Everyone knows the story of the three wise men: that they came to pay tribute to the baby Jesus, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And every child, when they first hear the story, wonders what frankincense and myrrh are, and why such strange gifts were given to a baby. Wouldn’t a teddy bear and a rattle have been more appropriate?
Common belief now is that the ‘wise men’ were in fact astrologers, and that the stars foretold the birth of a great king. Gold is obviously a tribute for a king, but frankincense and myrrh?
Frankincense and myrrh are both aromatics, burned as incense or used in the making of perfumes. Each comes from the bark of a certain type of tree – boswellia sacra (frankincense) and Commiphora myrrha (myrrh) – that only grows in Oman, Yemen, and Somalia. The trees could only be harvested at certain times of year, and then the resin (sap) had to cure for several months. Then the resin was transported by camel for hundreds – sometimes thousands – of miles, across precarious terrain. Because of this, frankincense and myrrh were extremely valuable; at the time of Jesus’ birth, frankincense was worth its weight in gold!
Both were was used in religious ceremonies: when they are burned, they give off a fragrant smoke, and the smoke was thought to carry prayers up. This, as well as their value, made them gifts very worthy of a king!
You can read more about the history of frankincense the Young Adult novel The Frankincense Trail. The story is set in 200BC – two centuries before the birth of Christ – in Arabia, where the frankincense trees grow. There were both monotheistic (worshipping one god) and pantheistic (worshipping many gods) societies at the time; and all of them, from Arabia to Rome to China, valued frankincense.
You can also read more about frankincense on The Frankincense Trail website.