Gold, Frankincense And Myrrh – the Botany of Christmas

“When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2: 10-11 KJV.

While the gifts brought by the wise men from the East are celebrated as part of the Christmas story, I suspect there’s little understanding given to the nature, the meaning and, importantly, the botany of two of these gifts for the baby Jesus. The wise men’s gifts are sometimes, as in the hymn We Three Kings, interpreted as spiritual symbolism – gold for kingship, frankincense as a symbol of a priestly role and myrrh prefiguring his death and the anointing of his body. The value of frankincense and myrrh exceeded that of gold in Roman times, so the gifts were precious, and in keeping with tradition for rulers and gods. Ancient Greek King Seleucus II Callinicus offered the same gifts to the god Apollo at the temple of Miletus in modern Turkey in 243 BC.

Classical historian Herodotus observed, “The trees bearing frankincense are guarded by winged serpents of various colours”.

Herodotus may have had a point; over 3,000 tonnes of frankincense were exported by camel caravans along the incense trail and frankincense was as important to the economy of Arabia as oil is today – local tribes may well have been described as winged serpents when protecting their rights to harvest trees on their country. The value of frankincense is apparent from the security employed in ancient Egyptian perfume factories. Theophrastus observed, “No security is good enough. A seal is affixed to the workmen’s loins; they have to wear a mask or hairnet with a close mesh; when they finish work they are strip searched.”

Pliny suggested the southern Arabians to be the richest people on earth and also recorded that Nero burnt an entire year’s production of Arabian frankincense at the funeral of his wife Poppaea.

While frankincense was usually burnt to produce incense, myrrh was more often dissolved in oil and used as a perfume and as a medicine, especially as a salve for wounds and sores. The Old Testament’s Song of Solomon illustrates myrrh’s erotic overtones with the lover describing her experience, “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 … His cheeks are as a bed of spices, as sweet flowers: his lips like lilies, dropping sweet smelling myrrh.” While the medicinal use of myrrh is widespread, the activity remains unclear. Recently identified opiate qualities may assist in interpreting Jesus’s rejection of wine mixed with myrrh prior to his crucifixion, “And they gave him to drink wine mingled with myrrh: but he received it not.”

The Classical story of Myrrh is one of incestuous desire and finally incest that saw Smyrna transformed beyond the realms of the living and the dead into a myrrh tree – Adonis was born from the tree with the assistance of naiad nymphs. Annette Giesecke’s The mythology of plants, reviewed in these pages in July, explores the story further. Giesecke, Professor of Classics and Department Chair at the University of Delaware, will give a public lecture in Adelaide Botanic Garden at 6pm on Tuesday, 9 December 2014.

Frankincense and myrrh are small trees with distinctive smooth, peeling or flaking bark. Both are placed in the Burseraceae family, a family characterised by non-allergenic resins, and are native to northeast Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Both bleed a clear or opaque latex when cut, with trees tapped in the wild and the dried resin collected for sale. The botanical name for frankincense is Boswellia sacra, a species native to Saudi Arabia and Somalia and likely the original balsam brought from the Land of Punt for the Queen of Sheba. Myrrh, here, is Commiphora myrrhaalthough Biblical myrrh was Commiphora guidotii, a species native to Somalia and Ethiopia not to be confused with Myrrha odorata, sweet cicely, a European herb. The scented resins from these species (other species produce less desirable perfumes) are still largely collected from wild trees and remain precious due to their rarity, starkly illustrated by their near-threatened conservation status.

The botany of Christmas (readers may recall my contributions to The Adelaide Review at Christmases past) and the cultural history of frankincense and myrrh are worth more than a passing glance. Freya Stark’s account of her 1934 journey along the ancient incense trail in search of the ancient city of Shabwa, recounted in The Southern Gates of Arabia: A Journey in the Hadhramaut, remains a classic. Or you could (easily) track down Kate Humble’s 2009 The Frankincense Trail, a four episode series shown on SBS a few years ago. If you’re looking for presents there’s a nice review of frankincense and myrrh perfumes on the Perfume Posse website, perfumeposse.com.

Image: Nina Aldin Thune

Stephen Forbes, Director, Botanic Gardens of South Australia

@StephenJForbes

Originally published in The Adelaide Review (December 2014).

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