Myrrh is a strange word. But it's in the Bible many times. What is this substance?
You're right. It's in the Bible a lot (Gen 37:27; 43:11; Exod 30:23; Esth 2:12; Ps 45:8; Prov 7:17; Song 1:13; 3:6; 4:6,14; 5:1,13; Matt 2:11; Mark 15:23; John 19:39; Rev 18:13). To Christians it is especially familiar, since it's one of the gifts the magi brought the infant Jesus (along with gold and frankincense). Origen (an early Christian leader who wrote in the 3rd century) notes that gold showed Christ's regal status, myrrh his mortality, and incense his divinity, corresponding to virtue, prayer, and suffering). So what is this substance, and what is the connection to mortality?
Here's Merriam-Webster's definition:
A yellowish-brown to reddish-brown aromatic gum resin with a bitter slightly pungent taste obtained from a tree (especially Commiphora abyssinica of the family Burseraceae) of eastern Africa and Arabia; also a mixture of myrrh and labdanum.
Myrrh had (and has) multiple uses:
- It halted the process of putrefaction. Recall that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus Myrrh (along with aloes, John 19:39).
- It was used by the Egyptians for the embalming of mummies, once mixed with natron (hydrated sodium carbonate).
- The ancient historian Herodotus tells us that myrrh (when burned) was useful in ridding homes of fleas.
- The Egyptians also mixed it with wax to create a type of chewing gum -- ancient breath freshener!
- The ancient Indians found that myrrh helped reduce stomach pain.
- The Chinese used it to treat arthritis, rheumatism, and other maladies.
- In our day, myrrh is found in a number of products, for its analgesic and antiseptic properties. "Myrrh is used for indigestion, ulcers, colds, cough, asthma, lung congestion, arthritis pain, cancer, leprosy, spasms, and syphilis. It is also used as a stimulant and to increase menstrual flow" (WebMD.com).
The ancient Greek word for myrrh was myrrha, although there is another form of this word. The second city of Turkey today, after İstanbul, is İzmir. This is Turkish for ancient Smyrna (or Smyrne). So there are two Greek words for this precious substance, smyrna and myrrha.
If you'd like to grow your own myrrh tree, Wikipedia lays out what the ideal growing conditions: "Commiphora myrrha is very spiny and it grows to a height of about 4 m (13 ft). It grows at an altitude of between about 250 to 1,300 m (820 to 4,270 ft) with a yearly mean rainfall of about 23 to 30 cm (9.1 to 11.8 in). It does best in thin soil, primarily in areas with limestone."
For more information, see the informative article at Encyclopedia Judaica.
So the connection to mortality is that it was used to prepare bodies for burial. Thus myrrh was an essential substance in funerary preparations and rites. That's probably more than you wanted (or needed) to know, but now you're fully informed!