Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Myrrh's Bitter Tears of Sacrifice

(Commiphora myrrha)
From the seemingly barren lands of the Far East grows a thorny tree that has shaped the nature of our civilization. The desire for Commiphora myrrha created trade routes throughout Asia and Europe, introduced new herbs and spices to the West, advanced knowledge of traditional medicines and ancient healing methods as well as promoted vast cultural exchange that has made us who we are today. Myrrh was frequently used in ancient cultures as an embalming agent; it was also burned to help cover the odor of decay. Frankincense was often paired in the offering of incense, as the sweet high notes of Boswellia beautifully counter the dark, acrid tones of the Myrrh.

The resin is still gathered in the same way that it has been done for thousands of years; after deliberate cuts are etched into the trunk of the tree, tears of resinous sap begin to ooze from the wounds as the sacred tree seeks to heal itself. After allowing these small reddish-brown nuggets to gather and harden for a couple of weeks, collectors return to reap their harvest. Today the best quality Myrrh comes from Yemen, Somalia and Eastern Ethiopia, although related species such as C. momol and C. gileadensis (also known as Balm of Gilead) are grown in Israel, Jordan and Palestine.

Another member of the Myrrh family is referred to as bdellium, and although there is a bit of confusion as to its correct nomenclature (C. wightii, C. africana or C. stocksiana), this so-called “Indian Myrrh” is generally regarded as being inferior to true Myrrh. This species can be referred to by a trade name “guggul”, from the Sanskrit gulgulu, and has recently received a bit of attention for its potential cholesterol lowering properties. In Ayurvedic medicine guggul is used for a variety of imbalances, particularly those involving circulatory disorders.

True Myrrh also has a long history of use in ancient therapeutic practices; in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it is prescribed for issues pertaining to painful obstruction or traumatic injury and taken internally in small doses or applied topically. Mo Yao, literally translated as “bitter medicine” is considered to be an excellent remedy to move Blood, relieve pain, reduce inflammation and promote healing. Because it is so effective for moving blood, it is absolutely contraindicated during pregnancy.

Due to their mutually complementary actions on traumatic injury, for most applications Myrrh is generally paired with Frankincense. According to the book Dui Yao: The Art of Combining Chinese Medicinals by Philippe Sionneau, Bernard Cote and Bob Flaws, “One tends to rectify the blood; the other to rectify the qi. When these two medicinals are combined together, they complement and mutually reinforce each other. Together, they effectively move the qi and quicken the blood, dispel stasis, free the flow of the viscera and bowels and channels and network vessels, disperse swelling, stop pain, and constrain (weeping) sores and engender muscle (i.e. flesh).”

“Ru Xiang {Frankincense} quickens the blood; Mo Yao breaks the blood.”
-Li Shi Zhen, the Father of Chinese Medicine

The resins and oils of Frankincense, Myrrh, Sandalwood, Galbanum, Cistus and Agarwood are frequently mentioned in the Bible and other religious texts because they were so exceedingly valued for their medicinal properties. Scientific research has indicated that these highly prized essential oils contain Monoterpenes, Sesquiterpenes, and Phenols; these chemical compounds have been found to help repair damage to the DNA that can lead to certain cancers. Other benefits include strong anti-bacterial components, anti-oxidants and the ability to cleanse the body of toxins, support liver function, balance hormones and bring an overall sense of well-being. Sesquiterpenes directly affect the glands that control our emotions, so using these oils as a personal sacrament could potentially alleviate depression, as well as raise consciousness.

Myrrh is commonly used today to support healthy gums and to treat abscesses of the mouth; in fact, myrrh is often added to mouthwashes and oral hygiene products. Rubbing the soothing, anti-septic oil of Myrrh on your gums stimulates blood flow; I have seen it restore a friend’s inflamed, bleeding gums in a short amount of time, much to his dentist’s approval. Its analgesic qualities also make it ideal for topically applied salves in order to promote the healing of painful ulcerations. A student recently told me that her husband quickly healed his hemorrhoids with an undiluted application of the medicinal-grade essential oil of Myrrh that I had provided for them. (Please note that an essential oil must be of a particularly exceptional quality in order to be applied neat to the skin; inquire with the author for a source.)

Religious references to Myrrh are frequent; in the Old Testament, Moses was given instructions for specially preparing incense that contained rare and precious agents, including Myrrh. The precious oil of Myrrh was used for anointing during sacred ceremony, and was notably used after the crucifixion to prepare Christ’s body for burial. It is even said that a statue of Nicolas, the beloved saint of the Greek Orthodox Church, miraculously bleeds a healing myrrh resin that has cured many pilgrims to the church where it is housed. In Roman Catholic mass, five grains of Myrrh, representing the five wounds of Jesus, are solemnly placed in the Paschal candle to be burned on Easter Sunday.

"All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces,
whereby they have made thee glad." –Psalm 45:8

The deep, rich penetrating bitterness of myrrh was once a luxurious attractant for only the wealthiest of merchants, traders, politicos and priests that could afford to perfume their garments with the resinous bitter scent that announced their authority. Imagine a time long ago where the sinuous fragrance of myrrh, aloes and sandalwood wafted on the air accompanying every layered movement of precious silk and linens. The offering of Frankincense and Myrrh burned upon hot coals carried to heaven not only the prayers of worthy supplicants but also the tears of the thorny trees that bore the precious resin.

"Who is this coming up from the wilderness
Like palm-trees of smoke,
Perfumed with myrrh and frankincense,
From every powder of the merchant?"
-Song of Solomon 3:6

Perhaps Myrrh is most famous for being one of the gifts of the Magi to the Holy Child in Bethlehem, but biblical references connecting Christ to Myrrh didn’t stop at His birth. One scripture tells that Jesus was offered a goblet of wine spiked with Myrrh on His way to the crucifixion, but He declined to partake of the slightly narcotic drink. We may presume that He intended to fully experience the transcendent sacrifice He was about to make.

“And they gave him to drink wine mingled with myrrh: but he received it not.”
–Mark 15:23

Myrrh’s blood-red tears shed from wounds etched in her trunk and used as a sacrament in funerals forever connects her to The Blood of Christ that spilled from His pores as a painful endowment to humanity for the sacredness of life everlasting. If a tree could cry for the dark reign of humanity, certainly throughout the ages, that tree has been Commiphora myrrha. The bitter tears that have been scratched from her flesh year after year caused myrrh to be sold as a commodity valued as highly as gold. Although trade routes were established and cultural exchange thrived as a result of the precious resins and spices of the East, humanity’s brutal hunger for authority and control also managed to exploit these gifts of Creation and bring pain and suffering to the homeland.

Our behavior today is far from improved; our Mother Earth has been ravaged by humankind’s greed, lust for power, and corruption. The scars Gaia bears on her lands and in her oceans is a bitter reminder of the sacrifices that we seem unwilling or unable to make. That we may learn to sacrifice some of our unnecessary desires and honor what is truly sacred is the lesson Myrrh continues to assert for us. We may begin by living from our hearts and acting from a place of compassion and integrity. Embodying love is hardly a sacrifice and saving our species and our home will be our reward.

“HerbaLisl” is Lisl Meredith Huebner, Dipl.CH (NCCAOM), RH (AHG), a nationally board certified Chinese Herbalist, and a Registered Herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild. Lisl is also a certified Medicinal Aromatherapist, a Reiki Master an Acupressurist, an Auriculotherapist, a photographer, a renowned diagnostician, a teacher and a published writer who has enjoyed a successful private practice for over 20 years.
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  1. Great article, it's really interesting! =)

  2. Thanks for a very informative article. When you mention oil of myrrh for the gums, are you meaning the infused or essential oil?

    1. either would be helpful, but my preference is for the essential oil... the medicinal grade is very powerful... much more so than an infused oil.