A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why did the Magi consider frankincense and myrrh such valuable gifts?

January 8, 1999

Dear Cecil:

Frankincense and myrrh are readily available at health food stores for $20 a pound — high for meat, but average for herbs. Their only obvious use is for skin care (they work). My question is, why were they considered such a valuable gift by the Magi? Did the ancient Palestinians have such bad skin? Can you smoke them and get high? Or do they have some arcane, mystical use that only you, and presumably several earlier wise men, know about?

Cecil replies:

I put this question to the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board and got this response: "What other options did the wise men have in those days for gifts to bring the baby Jesus? Furbies? Bouncing Tiggers?" Fat load of help these guys are. Still, when you start delving into frankincense and myrrh, you can see where one question just leads to another. For example:

  • Did you know that frankincense and myrrh are both aromatic resins harvested from the Burseraceae family of incense trees — frankincense from several species of the genus Boswellia and myrrh from the genus Commiphora? That all of the above may be found in various localities on the Arabian peninsula and the nearby Horn of Africa? That they were highly prized in ancient times and frankincense at one time was possibly the most valued commodity in the world? Don't lie to me, you pig, you did not.
  • Did you know that in this age of online commerce you can buy frankincense direct from the sultanate of Oman? Also "top-quality myrrh"? I mean, lest you feel you have to settle for the Walgreens kind.
  • Frankincense was used to make eyeliner. But not just any eyeliner — I mean that weird Egyptian stuff Elizabeth Taylor wore in Cleopatra. This was back in the days when they weren't clear whether the purpose of cosmetics was to enhance womanly beauty or scare off birds.
  • Do you get the idea the Magi didn't have a lot of experience buying for children? I mean, since when are gold, frankincense, and myrrh age-appropriate gifts? Even if you were the baby Jesus, wouldn't you have preferred a nice set of Legos?
  • Although I suppose when you're the son of God, you know you're not put on this earth to have fun. When I was in parochial school the nuns told us that frankincense and myrrh prefigured the crucifixion since they were both used at funerals, frankincense as incense and myrrh as an embalming aid. One appreciates the symbolism, but imagine you're Mary and Joseph. "Hi, folks, congratulations on the birth of a bouncing baby boy! We'd like to give you these reminders of his impending torture and death."
  • Myrrh was used as a perfume and was also added to cheap wine to make it more drinkable. Such a mixture was offered to condemned convicts to numb them out before death. You might remember that Jesus declined some before his demise (Mark 15:23). Myrrh was also used in cosmetics and medicines. Evidently, given the limited pharmacopoeia of the time, myrrh was the default answer to all problems. "So, Brutus, the differential go out? Better put some myrrh on it."
  • Frankincense, one reads, has historically been used in Christian and other religious rituals to "purify the air." This was obviously written by someone with very limited experience of religious rituals. When I was an altar boy, the most coveted job (which I had) was to be "thurifer," or incense hassler. This job was great because you got to (a) light the charcoal in the thurible (incense burner) before the service, which gave my natural desire to play with matches a religious significance that I still feel when lighting coals in the Weber; and (b) you could ladle in all the incense you wanted. The result was not purer air; on the contrary, I routinely produced enough smoke to make it look like the church was on fire. In my case this merely annoyed the priest. But in the old days, you're talking about a congregation that slept with camels and didn't have the benefit of refrigerated mortuaries. No doubt smelling frankincense was preferable to smelling anything else.
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