F is for Frankincense

Medieval portrait of the magi, from the Orthodox Life blog site.

We Three Kings of Orient Are
Tried to Smoke a Great, Big Cigar…

A 8-year-old’s parody of a famous Christmas carol…

What, you are dismayed? You don’t remember that one? Did you remember the one about Chinese and Egyptian astrologers taking African bark scrapings into the alleyway behind the Marriott, where the illegal aliens, who were on their way to the tax collectors, stopped to have a baby? Also known as “Adoration of the Magi.”

Let’s try to un-knot the facts here, which isn’t easy because everybody was fighting over the same territory, back in Year Zero of the Common Era (not AD anymore, in case you missed that memo). What is frankincense and where was it from? Who were the magi and where was this East that they were from? (I said it in yesterday’s post, east is a matter of perspective, depending on not just where the baby was born but who was writing about it and when.)

Frankincense sap collection process found on Youtube.

When Resins Ruled the World

First of all, frankincense is a perfume and an incense. It’s a scent, highly prized across the ages both because it was hard to get and because people didn’t bathe until just about a century ago, so anything that masked odor was prized.

Frankincense is extracted as a sap from the bark of the Boswellia sacra tree, a thorny scrub bush that grew in the deserts of Ethiopia and Persia. The current countries where this variety is grown are Somalia, Ethiopia, Oman, and Yemen. There is also a variation grown in India and one in Eritrea and Sudan. While it can be cultivated now in arboretums (the University of Arizona has bushes now), it was hard to domesticate at the turn of the first millennium, so it was rare. As it happens, due to lack of species protection, the current Boswellia sacra trees are also close to extinction, according to studies between 1998-2019, which suggest that half the bushes have been lost in recent decades due to over-extraction.

Boswellia sacra bush, photo from wikimedia.

To collect frankincense, the bark of this rare bush is peeled off so that sap weeps out, hardens to a resin and is scraped away. This is pretty labor-intensive still, which would also make it costly. But the smell–described as woody, earthy, and slightly lemony–would have been a pleasant addition to any dusty, drafty old building like a church. Frankincense was burned as an incense including in church, which might be one reason that it was selected by the magi, or by Matthew, in his recounting of the birth of Jesus.

Frankincense means “free” incense, i.e. a pure ingredient that can be burned. The Greek term, the term before the Latins came along, was líbanos which may have referred to the spice road going through Lebanon. As it happens, the French crusaders re-discovered the spice in the Crusades and brought them home to northern Europe, although that’s not where the “Frank” part came from. Meanwhile, there was indeed an Incense Road that was an offshoot of the Silk Road, one which traversed from Africa and Arabia to India and northward, where cinnamon and pepper came from the east and frankincense and myrrh came from the west.

As it happens, myrrh is also a resin which creates a perfume, though it has a slightly different purpose. “Myrrh” was the word for that tree, also rare, also from the deserts southeast of Egypt. Chiefly, myrrh was used by the ancient Egyptians in embalming, so it was a perfume associated with death. Biblical scholars today argue that frankincense and myrrh made logical presents from the magi because one was associated with a holy place and the other with Jesus’ death-rebirth angle. If the magi actually brought those presents for those reasons, that would have involved supreme prediction skills, to know that the baby Jesus would play that specific role. But maybe they could predict the future with, I don’t know, astrology or something. You scoff? Just wait…

Depiction of gold, frankincense, and myrrh from missouri.edu

Wise Men from the “East”????

While I am not interested in debating whether every word of the Bible is “fact,” it is a historical document. So what are we to make of this idea of magi, wise men from “the East,” who followed the stars and brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Clearly, these were known gifts of high value. The Queen of Sheba, according to the Book of Solomon, sent frankincense among other gifts. She was queen of Ethiopia and since we now know that frankincense was from Ethiopia, that makes perfect sense. And myrrh was used by the Egyptians, so also something close to Palestine. Why those particular items, which come from the southwest or southeast of Bethlehem, would be brought by men of the east is kind of curious… but let’s say they were coming along the Silk Route.

Magi, which is the plural of magus, is not a Latin word but derived from Persian. Supposedly, the original magi were from the ancient Persian civilizations, like those of Cyrus the Great (5th century BCE) or even Babylon. These are empires very familiar to people who write Jewish history in the Bible, although the Persians at the time of 0 CE had waned somewhat. Alexander the Great had conquered Persia, taken out the bigger empires and leaving Greek administrators in their wake. The Romans afterward had established their own dominating governors. So this was all Roman territory–Persia, North Africa, Palestine–by the time of the birth of you-know-who.

Centuries later, as the Bible was translated and re-translated and King James-ified from Latin Vulgate versions, those translators were well aware of the rise of Islam. By 700 CE, there were Muslim astronomers and men of great learning from the House of Wisdom, i.e. Bagdad. But they didn’t exist at the time of Matthew. So it’s a little puzzling where the magi who wandered along the Silk Road had exactly come from.

Rubens’ version of “Adoration of the Magi.” Love those twisty bodies! From wikimedia.

They might have been astronomers still using the old Cyrus text-scrolls and dabbling in mysteries. Ptolemy hadn’t created his updated astronomical models yet, since he came from Alexandria @ 100 CE. Whatever models those magi had, they’d be pretty out of date in 0 CE. That’s not how Biblical scholars today think about them. And it is true that the earliest stargazers built models in Mesopotamia in 1000 BCE, using base sixty to create the 360 degree model of the universe. But I call BS a little on whether they were all Persian, or did they perhaps have a little Greek or Roman learning, which would have been a lot more recent than a thousand years old? The Chinese by 0 CE had developed very sophisticated astronomy, and the Alexandrians of Egypt, heir to a lot of the Greek learning, were going gangbusters…see Ptolemy. But Persians?

Not to mention, of course, that if they were astronomers, then they were astrologers. This is the little dirty medieval secret that historians try to mumble when asked about what was studied back in the day. There was no math or science. It was rhetoric, grammar, religious text (of course) and astrology, which required calculations. You have to do complicated math without calculators or even slide rules in order to figure out whether Jupiter was in the Seventh House or Mars was in the conjunction that allowed you eat chicken or sacrifice a cow or ride over to check out this baby in an alleyway. If they were wise men, they were wise in the ways of the zodiac.

Maybe that’s why they were smelling all that incense along the way. (insert drug joke of choice here). And maybe that’s why they were parodied with the 1969 version of “We Three Kings” that I learned…

We Three Kings of Orient Are
Tried to Smoke a Great, Big Cigar…
It Was Loaded
It Exploded…
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen…

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