What are frankincense and myrrh?

Medicinal uses of frankincense may help explain the gifts of the magi

Biblical Archaeology Society Staff November 26, 2019 114 Comments 87976 views

What Are Frankincense and Myrrh?Were the gifts of the magi meant to save Jesus from the pain of arthritis? It’s possible, according to researchers at Cardiff University in Wales who have been studying the medical uses of frankincense.

Since the early days of Christianity, Biblical scholars and theologians have offered varying interpretations of the meaning and significance of the gold, frankincense and myrrh that the magi presented to Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew (2:11).

These valuable items were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil.

In fact, these same three items were apparently among the gifts, recorded in ancient inscriptions, that King Seleucus II Callinicus offered to the god Apollo at the temple in Miletus in 243 B.C.E.

The Book of Isaiah, when describing Jerusalem’s glorious restoration, tells of nations and kings who will come and “bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6). Although Matthew’s gospel does not include the names or number of the magi, many believe that the number of the gifts is what led to the tradition of the Three Wise Men.

Interested in learning about the birth of Jesus? Discover the history of Christmas and the date of Jesus’ birth in the free eBook The First Christmas: The Story of Jesus’ Birth in History and Tradition. What Are Frankincense and Myrrh?

The traditional gifts of the magi—gold, frankincense and myrrh—may have had symbolic as well as practical value. Researchers believe the medicinal uses of frankincense were known to the author of Matthew’s gospel.

In addition to the honor and status implied by the value of the gifts of the magi, scholars think that these three were chosen for their special spiritual symbolism about Jesus himself—gold representing his kingship, frankincense a symbol of his priestly role, and myrrh a prefiguring of his death and embalming—an interpretation made popular in the well-known Christmas carol “We Three Kings.”

Still others have suggested that the gifts of the magi were a bit more practical—even medicinal in nature.

Researchers at Cardiff University have demonstrated that frankincense has an active ingredient that can help relieve arthritis by inhibiting the inflammation that breaks down cartilage tissue and causes arthritis pain.

The new study validates traditional uses of frankincense as an herbal remedy to treat arthritis in communities of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, where the trees that produce this aromatic resin grow. Did the magi “from the East” know of frankincense’s healing properties when they presented it to young Jesus?

11 Surprising Benefits and Uses of Myrrh Oil

What Are Frankincense and Myrrh?

Written by Marsha McCulloch, MS, RD on January 4, 2019

You may be familiar with myrrh from Biblical stories even if you’re not sure what it is.

Myrrh is a reddish-brown dried sap from a thorny tree — Commiphora myrrha, also known as C. molmol — that is native to northeastern Africa and southwest Asia (1, 2).

A steam distillation process is used to extract myrrh essential oil, which is amber to brown in color and has an earthy scent (3).

Myrrh has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine. Scientists are now testing the oil’s potential uses, including for pain, infections, and skin sores (4).

Here are 11 science-based health benefits and uses of myrrh essential oil.

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Ancient Egyptians used myrrh and other essential oils to embalm mummies, as the oils not only provide a nice scent but also slow decay. Scientists now know this is because the oils kill bacteria and other microbes (5).

  • Additionally, in Biblical times, myrrh incense — often in combination with frankincense — was burned in places of worship to help purify the air and prevent the spread of contagious diseases, including those caused by bacteria.
  • One recent study found that burning myrrh and frankincense incense reduced airborne bacterial counts by 68% (6).
  • Preliminary animal research suggests that myrrh can directly kill bacteria, as well as stimulate the immune system to make more white blood cells, which also kill bacteria (7).
  • In test-tube studies, myrrh oil has strong effects against several infectious bacteria, including some drug-resistant ones (3, 8, 9, 10).

In one test-tube study, myrrh oil at a low dilution of 0.1% killed all dormant Lyme disease bacteria, which can persist in some people after antibiotic treatment and continue to cause illness (11).

Still, more studies are needed to determine whether myrrh oil can treat persistent Lyme infections.

Summary Myrrh oil has been used to kill harmful bacteria long before scientists discovered that microbes cause contagious illnesses. It may have an impact on some drug-resistant and Lyme disease bacteria.

  1. Due to its antimicrobial properties, myrrh has traditionally been used to treat oral infections and inflammation (12).
  2. Some natural mouthwashes and toothpaste contain myrrh oil, which is approved as a flavoring by the FDA (13, 14).
  3. What’s more, when people with Behcet’s disease — an inflammatory disorder — used a myrrh mouthwash to treat painful mouth sores four times daily for a week, 50% of them had complete pain relief and 19% had complete healing of their mouth sores (15).
  4. Test-tube studies suggest that mouthwash containing myrrh oil may also help gingivitis, which is inflammation of the gums around your teeth due to a buildup of plaque (12).
  5. Yet, more studies are needed to confirm these benefits.
  6. Keep in mind that you should never swallow myrrh oral-care products, as high doses of myrrh can be toxic (15).

Additionally, if you have oral surgery, it may be best to avoid myrrh mouthwash during healing. A test-tube study found that stitches — especially silk ones — can degrade when exposed to myrrh, though they held up in the doses typically found in mouthwash (16).

Summary Some natural mouthwashes and toothpastes contain myrrh oil, which may help relieve mouth sores and gum inflammation. Never swallow these products.

Traditional uses of myrrh include treating skin wounds and infections. Today, scientists are testing these applications (17).

  • One test-tube study of human skin cells found that an essential oil blend containing myrrh helped heal wounds (18).
  • Another study noted that myrrh and other essential oils applied via baths helped mothers heal skin wounds from vaginal deliveries (19).
  • However, multiple oils were used simultaneously in these studies, so the individual effects of myrrh for wound healing are unclear.
  • Specific studies on myrrh oil are more telling.
  • A test-tube study on 247 different essential oil combinations found that myrrh oil mixed with sandalwood oil was especially effective at killing microbes that infect skin wounds (20).
  • Additionally, in one test-tube study, myrrh oil alone inhibited 43–61% of the growth of five fungi that cause skin conditions, including ringworm and athlete’s foot (17).
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Human research is needed to confirm these benefits. However, if you want to try myrrh for general skin health, many natural ointments and soaps contain it. You can also apply diluted myrrh oil directly on your skin.

Summary Applying diluted myrrh oil on your skin may aid wound healing and fight microbes that can cause infections. The oil may also deter the growth of skin fungi, including ringworm and athlete’s foot.

Pain — such as headaches, joint pain and back pain — is a common complaint.

Myrrh oil contains compounds that interact with opioid receptors and tell your brain you’re not in pain. Myrrh also blocks the production of inflammatory chemicals that can lead to swelling and pain (1, 2, 21, 22).

When people prone to headaches took a multi-ingredient supplement containing myrrh’s pain-relieving compounds, their headache pain was reduced by about two-thirds during the six-month study (23).

Further research is needed to confirm these benefits. The supplement tested isn’t available in the US, and ingesting myrrh oil is not recommended.

You can buy myrrh-containing homeopathic rubbing oils and other essential oils meant to relieve pain when applied directly to sore body parts. However, these haven’t been studied.

Summary Myrrh oil contains plant compounds that may temporarily relieve pain by signaling your brain that you’re not in pain. It may also block your body’s production of inflammatory chemicals that lead to swelling and pain.

  1. Myrrh may be a powerful antioxidant, a compound that combats oxidative damage.
  2. Oxidative damage from free radicals contributes to aging and some diseases.
  3. A test-tube study found that myrrh oil was more effective than vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant, at fighting free radicals (24, 25).
  4. Additionally, in an animal study, myrrh oil helped protect the liver against lead-induced oxidative damage in direct proportion to the amount of myrrh given prior to lead exposure (26).
  5. It isn’t known whether inhaling myrrh oil or applying it topically — which are two safe uses of myrrh oil for people — helps protect your body against oxidative damage.

Summary Test-tube and animal studies show that myrrh oil is a powerful antioxidant and even more effective than vitamin E. However, human studies are needed.

You can become infected with parasites from many sources, including pets, sexual activity and contaminated food or water (27).

Two common parasitic infections in the US are trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted disease, and giardiasis, an intestinal infection (28, 29, 30).

In a preliminary study, women who failed to respond to standard drug treatment for trichomoniasis were given an oral drug, Mirazid, made of myrrh sap and its essential oil. About 85% of them were cured of the infection (31).

Additionally, an animal study found that the same myrrh drug effectively treated giardiasis (32).

Some human research suggests that this myrrh drug also may be effective against the parasite Fasciola gigantica, which can cause liver and bile duct diseases. However, other studies failed to see a benefit (33, 34, 35, 36).

Mirazid is not widely prescribed at this time.

Though more research is needed, myrrh and its oil may prove helpful for treating parasites, especially in cases of drug resistance. Ingesting myrrh oil is not advised, and long-term safety must be assessed (37).

Summary Preliminary studies suggest that a myrrh-containing medicine may help treat some common parasites, but more research on its effectiveness and safety is needed.

Scientists are testing other potential uses for myrrh oil and its beneficial compounds. The following applications are under study:

  1. Sunscreen: One test-tube study found that SPF 15 sunscreen with added myrrh oil was significantly more effective at blocking ultraviolet rays than the sunscreen alone. By itself, myrrh oil wasn’t as effective as the sunscreen (38).
  2. Cancer: Test-tube studies suggest that myrrh oil may help kill or slow the growth of cancer cells from the liver, prostate, breast, and skin. However, this hasn’t been tested in people (39, 40, 41).
  3. Gut health: One animal study indicates that myrrh compounds may help treat intestinal spasms related to irritable bowel syndrome. Another animal study suggests that myrrh may help treat stomach ulcers (42, 43).
  4. Mold: Test-tube studies note that myrrh oil may help kill mold, including Aspergillus niger, which commonly appears as mildew on damp walls, and A. flavus, which causes spoilage and mold contamination of food (3, 44).

Summary Scientists are investigating other potential benefits of myrrh oil, including sunscreen effectiveness, cancer treatment, digestive health, and mold elimination.

Myrrh oil can be inhaled, applied topically, or used for oral care. It should not be swallowed.

Here are some general guidelines:

Topical Use

Due to the risk of skin irritation, it’s best to dilute myrrh oil in a carrier oil, such as jojoba, almond, grapeseed, or coconut oil. This also helps prevent the myrrh oil from evaporating too quickly (45).

In general, use 3–6 drops of essential oil per 1 teaspoon (5 ml) of carrier oil for adults. This is considered a 2–4% dilution. For children, use 1 drop of essential oil per 1 teaspoon (5 ml) of carrier oil, which is a 1% dilution.

You can also add a drop or two of myrrh oil to unscented lotion or moisturizer before you apply it to your skin. Some people add myrrh oil to products used for massage.

Avoid applying the oil to sensitive areas, including your eyes and inner ears. Wash your hands with soapy water after handling essential oils to avoid accidental exposure to delicate areas.

Inhaling

You can add 3–4 drops of myrrh oil to a diffuser to distribute the oil as a fine mist into the surrounding air.

If you don’t have a diffuser, you can simply place a few drops of the oil on a tissue or cloth and inhale periodically or add a few drops to hot water and inhale the steam.

One simple trick is to apply a few drops of myrrh oil to the cardboard tube inside a roll of toilet paper. When someone uses it, a bit of the aroma will be released.

Combinations

The earthy aroma of myrrh oil blends well with spicy, citrus, and floral essential oils, such as frankincense, lemon, and lavender, respectively.

The combination of myrrh and frankincense is especially popular — not only because of their complementary scents but also because of their synergy, or interaction that produces even greater benefits.

In test-tube studies, combined myrrh and frankincense oils improved their effectiveness against infectious bacteria and other microbes. About 11% of this improvement was due to synergistic interactions of the oils (46).

Summary

Health benefits of gold, frankincense, and myrrh

Written by Tim Newman on December 24, 2018 — Fact checked by Gianna D'Emilio

Three compounds, connected by their mention in the story of Jesus’ birth, may provide benefits beyond their gift of seasonal joy. Here, we investigate their healing powers.

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Share on PinterestWe will never know whether the three wise men knew how healthful their gifts were.

  • When writing for a medical website, creating uplifting seasonal content can be challenging.
  • There are many opportunities to write about medical dangers.
  • For instance, we could write about the physical impact of overeating or overdrinking.
  • We could cover the increased risk of poisoning the dog with chocolate or the spike in heart attacks during the festive period.

This Spotlight, however, is a little less somber. The title was begging to be written and, thankfully, there is much to say about gold, frankincense, and myrrh’s contribution to medical science.

First, a brief introduction to our triumvirate of seasonal compounds. Gold, unarguably the most famous of the three, is a dense, soft, transition metal. Frankincense and myrrh are both aromatic resins extracted from trees.

In brief, I will outline some of the potential health benefits that these three compounds might offer. Although the evidence is sketchy in places, each compound’s tale is interesting in its own right.

One of the first things that spring to mind when considering gold is its high price. Its monetary worth means that any health claims about gold should be approached with caution — it would be of great financial benefit to any company that could convince us that gold might save our lives.

Share on PinterestThere’s more to gold than its high price.

  1. Because of its high status, gold has been used as a medicine for thousands of years.
  2. The earliest documented use occurred in China around 2,500 years before it was presented to the baby Jesus.
  3. In medieval times, and still today, certain outlets promoted the consumption of gold to alleviate depressive symptoms and migraines, while improving concentration and alertness.
  4. In the 19th century, gold was considered nervine — an agent that calms the nerves — and it was used to treat diverse conditions ranging from alcoholism to epilepsy.
  5. Many of the claims made about gold are baseless, but not all.
  6. Ingesting gold in its standard elemental form has no effect: It is inert and impervious to the body’s digestive juices — in other words, it passes straight through and out the other side.

Some gold salts, though, can be processed by the body and have anti-inflammatory properties. Some arthritis drugs include gold salts, such as sodium aurothiomalate and auranofin.

Gold versus cancer

The isotope gold-198 is used in the treatment of some cancers. Gold is excellent at absorbing X-rays, and loading tumors with gold can increase radiation therapy’s efficiency. This means that less powerful treatment is needed, minimizing damage to healthy tissue.

  • One study used an intriguing approach; the researchers combined a green tea compound with radioactive gold nanoparticles and used them to attack prostate cancer.
  • The tea compound, called epigallocatechin-gallate, is easily absorbed into tumors, and when radioactive gold is attached to the compound, it gets a free ride to the heart of the tumor, where it can destroy the cells without damaging other tissues.
  • According to the authors, their technique “may provide significant advances in oncology for use as an effective treatment for prostate and other solid tumors.”

Frankincense is produced from trees of the genus Boswellia. It has an impressive pedigree and has been traded on the Arabian Peninsula for around 6,000 years.

  1. The aromatic resin is used in incense and perfumes; it produces a sweet, earthy, and woody aroma.
  2. Today, with a popular focus on well-being and alternative therapies, essential oils and aromatherapy have given frankincense a rebirth in the West.
  3. Modern peddlers assign it a fair few health claims, including the reduction of acne, anxiety, colds, ulcers, coughs, and even indigestion.

Frankincense

Aromatic resin from Boswellia trees
Frankincense from Yemen
Boswellia sacra tree that produces frankincense, growing inside Biosphere 2

Frankincense (also known as olibanum, Persian: کندر‎ [Kondoor], Hebrew: לבונה‎ [levoˈna], Arabic: اللبان‎ al-libān or Arabic: البخور‎ al-bakhūr, Somali: uunsii Somali pronunciation: [unsi]) is an aromatic resin used in incense and perfumes, obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia in the family Burseraceae, particularly Boswellia sacra (syn. B. bhaw-dajiana), B. carterii, B. frereana, B. serrata (B. thurifera, Indian frankincense), and B. papyrifera. The word is from Old French franc encens ('high-quality incense').[1]

There are five main species of Boswellia that produce true frankincense.[2] Resin from each of the five is available in various grades, which depend on the time of harvesting. The resin is hand-sorted for quality.

Etymology

The English word frankincense derives from the Old French expression franc encens, meaning “high-quality incense”. The word franc in Old French meant “noble” or “pure”.[3]

A popular folk etymology suggests a connection with the Franks (and often in particular Frankish Crusaders), who reintroduced the spice to Western Europe during the Middle Ages, but the word itself comes from the expression.[3][4]

In Greek (the language of the New Testament), Arabic, Phoenician and Hebrew, the name of Frankincense is cognate with the name of Lebanon; this is postulated to be because they both derive from the word for “white” and that the spice route went via Mount Lebanon.[5]

Description

Flowers and branches of the Boswellia sacra tree, the species from which people produce most frankincense.

Frankincense is tapped from the scraggly but hardy trees by striping (slashing the bark) and letting the exuded resin bleed out and harden. The hardened streaks of resin are called tears.
Several species and varieties of frankincense trees each produce a slightly different type of resin. Differences in soil and climate create even more diversity of the resin, even within the same species.

Boswellia sacra

What are frankincense and myrrh and where can you buy them today?

The familiar Bible story about the three wise men, or the Magi, is very well known. These characters, who have been discussed in the previous two columns, brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus.

Gold is known by almost every civilization in the world and in the West it is often associated with royalty, as in a golden crown. Doubtless that is the way gold was used by the biblical story to indicate the kingship of Christ.

But what is “frank” incense as opposed to other incense? And what on earth is myrrh, and is it possible to pick up a six-pack of it?

Incense is well-known to members of the liturgical churches, such as the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Priests put incense on hot coals in a thurible, a burner hung on a chain, and puff up waves of sweet smoke around an altar, a casket or some other sacred object.

An earlier generation knew of incense burned on cones or sticks to mask other, less than legal, substances being burned, but these perfumed sticks had very little true incense. Various other substances, such as leaves or scented wood grains, are called “incense” today, but these are not what the ancients knew.

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Frankincense probably refers to the purest of incense as opposed to ordinary incense. The word comes to us from the Old French term “franc encens,” meaning noble or pure incense. However today the two words tend to be used interchangeably. In the medieval period, incense was known by its Latin name, olibanum.

Incense was well-known in Greek Roman times, when it was used as an offering to the old pagan gods, and it was also burned before the emperor when he walked in a formal procession. The Greeks and Romans in turn got it from Syria and Egypt where it has been known for more than 5,000 years.

It is mentioned several times in the Hebrew Scriptures, both in the worship of God and as a trading commodity. Christian ceremonial use of incense in Roman times is well attested, but it died out with the collapse of the empire. It was reintroduced to the Western church by the return of the crusaders who rediscovered it in the Holy Lands.

There is a wonderful story of how the young Alexander the Great once threw several generous fistfuls of incense in a brazier burning a sacrifice. His tutor Leonidas scolded the boy for using too much of the very expensive stuff, saying that the lad should not use so much until he ruled over a land that could afford it.

In his celebrated conquests, when King Alexander conquered Gaza, he sent 500 talents of incense back to his old tutor with a message that Leonidas should be more generous in his offerings to the gods. For the record, one talent weighed between 75 and 110 modern pounds, which is a lot of smoke dust.

True incense is harvest from the sap of the incense tree, known to scientists by its technical name, boswellia. The trees are slashed, and the sap runs slowly out and harden into lumps called tears. These are then collected, perfumes are added and the incense is sold.

What are frankincense and myrrh and why is their smell so mystical?

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SPICY-SMELLING frankincense and myrrh have been intimately intertwined with humanity throughout recorded history, from the frankincense pellets found in the ancient tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun to the myrrh-infused brandy concoction used to preserve the body of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, a 19th-century British war hero. The substances' musky plumes of smoke are most often associated with embalming, perfumes, and religious rituals around the world, including ceremonies in the ancient temples of Jerusalem and modern Roman Catholic liturgies. Beyond those uses, frankincense and myrrh may also have medicinal and psychoactive components.

Both of the earthy entities are gum resins, which are viscous secretions from trees. Frankincense, also known as olibanum, comes from select trees in the Boswellia genus, and myrrh usually comes from Commiphora trees.

The plants belong to the same botanical family and commonly grow on the Arabian Peninsula, in India, and in northeastern Africa.

“Both trees are usually gnarled and look stunted, without very many leaves,” describes Kerry Hughes, an ethnobotanist and founder of EthnoPharm, a consulting company specializing in plant products.

To access the aromatic resins, locals slice gashes into frankincense and myrrh trees at harvest times and collect the milky resins that ooze from their bark, Hughes says. Once exposed to air and sun, myrrh dries and hardens to reddish-brown pea-sized chunks, whereas frankincense dries to pale yellow, tear-shaped droplets about half that size.

Because factors such as geography and climate affect plant biochemistry, it's impossible to precisely pin down an exact molecular composition for myrrh or frankincense.

 However, the resins do contain sugar chains, proteins, and steroids, and are mostly a blend of terpenes, a diverse family of hydrocarbons made from five-carbon building blocks.

For example, frankincense contains five-ringed triterpenoids called boswellic acids, as well as an array of mono- and sesquiterpenes that contribute to its scent, including α- and β-pinene, limonene, and 4-terpineol. Myrrh's aroma, meanwhile, comes mostly from furanosesquiterpenes such as furanoeudesma-1,3-diene.

Humans have been investigating frankincense and myrrh for centuries, says Arieh Moussaieff, a postdoctoral fellow in plant sciences at the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot, Israel.

“The early scientists did not have the chemical and analytical tools that we have today,” so they conducted more straightforward experiments such as dividing the resin into water-soluble and fat-soluble fractions and then looking for desirable bioactivities, he says.

Despite today's vast improvements in instrumentation, the biological effects of these resins still aren't fully understood.

For instance, the resins' reputed pain-relieving properties are an active research topic. A study led by an expert at the University of California, Davis, suggested that a frankincense extract provides relief to patients with arthritic knees (Arthritis Res. Ther.

 2008, DOI: 10.1186/ar2461). Such extracts have been used for centuries in traditional medicine to treat a range of conditions.

However, the new study was funded by a company that makes frankincense extract, and the claims have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration.

In another study, researchers at the University of Florence, in Italy, set mice on a hot plate and compared how long it took regular mice and mice fed myrrh to lick their paws, a sign that the heat was causing them pain. Sure enough, mice dosed with myrrh held out longer.

The team's additional tests suggested that furanoeudesma-1,3-diene and another terpene are primarily responsible for the analgesic effects and that the compounds affect opioid receptors in the mice's brains, which influence pain perception (Nature 1996, DOI: 10.1038/379029a0).

The precise pathways these compounds affect have yet to be determined, however.

Frankincense also affects mouse brains, and in a way that provokes fascinating questions about the intersection of culture and chemistry. “Most present-day worshippers assume that incense burning has only a symbolic meaning,” Moussaieff says. But together with his Ph.D.

adviser Raphael Mechoulam of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an international team of coworkers, he found evidence that a compound in frankincense resin exhibits depression- and anxiety-dampening effects in mice (FASEB J. 2008, DOI: 10.1096/fj.07-101865)).

The team also demonstrated that the compound, a diterpenoid called incensole acetate, activates an ion channel involved in warmth perception in the skin.

Although the results haven't been confirmed in humans, “it is possible that incensole acetate augments the euphoric feeling produced during religious functions,” Moussaieff notes.

Given that incense is one of the common threads in most major world religions and that immense symbolism is attached to incense burning, the Israeli team's findings “don't surprise me at all,” Hughes says.

UPDATE: This article was modified on Dec. 19 2016 to refresh its information and data.

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