Parishioners at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Wyandanch celebrate the season with a time-honored carol — “We Three Kings of Orient Are” — that lyricizes the gifts of the Magi: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Exactly who those three kings were, and what their gifts to the infant Jesus meant, has no simple ecclesiastical explanation, said the church’s pastor, Father Bill Brisotti.
“They’re from the scriptures,” he said of the Magi. “They’re from the Orient. I would say they’re vague persons who appear in the scriptures, then disappear.”
Deeper analyses of the Magi and their gifts are emerging not from religion, but science, where there has been an emphasis on grasping the gifts’ value.
There is no question about gold. But why the resins from two species of sap-producing trees were considered important has unfolded slowly for the modern world.
Douglas Daly, director of the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, describes frankincense and myrrh as two commodities of extreme importance to the ancients, equivalent in many ways to the current global value of oil and gold. And their importance predates Christianity, he said.
“They were the most valuable plants on Earth. I would say more valuable than gold,” said Daly, who periodically teaches a course open to the public on frankincense and myrrh.
More than anything, the resins were pharmaceutical gold. People in antiquity used the resins as antiseptics, indigestion remedies, anti-inflammatories and even as medicines to knock out pain, a range of modern studies shows.
Piero Dolara, an emeritus professor of pharmacy at the University of Florence in Italy, spent years studying why the ancients were enamored of myrrh.
A series of his analyses involving mice proved myrrh to be a noteworthy analgesic, or painkiller — which might have been considered a wise gift more than 2,000 years ago for a new mom and a male infant after circumcision.
The research found that chemicals in myrrh interact with the brain’s opiate receptors, which probably explains why the substance was used to dull pain.
A passage in the Gospel of Mark indicates that “vinum murratum,” a mixture of wine and myrrh, was offered to Christ just before the crucifixion — another clue about the ancients’ use of myrrh as an analgesic.
Investigations are underway examining the ancient substances as possible cancer therapies in the future.
The resins also were used then, as now, in religious ceremonies. Frankincense, which burns slowly, also offered a crude form of illumination when lit. The ancient Egyptians relied on myrrh mixed with hydrated sodium carbonate to embalm mummies, Daly said.
In a PowerPoint presentation he offers his students, Daly notes that Rome in the 1st century A.D. imported up to 3,000 tons of frankincense and between 450 to 600 tons of myrrh.
“Frankincense and myrrh were transported by sea and by road and bought by the Chinese and the Indians, the Europeans and just about anybody who could get their hands on them,” Daly said.
In Ethiopia, frankincense, which produces a powerful perfume, is still processed the way it was 3,000 years ago, mostly by women who chisel large hunks of the resin into smaller crystallized stones, according to researchers at Addis Ababa University.
Frankincense, an aromatic resin, is obtained from trees in the genus Boswellia, which belongs to the larger family, Burseraceae.
Myrrh is a gum resin secreted by shrubs that belong to the genus Commiphora, also part of the larger Burseraceae family. It, too, has an intoxicating perfume.
Both plants are found throughout Egypt, Yemen, Oman and the Horn of Africa, which encompasses present-day Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. But Daly said these flowering trees range across Madagascar, India, China and South America.
Daly said he worries about the future of frankincense and myrrh.
Although both are derived from drought-resistant trees, the plants are declining worldwide, he said, the result of global climate change.