"Who is this coming up from the wilderness
Like palm-trees of smoke,
Perfumed with myrrh and frankincense,
From every powder of the merchant?"
"Till the day doth break forth,
And the shadows have fled away,
I will get me unto the mountain of myrrh,
And unto the hill of frankincense."
Song of Solomn
Today's newsletter is on Myrrh. Several years ago I started interacting with Professor Ermias Dagne of Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia and through his kind assistance I began a journey of discovery about myrrh, opoponax and frankincense as he had developed expertise in distilling them from fresh resin. It was from him that I began to appreciate how vast a difference there is between oils distilled from freshly harvested oleo-gum-resins and those that had been stored for many months(as is usually the case) Also he helped me understand how great are the varieties of odor to be found in different species of Frankincense-particularly Boswellia rivae, Boswellia neglecta and Boswellia papyrifera. Due to his focused efforts and assistance from Kew Gardens in UK he was able to correctly identify the different species of Boswellia found in Ethiopia and separately distill their oils. All in all he has done a remarkable work in the world of distillation of the oils coming from the above resins. Along with that he has been organically growing Citronella, Palmarosa, Eucalyptus citriodora and Lemongrass and distilling them at his units located at 8000 feet. These oils have a wonderful rich well rounded bouquet because of the great care they exercise in distilling at high altitudes.
For those of you interested in GC analysis, you will definitely enjoy going through the database of essential oils he has developed on the subject-
Note: gc's of opoponax, boswellia papyrifera, citronella, lemongrass, etc which he also distills are found on this site
Before presenting some interesting information about Myrrh I would like to remind everyone who receives the newsletter that I am simply a person who loves this subject. I am in no
way an expert in any field of aromatics. Every part of it interests me but in the end it is simply the love and appreciation of the plants and the aromatic treasures they offer us that appeals to my heart.
What I do in these newsletters is present information from a variety of disciplines so that each one of you might find something of interest in your own aromatic endeavors. Each discpline is unique and fulfilling in its own right drawing upon an individuals unique physical, mental, emotional and spiritual makeup. Each brings to their work talents and skills which bring the subject to life in some special way. It is something I appreciate deeply but in the realm of how the essential oils, CO2 extracts, etc are applied in the making of perfumes, cosmetics, etc I do not have sufficient knowledge. This is something all of you know about far more about than I .
The one thing I have tried to do is to source authentic materials from around the world. Even in this I am by no means an expert. I am simply going on step by step with the sincere hope of interacting with distillers and extractors in as many places as possible. Since my own background is in horticulture I have a particular love of the life of the farmers and the work that they do. I would like to think that in some small way we are supporting their traditional lifestyles by procuring oils distilled or extracted from the plants that they have grown with much care and efforts. By good fortune I have come in contact with some really fine people in this quest but to say I have the best materials as compared to others would really be doing an injustice to many other fine people working in the realm of direct sourcing. I always encourage customers to explore the offerings of other folks like myself as the world of natural aromatics is one of discovery and surprise and each person who loves this subject is going to find sources for oils for which they have a strong affinity. It is a remarkable adventure in every way.
In the end the newsletter is just for enjoyments sake.
Botanical Source.—The Commiphora Myrrha (Balsamodendron Myrrha), has a shrubby, arborescent stem, with squarrose, spinescent branches, a very pale-gray bark, and a yellowish-white wood. Its leaves are ternate, on short petioles; leaflets obovate, obtuse, somewhat tooth-letted at the apex, the lateral smooth. The flowers are unknown. The fruit is ovate, smooth, brown, somewhat larger than a pea, surrounded at base by a 4-toothed calyx, and supported on a very short stalk (Nees—De Candolle).
---Description---The bushes yielding the resin do not grow more than 9 feet in height, but they are of sturdy build, with knotted branches, and branchlets that stand out at right-angles, ending in a sharp spine. The trifoliate leaves are scanty, small and very unequal, oval and entire. It was first recognized about 1822 at Ghizan on the Red Sea coast, a district so bare and dry that it is called 'Tehama,' meaning 'hell.'
Botanically, there is still uncertainty about the origin and identity of the various species.
There are ducts in the bark, and the tissue between them breaks down, forming large cavities, which, with the remaining ducts, becomes filled with a granular secretion which is freely discharged when the bark is wounded, or from natural fissures. It flows as a pale yellow liquid, but hardens to a reddish-brown mass, being found in commerce in tears of many sizes, the average being that of a walnut. The surface is rough and powdered, and the pieces are brittle, with a granular fracture, semi-transparent, oily, and often show whitish marks. The odour and taste are aromatic, the latter also acrid and bitter. It is inflammable, but burns feebly.
Known as 'malmal' in Somalia, Commiphora myrrha is the real myrrh. The tree is most populous in the reddish, sandy soils found in the semi-arid inland plains of Somaliland as well as the Ogaden Region of Ethiopia. Somalia used to the biggest producer and exporter of myrrh but was replaced by Ethiopia from the late 1970s.
The gum exudes naturally during and after the seasonal rains and is reddish-brown in colour with a distinct, strong smell. Of its different locally named grades, the most important for international buyers is the top grade called 'hussul'. It is available during and after these periods when the gum retains colour and remains stick to hold. Buyers should avoid buying old gum which gives a poor essential oil yield and quality. Old myrrh gum will be musty and dark in appearance, and will also be hard. Myrrh is usually harvested by nomadic pastoralists and poor rural agro-pastoralists. The tree (called 'dhidin' in Somalia) rarely grows above 2.5 - 3.0m in height and is characterized by knotted and thorny branches which have small leave foliage during the rainy seasons. This makes it somewhat difficult to distinguish from the 30-40 other commiphora varieties that exist in the Horn of Africa. Myrrh also grows through central Somalia and Northern Kenya.
The myrrh-producing tree is likewise tapped twice a year, at the same seasons as the frankincense tree, but in its case the incisions are made all the way up from the root to those of the branches that are strong enough to bear it. But before it is tapped the tree exudes of its own accord a juice called stacte, which is the most highly valued of all myrrh. Next after this comes the cultivated kind, and also the better variety of the wild kind, the one tapped in summer. It is brought up all over the district from the common people and packed into leather bags; and our perfumers have no difficulty in distinguishing the different sorts by the evidence of the scent and consistency. There are a great many varieties.... Broadly speaking, however, myrrh is of good quality if it comes in small pieces of irregular shape, forming in the solidifying of the juice as it turns white and dries up, and in its showing white marks like fingernails when it is broken, and having a slightly bitter taste. The prices vary with demand; that of stacte ranges from 3 denarii to 50 denarii the pound. Myrrh is adulterated with lumps of lentisk resin and with gum: the latter can be detected by its sticking to the teeth.
Constituents of the Oil from freshly harvested resin as distilled by Ermia Dagne
1) beta-pinene (0.4%); 2) gamma-Elemene (3.7%); 3) beta-Bourbonene (2.0%); 4) beta-Elemene (10.5%); 5) Germacrene D (2.6%); 6) furanodiene (8.8%); 7) isofuranogermacrene (6.1%); 8) germacrene B (6.6%); 9) furanoeudesma-1,4-diene (3.0%); 10) furanoeudesma-1,3-diene (41.0%); 11)lindestrene (10.7%) 12: 2-methoxy furanodiene (1.5%)
Myrrh Essential Oil
Myrrh oil is a pale yellow to pale orange or amber colored oily , but not very viscous liquid. Its odor is warm-spicy, often showing a very peculiar , sharp balsamic, slightly medicinal topnote with a delightful "lift"...Its sweetness increases to a deep, warm-spicy and aromatic dryout wwhich is quie unique and difficult to duplicate. The tenacity is not very outstanding...
Myrrh oil is used in small amounts in perfumes of the heavy floral type, heavy oriental type, woody-balsamic bases and is excellent in high class forest notes, moss notes etc
Traditional Uses (all references to therapeutic and medicinal uses in this article are for cultural interest only and not meant as a guide to treatment for disease)
When burned as an incense, it not only has a pleasant odour but also seems to calm the mind and soul. In Ayurvedic medicine, myrrh is considered to be a tonic and blood cleanser, but it also has the reputation for improving the intellect. In Chinese medicine, myrhh is used to help heal cases of stubborn skin wounds. Placing a little myrrh in a hot bath and "marinating" for about twenty minutes is an excellent way to relax and to tone the skin at the same time.
In China, myrrh is used to correct defective health and as a sedative. The Chinese believe that the herb enters the body through the liver channel, invigorating the blood so that it will move rapidly to all parts of the body. According to Chinese medicine, getting the blood moving is the main boost to health. Since the blood is the essence of the body, it carries nutrition to various cells which, in turn, tunes up the organs. In addition, the blood picks up any waste products that need to be eliminated; and myrrh helps by getting rid of congealed blood from a bruised area, for example. The Chinese also believe that myrrh is good for soothing pain caused by any number of reasons.
Sacred and Secular History (all references to therapeutic and medicinal uses in this article are for cultural interest only and not meant as a guide to treatment for disease)
St. Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia (now in Turkey) was a 4th-century miracle-worker, known also for the healing myrrh that flowed from his sacred relics. A prayer to St. Nicholas is:
With divine myrrh the divine grace of the Spirit anointed thee, who didst preside as the leader of Myra, and having made the ends of the world fragrant with the myrrh of virtues thou holiest of men, through the pleasant breathings of thine intercessions always driving away the evil stench of the passions. Therefore, in faith we render thee great praise, and celebrate thine all-holy memory, O Nicholas....
In like manner, icons associated with him have been reported to be myrrh-streaming: leaving off a gentle flow of myrrh each day. In 1998, such a phenomenon was reported in Russia for an icon of Czar Nicholas II and from another icon of his family, both originally retained at a church dedicated to Nicholas the miracle-worker.
Myrrh trees (Commiphora myrrha, C. erythraea and others) [com mif' er a mur' a; e rith' ra ee] grow on arid, rocky hills of the deserts of Arabia, Ethiopia, and Somalia. These are trees that survive in a scrub wilderness. Myrrh trees produce a fragrant, yellow to brown resin. The resin seeps from where the bark has split and hardens into globules called 'tears'. For thousands of years, these tears have been collected and placed over coals to produce a fragrant smoke. advertisement
Myrrh was a sacred and valued commodity of the ancient world. It was used to anoint the heads of kings, embalm the dead, and perfume fabrics for holy places. Medicinally, myrrh was used as an analgesic, an antiseptic, and an astringent. It was a component in perfumes and cosmetics. And the smoke from myrrh is said to carry prayers to heaven. Myrrh was one of the most valued of all gifts.
Hatshepsut, the first woman to rule Egypt, imported myrrh trees to be planted on the Dayr al-Bahri temple grounds. The Children of Israel planted groves of myrrh for their holy oil and incense. In ancient Yemen, great city-states grew based on the wealth from the trade of myrrh to Greece and Rome. Even today, sacred myrrh is said to weep from the holiest icons of the Russian Orthodox Church.
30:22 God spoke to Moses, saying:
Vayedaber Adonay el-Moshe lemor.
30:23 You must take the finest fragrances, 500 [shekels] of distilled myrrh, [two] half portions, each consisting of 250 [shekels] of fragrant cinnamon and 250 [shekels] of fragrant cane,
Ve'atah kach-lecha besamim rosh mor-deror chamesh me'ot vekinmon-besem machtsito chamishim umatayim ukneh-vosem chamishim umatayim.
30:24 and 500 shekels of cassia, all measured by the sanctuary standard, along with a gallon of olive oil.
Vekidah chamesh me'ot beshekel hakodesh veshemen zayit hin.
30:25 Make it into sacred anointing oil. It shall be a blended compound, as made by a skilled perfumer, [made especially for] the sacred anointing oil.
Ve'asita oto shemen mischat-kodesh rokach mirkachat ma'aseh roke'ach shemen mishchat-kodesh yihyeh.
Across the emptiness of the Middle Eastern wilderness, long caravans of rare and costly goods were transported from one land to the next along ancient trade routes. From their places of concealment, the Four Horsemen watched and stalked these hapless merchants, coveting their goods, plundering them for gain and greed. No doubt, one of the most popular items sought by these marauders were clay, skin or basket containers full of the amber-colored, hard little "teardrops" of Myrrh.
Ancient Egyptians obtained most of their Myrrh from the land of Punt (Somalia), where it grew in abundance. It was used to make perfumes and insect repellants, embalming compounds and house fumigants, medicine and magic. Documented in no less than nine books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Esther, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Matthew, Mark and John), this ancient treasure sometimes achieved the value of its own weight in gold. In fact, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites on their way to Egypt, carrying a cargo of Myrrh. Large quantities of Myrrh were needed for the Egyptian temples in particular. They blended it into their famous incense Kyphi, often used in general magic working, especially burned at night. It was also used for banishing, and for beverage flavoring. Myrrh was also used in Metopian, an Egyptian ointment for medical purposes to treat ulcers, and cuts in sinews and muscles. It appeared in papyrus medicinal manuscripts dating back to Khufu’s reign (2,800 BCE). Myrrh was burned to the god Ra at noon in ancient Egypt, and it also fumed in the temples of Isis. In fact, it also burned in ancient temples of Babylon, Greece, India, Rome and China. In the Old Testament, God instructed Moses to make an anointing oil of Myrrh to use on his brother Aaron, and it was subsequently used for the Israelite high priests to follow. This liquid Myrrh was known to Pliny as Stacte. Myrrh was traditionally regarded as one of the three gifts given by the Magi as a symbol of suffering. There is some possibility that Mecca Balsam, a compound of other herbs and resins, is said to be the Myrrh of the Bible, the Hebrew word mar having been confused with the modern Arabic morr or Myrrh in translation. Myrrh is also listed in the Vedic literature of India, dating back to 2,000 BCE.
In ancient myth, the Greeks traced the teardrop shape to Myrrha, daughter of Syrian King Thesis. She refused to worship the Goddess Aphrodite. Angered, Aphrodite tricked her into committing incest with her father the King. Thesis learned of this and threatened to kill his daughter. To save her, the gods transformed her into a Myrrh tree, whose teardrop shaped resin recalls the girl’s sorrow.
Magical uses for Myrrh were many. In Druid and Wiccan tradition, it has been used in healing incense, especially with frankincense. The oil is used for purification, consecration of sacred and ceremonial objects, protection and hex-breaking, generally regarded as excellent for religious rituals of magic. It was also commonly used in charm bags. It is regarded as advisable to anoint one’s house with Myrrh every morning and evening as part of any protection ritual. Commonly used in magic working circles and as an offeratory ("sacrifice"), the tradition associated Myrrh with the gods Ra, Isis, Adonis and Marian, and associated with the astrological signs Aquarius, and the planet Jupiter. (Is this the dawning of the Age of Myrrh…?)
(Gen 37:25 NIV) As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt.
(Gen 43:11 NIV) Then their father Israel said to them, "If it must be, then do this: Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift--a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds.
(Exo 30:23 NIV) "Take the following fine spices: 500 shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much (that is, 250 shekels) of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant cane,
(Est 2:12 NIV) Before a girl's turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics.
(Psa 45:8 NIV) All your robes are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia; from palaces adorned with ivory the music of the strings makes you glad.
(Prov 7:17 NIV) I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon.
(Song 1:13 NIV) My lover is to me a sachet of myrrh resting between my breasts.
(Song 3:6 NIV) Who is this coming up from the desert like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and incense made from all the spices of the merchant?
(Song 4:6 NIV) Until the day breaks and the shadows flee, I will go to the mountain of myrrh and to the hill of incense.
(Song 4:14 NIV) nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with every kind of incense tree, with myrrh and aloes and all the finest spices.
(Song 5:1 NIV) I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice. I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey; I have drunk my wine and my milk. Eat, O friends, and drink; drink your fill, O lovers.
(Song 5:5 NIV) I arose to open for my lover, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with flowing myrrh, on the handles of the lock.
(Song 5:13 NIV) His cheeks are like beds of spice yielding perfume. His lips are like lilies dripping with myrrh.
(Mat 2:11 NIV) On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.
(Mark 15:23 NIV) Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it.
(John 19:39 NIV) He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.
(Rev 18:13 NIV) cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men.
myrrh in poetry
Nor was the brightness of Tuscany's springtime confined to the country,
Strada, piazza and loggia in every part of Firenze
Brimmed and ran over with flowers, and at Easter their delicate fragrance
Conquered at mass and at vespers the odors of myrrh and frankincense
Stealing from censers of brass swung by thurifers at the high altars.
Adams, Oscar Fay, 1855-1919: A Tale of Tuscany
Heard you never of the story,
How they cross'd the desert wild,
Journey'd on by plain and mountain,
Till they found the Holy Child?
Alexander, Cecil Frances, 1818-1895: THE ADORATION OF THE WISE MEN
myrrh in literature
On the wall of his bedroom hung an illuminated scroll, the certificate of his prefecture in the college of the sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On Saturday mornings when the sodality met in the chapel to recite the little office his place was a cushioned kneeling-desk at the right of the altar from which he led his wing of boys through the responses. The falsehood of his position did not pain him. If at moments he felt an impulse to rise from his post of honour and, confessing before them all his unworthiness, to leave the chapel, a glance at their faces restrained him. The imagery of the psalms of prophecy soothed his barren pride. The glories of Mary held his soul captive: spikenard and myrrh and frankincense, symbolizing her royal lineage, her emblems, the late-flowering plant and late-blossoming tree, symbolizing the age-long gradual growth of her cultus among men. When it fell to him to read the lesson towards the close of the office he read it in a veiled voice, lulling his conscience to its music.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Of solid bodies those that have been solidified by cold are of water, e.g. ice, snow, hail, hoar-frost. Those solidified by heat are of earth, e.g. pottery, cheese, natron, salt. Some bodies are solidified by both heat and cold. Of this kind are those solidified by refrigeration, that is by the privation both of heat and of the moisture which departs with the heat. For salt and the bodies that are purely of earth solidify by the privation of moisture only, ice by that of heat only, these bodies by that of both. So both the active qualities and both kinds of matter were involved in the process. Of these bodies those from which all the moisture has gone are all of them of earth, like pottery or amber. (For amber, also, and the bodies called ‘tears’ are formed by refrigeration, like myrrh, frankincense, gum. Amber, too, appears to belong to this class of things: the animals enclosed in it show that it is formed by solidification. The heat is driven out of it by the cold of the river and causes the moisture to evaporate with it, as in the case of honey when it has been heated and is immersed in water.)