When the wise men visited the baby Jesus to honor him as the newborn king of the Jews, they brought him gifts as was customary in the ancient Near East. The gifts included both myrrh and frankincense. For two thousand years, people have linked the two substances. There are more similarities than the biblical association, however. The two substances have similar origins, characteristics and uses.
Myrrh and frankincense are both naturally occurring resins that come from trees. Both are native to the Arabian Peninsula and to Somaliland in Africa. Since ancient times, both have been valued for their medicinal uses as well as for their usefulness as an ingredient in incense and in perfume.
Myrrh's botanical name is commiphora myrrha which belongs to the family N. O. Burseraceae. This plant is a bush whose bark contains ducts that produce and secrete a yellowish sap, which is a resin. The liquid solidifies as a solid reddish glob which can be collected and sold.
Pliny the Elder, an ancient Greek scientist and writer from the first century BC, documented the medicinal uses of myrrh. He called liquid myrrh "stacte." The ancients used it as an ingredient in incense and perfume. One well known use was as an ingredient to prepare a body for embalming. Myrrh was also used as a mouthwash for people and as a treatment for certain animal diseases and injuries.
Frankincense's botanical name is bowellia Thurifera. Like myrrh, this tree is from the family N.O. Burseraceae. It also produces a reddish resin which takes more work to harvest than the myrrh. To get the frankincense, people slice open and remove a section of the bark. When exposed to the air, the sap hardens to protect the tree in place of the bark. As soon as this happens, the people who harvest frankincense re-injure the tree in the same area to cause even more sap to collect. They continue stimulating the sap to run and harden during the months of the dry season. Then they remove the lumps of yellow frankincense.
Pliny also wrote that frankincense can be used to counter the effects of hemlock poisoning. The ancient Chinese used it to treat leprosy. In ancient Egypt, frankincense was a main ingredient in kohl, which is black eyeliner. The Bible required frankincense to be placed on the shew bread and on some of the burnt sacrifices made in the tabernacle and at the ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem. It was considered a valuable enough substance to be acceptable as tribute to the Median Emperor Darius. Frankincense is still used for incense in high church ceremonies in both the Roman Catholic and the Russian Orthodox churches.