We Still Exchange Gold. But Whatever Happened to Frankincense and Myrrh?

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Dec. 21 2012 1:06 PM

What Would Jesus Burn?

Whatever happened to frankincense and myrrh?

Frankincense.
Why wouldn't frankincense make as good a gift now as it did 2,000 years ago?

Vesna Galesev/Thinkstock.

Christians around the world on Tuesday will commemorate the birth of Jesus by showering their loved ones with toys and electronics. Jesus himself received an impressive basket of gifts on his birthday: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We still exchange gifts made of gold. Whatever happened to frankincense and myrrh?

They lost their cachet. Frankincense and myrrh, a pair of aromatic oils, were the hottest luxury items of the ancient world. When Greeks and Romans wanted to flaunt their wealth, they burned enormous amounts of the stuff, particularly at funerals honoring their deceased parents or spouses. Near Easterners slathered it on their bodies to cover their natural odors, and well-to-do women used myrrh to keep their skin looking healthy. (Myrrh’s ability to preserve skin wasn’t limited to the living: The ancient Egyptians used it in the mummification process.) Demand for frankincense and myrrh began to drop off in the third century, and 300 years later, they were very minor commodities in the West. Many scholars blame Christianity for the decline. Early Christians stopped burning incense in religious rituals, labeling the widespread practice a form of idolatry. The oil returned to Christian worship by the seventh century, but the damage to the frankincense and myrrh trade was done.

In addition to the abandonment of incense in religious practice, Christianity worked a more general change in society. Conspicuous consumption was a virtue in pagan Rome. When Christianity swept through Europe, even the rich became more humble in their displays of wealth. Burning hundreds of libras’ worth of frankincense just because you could was no longer considered appropriate. When the wealthy stop demanding a luxury item, the floor drops out of the market.

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Although they’re not as popular as they once were, frankincense and myrrh are still common in fragrances. Myrrh is used in approximately 7 percent of modern perfumes, and parfumeries are worried about the potential extinction of trees that provide frankincense.

Despite the collapse of the frankincense and myrrh trade in the ancient West, buyers in the Near East and China kept the trade alive. Eastern people used the oils for medicine as well as fragrance. Like many pharmaceuticals of the ancient world, they were described as panaceas and used to treat everything from diarrhea to amenorrhea to cancer to syphilis. Frankincense and myrrh were also rubbed on wounds, a practice that some modern studies support. A handful of laboratory tests, mostly in Africa, Egypt, or China, have shown that frankincense and myrrh have antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties. One study even suggests that frankincense and myrrh work best in combination.

That brings us back to the manger in Bethlehem. The conventional wisdom is that the gifts of the magi were symbolic of Jesus’ future roles as religious leader and king. But over the years, medical journals have carried a variety of articles proposing that the Magi were delivering not symbols but medicine to baby Jesus. One of the more imaginative theories was proposed in a letter to the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1989: Gold, frankincense, and myrrh could have been the ingredients in an ancient eye ointment. The writer noted that gold was also used as a drug at the time, treating such ailments as arthritis, tuberculosis, and syphilis. (Syphilis was a major problem in ancient times.) Since many practitioners of ancient medicine believed that yellow medicines are best against yellow ailments, such as jaundice, it’s possible that gold was added to frankincense and myrrh to treat a puss-filled eye. This theory is, of course, speculative in the extreme.

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Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.