As told in the Bible, Jesus was visited by Magi (although not specifically three) in Bethlehem, who gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But while gold is well-known as a valuable metal, what are frankincense and myrrh?
According to Simon Cotton for Chemistry World, frankincense and myrrh are both forms of sap, which derive from the Boswellia sacra and Commiphora trees, respectively. Frankincense – as a closer look at its name reveas, was often burned as an incense, while myrrh has become part of many perfumes. Cotton says that, in Jesus’ time, these presents were worth as much as gold.
But we can also learn from modern science that these gifts have more than aromatic qualities: they also have medicinal benefits.
Cotton writes that chemists at the University of Florence have found that molecules in myrrh act on the brain’s opioid receptors, the same way morphine does, which gives it a painkilling ability. Meanwhile, the main ingredient in frankincense is boswellic acid, which Cotton says has a structure not dissimilar to certain hormones like testosterone.
“Boswellic acids have anti-inflammatory and antiarthritic effects,” says Cotton, “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.”
So it turns out there’s more to these gifts than meets the eye. Who needs gold anyway?