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Gifts of the Magi: where frankincense and myrrh come from

January 6th, known as Epiphany (epiphania, Greek for manifestation), is the date biblical scholars believe the Three Wise Men, or Magi, actually arrived in Bethlehem after seeing the star of the Christ Child in the sky on Christmas Eve, some two weeks before. The "Star of Bethlehem" was prophesied in the Gospel of Matthew. The Magi traveled some 800 or 900 miles from the East, most likely Persia (modern Iran), are they were likely astrologers. Fast forward to the 13th century and the date became known as Twelfth Night, or the last day of Christmas merry-making.

The Three Wise Men were Kings: Balthazar, Melchior, and Gaspar. And they brought with them gifts for the Christ Child, which at the time were the most precious on Earth. They brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In biblical iconography, Balthazar carried the urn of myrrh, Gaspar carried the urn of frankincense, and Melchior brought gold.

Frankincense has been traded for more than 5,000 years in the Arab Peninsula and North Africa. The best quality frankincense is produced in Yemen and Somalia, with Somalia producing 80 per cent of the world’s supply. Today, most of the production is bought by the Catholic Church.

The ancient Egyptians used frankincense and myrrh in the embalming process. The ancient Greeks and Romans also used these incenses during cremation. The Babylonians and Assyrians burned them during religious ceremonies.

Frankincense is the incense that is burned ceremonially in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Two thousand years ago, frankincense was also used by used Jews (where it was known as olibanum), and it was mentioned specifically in the Song of Solomon and the Talmud. When burned, frankincense is a symbol of the divine. Today, frankincense is used mainly in the perfume and aromatherapy industries.

Frankincense is the resin of the Boswellia sacra, a tree native to Yemen, Somalia, and Oman; there are four main species that produce the fragrant resin. The quality of the resin depends on what time of year it is harvested. The bark of a Boswellia is scarred and the resin runs and forms tears. The tears harden and form nuggets. The best nuggets are opaque and they are still hand-sorted.

The trees only start to produce resin after 10 years. Tapping the trees for resin seems to decrease the germination rate of Boswellia seeds by a huge factor, from 80 per cent for untapped trees to 16 per cent for tapped trees. Clearly, a stressed tree has a hard time to successfully reproduce.

Boswellia sacra is an amazing tree because it grows in the most inhospitable conditions and with minimal rainfall: in poor, sandy soil, and even in what looks like solid rock. The tree grows a bulbous base for itself, as a form of insurance, against getting ripped out of the ground by fierce wind or rain storms.

Frankincense resin is edible and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine where it is called is called "dhoopan." When chewed, it is stickier than chewing gum.

For hundreds of years, frankincense has been used to treat arthritis, heal wounds, strengthen the female hormone system, and purify the air. In Somali, Ethiopian, Arabian, and Indian houses, burning frankincense daily is said to bring good health.

A 2008 medical study showed that frankincense improved osteoarthritis of the knee in about a week, according to Arthritis Research & Therapy.

Myrrh is the resin of the Commiphora myrrha small tree. As with frankincense, myrrh was used as incense, for medicine in lotions, and as a perfume. Commiphora myrrha is native to Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea, and eastern Ethiopia. The distinguishing feature of a myrrh tree is its huge thorns. Because of its use in anointing bodies for burial, of offering of myrrh by the Magi Gaspar is seen as a prophecy of Christ's death.

Myrrh gum is used to treat indigestion, ulcers, colds, cough, asthma, lung congestion, arthritis pain, and cancer. Myrrh is more bitter than frankincense when ingested.

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