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A Myrrhy Christmas

The Three Wise Men came bearing gifts, as everyone knows, of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold, because of its scarcity, was obviously valuable. But what are we to make of frankincense and myrrh? Why should these substances have been considered to be gifts worthy of the Christ child?

Both frankincense and myrrh are natural exudates of certain trees found in the Middle East. When the bark is injured, a sap containing a variety of natural fungicides and bactericides oozes out and prevents the entry of microorganisms into the trees' circulation. The stuff eventually hardens into a resin which can be scraped off.

Thousands of years before the first Christmas, frankincense and myrrh had established places in religious ceremonies. Their most appealing feature was the pleasant aromatic odour produced when the resins were ignited. They were incorporated into "incense," a term derived from the Latin "incendere" meaning to set on fire. Moses was given specific instructions for preparing incense from myrrh and cedarwood. Perhaps the original idea was to send prayers to heaven through the sweet-smelling smoke. Incense was the original "perfume"; the word deriving from the Latin for "through smoke."

The ancient Egyptians used frankincense and myrrh in the process of mummification, as well as for treating wounds and skin sores. The antimicrobial properties of the resins would seem to justify these applications. Harder to justify would be the use of incense to drive off demons, a common practice in ancient Egypt and in early Christian churches. Maybe the demons they were worried about were the unpleasant odours noted when people with less than perfect hygiene gathered. Incense nicely solved this problem. Most of the frankincense and myrrh gathered today is still used for the same purpose it was used thousands of years ago; namely as incense in religious ceremonies.

There have been a number of attempted medical applications of frankincense and myrrh. Hippocrates in the 5th century BC recommended the use of myrrh as a vaginal suppository to increase sexual excitement. Ancient Ayurvedic texts prescribed myrrh to prolong life and lose weight. The Chinese used it for mouth infections. The English navy tried it as a treatment against scurvy. Today, it still finds a use in some cough drops and throat lozenges. So, if you want to give someone a real Christmassy gift, how about some Tungshueh throat pills with 15% frankincense and 10% myrrh? And if you only want to enjoy the smell, "Timeless" perfume by Avon contains frankincense and "Le Jardin" by Max Factor has myrrh.

Wishing everyone a very myrrhy Christmas.


@JoeSchwarcz

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