Myrrh through the Ancient Ages
Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha, Burseraceae) trees are native to the harsh, arid regions surrounding the Red Sea, including Oman, Yemen, Djibouti, Somalia, and Eastern Ethiopia.1 The resinous exudate has been collected from prehistory and described in ancient texts; however, the first modern description of the tree occurred in 1822 by a traveler to the Tehama (meaning “hell”) region of Oman.
To say this resin was “highly prized” in the ancient world does not convey the reverence in which myrrh was held. The Ancient Near East considered myrrh one of the three sacred aromatics (spikenard and frankincense being the other two) and was foremost in its use as a divine incense. Myrrh’s value was often more than its weight in gold. Ancient Egyptians, who called it punt or phun, saw myrrh as the tears of their sun/sky god Horus,2 son of Isis and Osiris, imported vast amounts of myrrh beginning around 3000 BCE, and included it in their sacred incense Kyphi.1 Myrrh was used in skin preparations to promote a youthful complexion by protecting skin from the harsh, dry conditions and reducing wrinkles.3
The Hebrews incorporated myrrh into their holy anointing oil as well as the temple incense mixture Ketoret. They also drank myrrh infused in wine in order to raise their consciousness.2 Myrrh was said to be present both at the birth (the Magi) and the death (Nicodemus) of Jesus. In the chrism anointing oil of the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, myrrh was the chief ingredient for the sacraments of chrismation (baptism in the Holy Spirit) and unction (rite of consecration or healing).1 The Roman Catholic church also used myrrh in their incense, and, by the Middle Ages, the church had developed the symbolic meaning of myrrh as a representation of sacrifice and penitence, as well as purification and preservation of the flesh.
In ancient cultures, women herbalist-perfumers working in palaces and guilds prepared both holy incense and secular perfumes. Myrrh was a regular part of these preparations, which could take the form of aromatic waters, oil-based infusions, or high-alcohol content wine.
In the medical realm, Sumerian inscriptions show that myrrh was used to treat intestinal worms and was applied topically to teeth and gums. The Egyptian Ebers papyrus (circa 1500 BCE) notes that myrrh, along with frankincense, was used to treat wounds and skin sores, and as part of the embalming ointment used in mummification. Dioscorides, the Greek physician, suggested myrrh’s use for coughs, as well as infections of the eyes, teeth, and mouth. Myrrh was included in the Roman preparations Mendesium, a liniment for aching muscles, and Murra, a perfume also used as a hair tonic and skin cleanser.
HerbClip™ Managing Editor
1Holmes P. Aromatica – A Clinical Guide to Essential Oil Applications Vol 2: Applications and Profiles. London, UK: Singing Dragon; 2019.
2Mojay G. Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc.; 1996.
3Battaglia S. The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy. 8th ed. Brisbane: The International Centre of Holistic Aromatherapy; 2003.