A whiff of the past

A sense of herbs

A sense of herbs

January 06, 2003|by Dorry Baird Norris

"We Three Kings of Orient are,

Bearing gifts we traverse afar.

Field and fountain, moor and mountain,

Following yonder star."

- John H. Hopkins, Jr.

The Three Kings arrived in Bethlehem bearing precious gifts for the newborn Babe. Today we can easily comprehend Melchior's offering of gold - a royal gift fit for a king. To fully understand the significance of Gaspar's frankincense and Balthazar's myrrh, we must look back to ancient times.

Burning sweet-smelling substances during religious ceremonies is of ancient origin and common to many societies. The pleasing odors, wafting toward the sky, were thought to please the gods. Prayers were thought to ascend to heaven on the wisps of smoke. Burning fragrant woods may also have played a part in moderating the stench of burning flesh and blood offerings.


The true incense is, of course, frankincense (Boswellia thurifera). Native to the northern part of the Arabian peninsula, this large tree with leaves similar to some species of elms was one of the most valuable items of trade in early Middle Eastern cultures. Trade in frankincense resin was documented as early as the 5th century BC by Heroditus. It was valued for its domestic, medicinal and ritual uses. In classical times it was associated with longevity and memory. When burned, it was thought to drive away evil.

Today, its use in anti-wrinkling creams drives away the "evil" of aging. Frankincense was also valued for embalming and it was always included in Egyptian royal tombs.

Queen Hatshepsut (1512-1428 BC), who, despite tradition, declared herself Pharaoh of Egypt, sent an expedition to Punt to explore for treasures. They returned with frankincense and myrrh trees, as well as cinnamon, ebony and live baboons. The expedition was celebrated as a major success.

To harvest frankincense, the bark of the tree is peeled back two times, causing a flow of juice from the inner wood. When the sap hardens it becomes brittle and can be easily cracked into bits that can be burned as incense. Loosely translated, frankincense means free burning or free lighting - from the ease with which the dried sap will burn.

Balthazar's gift of myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) had a more sinister connotation - it foretold of suffering to come.

Myrrh is a gum resin that comes from a large bush or small tree. The leaves grow in clusters along the trunk and the branches are spiny. When the bark is pierced, a white gum is exuded that turns red when exposed to air.

Over the centuries, myrrh has been used as incense, in perfumes and in purification rituals. It was especially esteemed for women's health. Myrrh is still a valued medicinal herb. It is an astringent and antiseptic and valued as an ingredient in toothpaste and mouthwash that heals the gums.

Myrrh was an ingredient in the holy oil of the Jews and in the Kiphi oil the Egyptians used for embalming.

Frankincense and myrrh can often be found in craft or religious supply stores. A cautionary note to any of you who may want to add the scent of frankincense and myrrh to your Twelfth Night celebration:

The acrid smoke that results when these are burned at too high a temperature will leave you choking and in tears. To avoid this disaster, heat the resins over hot water, never in a pan on the stove.

Herbarist, lecturer and Hagerstown resident Dorry Baird Norris is a member of the International Herb Association, a member-at-large of the Herb Society of America and author of "The Sage Cottage Herb Garden Cookbook." She welcomes questions about the non-medical use of herbs. E-mail her at or write in care of The Herald-Mail Co., P.O. Box 439,

Hagerstown, Md. 21741.

The Herald-Mail Articles