Thursday, October 19, 2017

On the Use of Myrrh

Myrrh (Cistus creticus or true myrrh Commiphora myrrha) was a principal ingredient in the holy anointing oil used in ancient Jerusalem and was one of the gifts brought by the wise men from the east who came to worship the infant Jesus.  In ancient times it was used in embalming, as a perfume, and mingled with wine to anesthetize those condemned to die by crucifixion.  In Genesis 37:25 as the Ishmaelites from Gilead, to whom Jacob's sons sold their brother Joseph, had camels "loaded with spices, balm and myrrh” that they were taking down to Egypt.

Exodus 30:23-25 specifies that Moses was to mix twelve and half pounds of myrrh with an equal amount of cassia, and half that amount of cinnamon and calamus, into a gallon of olive oil to make the fragrant oil to anoint the tabernacle and altar in the temple. Oil scented with myrrh was used in Esther 2:12 in a purification ritual for the queen.  Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh before his crucifixion (Mark 15:23). According to John's Gospel, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea brought a 100-pound mixture of myrrh and aloes to wrap Jesus' body (John 19:39).

Myrrh gum, like frankincense, is a waxy resin that coagulates quickly and darkens as it ages. Liquid myrrh, or stacte, was an essential ingredient in ketoret, the holy anointing oil used by the ancient Hebrews to anoint the Tabernacle, high priests and kings.  It was greatly valued throughout the Middle East in ancient times as an antiseptic and as a healing salve applied to abrasions and other minor skin ailments.  Used topically, it was an effective analgesic against pain.

The myrrh mentioned in the Bible probably originated on the Arabian Peninsula. Herodotus wrote c. 5 CE that frankincense, myrrh, cassia and cinnamon were grown only in Arabia.  Diodorus Siculus wrote in 1 BCE that men passing Arabia by sea could smell a strong fragrance of spices that give health and vigor.  The Magi carrying gold, frankincense and myrrh to honor the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:11) came from the East, the region of Arabia now known as Oman where the myrrh plant is native. 

The ancient Chinese believe it to be therapeutic in the treatment of heart and liver disease as well as rheumatic, arthritic, and circulatory problems, and menopause. In modern Chinese medicine it is used to improve blood circulation and to treat traumatic injury, masses, stasis, indigestion, ulcers, colds, cough, asthma, lung congestion, arthritis pain, and cancer.   

Ancient Egyptians, Hindus and Greeks all used myrrh both as a perfume and a healing agent. Egyptians combined it with aloe to embalm the dead.  In the 5th King Sahure of Egypt funded an expedition to capture the land of Punt in order to seize its crop of myrrh.  A relief in the king’s temple shows him tending a myrrh tree in the garden of his palace.

In Western medicine myrrh extracted from is used to make medicine for indigestion, ulcers, colds, cough, asthma, lung congestion, arthritis pain, cancer, leprosy, spasms, and syphilis. It is also used as a stimulant and to increase menstrual flow.  Applied directly to the mouth it eases soreness and swelling caused by gingivitis and is used topically for hemorrhoids, bedsores, wounds, abrasions, and boils.   

In manufacturing, myrrh is used as a fragrance and fixative in cosmetics. It is also used in embalming.  It is one of the principal ingredients used to prepare the Jewish anointing ketoret and in the sacramental oil chrism used in many churches of both Eastern and Western rites.