What Are Frankincense and Myrrh?

Myrrh (from top), gold and frankincense. (Photo: marilyn barbone/Shutterstock)

The tale of the Christmas nativity would not be complete without mention of the Three Wise Men who came from afar bearing special gifts for the baby Jesus. In particular, those gifts were said to be gold, frankincense and myrrh. The first one makes sense: gold is valuable and shiny and makes an excellent gift for a new family. But what are frankincense and myrrh? And why would anyone give them to a newborn baby?

While frankincense and myrrh may not have the glitz and panache of the third gift, they were still valuable and practical commodities that were likely welcomed by the young family. Both frankincense and myrrh are dried tree saps, or resins, with individual uses that were handy in biblical days.

Frankincense is the milky white sap extracted from the deciduous trees of the genus Boswellia that grow in Somalia, Oman and Yemen. Frankincense has been used for thousands of years for medicinal and personal reasons. Historical records show that the resin was used to treat ailments such as poisoning, leprosy, diarrhea and even baldness. And it was often burned as incense for its sweet aromatic aroma, which could be used to improve the smell of a room or an unbathed body. One can imagine that its woody, fruity smell would have been much preferable to the aroma of barn animals and worse.

Myrrh, another dried tree sap, also had medicinal qualities. The reddish resin is an astringent that could be used to clean wounds and was also often used in embalming. Although not as popular as it once was, myrrh is still used today to prevent gum disease and can even be found in some modern toothpastes and mouthwashes. Myrrh is harvested from trees in the Commiphora genus, which are native to northeast Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

So there you have it — gold, frankincense and myrrh or rather money, fragrance and medicine. Three gifts perfectly suited to a young, new family.