If you were visiting a king, what gift would you take? When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the Wise Men saw his star and brought him gold, frankincense, and myrrh. You might have chosen gold for a king, but what are frankincense and myrrh? Let’s take a trip back in time to find out.
Imagine yourself in ancient Egypt, where mummies are being prepared. Strange, aromatic fragrances fill the air. Next, you are taken to a temple of the ancient Greeks. Clouds of strong-smelling incense surround the statues of their gods. Later, in old Jerusalem, in the great temple, you find the same mysterious aromas.
Then, while traveling northward by camel caravan along harsh trails on the Arabian peninsula, you sniff the same perfumes. You ask the caravan leader what makes those exciting smells. He looks at you in astonishment. “How could you not know about frankincense and myrrh?” he asks. “How could you not value the perfumes of kings?”
Frankincense and myrrh, your host explains, come from the sap of two kinds of scraggly trees growing at the southern tip of Arabia. A chisel is used to remove the papery outer bark of these trees. The liquid oozes out and hardens into yellow see-through globs called “tears” that are harvested. Only certain families are trusted to harvest the frankincense and myrrh, and whole kingdoms are supported by trading and selling them.
Frankincense is in great demand for use in the temple ceremonies of many religions, as well as for home religious use. It is burned to make fragrant smoke, and it is made into perfumes to wear. People think that a pleasant smell is holy and good. They think that it will please God and will help protect them from evil spirits and diseases.
Myrrh, he tells you, is used for expensive medicines and cosmetics, as well as for perfumes and incense, and it is often used in ointments for embalming the dead. It is also used in cooking, swallowed as a medicine for many ailments, and put on wounds to promote healing.
You ask about price, do some quick figuring, and are astonished to find that frankincense costs about U.S.$500 a pound and myrrh U.S.$4,000 a pound.
The caravan leader then tells you that his precious cargo is carried on the backs of camels more than 3,200 kilometers, then sent by sea to faraway kings and temples.
You thank your host and return to the present to find out more. You discover that frankincense comes from Boswellia trees and that our word frankincense means “pure incense.” You can buy it today for only U.S.$15 a pound! It is still used to make incense. In Arabia one kind is boiled to make a medicine for stomach-aches. Another is chewed to benefit the teeth and gums.
Myrrh, whose name means “bitter,” comes from the Commiphora Myrrha tree. Today it also sells for about U.S.$15 a pound and is used in perfumes, mouthwashes, toothpastes, and medicines.
Your caravan leader would be surprised and sad to learn that frankincense and myrrh are no longer considered important. Many towns and kingdoms built on their trade now lie in ruins. Instead of the 3,000 U.S. tons once harvested annually, only a few tons are now produced. Some of the ancient trees are even being cut up for firewood and their leaves fed to camels. However, in Arabia, Africa, and India, you can still find the trees and men who tend them. As was true anciently, the best frankincense and myrrh come from a small area in southern Oman in Arabia.
We don’t know what happened to the gifts that the Wise Men brought to Baby Jesus, but his family must have appreciated such kingly tributes. The Wise Men chose well. Their gifts were fitting symbols of godhood and royalty for the King of kings.