankincense trees have been cultivated in southern China.

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