Monday, 17 December 2012

The Premium Presents of the Munificent Magi

                Gold, of course. There was bound to be gold. There was always going to be gold? If you were bringing gifts, you’d bring gold. In Biblical times, gold was so scarce that only kings could afford it. Gold is almost indestructible, it is often found in its pure form and it represents both financial and spiritual wealth. So the Magi were bound to bring gold to the Christ Child, who was thought to be the king of heaven and earth. It symbolised his majesty and kingship, his purity and incorruptibility. 


They also brought frankincense. Frankincense is a resin that comes from the Boswellia species of shrub, an extraordinarily hardy bush that grows mainly in Yemen. From ancient times, frankincense has been used in the best incense, its name comes from franc encens – meaning ‘finest incense’ – and is obtained by striping the bark of the shrub with a blade and collecting the ‘tears’ of gummy resin that exude from the cuts and dries in contact with the air. Even within the same species of Boswellia, the quality of the resin varies from individual shrubs, depending on the circumstances in which it grows, but it is all very valuable. The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and the Jews used frankincense in their religious ceremonies, and the smoke from burning the resin symbolises the prayers of the faithful rising up to heaven. 


In addition, it was used in medicines as an aid to digestion and in the treatment of arthritis and it may be that burning the incense in the home helps in the treatment of depression. Frankincense symbolised Christ’s divinity. The Roman Catholic Church continues to use frankincense in its rites but the Protestants, and the Puritans in particular, regarded its use as just another Popish superstition to be suppressed and by the end of the eighteenth century, the use of incense in English churches was almost unknown. 


In Greek mythology, Apollo desired Leucothoë, the daughter of King Orchamus, and disguised himself as her mother to gain access to her chambers. Her sister, Clytia, had been Apollo’s lover and was jealous of her sister, so she told their father about the affair. Orchamus was enraged that Leucothoë had been defiled and ordered her to be burned alive; Apollo, unable to save her, poured nectar and ambrosia (the drink and food of the Gods) over her grave and she was transformed into the frankincense shrub. Clytia, hoping to regain Apollo’s love, sat naked on the rocks and neither ate nor drank as she watched him ride his fiery chariot across the sky, and after nine days she turned into the heliotrope flower, which still follows the progress of the sun throughout the day. 


The third gift of the Magi was myrrh. Myrrh comes from the same areas of the world where frankincense grows and similarly it is a hardy shrub that is striped by the harvesters and the exuded oleoresin is collected when it has dried. It is a mixture of a gum-like resin and an essential oil, and is waxy in texture. Myrrh comes from an Aramaic word meaning ‘bitter’ and through Greek μύρον and the Hebrew mor, bringing a meaning of ‘perfume’. 

Matthais L'Obel - Myrrh - from Plantarum 1576

It is another plant used as a perfume, an incense and a medicine; it has long been used in liniments, salves and ointments for cuts, bruises and aches and pains, and can be chewed to sweeten the breath. In Greek legend, Myrrha falls in love with Cinyras, her own father, and the result of the incestuous union was the god Adonis. When Cinyras discovered that Myrrha had tricked him, he pursued her into Arabia, where the gods took pity on her and turned her into a myrrh tree, and in this form, she gave birth to Adonis. The tears of Myrrha are myrrh. This disturbing myth can be said to show that, in some circumstances, love can be a worse crime than hate, and has some parallels with the story of Lot and his daughters. 

Myrrh trees

Myrrh was another valuable incense in ancient religions and is still widely used in the Roman and Eastern Church services, and is also an ingredient of chrism, the holy oil used for anointing in the sacraments (particularly in Baptism and Extreme Unction). The Egyptians used myrrh when mummifying the dead, and it was used to anoint the body of the dead in other cultures – one Christian tradition was that Christ’s body was anointed in the sepulchre with the myrrh presented to him by the Magi. Myrrh was also put into the vinegar that was offered to Christ on a sponge as he was being crucified, in order to ease his pain. Myrrh symbolised the humanity of Christ, his inevitable death but also his attribute as healer of body and spirit. 

The Journey of the Magi

At some periods, it was worth more than its own weight in gold. From early mediaeval times until 1762, (when King George III was too unstable to perform the ceremony), it was the custom for the reigning monarch to present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh at the Royal Chapel on the feast of Epiphany (the custom continues by proxy).

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