Myrrh /ˈmɜr/ is the aromatic resin of a number of small, thorny tree species of the genus Commiphora, which is an essential oil termed an oleoresin. Myrrh resin is a natural gum. It can also be ingested by mixing it with wine.
When a tree wound penetrates through the bark and into the sapwood, the tree bleeds a resin. Myrrh gum, like frankincense, is such a resin. When people harvest myrrh, they wound the trees repeatedly to bleed them of the gum. Myrrh gum is waxy, and coagulates quickly. After the harvest, the gum becomes hard and glossy. The gum is yellowish, and may be either clear or opaque. It darkens deeply as it ages, and white streaks emerge.
Myrrh gum is commonly harvested from the species Commiphora myrrha, which is native to Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea and eastern Ethiopia. Another farmed species is Commiphora molmol. The related Commiphora gileadensis, native to Eastern Mediterranean and particularly the Arabian Peninsula, is the biblically referenced Balm of Gilead, also known as Balsam of Mecca. Several other species yield bdellium and Indian myrrh.
The oleo gum resins of a number of other Commiphora species are also used as perfumes, medicines (such as aromatic wound dressings), and incense ingredients. A lesser quality myrrh is bled from the tree Commiphora erythraea. Commiphora gileadensis oleo gum resin is known as opobalsamum, a name it shares with the gum resin bled from a species of parsnip, Opopanax opopanax.
Fragrant “myrrh beads” are made from the crushed seeds of Detarium microcarpum, an unrelated West African tree. These beads are traditionally worn by married women in Mali as multiple strands around the hips.
The name “myrrh” is also applied to the potherb Myrrhis odorata, otherwise known as “cicely” or “sweet cicely.”
Myrrh is also found in the Christian Bible as one of the three gifts the wise men presented to baby Jesus.
The word “myrrh” derives from the Aramaic (murr), meaning “was bitter.” Its name entered the English language from the Hebrew Bible, where it is called mor, מור, and later as a Semitic loanword was used in the Greek myth of Myrrha, and later in the Septuagint; in the Greek language, the related word μύρον became a general term for perfume.
So valuable has it been at times in ancient history that it has been equal in weight value to gold. During times of scarcity, its value rose even higher than that. It has been used throughout history as a perfume, incense and medicine.
Attributed Medicinal Properties
Traditional Chinese Medicine
In traditional Chinese medicine, myrrh is classified as bitter and spicy, with a neutral temperature. It is said to have special efficacy on the heart, liver, and spleen meridians, as well as “blood-moving” powers to purge stagnant blood from the uterus. It is therefore recommended for rheumatic, arthritic, and circulatory problems, and for amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea, menopause, and uterine tumors.
Myrrh’s uses are similar to those of frankincense, with which it is often combined in decoctions, liniments and incense. When used in concert, myrrh is “blood-moving” while frankincense moves the Qi, making it more useful for arthritic conditions.
It is combined with such herbs as notoginseng, safflower petals, angelica sinensis, cinnamon, and salvia miltiorrhiza, usually in alcohol, and used both internally and externally.
Myrrh is used more frequently in Ayurveda and Unani medicine, which ascribe tonic and rejuvenative properties to the resin. It (daindhava) is utilized in many specially processed rasayana formulas in Ayurveda. However, non-rasayana myrrh is contraindicated when kidney dysfunction or stomach pain is apparent, or for women who are pregnant or have excessive uterine bleeding.
A related species, called guggul in Ayurvedic medicine, is considered one of the best substances for the treatment of circulatory problems, nervous system disorders and rheumatic complaints.
In pharmacy, myrrh is used as an antiseptic in mouthwashes, gargles, and toothpastes for prevention and treatment of gum disease. Myrrh is currently used in some liniments and healing salves that may be applied to abrasions and other minor skin ailments. Myrrh has also been recommended as an analgesic for toothaches, and can be used in liniment for bruises, aches, and sprains.
Myrrh is a common ingredient of tooth powders. Myrrh and borax in tincture can be used as a mouth-wash. A compound tincture, or horse tincture, using myrrh is used in veterinary practice for healing wounds. Meetiga, the trade-name of Arabian Myrrh, is more brittle and gummy than that of the Somalian variety and does not have the latter’s white markings.
Liquid Myrrh, or Stacte, spoken of by Pliny, also an ingredient of Jewish holy incense, was formerly obtainable and greatly valued but cannot now be identified in today markets. Myrrh gum is used for indigestion, ulcers, colds, cough, asthma, lung congestion, arthritis pain, and cancer.
“As part of a larger search for anticancer compounds from plants, the researchers obtained extracts from a particular species of myrrh plant (Commiphora myrrha) and tested it against a human breast tumor cell line (MCF-7) known to be resistant to anticancer drugs. Research data indicated that the extract killed all of the cancer cells in laboratory dishes.”
Mechanisms of Action
In an attempt to determine the cause of its effectiveness, researchers examined the individual ingredients of a herbal formula used traditionally by Kuwaiti diabetics to lower blood glucose. Myrrh and aloe gums effectively improved glucose tolerance in both normal and diabetic rats.
Myrrh was shown to produce analgesic effects on mice which were subjected to pain. Researchers at the University of Florence showed that furanoeudesma-1,3-diene and another terpene in the myrrh affect opioid receptors in the mouse’s brain which influence pain perception.
Mirazid, an Egyptian drug made from myrrh, has been investigated as an oral treatment of parasitic ailments, including fascioliasis and schistosomiasis.
Myrrh has been shown to lower cholesterol LDL (bad cholesterol) levels, as well as to increase the HDL (good cholesterol) in various tests on humans done in the past few decades. One recent (2009) documented laboratory test showed this same effect on albino rats.
In studies done on mice, Myrrh has been shown to have significant inhibiting effects on certain types of cancer. The active constituents of Myrrh being accredited with this property are Sesquiterpenes. These tests were done using the Myrrh species Commiphora molmol, and were also found to inhibit tumor growth.
Myrrh was used by the ancient Egyptians, along with natron, for the embalming of mummies.
According to the Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine, “The Messenger of Allah stated, ‘Fumigate your houses with al-shih, murr, and sa’tar.'” The author claims that this use of the word “murr” refers specifically to Commiphora myrrha.
Myrrh was an ingredient of Ketoret, the consecrated incense used in the First and Second Temples at Jerusalem, as described in the Hebrew Bible and Talmud. An offering was made of the Ketoret on a special incense altar, and was an important component of the Temple service. Myrrh is also listed as an ingredient in the holy anointing oil used to anoint the Tabernacle, high priests and kings.
Myrrh was traded by camel caravans overland from areas of production in southern Arabia by the Nabataeans to their capital city of Petra, from which it was distributed throughout the Mediterranean region.
According to the book of Matthew 2:11, gold, frankincense and myrrh were among the gifts to Jesus by the Biblical Magi “from the East.”Because of its mention in New Testament, myrrh is an incense offered during Christian liturgical celebrations. Liquid myrrh is sometimes added to egg tempera in the making of ikons.
Myrrh is mixed with frankincense and sometimes more scents and is used in almost every service of the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, traditional Roman Catholic and Anglican/Episcopal Churches.
Myrrh is also used to prepare the sacramental chrism used by many churches of both Eastern and Western rites. In the Middle East, the Eastern Orthodox Church traditionally uses myrrh-scented oil to perform the sacraments of chrismation and unction, both of which are commonly referred to as “receiving the Chrism.”
Myrrh is also used in Neo-paganism and ritual magick.
Oil of myrrh is used in The Book of Esther 2:12 in a purification ritual for the new queen to King Ahasuerus:
“Now when every maid’s turn was come to go in to king Ahasuerus, after that she had been twelve months, according to the manner of the women, (for so were the days of their purifications accomplished, to wit, six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with sweet odors, and with other things for the purifying of the women;)
Modern myrrh has long been commented on as coming from a different source to that held in high regard by the ancients, having been superior in some way. Pedanius Dioscorides described the myrrh of the first century AD as most likely to refer to a “species of mimosa”, describing it “like the Egyptian thorn”. His description of its appearance and leaf structure as “pinnate-winged”. The ancient type of myrrh conjectured was noted for possessing a far more delightful odor than the modern. It was noted in 1837 that “The time, perhaps, is not far distant, when, through the spirit of research, the true myrrh-tree will be found.”