There’s More to Frankincense and Myrrh Than Meets the Eye

Frankincense and myrrh have interesting medicinal properties

Life of Brian - Three Wise Men

Well what is myrrh, anyway? - Monty Python's Life of Brian

As per the Biblical tale, as recounted in Matthew 2:1-12, an infant Jesus of Nazareth was visited in Bethlehem on the eve of his birth by Magi bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

To our modern sensibilities, these three gifts don't seem quite even. Gold, then as now, is a highly valuable treasure. But frankincense and myrrh... what even are they?

According to Simon Cotton for Chemistry World, frankincense and myrrh are sap, drawn from the Boswellia sacra and Commiphora trees, respectively. Frankincense was often burned as an incense, while myrrh made its way into medicine and perfume. In antiquity, writes Cotton, these saps were worth just as much as gold.

But as modern science has shown, these Magi (or wise men or kings, as they've come to be known) may have been onto something with their gifts. More than just aromatic compounds, frankincense and myrrh have interesting medicinal properties.

“From tests on mice, chemists at the University of Florence have found that molecules in myrrh act on the brain’s opioid receptors, explaining its painkilling action,” says Cotton.

The key active ingredient in frankincense, boswellic acid, meanwhile, “has a structure not dissimilar from some hormones like testosterone.”

Boswellic acids have anti-inflammatory and antiarthritic effects, so that they are finding pharmacological use in both East and West. These compounds seem to work by preventing the body from making pro-inflammatory compounds, whilst they also exert antitumor effects in colorectal cancer cells.

Atop its analgesic action, myrrh also seems to have anti-cancer properties.

Of the Magi's three gifts, maybe gold was the least valuable of all?

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.