Frankincense and myrrh: medicinal resin worth more than gold

Mariel Tishma
Chicago, IL, United States

 

Photo of frankincense burning on coal. A candle burns in the background
Incense. Frankincense on coal. Photo: birdy. 2007. CC BY-SA 3.0. Via Wikimedia.

Boswellia and Commiphora trees are scraggly, sharp, and unfriendly. Growing close to the ground in the arid desert, they have short trunks and fanning branches, sometimes looking more like shrubs than trees. But despite their unlikely appearance, they once served as the cornerstone of an ancient trade.1 When cut or punctured, the bark of Boswellia trees, most often Boswellia serrata, produces a sticky resin to seal off the wound. This resin dries to form frankincense. Commiphora trees, most often Commiphora myrrha, produce myrrh through the same process.

Frankincense and myrrh were some of the most valuable materials in the ancient world.2 They were famous as incense offered to the divine and perfume for the wealthy. Today, many will recognize these resins for their role in the Biblical nativity story, where their worth was equal to, or greater than, gold.3

Another story from the life of Alexander the Great, as told by Pliny, has the future conqueror chided by his tutor Leonides for burning too much frankincense. Leonides commented that “it would be time to worship the gods in such a lavish manner … when he had conquered the countries that produced the frankincense.” After Alexander had indeed conquered the known world, he sent a ship loaded with the incense back to his tutor, and a note saying that “he would now worship the gods without stint or limit.”4

But why did these two trees and their resins become so prized?

First and foremost is the rarity of the product. Frankincense and myrrh trees are very particular and struggle to grow anywhere other than their native regions5 in East Africa, the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, and northwestern India.6 Harvesters can gather resin so long as there are trees to produce it, but overproduction reduces the fecundity of the trees.7

Possibly because of their scarcity, frankincense and myrrh were divine in many cultures, which increased their value. Archaeologists have found residue of frankincense in Egyptian temples, and it was used for worship by both the Greeks and the Romans.8,9 Both frankincense and myrrh are components of Ketoret, a sacred incense blend used in the Temple in Jerusalem, described in the Talmud, and reserved exclusively for God.10,11 Myrrh was also often used in embalming and associated with burial.12,13

Perhaps as an evolution of their role in spiritual cleansing or because of the historical tendency to use any organic material for healing, both frankincense and myrrh became medicine, adding to their value.

Avicenna, Celsus, and even the London herbalist Nicholas Culpeper described the medical use of frankincense.14,15 It is included in the Talmud16 and features in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine.17 It was used most often to treat inflammation and skin conditions, including wounds, sores, and abscesses. Internally, frankincense treated inflammatory diseases such as rheumatism and soothed digestive complaints.18-22 Healers believed that frankincense would move the blood around, reducing pain, swelling, and inflammation throughout the body.

Written records for the medicinal use of myrrh have been dated as far back as the Tang Dynasty in China, about 600 AD.23 Ancient cultures used myrrh not only as incense but also as a perfume,24,25 which was important as preventive medicine under the miasma theory.26 Myrrh treated many of the same conditions as frankincense, but with an emphasis on pain and wound healing rather than inflammation alone. Myrrh was the preferred treatment for mouth conditions such as tooth pain and spongy gums.27-32

Both resins promoted wound healing, perhaps by preventing infection as well as encouraging new cell growth. Modern chemical analysis suggests that the boswellic acids in frankincense and the sesquiterpenes and amaroids in myrrh may be effective antibacterial agents.33

The use of these resins outside of a religious setting has declined with time, though they did not fade completely from traditional medicine. Now, the popularity of essential oils and aromatherapy have brought them back. Today, frankincense and myrrh are prescribed for many of the same conditions and symptoms as they were in ancient times.

Frankincense is one of the most commonly used oils in aromatherapy.34 It is used to treat inflammation and inflammatory conditions such as asthma and Crohn’s disease,35-37 and studies are looking into its antibacterial and antifungal properties.38,39 Other research is exploring the possible anti-cancer properties in frankincense oil and has suggested that it slows the growth of cancer cells and increases apoptosis in targeted cells.40 

One study has looked at frankincense’s impact on conditions such as depression and anxiety and found that mice exposed to frankincense were more likely to spend time in open spaces where they feel more anxious, and were willing to swim longer in open water before giving up, suggesting a more hopeful, less depressed affect. The researchers connected their study to a story in the Talmud that describes prisoners drinking frankincense in wine to “benumb the senses” before execution.41 Myrrh has a similar New Testament story, as Jesus was given wine mixed with myrrh at his crucifixion. This was reportedly a pain reducer.42

Today, myrrh treats inflammation and inflammatory conditions much like frankincense, rather than pain. Just as in ancient practice, myrrh is preferred when treating inflammation of the “oral and pharyngeal mucosa,”43 and other conditions of the mouth and teeth. Beyond that, myrrh is still used to treat wounds and also to treat respiratory complaints like cough.44-50

Studies into the efficacy of frankincense and myrrh as medicine are ongoing. However, considering the purpose of these resins to the trees that produce them, their antibacterial properties seem the most promising. Boswellia and Commiphora trees secrete resin to treat and protect wounds. In an organism without an adaptive immune system, prevention is the first line of defense. Producing a chemical agent to kill infection and closing wounds with a thick, hard covering would keep out pathogens.

The real value of these resins may lie in something we have only begun to uncover.

 

Endnotes

  1. Gus W. van Beek, “Frankincense and Myrrh in Ancient South Arabia,” Journal of the American Oriental Society vol 78 no. 3 (Jul-Sep 1958): 141, https://www.jstor.org/stable/595284.
  2. A. Michie and E Cooper, “Frankincense and myrrh as remedies in children,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine vol. 84, no 10 (1991): 602, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1744842/.
  3. Matthew 2:11 (King James Version), https://www.bible.com/bible/1/MAT.2.KJV.
  4. Pliny (the Elder), trans. Henry Thomas Riley, John Bostock, The Natural History of Pliny, vol. 3, (London: H. G. Bohn, 1855), 128.
  5. Michael Tortorello, “Fit for a King (One, Anyway): [House & Home/Style Desk,” Column Name, New York Times,Dec 08, 2011, Late Edition (East Coast), https://chipublib.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.chipublib.idm.oclc.org/docview/910977516?accountid=303.
  6. Carole Mathe, Gérald Culioli, Paul Archier, Cathy Vieillescazes, “Characterization of archaeological frankincense by gaschromatography–mass spectrometry,” Journal of Chromatography vol 1023 (2004): 277, doi:10.1016/j.chroma.2003.10.016.
  7. Rachel Fobar, “Frankincense trees—of biblical lore—are being tapped out for essential oils,” National Geographic,December 13, 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/12/frankincense-trees-declining-overtapping/.
  8. Donna Johnson, “Three wise gifts,” National Wildlife (World Edition) vol 30 no 1. (Dec. 1991/ Jan.1992), https://chipublib.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f6h&AN=9112230868&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
  9. Gary Paul Nabhan, “Aromas Emanating from the Driest of Places,” Gastronomica 14 no 1 (Spring 2014): 49, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/gfc.2014.14.1.44.
  10. Patti Wigington, “The Magic of Myrrh,” Dotdash – LearnReligions, April 22, 2018, https://www.learnreligions.com/myrrh-magic-and-folklore-2562032.
  11. Patti Wigington, “The Magic of Frankincense,” Dotdash – LearnReligions, January 14, 2019, https://www.learnreligions.com/magic-and-folklore-of-frankincense-2562024.
  12. Piero Dolara, Barbara Corte, Carla Ghelardini, Anna Maria Pugliese, Elisabetta Cerbai, Stefano Menichetti, Antonella Lo Nostro, “Local Anaesthetic, Antibacterial and Antifungal Properties of Sesquiterpenes from Myrrh,” Planta Medica 66 (2006): 356, DOI: 10.1055/s-2000-8532.
  13. Gary Paul Nabhan, “Aromas Emanating from the Driest of Places,” 49.
  14. A. Michie and E Cooper, “Frankincense and myrrh as remedies in children,” 603.
  15. Gus W. Van Beek, “Frankincense and Myrrh,” The Biblical Archaeologist 23, no. 3 (September, 1960): 83, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3209285.
  16. Patti Wigington, “The Magic of Frankincense.”
  17. Donna Johnson, “Three wise gifts,” National Wildlife (World Edition).
  18. A. Michie and E Cooper, “Frankincense and myrrh as remedies in children,” 603.
  19. Arthur O. Tucker, “Frankincense and Myrrh,” Economic Botany 40 no. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1986): 427, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4254901.
  20. Donna Johnson, “Three wise gifts,” National Wildlife (World Edition).
  21. Gus W. Van Beek, “Frankincense and Myrrh,” The Biblical Archaeologist.
  22. E Ernst, “Frankincense: systematic review,” vol 337, no 7684 (December, 2008): 1-3, doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a2813.
  23. Lumír O. Hanuša, Tomáš Řezanka, Valery M. Dembitsky, Arieh Moussaieff, “Myrrh – Commiphora Chemistry,” Biomedical Papers vol 149 no 1 (2005): 3, DOI: 10.5507/bp.2005.001.
  24. Gus W. Van Beek, “Frankincense and Myrrh,” The Biblical Archaeologist.
  25. Patti Wigington, “The Magic of Myrrh.”
  26. A. Michie and E Cooper, “Frankincense and myrrh as remedies in children,”  604.
  27. Gus W. Van Beek, “Frankincense and Myrrh,” The Biblical Archaeologist.
  28. Piero Dolara, et. al. , “Local Anaesthetic, Antibacterial and Antifungal Properties of Sesquiterpenes from Myrrh.”
  29. Lumír O. Hanuša, et. al., “Myrrh – Commiphora Chemistry.”
  30. Arthur O. Tucker, “Frankincense and Myrrh.”
  31. Lipkin, “Myrrh: An ancient salve dampens pain,” Science News vol 149 no 2 (January 1996) https://chipublib.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f6h&AN=9602205794&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
  32. A. Michie and E Cooper, “Frankincense and myrrh as remedies in children,” 603.
  33. PDR for Herbal Medicines. ed. Thomas Fleming, RPh. 2nd (Montvale: Medical Economics Company, Inc., 2000), 319, 353.
  34. Botros R. Mikhaeil, Galal T. Maatooq, Farid A. Badria, and Mohamed M. A. Amer, “Chemistry and Immunomodulatory Activity of Frankincense Oil,” Zeitschrift für Naturforschung vol 58 no 3-4 (June 2014): 230, https://doi.org/10.1515/znc-2003-3-416.
  35. E Ernst, “Frankincense: systematic review.”
  36. Mark Barton Frank, Qing Yang, Jeanette Osban et al., “Frankincense oil derived from Boswellia carteri induces tumor cell specific cytotoxicity,” BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine vol 9 no 6 (March 2009), https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6882-9-6.
  37. Alan Keith Tillotson, Robert Abel, and Nai-shing Hu Tillotson, The One Earth Herbal Sourcebook: Everything You Need to Know about Chinese, Western, and Ayurvedic Herbal Treatment, New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2001), 171.
  38. Piero Dolara, et. al. “Local Anaesthetic, Antibacterial and Antifungal Properties of Sesquiterpenes from Myrrh.”
  39. Mark Barton Frank, et al., “Frankincense oil derived from Boswellia carteri induces tumor cell specific cytotoxicity.”
  40. Yingli Chen, Chunlan Zhou, Zhendan Ge, Yufa Liu, Yuming Liu, Weiyi Feng, Sen Li, Gouyou Chen, and Taimin Wei, “Composition and potential anticancer activities of essential oils obtained from myrrh and frankincense,” Oncology Letters vol 6 no 4 (October 2013): 1140, DOI: 10.3892/ol.2013.1520.
  41. Andy Newman, “Frankincense and Mirth: [Style Desk],” New York Times,Jul 17, 2008, Late Edition (East Coast), https://chipublib.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.chipublib.idm.oclc.org/docview/433888893?accountid=303.
  42. A. Michie and E Cooper, “Frankincense and myrrh as remedies in children,” 604.
  43. “The Commission E Monographs,” American Botanical Council, October 15, 1987, http://cms.herbalgram.org/commissione/Monographs/Monograph0263.html?ts=1605903553&signature=9c37e9559ed53464680531ad3c39c036.
  44. PDR for Herbal Medicines, 353.
  45. “The Commission E Monographs,” American Botanical Council.
  46. Alan Keith Tillotson, et.al., The One Earth Herbal Sourcebook,
  47. “Commiphora myrrha (Nees) Engl.,” International Centre for Science and High Technology, Archived August 9, 2011, http://web.archive.org/web/20110809204252/http://portal.ics.trieste.it/MAPs/MedicinalPlants_Plant.aspx?id=599.
  48. Lumír O. Hanuša, et. al., “Myrrh – Commiphora Chemistry.”
  49. Patti Wigington, “The Magic of Myrrh.”
  50. A. Michie and E Cooper, “Frankincense and myrrh as remedies in children,” 604.

 

References

 


 

MARIEL TISHMA is Assistant Editor at Hektoen International. She has been published in Hektoen International,Bloodbond, Argot Magazine, Syntax and Salt, The Artifice, and Fickle Muses. She graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a BA in creative writing and a minor in biology. Learn more at marieltishma.com.

 

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