myrrh, n. Etymology: < classical Latin murra, murrha, myrrha an aromatic gum, the tree from which this gum is obtained; in Middle English probably reinforced by Anglo-Norman mirre, mire, mir, merre, murre and Old French, Middle French mirre (late 10th cent. as mirra; French myrrhe). [ . . . ] Ancient Greek μύρρα is probably of Semitic origin, perhaps < Akkadian murru an aromatic used in medicine, ritual, perfumery, and tanning (19th cent. BC) < a Semitic base meaning ‘bitter’ ( > Hebrew mar bitter).
1. a. A bitter, aromatic gum resin exuded by various Arabian and African trees of the genus Commiphora (family Burseraceae), esp. C. abyssinica and C. myrrha, which was formerly important esp. in perfumery and as an ingredient of incense. Also in Pharmacol.: a tincture made from this, used medicinally as an astringent and expectorant. Freq., esp. in early use, with reference to the gift of myrrh to the infant Jesus. Less often used with reference to other Bible passages, esp. the Song of Solomon and the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion.
b. fig. and in figurative contexts. Balm; sweetness; something which soothes, heals, or preserves.
-- Oxford English Dictionary
This time of year, we throw around the word myrrh a lot (at least while we're singing Christmas carols about the three wise men), but when you really look at all the meanings and uses and figurative allusions connected with this "aromatic gum," it is hard not to get a little overwhelmed by its multiple layers of significance -- especially for Christians. And when you consider how very, very old the word seems to be (the O.E.D. refers to an Akkadian -- that is, Mesopotamian -- word from nineteen centuries before Christ!), it is perhaps not surprising that the word has multiple resonances.
Myrrh was used widely as a perfume (as we are reminded in the Song of Solomon). It was also used as incense during religious ceremonies. For thousands of years it was also prized for its medicinal properties; it was thought to be especially beneficial as a soothing salve, having pain-relieving as well as inflammation-soothing qualities. Additionally, the ancient Egyptians were among many cultures that used myrrh in the embalming process; thus it has long been associated with death and the rituals that surround it.
So when you think about it, those magi really were pretty wise when they chose their gifts for the newborn Baby. They gave him gold -- always a good idea to give cash, especially since Mary and Joseph were soon to travel to Egypt (a spendy proposition). Frankincense is also a brilliant gift to give to the Holy Family -- valuable and portable, it could easily be traded for necessities; meanwhile their belongings (everything they owned, remember) would smell aromatic and fresh, even as they traveled on their long journey. And myrrh seems like a wonderful addition to a household medicine chest; who wouldn't want a pain-relieving balm to soothe an injured loved one?
But of course these three gifts have an even greater significance, don't they? Gold is obviously the right gift to present to a King. Frankincense (burned on the altar of sacrifice) reminds us of the perfect offering that was Jesus himself. And myrrh, presented at His birth, reminds of His death.
Did you know?
- According to Science Daily, "researchers have identified a compound in myrrh that they believe could be developed into a potent anti-cancer agent. The compound, which kills cancer cells in the laboratory, shows particular promise for the prevention and treatment of breast and prostate cancer."
- The resin of the myrrh tree is harvested by repeatedly wounding the tree. As the tree bleeds, the "tears" of resin are collected; they later harden into glossy chunks.
- The same word that evolved in to myrrh also became Miriam, and thus Mary. So Mary can be translated as "bitter tears."
So what could be more perfect today than this lovely story? The Third Gift tells about a boy whose father collects and sells myrrh "tears." When three fantastically wealthy men come through the market looking for a perfect gift, the boy and his father are able to show them the best samples of myrrh among all the merchants. This is a great story on so many levels; it's just beautiful -- with lovely illustrations and a sweetly told tale. But as an afterward, the author also provides fascinating details about the harvesting and many uses of myrrh. Beautiful, inspiring, and educational -- a triple winner!