Archive for December, 2012

‘Sweat of the Gods’: Frankincense and Myrrh in Antiquity

… they saw the young  child with Mary his mother, and fell down,
and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures,
they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”

–Matthew 2:11

When we read about the wise men’s gifts to the infant Jesus, we often project our own constructions of luxury and wealth onto the past; perceiving that gold must have been the most valuable of the donatives given to Christ. However, the precious resins of frankincense and myrrh given by the wise men were perhaps more valuable than the gold, and certainly could be applied in a wider variety of ways. The  association of frankincense in particular with divine and mystical powers can be seen in The Egyptian Book of the Dead, which refers to it as “the sweat of the Gods fallen to earth.”

Magi bring gifts to the baby Jesus in one of the earliest known depictions. (3rd Century Sarcophagus, Vatican Museums, Italy)

Magi bring gifts to the baby Jesus in one of the earliest known depictions. (3rd Century Sarcophagus, Vatican Museums, Italy)

Hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, frankincense and myrrh were given in tribute to royalty. From Crete to Syria, Phoenicia to Rome, inscriptions and textual references tell us that these spices were valued not only for their pleasing fragrance, but for their healing abilities. Although today we have tended to narrow the category of “spices” down to things added to food, in antiquity, spices not only included things used to enhance taste, but also included incense—that is substances that, when burned, gave off a pleasing smell—perfumes, and unguents. Rare spices made the nations of Southern Arabia, where frankincense and myrrh trees predominantly grew, the wealthiest in the world—if we are to believe the natural historian Pliny.

Frankincense is a gum resin from trees native to Arabia and East Africa from the genus Boswellia. After the bark was cut by cultivators who themselves were often viewed as sacred, the tree’s resin was allowed to bead and harden before being scraped off and collected for sale. Frankincense had many uses: as a burnt offering for the gods, as a domestic fragrance in elite homes to perfume the air, and in funeral services. It is mentioned in an early Babylonian medicinal recipe, and the Greek historian Herodotus mentions its use as incense as well. Around 3,000 tons were shipped around the Roman empire in the first century CE. Myrrh is also a gum resin, taken from the Commiphora tree common to Arabia, Somalia, and some parts of India. It was often used as an unguent. It was also a common ingredient applied by embalmers preparing the dead for burial.

Frankincense at a Dubai spice souk.

Frankincense at a Dubai spice souk.

An essential means of communicating with the gods was through smell. The smoke from animal sacrifices was supposed to rise to the heavens and signal piety to the Graeco-Roman Gods. At funerals, the strong smell of frankincense could denote the status of the deceased to both the living and the dead. It was said that the emperor Nero burned more frankincense than Arabia made in a year for his wife’s funeral. At the late Republican dictator Sulla’s funeral in Rome in 78 BCE, 210 litters loaded with frankincense and cinnamon were burned. Plutarch tells us that a large figure was molded of Sulla made of the substances. It was burned alongside Sulla’s body on the funeral pyre. The incense not only heightened the service, but masked the strong smell of blood and flesh emanating from the pyre.

An irony of the gifts of the magi lies in Jesus’ own rejection of luxury. These spices were an elite, royal indulgence, and were thus often looked on with spite by early Christian writers. Much as the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where the Holy Grail is chosen, reminds us, Jesus was a man who preferred simple things to the luxurious objects normally associated with kings. Moreover, these spices initially had a pagan connotation as well. The early Christian writer Tertullian noted that Christians could not keep their integrity intact if they sold frankincense, not only because it was a luxury, but because pagans could not help but burn the spice as part of a sacrifice—something Christians were to have no association with.

Phoenix, risen from its ashes, between two trees, frankincense and myrrh(Aberdeen Bestiary illuminated manuscript, ca. 12th century)

Phoenix, risen from its ashes, between two trees, frankincense and myrrh
(Aberdeen Bestiary illuminated manuscript, ca. 12th century)

As Christianity became the predominant religion with the Roman empire, mixtures of frankincense and myrrh began to lose its association with animal sacrifice and to instead signal the suffering of Christ and his divine transformation. Friars also apparently noted that it masked the smell of rather malodorous parishioners. In the later medieval Church, these substances signaled divinity and corporality. It was the three myrophores (myrrh carriers) that first saw Christ’s tomb open and empty. Thus the spices represent both the beginning and end of Christ’s life on earth. The story of Christ and the later use of frankincense and myrrh in fact only support the fact that incense was viewed as a transforming substance in antiquity and the Middle Ages. The olfactory sense was a way to commune with the divine, and thus the gifts of the magi were not just unguents or perfumes, but precious intercessors.

Further Reading:

Christiane Bird, The Sultan’s Shadow: One Family’s Rule at the Crossroads of East and West (Random House, 2010).

Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England (Baltimore, 2011).

Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity And the Olfactory Imagination (Berkeley, 2006).

BondSarah_042312__006-copySarah Bond specializes in Ancient and Late Antique History. She hails from the mountains of Virginia, where she attended the University of Virginia and received a B.A. in Classics and History, with an Archaeology minor. From there, she went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for her PhD in History (2011), and then on to a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. She is excited to come to Marquette and will be teaching the survey in Western Civilization in the Fall.


Interview with Peter Staudenmaier

The following is an interview on another website about how Peter Staudenmaier became involved with his research topic.


Civil War Christmas

Although many Americans, especially the Puritans who founded New England, had rejected rowdy European-style Christmas celebrations, that began to change in the nineteenth century, when the holiday evolved into a family-centered, wholesome celebration of the birth of Jesus. By the time of the Civil War, many of the traditions that modern Americans associate with Christmas had been established in the United States, including decorating Christmas trees, giving gifts (including the increasingly available commercially produced toys and children’s books), and anticipating the arrival of the Saint Nicholas or, as he was increasingly called, Santa Claus. Clement Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known as “The Night Before Christmas”) had appeared in 1823. By the 1850s, observers were complaining of the commercialization of Christmas, as newspapers ran countless ads for Christmas sales of toys, food treats, and virtually every other imaginable item. The practice of sending Christmas cards and of spending every increasing amounts of money on lavish gifts would grow with the American middle class after the war ended—Christmas became a federal holiday in 1870—but Christmas celebrations would be familiar to modern Americans by the time the war began. An excellent history of the ways that Americans have celebrated Christmas is Penne Restad, Christmas in America.

But the Civil War changed Christmas for countless children and parents. When I wrote The Children’s Civil War a number of years ago, I came across a number of references to war-time Christmases in autobiographies of Americans who had grown up during the war, in children’s magazines, and in the popular illustrated weekly magazines. Indeed, this was the period during which the prolific political cartoonist Thomas nast Christmas 1863Nast was fine-tuning the modern image of a rotund, jolly, red-clad Santa in the 1860s. Nast’s “Christmas 1863” offering in Harper’s Weekly integrated traditional scenes of Christmas–Santa delivering presents, children delighting in their gifts—into the facts of war-time, in this case, a father returning home on furlough from the army. [Harper’s Weekly, December 26, 1863.]

Inevitably, the war affected Christmas celebrations differently in the North and South. As Union army incursions, a deteriorating economy, and the blockade tightened belts throughout the Confederacy, Christmas gifts and feasts became ever sparser. A North Carolina mother reported that she and her husband gave their children mountains of dolls and books and games in 1862, but a year later, with Santa Claus “gone to the war,” they could manage to put a few cakes and coins in their stockings, while in 1864, her only mention of a “dull, gloomy, and cloudy” Christmas day was attending church. Some parents suggested to their children that, because he was, of course, a Yankee, Santa would be held up by Confederate pickets, or that, perhaps, Union blockading vessels had interrupted his journey. Others took less care in explaining the absence of a normal Christmas. The Richmond Examiner played Scrooge when it called Santa Claus “a dutch toy-monger, an immigrant from England, a transflated scrub into New York and New England,” who “has no more to do with genuine Virginia hospitality and Christmas merry makings than a Hottentot.” A slave told a family of children Georgia not to expect a visit from St. Nick because the Yankees had shot him.

Continue reading ‘Civil War Christmas’

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