Joys of January

"The astrologers went into the child's inn, and found him with his mother. Then with prostrate bodies they worshipped Christ, and opened their treasure chests and offered him threefold gifts: gold, incense and myrrh. . . . The gold signified that he is a true king, the frankincense that he is the true God, the myrrh that he was then mortal; but now he remains mortal in eternity".

from Sermon on the Epiphany of the Lord, by tenth century monk Aelfric

January brings new beginnings. Janus, the Roman god with two faces, symbolized looking both backwards at the old and forwards to the new. In earlier times (see Jottings in January) people celebrated this new year with feasting that began with Saturnalia, or the winter solstice, and ended with Twelfth Night.. In later times, Christians claimed Jan. 6, or Twelfth Night, as the time when the Three Kings visited the baby Jesus and bestowed upon him precious gifts. Gold, as stated by Aelfric in the passage above, would truly be a gift for a king. But frankincense and myrrh?

Frankincense, Boswellia carteri, and myrrh, Commiphora myrrha, are two types of balsams that grow in the Middle East and Africa. The Magi (or Three Kings) were said to have traveled from the East, where these resins were able to be obtained. Herodotus, in the 5th century BC, wrote that Arabia was the only country which produced frankincense, myrrh, cassia and cinnamon, and that the trees were guarded by winged serpents.

Frankincense and myrrh are obtained by making incisions, or slashes, in the bark, which then oozes a sap. After a couple of weeks, the sap has hardened, and it is harvested and then left to dry further. The small globules are either sold as "tears" or ground into powder. The fragrance of these resins is only released when heated. When I was in Egypt in September, I wanted to purchase both frankincense and myrrh, and in a show of good faith, the shopkeepers would use a lighter to heat the resins and prove that they were indeed the product I wanted.

Frankincense, also known as olibanum, was a chief incense burned throughout history and in many civilizations. Originally used as a disinfectant, frankincense came to have symbolic meaning - prayers rising up to heaven, or a sacrifice of a precious thing. It was used as a ceremonial incense in ancient Persia, Babylon (during the feast of Bel), Assyria, and by the Romans. It was also burned in Egyptian homes with aloe wood and benzoin to warm the home. Jews used it as one of the four sweet scents of incense, presented with shew bread on the Sabbath.

It has also been used through time for medicinal purposes. In China, it was used for leprosy. Pliny claimed it as an antidote to hemolck poisoning. Avicenna touted its value in the treatment of tumors, ulcers, vomiting, dysentery and fevers. Today, the essential oils of frankincense and myrrh and used for a treatment for the skin, to strengthen the immune system, and fight viruses and bacteria. The black eye powder known as kohl is made from the charred wood of frankincense. It is also used in perfumes as a fixative, and in some cosmetic products.

Myrrh is sometimes referred to as the mother energy, and frankincense as father energy. They are frequently used together, and ancient Egyptians and Hebrews used a formula of six parts frankincense to one part myrrh. Myrrh comes from the word bitter in Arabic, and so is used with more restraint in incense. In the burial of the dead, myrrh was used for embalming by Egyptians and Palestinians. In accordance with Jewish custom, Jesus was wrapped in linen strips containing myrrh and aloes. It was considered to be an antiseptic, astringent, tonic and stimulant. Myrrh and scurvy grass is an old folk remedy for toothache. It is the oil that is repeated most often in the Bible, though many sources agree that the myrrh referenced in the Bible is labdanum, which is another resin entirely.

Both frankincense and myrrh have become popular today in the field of nutriceuticals. These are natural products prepared by enzymatic transformation into herbal supplements. Myrrh yields guggulsterones , which are reputed to lower cholesterol. Frankincense is known for boswellic acids, which are supposed to have anti-inflammatory properties. It seems as though there is more to discover about the properties of these long-valued plants.

The value of frankcincense and myrrh in ancient times caused it to be used primarily by the wealthy, hence the inclusion of these resins in the gifts of the Magi. It is more easily obtainable today, though most of us never use it. Some frankincense and myrrh placed upon a lighted charcoal perfumes the room with an exotic scent, and is an enjoyable link to the past.

Here's to a new beginning,

Karen