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Sacred gifts of mystic meaning

01 January 2016

David Baldwin sources two of the Magi’s gifts, and describes an ancient Epiphany ritual


There in worship they bend the knee: The Adoration of the Magi (Roman mosaic)

There in worship they bend the knee: The Adoration of the Magi (Roman mosaic)

SHAKESPEARE pictured Cleopatra sailing in the royal barge to meet Mark Antony in 42 BC thus: “The purple sails of her barge were so saturated with perfume that the winds were lovesick. . . From the barge a strange invisible perfume hits the sense of the adjacent wharfs.”

The word perfume comes from the Latin per fumum — “through smoke” — and it was from burning frankincense that the modern-day perfume industry has burgeoned (it still constitutes 16 per cent of modern perfumes).

The book of Exodus contains the command to “take unto thee sweet spices . . . with pure frankincense; thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy”; so frankincense was used in Jewish ritual at Herod’s new great Temple at Jerusalem (completed in 12 BC), as part of the offering presented with the shew-bread every sabbath.


THE earliest physical find of frankincense resin to date is a collection of 20 chippings discovered in 1997 by archaeologists at the ancient site of Qasr Ibrim, in Egyptian Nubia. Analysis confirmed the finding as Boswellia carteri.

Botanically, both frankincense and myrrh belong to the family Burseraceae: they have resin ducts in the bark from which exude the respective gum resins. There are about 250 species of Commiphora, including the Commiphora myrrha, but only 25 species of Boswellia, from which frankincense is derived. The name is derived from John Boswell, uncle of James, the famous biographer of Samuel Johnson.


SOMALIA is the great centre of myrrh cultivation, but most Old Testament references loosely translated as “myrrh” are not the Commiphora myrrha, but, rather, Ladanum, from the white Cistus Laurifolius (or, in the Holy Land, pink Creticus) — a species of rose (known in more general parlance as Gallipoli Rose), exuded by a shrub four to five feet high.

Collected on the fleece of grazing sheep and goats, myrrh was recovered by combing, and used in incense. But the myrrh of the Magi and Nicodemus (at the beginning and the end of Jesus’s life) should be translated as Commiphora myrrha, derived from a tree — the most treasured resin.

The myrrh of the Magi would have been pure, containing furanoeudesma. It was a pain-killing gift: Hippocrates recommended it for sores, and the Romans for mouth, eye, and worm infections, and for coughs.

According to Mark, Jesus was offered myrrh mixed as vinum muratum, shortly before his crucifixion, for its pain-killing quality, but refused it. St John’s Gospel (19.39) says that, after the crucifixion, Nicodemus took myrrh weighing 100 lb to the garden tomb; but, according to Jewish practice, it would have been mixed with Aloe Barbadensis (preferably from the island of Socotra, in the mouth of the Red Sea) — an aloe with stiff, fleshy, serrated-edged leaves, that flowers yellow in spring. The leaves and bitter juice were ground, and mixed with myrrh for embalming. The aloes of the Old Testament were entirely different; they were Aquilaria agallocha (lign-aloe) — a rare tree, native to Assam and Burma.

Such ancient practices indicate that the myrrh presented by the Magi to Jesus was intended as a useful and practical medicine, particularly useful for teething, rather than anything to do with embalming, or aloes would have been included as a mixture.


IN AD 64, a medical officer in Nero’s Roman army, Pedanius Dioscorides, wrote up his great herbal, De Materia Medica,noting several medical properties of both frankincense and myrrh.

But there were other uses, too, besides religious ritual and medical application. Cleopatra was the descendant of numerous generations of women in Egypt, depicted on papyrus and in tomb and temple paintings, who wore incense cones as headdresses, and had black, powder-painted eyelids that were achieved through the use of kohl, made from charred frankincense.


A STUNNINGLY detailed and accurate coastal “rutter”, or mariner’s handbook, of the Red Sea, which first appeared in modern print in 1533, survives today under the title The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea.It was written in AD 40 by a commercial ship’s pilot who was a contemporary of the young Jesus in Alexandria.

He used the great library there, and tales of merchant seamen returning to port, to describe the first-century ports and anchorages, and the kingdoms that ruled them, from Aqaba to the myrrh coast of North Africa, and the frankincense coast of Arabia and beyond to Cape Comorin, in India, and as far as Zanzibar, off the East African coast.

The Periplus describes the arrival at the Arab kingdom of Eleazos, “the frankincense-bearing land”, whose chief port is Kane, about which it remarks that “all the frankincense grown in the land is brought into Kane, as if to a warehouse, by camel as well as by rafts of a local type made of leathern bags, and by boats.”

The Periplus continues: “After Kane, with the shoreline receding further, there next come another bay, very deep, called Sachalites, which extends for a considerable distance, and the frankincense-bearing land; this is mountainous, has a difficult terrain, an atmosphere close and misty, and trees that yield frankincense.

“The frankincense trees are neither very large nor tall; they give off frankincense in congealed form on the bark, just as some of the trees we have in Egypt exude gum. Frankincense is handled by royal slaves and convicts. For the districts are terribly unhealthy, harmful to those sailing by, and absolutely fatal to those working there — who moreover die off easily because of the lack of nourishment.

“On this bay is a mighty headland, facing the east, called Syagros, at which there is a fortress to guard the region, a harbour, and a storehouse for the collection of frankincense.”

After sailing across the curved bay of Omana, there appear “high mountains, rocky and sheer”, beyond which is the port of Moscha, where Sachalite frankincense for shipment to Kane is left on the mole under divine protection: “neither covertly not overtly can frankincense be loaded aboard a ship without royal permission; even if a grain is lifted aboard, the ship cannot sail.”


IT IS possible to be much more precise about the Magi’s gifts, if it is assumed that by “Seba” is meant the ancient land of Saba — in classical times located in the region of present-day Yemen, and also across the Red Sea, with trading posts along the Somali coast. Boswellia is found both in and on the Somali coast.

Ptolemy’s “mountains of Ophir” are now thought, in all likelihood, to be the mountains of Saphar, and to refer specifically to Dhofar. This is the conclusion of recent and ongoing archaeology around the lagoon of Taqa, which has revealed an ancient frankincense trading depot there. It had an all-weather harbour, and a landing ground, now submerged and silted up. Most important, inscriptions at the site name the port Smhrm, and describe it as being in Sabaean control.


TODAY, UNESCO has declared four World Heritage Sites along the coasts of Yemen and Oman as the Land of Frankincense. One of the sites, at Wadi Dawkah, 20 miles north of Salalah, is designated a “frankincense natural park”.

In order to re-enact the prophecy made at the time of the Magi’s journey to the infant Jesus, Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal and the Queen’s Apothecary ensure that the frankincense and myrrh for the royal offering (see panel) are harvested from this region.

David Baldwin is Serjeant of the Vestry of HM Chapels Royal and a Fellow of the Linnean Society.



ON THE Feast of the Epiphany every year, a ceremony dating back to the Norman Conquest is enacted in the Chapel Royal in St James’s Palace.

At the end of the communion service, gold, frankincense, and myrrh — the gifts traditionally brought to the infant Jesus by the Magi — are offered on behalf of the Sovereign.

The ceremony derives from Psalm 72’s description of the Wise Men as “kings”: it was thought appropriate, therefore, that an earthly king should replicate their gifts, and the Epiphany observances became the ideal vehicle through which royalty could re-enact the devotions of the Magi.

At the annual service celebrated by the Chapel Royal, the monarch customarily offered the royal gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh in person. The funeral of Princess Caroline on 5 January 1758, however, so upset her father, King George II, that he deputed the Lord Chamberlain to make the usual offerings on his behalf, accompanied by the Yeomen of the Guard instead of the heralds and others.

That tradition has continued: nowadays, the gifts are presented by two of Her Majesty’s Gentlemen Ushers, in service dress, including spurs, and escorted by Yeomen of the Guard. Spurs were banned from the Chapel Royal by James I, and the wearing of them made subject to a fine. At the end of the ceremony, therefore, the senior royal representative is challenged by the most junior chorister, who demands the customary forfeit.

“Child,” the representative replies, “before acceding to your request, I demand that you sing the gamut.”

If the scale is appropriately executed, the representative hands over the fine (now £10) to the triumphant chorister.


IT IS recorded that in 1851 the Duke of Wellington — who was accustomed to attending the Chapel Royal on Sunday mornings — entered the Chapel wearing boots and spurs. 

The Child of the Chapel Royal who first spotted him thus attired demanded the spur money for transgressing the 1622 ruling of the Dean, recorded in the Old Cheque Book, thus: “if anie Knight or other persone entituled to weare spurs, enter the Chappell in that guise he shall pay to the quoristers the accustomed fine, but if he command the youngest quorister to repeate the gamut, and he fails in so doing, the said Knight or other shall not pay the fine.”

The Duke, knowing this rule, requested the youngest chorister to be summoned, and required him to repeat the gamut. The little chap failed, and the Duke was therefore excused the fine.

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