It is said that after the birth of Jesus (celebrated on Christmas day every year) Three Wise Men from the Orient came, following a comet, to pay their homage to the newborn child. These men, also referred to as the Three Magi in English, and known as the Three Kings in Spanish-speaking countries, travelled on camel back across the desert from different parts of the Middle East.
In Spain, the festivity of the Three Kings (Reyes) on 6th of January is celebrated more than Christmas day. Catholics across the world refer to it as the feast of the Epiphany. In Spain it is called dia de Reyes and on the eve big parades are organized for children across the country, where these kings and their pages bring gifts to the children, some of whom received little or nothing on Christmas day itself. For the bad ones, black coal (made of sugar) can be found in the shoes they leave out to receive their gifts.
You may recall the lines of the traditional Christmas Carol, and one of my personal favourites:
We, three kings, from Orient are.
Bearing gifts, we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star….
These wise men, often described as astrologers, brought with them a gift each. Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. The gold is easy to understand (valuable gifts are exchanged to this day at the birth of children especially between royal households). However, while growing up on hearing this story I often wondered what the frankincense and myrrh were, and why the magi would gift resins to a baby boy.
Frankincense (Boswellia carterii) and its importance
Aside from the symbolism attached to any of these gifts. Let’s look at how valuable this gift is.
Most of you will be familiar with incense in the form of sticks which you burn to diffuse a nice smell around your home. However, the incense burned traditionally is not an incense stick, but a resin. Think of the stick as the processed form of Frankincense, a powerful resin made up of 60% oil.
The name comes from the old French words franc meaning noble, pure and encens meaning incense. Frankincense is therefore high-quality incense. It also goes by the name Olibanum.
Originating from modern day Yemen and the southern part of Oman, this resin is obtained from the Boswellia tree. There are five main species of Boswellia, the most studied being Boswellia carterii which comes from East Africa. The most prized species is Boswellia Sacra, which is the only existing species in Oman and native to it. These two species have considerable healing properties which have been known for centuries and which recent scientific studies have confirmed.
The health properties of Frankincense (Boswellia carterii)
Boswellia carterii and Boswellia sacra are the two species which contain Boswellic acids, which in turn have been linked to their multiple healing properties. However, according to scientific studies the carterii species has been the subject of more research and has been found to prevent brain tumours as well. Since they share most of their properties, I am focusing only on this species.
1. Anti-cancer properties – apart from glioblastoma (brain tumour – in the part regulating the central nervous system), and leukaemia, studies have shown that Boswellia carterii can help prevent and fight other types of cancer: breast, skin, colon, pancreatic, prostate and stomach cancer. A 2012 study also showed that a component in frankincense (AKBA) was successful in killing cancerous cells resistant to chemotherapy.
2. Anti-inflammatory – especially of the joints, bones and spinal chord as it fights the breakdown of cartilage tissues. It is useful also in the prevention and cure of arthritis, asthma and IBS.
3. Expectorant – Boswellia carterii aids in respiratory disorders, by acting as an expectorant (to remove phlegm), and to help clear the breathing passageways, not just for colds and flu but also in more serious, chronic conditions such as asthma.
4. Antiseptic and antibacterial – it helps eliminate cold and flu germs not just from your body but also from your home. A combination of frankincense and myrrh is even more powerful. Often used in oral hygiene products, it is useful in the prevention of gingivitis, bad breath, cavities, toothaches and mouth ulcers.
5. Heals skin -Not only does it help improve tone and elasticity, fighting the sings of ageing, it also reduces scarring and blemishes, acne, stretch marks, and moisturises dry, cracked skin. Frankincense is also used to heal wounds and skin ulcers.
6. Eases digestions and helps circulation – used to detoxify the body by increasing bowel movements. It speeds up the secretion of digestive enzymes and also acts as a blood thinner, improving circulation.
7. Balances hormones – used for centuries to relieve cramps, headaches, nausea, fatigue and mood swings through its regulation of oestrogen. (read more about this here). In rat studies it was also shown to promote fertility.
8. Reduces chronic stress and anxiety, as well as promoting meditative states. This explains why frankincense has been burned during spiritual and religious ceremonies across the globe for centuries.
Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) and its importance
Myrrh is a cousin of Frankincense, and is also a resin, obtained from the Commiphora tree which can be found in Somalia, Oman, Yemen, Eritrea, parts of Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia. It looks almost the same as, and could easily be mistaken, for Frankincense except for its unique smell. The name comes from the Arabic word murr meaning bitter.
Much like frankincense, it has been used for hundreds of years as a medicine, as an analgesic, as well as in scents, in embalming and anointing. Its active compounds being terpenoids and sesquiterpenes, both of which have anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant properties. It is also used to induce a sense of calm (the sesquiterpenes act on the hypothalamus area of the brain to reduce anxiety and bring calm).
The health properties of Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha)
Another powerful healer, myrrh has been used as far and wide as China (in TCM) and India (Ayurveda), not just the Middle East, and in more recent times in Western countries, for its proven properties. Indeed, it shares many of its healing benefits with Frankincense.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Myrrh has been used for healing trauma, arthritis, fractures and blood stagnation diseases.
In Ayurveda it has been used to prevent and treat inflammatory diseases, coronary artery disease, gyneacological diseases and obesity.
Some of its health properties are:
1. Potent anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory – it has been used in the treatment of ulcerative colitis and multiple other anti-inflammatory diseases.
2. Anti-cancer – Studies have shown that myrrh can help fight at least eight different types of gyneacological types of cancer. In some studies it was found to be even more potent than frankincense in fighting cancer cells.
3. Anti-parasitic – especially useful in treating Fascioliasis, a disease caused by a parasite which enters the body through the ingestion of aquatic algae.
4. Antiseptic- used often in toothpastes and other oral hygiene products due to its antiseptic properties. It is equally useful in cleaning and treating wounds.
5. Reduces cholesterol and triglycerides- according to studies the use of Myrrh significantly reduced the levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in patients.
6. Healing Hypothyroidism – Myrrh has been used in both TCM and Ayurveda to stimulate the thyroid gland and thus heal hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid condition).
7. Antibacterial and antifungal – it helps to combat candida which is the root cause of problems including bad breath and fungal infections, such as athlete’s foot; as well as acne.
8. Natural moisturiser – like Frankincense, myrrh can help heal wounds, scars, stretch marks and eczema, as well as being a natural moisturiser.
The use of Frankincense and Myrrh together has been shown to be even more potent than using either of these alone, and it is believed they work synergistically.
Side effects of Frankincense and Myrrh
Like Frankincense, Myrrh is best avoided by pregnant women and people who have blood clotting disorders. Both these resins interfere with blood clotting medications. Myrrh also interacts with diabetes medications, as it can reduce blood sugar. Large doses of Myrrh can also cause heart problems and lower blood pressure. Topical use may cause dermatitis (inflammation of the skin) and internal use of myrrh has been reported to cause diarrhea in some people.
Using resins vs essential oils
Topical uses of essential oils are best left to the experts and used after a consultation with a licensed doctor or naturopath. Essential oils are powerful concentrations and if not used properly can cause skin to burn as well as a host of other undesirable effects.
I would not contemplate ingesting essential oils (ie taking them orally) at all without supervision. However, a safer way to benefit from the properties of these is diffusing them.
In the case of frankincense and myrrh you can directly burn the resins over small coals in a burner. They will fill your home with a wonderful scent as well. Just be aware that resins can create a lot of smoke, so it is best to do so in large aerated rooms, and for short periods of time only.
Recent studies have shown that burning incense in the form of sticks, is more detrimental to your health as the small burnt particles can get into your lungs and are comparable to smoking.
The best, most prized frankincense resin, is hard to find but well worth the cost and time. It is a clear amber colour, which can go from pale yellow to quite a dark amber shade.
If you do choose to use frankincense oil in your beauty products or treatments, it blends well with jojoba or coconut oils which can be used as carrier oils. On the other hand, Myrrh is best blended with jojoba, almond or olive oils.
Truth be told I can’t live without frankincense (Boswellia carterii). I love the scent and what it does to my skin. I have been buying products with it (body cream, face oils, shower gel) for years and more recently, I have started adding oils to my shower gels and creams. My skin is silky smooth once again. I also love myrrh, which has been an active ingredient in my body creams for over a decade.
The gift of the Magi
As you can see, these gifts of Frankincense and Myrrh were not “weird oriental presents”. If these magi were astrologers who followed a comet, they may also have been alchemists or natural healers of the time. They would have been aware of the properties of these resins and armed baby Jesus with these to help him stay strong and healthy at a time, let’s not forget, that life for a newborn and his mother, were by no means a given. Luckily, two thousand years on we are rediscovering these precious gifts once again.
So, if you are struggling for a gift to give on the 6th of January, give the gift of health through Frankincense and Myrrh!