Gifts of Wise Men still used today
Mary Alice, with some help from me, has been decorating our home for the holidays. Sadly, due to the COVID restrictions for traveling and limiting the amount of people who can meet, we are not going to visit our families. Christmas of 2020 will be much different than those in the past due to COVDI-19.
Over 2,000 years ago the three Wise Men, carrying gifts, traveled many days and nights to reach their destination. In the Bible, we read the three Wise Men carried gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. However, the names of the Three Wise Men are not easily recalled.
According to medieval legend, the names of the three Wise Men were Melchoir, King of Arabia (gold); Gaspar, King of Tarsus (myrrh) and Balthasar, King of Ethiopia (frankincense). These three names have neither appeared in the Bible nor in Christian literature until 500 years after the birth of Jesus. Scholars cannot agree on the names of the three men nor from where they traveled. However, it is agreed three gifts were brought.
The gifts, which the three men carried, were fit for a King. Equivalent to today’s prices, a pound of frankincense was worth $500 a pound, and a pound of myrrh was $4,000. Today, each are priced at approximately $15 a pound. However, the value of a pound of gold was valued at $600, and in today’s market, a pound of gold could cost 10 times that amount.
Frankincense is a gum-resin obtained from the trunk of the Boswellia carteri trees which grow in East Africa and Southern Arabia. The best frankincense comes from a narrow strip of desert in Oman, from the species known as Boswellia carteri. This gum was used by the ancient Hebrews, Greeks and Romans for religious rites.
The name frankincense comes from two French words, meaning pure and incense. The method for harvesting frankincense has not changed in the last 5,000 years. Each summer nomadic families make gashes in the bark of a tree with a spatula-like tool. From these gashes, the tree oozes a milky white fluid, which is the tree’s defense against injury. After approximately a week, this milky-white fluid hardens into a glob.
The nomadic workers scrape and gather this white glob several times over a three-month period. In this form, it is pure frankincense. One tree will yield about 10 pounds of frankincense each year. Frankincense comes to the market in the form of pale colored globules called tears. In ancient times, frankincense could only be harvested by specially appointed families. To protect the tree from robbers, the rulers would circulate rumors that the trees were guarded by flying snakes. Historians estimate that at the peak of the Roman Empire more than 3,000 tons of frankincense were shipped to Greece, Rome and China each year.
Egyptians of all classes burned frankincense in their homes and temples. Frankincense was chewed to fight bad breath, soothe sore gums, skin infections and also to dress wounds. Today, frankincense is considered to have antiseptic, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties. It is also used in relieving the discomfort of lung infections and asthma.
Myrrh is similar to frankincense and often interchangeable in early remedies. Myrrh is harvested primarily from a scraggly, thorny tree (Commiphora myrrha) which belongs to the same family as the tree which gives frankincense.
However, myrrh prefers basaltic soil (hard, compact dark-colored soil from igneous rock) to the limestone soil of the frankincense tree and is found over a wider range. The bark of the myrrh tree is brittle and often cracks on its own, allowing gatherers to collect the resin. When hardened, the sap is dark, with a bitter taste; hence, the Greek word myrrha, which means bitter.
Frankincense is pale and sweet, which probably explains why frankincense was more popular than myrrh. However, myrrh did become quite a status symbol, and its price was five times higher than frankincense. Just a drop of myrrh oil put into a cheap perfume would double its price. Myrrh was used by Egyptians to embalm royal mummies.
Myrrh was prescribed for a much wider range of ills than frankincense. It was mixed with a mother’s milk to cure diaper rash. Arab men drank vinegar and myrrh to cure baldness. It was said that Jesus was even given “wine mingled with myrrh” as an anesthetic during his crucifixion.
The last gift was gold, which was believed to have supernatural healing powers. Gold was worn around the neck to keep sickness at bay. Gold was dissolved in acid to cure appendicitis. Today, patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis are said to be rejuvenated by gold injections. The gold based drug aurofin is highly effective in treating the early stages of arthritis. Ancient Greeks and Egyptians, who began experimenting with different chemicals to create gold from other metals, gave birth to the science of alchemy, the predecessor of modern medicine. Early church fathers understood the gold to be symbolic of Christ’s deity; the frankincense of his purity; and the myrrh of his death since it was used in embalming.
It’s no wonder Henry Van Dyke penned the words “In the wealth of the wood since the world began, the trees have offered their gifts to man.” We still decorate our homes with trees and holly boughs, and other items from nature.
Have a Merry Christmas, I’m sure we are all glad that 2020 will soon be over and looking forward to a more peaceful and healthy 2021.