Myrrh – a Bitter Tale
When a myrrh (Commiphora myrrha, Burseraceae) tree is cut, it bleeds thick, resinous tears, more liquid and pale yellow when fresh, more sticky, solid, and becoming reddish-brown the longer the resin is exposed to air.1 The scent is warm-spicy, balsamic, with a slightly medicinal note that fades with age. While the name, myrrh, originates from the Arabic, meaning bitter, the well-known myths associated with the tree come from Greece.
The story begins with a goddess scorned and her retribution.1,2 Ovid recounts the trials and transformation of the princess Myrrha, in his Metamorphoses, where Orpheus sings of her tale. The story occurs in Aphrodite’s birthplace, Cyprus, also Myrrha’s home. Myrrha’s mother boasts of her daughter’s beauty, saying that her daughter rivals Aphrodite, and the goddess is displeased and causes Myrrha to fall in obsessive love with her father, the king Cinyras. Myrrha tricks him into an incestuous relationship, and upon discovering who she really is, Cinyras seeks to kill her. She runs to Arabia, with her father in pursuit. She begs the gods for help, and they respond by transforming her into a tree. Even though she has lost her humanity, the tree’s wounds cry resinous tears. Nine month’s later, a baby boy emerges thanks to the ministrations of the goddess Diana, as Lucina, and her naiads. Somehow, Aphrodite discovers Myrrha’s son, and is captivated by his beauty. She takes the boy, Adonis in a chest, to Persephone to raise, who also falls in love with him, and refuses to return him to Aphrodite.
Eventually, an agreement is reached where Adonis spends two-thirds of the year with Aphrodite and one-third with Persephone. While out hunting, Adonis encounter a boar (some versions say Ares in disguise) who gores Adonis. As Adonis lays dying, Aphrodite comes to him, and she cries, her tears spilling over him, just as a wounded myrrh tree’s tears spill over the tree’s bark. In many versions of the story, Aphrodite’s tears fell to the earth and became the anemone flower, stained red by Adonis’s blood. Aphrodite, however, has a happier outcome than Myrrha, for Zeus allows Adonis to become immortal and one of the dying and rising gods as he continues to spend two-thirds of the year with Aphrodite and one-third with Persephone.
Based on the myth, myrrh can be seen as one of the earthly forms of Divine Beauty (As above, so below), a psychopomp who guides one during life’s transitions and transformations, a companion during the bitter times, and a salve for wounds, both physical and emotional.
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1Rhind JP. Fragrance and Wellbeing – Plant Aromatics and Their Influence on the Psyche. London, UK: Singing Dragon; 2014.
2Kline AS, trans. Ovid: The Metamorphoses. [Books X] Poetry in Translation; 2000. Accessed June 15, 2021. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph10.php#anchor_Toc64105574.