What is Frankincense and Myrrh Used For?

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We all know that the Three Wise Men, Three Kings from the East or after referred to as Magi, visited Jesus soon after his birth and brought him gifts. They are regular figures on Christian Christmas greeting cards and a big part of traditional Christmas celebration in many countries all over the world.

There is a biblical reference to the Adoration of Magi in one of four canonical gospels (gospel of Matthew): “After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they 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. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” (Matthew 2, 9-12)

We know that the Three Magi, Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, brought Jesus three gifts that are identified in the gospel of Matthew: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. As it is easier to guess what is the spiritual meaning of gold as a gift, frankincense and myrrh have lost their references to our everyday lives – unfortunately.

So, What is Frankincense and Myrrh Used For?

First of all, what is Frankincense? Frankincense  is a gum resin that is collected by cutting a trunk of Boswellia Sacra tree. As sap runs from the tree to heal the incision the same way our body responds to the wound, collectors will pick the hardened resin. The first one, that is yellow in color is considered the most valuable. As the tree continues to attempt to seal its wound, the resin-gum becomes darker and darker, producing less valuable frankincense. As Boswellia grows only in certain regions in Arabia and India and the whole process requires special knowledge and lots of manual labor, frankincense resin and oil became a rare commodity in ancient times. It was widely traded and reached as far as Northern European countries and Russia, where it was used as incense in Orthodox Church services.

Incense making was an art and a science and the knowledge of incense making was passed down from one generation to the next. There was a lot of mystery around incense manufacturing and for this reason the exact ingredients in the sacred incenses of the ancient times are unknown. What could go into the incense was laid out in law, but the formula and proportions used were left to the artisans.

Some biblical scholars suggest that the nature and meaning of wise men gifts was medicinal, rather than material tribute and reference to kingship. The Egyptians, Israelites, Greeks, Romans and Arabian physicians all used frankincense oil and fumes to heal wounds and to treat the mind. Frankincense was used to treat infection and inflammation. Today, when we have an infection, we get an antibiotic to kill the bacteria causing it. The old strategy (which is gaining more popularity in the present) was to stimulate the body into action, to awaken the immune system so it can heal the part of the body being attacked by bacteria. Frankincense incense  has been widely used in Eastern medicine as a powerful antidepressant. Common reaction to a headache is to take an aspirin; when we suffer from depression – the pill is the answer. In the biblical days, incense was burned as a form of spiritual medicine to help the body and the mind.

Frankincense oil benefits

Frankincense oil benefits were known in the Middle East well before the time of Christ and it was considered as precious as gold. Frankincense essential oil is prepared from aromatic gum resins of Boswellia Carterii trees. It contains various boswellic acids known to cause self-destruction of cancer cells of brain tumors, colon cancer cells and cells affected by leukemia (see this Oxford Journals’ article).

One recent study of frankincense essential oil benefits was conducted in March of 2009. The goal was to evaluate frankincense oil for its anti-tumor activity in cases of bladder cancer. Under several different concentrations frankincense oil was able to distinguish cancerous cells from regular bladder cells and suppress cancer cells viability.

Another study (read it here) concludes that:
“Frankincense essential oil prepared from hydrodistillation of Boswellia sacra gum resins induces human pancreatic cancer cell death in cultures and in a xenograft murine model.”  (taken from:  http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6882/12/253)
On the same website read yet another article about frankincense oil benefits:
“Boswellia sacra essential oil induces tumor cell-specific apoptosis and suppresses tumor aggressiveness in cultured human breast cancer cells.” (taken from: http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6882/11/129)

It is amazing to see that modern science is helping us to understand the meaning of the wise men gifts.

Myrrh is the aromatic resin produced by small, thorny tree Commiphora, which grows in dry, stony soil of Yemen, Somalia, and eastern Ethiopia. Myrrh, as frankincense, is yellowish gum that may be either clear or opaque. It darkens deeply as it ages, and white streaks emerge. Myrrh was used as an embalming ointment and as incense in funerals and cremations until the 15th century. The “holy oil” traditionally used by the Eastern Orthodox Church for performing the sacraments of chismation and unction is traditionally scented with myrrh.

So, leaving gold aside, a little bottle of frankincense oil or frankincense and myrrh perfume, sent to loved ones with your Christmas greeting card, can be the most valuable and practical gift they will receive this Christmas season.

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