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incense-tree, common name for members of the Burseraceae, a family of sometimes deciduous shrubs and large trees found chiefly in tropical America and NE Africa. The name derives from the characteristic aromatic oils or resins that occur in all parts of the plant. The incenses frankincense and myrrh are prepared from large irregular lumps of light reddish to yellowish brown gum exuded by some species. Frankincense, from several species of the genus Boswellia, especially B. papyrifiera, is also used medicinally and for fumigation; another name for it is olibanum. It is primarily produced in Somalia. Myrrh is obtained from several species of the genus Commiphora, whose native range extends from Ethiopia and Somalia to E India. The common myrrh, C. myrrha, yields bitter, or harobol, myrrh, also known simply as myrrh. C. erythraea, C. guidottii, C. kataf, and other species yield opoponax, also known as sweet, or bisabol, myrrh, an important bdellium. The rarer C. gileadensis or C. opobalsamum of Arabia yields Mecca, or Duhnual, balsam (also called balm of Gilead). All three are used in perfumes and sometimes medicinally; they were employed by the ancients for embalming. Frankincense and myrrh, together with gold, were the gifts of the Magi of the Gospels (Mat. 2.11). Both were used for incense in religious ceremonies, as frankincense still is. The biblical myrrh, probably a mixture of several substances, may also have been derived in part from the unrelated rockrose (genus Cistus), a small evergreen plant of the Mediterranean area. The name myrrh is also used for sweet cicely, of the parsley family. Bursera, Protium, and other genera of the incense-tree family also are sources of gums and resins; the Mexican B. copallifera yields copal santo, also known as copal de Penca or copal blanco. Incense-trees are classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Sapindales.
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The sap of the myrrh tree (Commiphora myrrha) dries into hard, reddish brown lumps of gum resin known as myrrh. Although unfamiliar to us today, in ancient times myrrh was a precious and much sought-after substance. The Magi, or Wise Men from the East, brought the baby Jesus a gift of myrrh.

History and Significance

In order to understand the significance of this gift, we must explore the uses of myrrh in biblical times. Ancient records tell us that it was perhaps most commonly employed as a medicine. The Romans, Greeks, Assyrians, and other peoples of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East prescribed myrrh in treatments for a wide variety of afflictions, including sores in the mouth, infections, coughs, and worms. It was also burned to fumigate the rooms of the sick. Myrrh appears at the beginning of Jesus' life as a gift and at the end of his life as a medicine. Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus is offered a cup of wine mixed with myrrh (Mark 15:23). This suggests that myrrh was used as a painkiller. The ancient Egyptians used myrrh in the process of embalming corpses. The ancient Hebrews also treated the dead with myrrh; according to the Gospel of John, Jesus' body was treated with myrrh and aloes before being wrapped in cloth for burial (John 19:39).

Myrrh was also highly valued as a component of perfume and incense. Although myrrh has a pleasant smell, like many more familiar perfume products, it has a bitter taste. In fact, the English word "myrrh" comes from the Hebrew and Arabic terms for "bitter." Myrrh was especially prized as an ingredient in perfumed oils and lotions because of its enduring fragrance and long shelf life. The Hebrews made myrrh one of the primary ingredients of the holy oil with which they anointed their high priests and the sacred objects of their temples. It was also used to make incense, which many ancient peoples, such as the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, Persians, and Babylonians, burned in home and temple worship. Frankincense was preferred over myrrh in the making of incense, however.

In ancient times, Arabia supplied the Mediterranean and Asia with most of their myrrh and frankincense. These products were so highly valued and so difficult to obtain outside of Arabia that they became a luxury affordable only by the rich.

The Magi's gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh have each been assigned a special significance in Christian lore and legend. Due to its bitterness, the gift of myrrh has often been interpreted as a symbol of the hardships that Jesus would suffer in his adult life: persecution and early death. The fact that myrrh was used in embalming has led some to assert that myrrh represents Jesus'humanity. Like us, he would die. Another interpretation suggests that because myrrh had many medicinal uses in biblical times, it must represent Jesus' role as a healer of body and spirit. Finally, it might be argued that the gift of myrrh symbolizes Jesus'role as a Jewish religious leader, since myrrh was a main ingredient in the holy oil used to anoint Jewish high priests.


Until the mid-1700s tradition dictated that the British monarch offer a gift of frankincense, gold, and myrrh at the Chapel Royal on Epiphany. Heralds and knights of the Garter, Thistle, and Bath accompanied the king on this reenactment of the Magi's royal pilgrimage. The procession was abandoned under the unstable King George III (1760-1820), although a proxy continues to deliver the monarch's gift of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Chapel Royal on Epiphany. A similar royal offering was at one time customary in Spain.

Myrrh Today

Today myrrh trees can be found in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Myrrh is still used as a component of incense and perfume. It is also found in mouthwashes, gargles, and toothpastes. Interest in the medicinal properties of myrrh has been increasing in recent years. Herbalists recognize its antiseptic, antifungal and astringent qualities. Moreover, a recent scientific study has found that myrrh indeed does reduce pain, affirming ancient uses of the drug.

Further Reading

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Groom, Nigel. Frankincense and Myrrh: A Study of the Arabian Incense Trade. London, England: Longman House, 1981. Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Lehner, Ernst, and Johanna Lehner. Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plantsand Trees. 1960. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Lipkin, R. "Myrrh: An Ancient Salve Dampens Pain." Science News 149, 2 (January 13, 1996): 20. "Myrrh." In Allen C. Myers, ed. Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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A strong immune-boosting healer and infection fighter, almost as good as echinacea, with strong cleansing and antiseptic properties. Commonly used in mouthwashes and toothpaste. Also used for asthma, bronchitis, sinus, sore throat, herpes, ulcers. Myrrh is a resin made from dried tree sap. Very popular for its essential oil. A very spiny tree with big pointy thorns, grows to about 12 ft (4m)
Edible Plant Guide © 2012 Markus Rothkranz
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



an aromatic gum resin that exudes from wounds in the trunks of trees of the genus Commiphora (C. abyssinica and C. schimperi) of the family Burseraceae. The trees are native to southern Arabia and Ethiopia. The resin hardens when exposed to the air, forming irregularly shaped yellow or brown globules. The globules have a pleasant odor and a spicy, bitter flavor. Myrrh contains 50–55 percent gum, 25–35 percent resin (myrrhin), and 2–6 percent volatile oil (myrrhole), as well as bitter principles of undetermined composition. It has an antiseptic action and is used as a gargle (in the form of tinctures), for dressing wounds, and in the preparation of bunduges and oint ments. It was also used as incense in religious rites and as a spice.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


A gum resin of species of myrrh (Commiphora); partially soluble in water, alcohol, and ether; used in dentifrices, perfumery, and pharmaceuticals.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


symbol of gladness. [Flower Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 176]
See: Joy
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. any of several burseraceous trees and shrubs of the African and S Asian genus Commiphora, esp C. myrrha, that exude an aromatic resin
2. another name for sweet cicely
3. the resin obtained from such a plant, used in perfume, incense, and medicine
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005