… 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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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).
Sarah 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.