The heady aromas of frankincense and myrrh have been part of the Christmas tradition since the very beginning. Valued alongside gold as high-status gifts for the new king, these aromatic resins were presented by the three Magi to the newborn Jesus:
“On coming to the house, [the wise men] saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:11
Why did the ancients value frankincense and myrrh so highly? While many people today think of them simply as incense, they are much more than sweet aromas. They were used as potent medicines with numerous health benefits for thousands of years in Africa, Asia, and the Near East.
Frankincense smells earthy and woody, with nuances of lemon and balsamic. The word “frankincense” is derived from the Old French term for “fancy incense,” and this aromatic resin has been traded for over 5,000 years. Frankincense is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and depicted on the walls of Hatshepsut’s temple near Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. For the ancients, it was a symbol of holiness, which is why the Magi gifted it to baby Jesus. Worldwide, it is best known for its prominent use to release anxiety and nervousness in Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India.
Produced by the boswellia tree, the resin can be distilled into an essential oil or purified into a solid extract that can be consumed. While modern science has yet to prove the all of the purported medical benefits of frankincense, it has traditionally been used to heal wounds and alleviate pain, gastrointestinal distress, and upper respiratory issues. It’s also a mood enhancer.
A 2010 study by the South African Journal of Botany showed that frankincense has anti-infective properties, and a 2009 study in the Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences showed that it is also anti-bacterial.
To use: Pure frankincense oil can be harsh; mix with coconut oil, almond oil, lavender oil, or jojoba oil before applying to your skin. To use frankincense internally, consult your aromatherapist or naturalist to determine your correct dosage.
Like frankincense, myrrh is an aromatic resin that has been used by humans for thousands of years. Camel caravans carried myrrh through the great canyon city of Petra on the way to Egypt, where it was used for embalming mummies. Ancient Hebrews held the resin sacred, with myrrh taking its name from an early Semitic word for “bitter.” Extracted from the thorny Commiphora myrrha tree, myrrh was often mixed with wine or used as a perfume. It smells a bit like smoked leather crossed with sweet, minty licorice. As a symbol of suffering and its subsequent enlightenment, myrrh was often used at funerals in the ancient world.
Myrrh is used as a rejuvenating tonic in Ayurveda, and as a blood-moving agent in classic Chinese medicine – beneficial for circulation, arthritis, and menopause. In other traditions, myrrh has been used as a healing salve and especially for issues with the mouth. Today, myrrh is one of the most widely used essential oils on the planet and is a common ingredient in many types of mouthwash, toothpaste, and tooth powder.
More research is needed to prove myrrh’s purported healing properties, including cancer treatment. However, many researchers have confirmed its antiseptic/antimicrobial properties, including a 2012 study by the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. A 2010 study in the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology showed that myrrh’s high antioxidant capacity may protect against liver damage.
How to use: Dilute with another oil (such as coconut) and apply directly to the skin, or use myrrh as a mouthwash. Before using myrrh internally, please consult your local alternative medicine specialist.
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