Go Wood: Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh

Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh

Posted by Chuck Ray

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.

And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.”

-Matthew 2:10-12, The King James Bible

So goes the story. I always thought it an interesting one, especially for the two mysterious gifts with names that I never saw anywhere outside of the Bible. Gold, that was easy, and it showed that these three wise men were serious players. But frankincense and myrrh? What the heck is that?

As a kid, I always had a vague notion that frankincense was some kind of magic dust that was somehow associated with Frankenstein. And that myrrh was a smooth, sweet, middle-eastern butter. Well, I could see how Mary and Joseph would appreciate some high-end butter, but it never really was clear to me what they did with the magic dust. The Bible never did clear that up for me.

But it turns out that frankincense is mentioned in the Bible sixteen other times, fifteen in the Old Testament and once in the Revelation of the New Testament. And from these mentions, it is clear that it is some kind of incense/spice, useful for burning as an offering or for spicing up your roasted lamb. Myrrh is mentioned fourteen other times, thirteen in the Old Testament as a fragrant spice with some apparent medicinal use, and once more significantly as one of the two ingredients (aloe and myrrh) that were brought by the merchant Nicodemus to dress the body of Jesus with after removing it from the cross and carrying it to his tomb.

Perhaps you already knew this. But did you know that both are wood products? And both apparently were, at least at the time of the story, worth their weight in gold?

Frankincense and myrrh are both resins that are produced by stripping the bark from small trees and letting the sap, or gum, run and harden on the trunk in the form of a droplet, ortear.

Frankincense (Olibanum) resin

The frankincense trees are different species of the genus Boswellia, and myrrh trees are scientifically known as Commiphora myrrha. Both are rare, and are found as small, scraggly trees in arid places in the Middle East and East Africa. Both are the source of some nice revenue for the hardy folks who have the patience and diligence to scout out the trees in the dry hills, avoid the snakes that love to lie around them, and perform the tedious work of stripping the bark from the thorny stems and pick out the dried tears.

And predictably, now, scientists are finding thatthese trees are increasingly endangered. In the latest issue of The Journal of Applied Ecology is a paper entitled “Limitations to sustainable frankincense production: blocked regeneration, high adult mortality and declining populations.” In this paper, the authors found that the Boswellia trees in Ethiopia used for frankincense production are endangered…

Under the ‘business as usual’ scenario, population models projected a 90% decline in the size of tapped and untapped populations within 50 years and a 50% decline in frankincense yield within 15 years. Model simulations for restoration scenarios revealed that populations and frankincense production could only be sustained with intensive management leading to full sapling recruitment and a 50–75% reduction in adult mortality. 

…Regeneration bottlenecks and high adult mortality are causing rapid decline in frankincense-producing tree populations in Ethiopia. This decline is unlikely to be a consequence of harvesting and is probably driven by fire, grazing and beetle attacks. Fire prevention and the establishment of non-grazing areas are needed. Our results show that other factors than exploitation may seriously threaten populations yielding [frankincense].”

– Groenendijk, et al, The Journal of Applied Ecology

Frankincense tree, Boswellia sacra
It’s likely that the species are under similar attack in other parts of their ranges, and that the price of frankincense and myrrh will skyrocket as its availability decreases. Too bad, because the products are still popular in middle-eastern cultures and as incense in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox services.
Especially interesting is the potential use of the products for medical purposes. From Wikipedia:
Standardized preparations of Indian frankincense from Boswellia serrata are being investigated in scientific studies as a treatment for chronic inflammatory diseases such as Crohn’s diseaseulcerative colitis, and osteoarthritis. Initial clinical study results indicate efficacy of incense preparations for Crohn’s disease. For therapy trials in ulcerative colitis, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis there are only isolated reports and pilot studies from which there is not yet sufficient evidence of safety and efficacy. Similarly, the long-term effects and side effects of taking frankincense has not yet been scientifically investigated. Boswellic acid in vitro anti-proliferative effects on various tumor cell lines (such as melanomaglioblastomasliver cancer) are based on induction of apoptosis. A positive effect has been found in the use of incense on the accompanying specimens of brain tumors, although in smaller clinical trials. Some scientists say the results are due to methodological flaws. The main active compound of Indian incense is viewed as being boswellic acid.
As of May 2008 FASEB Journal announced that Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have determined that frankincense smoke is a psychoactive drug that relieves depression and anxiety in mice.[11] The researchers found that the chemical compound incensole acetate[12] is responsible for the effects.[11]
In a different study, an enriched extract of “Indian Frankincense” (usually Boswellia serrata) was used in a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled study of patients with osteoarthritis. Patients receiving the extract showed significant improvement in their arthritis in as little as seven days. The compound caused no major adverse effects and, according to the study authors, is safe for human consumption and long-term use.[13] The study was funded by a company which produces frankincense extract.
In a study published in March 2009 by the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center it was reported that “Frankincense oil appears to distinguish cancerous from normal bladder cells and suppress cancer cell viability.”
Myrrh resin

So now you know “the rest of the story” on frankincense and myrrh. And why the wise men thought it valuable enough as a gift to offer it to a being they consider to be heaven-sent.

Still, it would be interesting to know what Mary and Joseph used it for, wouldn’t it?

Myrrh tree, Commiphora myrrha
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