At this time of the year, Christmas, many look to their nearest and dearest with the expectation of receiving a token or gift as a way to celebrate the season as one of giving. Gift giving is of course not limited to Christmas but the act is considered more significant being the official celebration of the “birthday” of Jesus Christ. As the Bible describes, when Jesus was a baby, wise men or Magi came from the east bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. These three gifts were gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Bible does not tell us the significance of these gifts but we can infer from tradition. These valuable items were standard gifts to honour a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil.
Gold is a symbol of divinity and is mentioned throughout the Bible. Pagan idols were often made from gold and the Ark of the Covenant was overlaid with gold. Frankincense is a white resin or gum obtained from a tree by making incisions in the bark and allowing the gum to flow out. It is highly fragrant when burned and was therefore used in worship. Frankincense is a symbol of holiness and righteousness. Myrrh was also a product of Arabia, and was obtained from a tree in the same manner as frankincense. It was a spice and was used in embalming. It was also sometimes mingled with wine to form an article of drink. Myrrh symbolises bitterness, suffering, and affliction.
Yet, gold, frankincense and myrrh are gifts that we should continue to give today. Of course you will ask why and the answer is what we shall explore right away.
Starting with gold, nothing has captured the imagination of humans like it. Egyptians considered the bright yellow metal to be divine and indestructible, a physical manifestation of the sun itself.
The Egyptian word for gold is nub, which survives in the name Nubia, an ancient region in northeast Africa that became a major supplier of the precious metal. Aztecs used the word teocuitlatl — “excrement of the gods” — to describe gold. And on the periodic table, gold is represented by the symbol Au, from the Latin aurum, which means “shining dawn.” By any name, gold has always been associated with wealth and power.
Greed for gold fuelled Spanish colonisation of the Americas. And the gold rushes of the 19th century, both in California and Australia, triggered a hunger for gold that has hardly been satiated today. The rarity of gold, however, is just one reason why people value the metal. Its unique physical and chemical properties also make it useful. A one-ounce piece of gold can be hammered into a sheet five-millionths of an inch thick or drawn out into 80 kilometres of wire. And it’s chemically inert, which means it won’t react easily with other chemicals.
The most commonly acknowledged use of gold we all know and want is in jewellery. Earrings, bangles, bracelets, watches and many types of trinkets are all very familiar items made of gold and given as gifts. Electronics manufacturers also use gold extensively to take advantage of its high conductivity. Gold conducts electricity better than all other metals except silver and copper. And it doesn’t corrode easily. A typical computer has some gold inside it. Sheets of gold 0.15 millimetres (0.006 inches) thick are highly reflective and make effective radiation shields. Similar gold films are now being used to coat the windows of large office buildings, deflecting the sun’s rays and controlling passive heating. In health care, dentists use gold for crowns, and certain medicines also contain gold. In food and beverage small amounts of gold sometimes brighten foods such as jelly or liqueurs, like Goldschläger.
Tradition tells us that, in Babylon, nearly 60,000 pounds of frankincense was burned annually for its aromatics and its role in rituals. More than a costly, fragrant gift, the ancient healing benefits of frankincense are well documented and have made this tree resin famous today.
Ayurvedic medicine, in practice for centuries, uses frankincense for wound healing, female hormonal issues, arthritis, and air purification. In many cultures – including Somali, Ethiopian, Arabian, and Indian – frankincense has daily uses. Burning it in the house is said to bring good health, and burning it in the evening is meant to purify the home and the residents’ clothing.
The healing benefits of frankincense have traditionally centred on disease prevention and anti-inflammatory properties. Apparently frankincense has demonstrated anti-cancer properties and the ability to mitigate many different kinds of cancer cells though the jury is till out as to the exact mechanism(s) explaining why frankincense essential oil is so beneficial to cancer patients.
Frankincense boosts the immune system; it fights pain and inflammation; and it is used in preventing and treating cancer (studies remain ongoing).
Many of us may not realise that myrrh is actually used every day around the world. While most of our essential oils and herbal remedies come from leaves and flowers, myrrh is much more exotic. It is the resin, similar to a sap, of an African and Middle Eastern tree, the Commiphora myrrha.
We know that myrrh is of old thanks to the gifts of the Magi, but that’s not the only documentation. Ancient Egyptians, as part of their intricate mummification process, utilised myrrh in their rituals.
In other cultures, myrrh has been found historically used as medicine in China – still used to this day – as well as in Jewish anointing oils, no doubt among many other traditional uses. Myrrh essential oil is an example of the way plant based medicines connect us with history. This tree has stood where ancient Egyptians and Hebrews walked, and still stands today, sharing its healing resin with yet another era. Not all healing is sweet and pleasant, though. Myrrh is named for the Arabic word for “bitter”: murr.
After centuries of use in aromatic and medicinal forms, science is uncovering more and more of the healing properties of myrrh oil by the day. Some of the scientifically acknowledged properties include being antiseptic; anaesthetic; anti-tumour; anti-parasitic; antioxidant and wound healing. These actions have been traditionally applied to skin infections, oral health (sore throats, canker sores and gingivitis treatment), inflammation, intestinal health, and pain relief, all confirmed in some way by modern science. Myrrh emulsion exhibits an antioxidant effect strong enough that it can protect the liver – the “detox” organ that is bombarded with toxins every day – from oxidative damage. Sounds like something many might need after the liquid offerings during this season.
A truly Biblical combination is the use of frankincense and myrrh essential oils together. Notably, these two resins are generally prescribed simultaneously in traditional Chinese medicine. They are used primarily to treat blood stagnation and inflammatory diseases, as well as for the relief of swelling and pain.
Life without good health is no life at all as hospital patients will testify. Give yourself and loved ones gifts that have been proven to enhance good health and lifestyles this season and year round, gold, frankincense and myrrh. What is good enough for kings is definitely good enough for all of us.
Written by Babatunde Olaoluwa Jeje and published in This Day Style