Scents of Time and Place

Magi’s gifts retain precious appeal

by Lark Ellen Gould
photographs by Ilene Perlman

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Ilm al-djamal is Arabic for “all that is beautiful to the senses.”

In the ancient world, particularly in the Middle East, beauty was as important as air. It was in the gardens the people designed, the houses they built, the words they wrote, the very bowls they used, the candlesticks they carried, the fabrics they wove and the gifts they gave.

So when Christians ponder the gifts of the Magi as commemorated in the West during the feast of the Epiphany, the precious gold and fragrant frankincense and myrrh do not seem unusual for that time and place.

What was unusual is that these gifts were presented to a child whose significance was yet to be understood.

St. Irenaeus in his “Adversus Haereses” claimed the gifts were symbolic. Jesus was presented with gold for a King’s wealth, frankincense as the fragrance offered to divinity and myrrh as the balm used to anoint the dead.

Although the identity of the Magi remains a mystery (they have been variously described as wise men, kings, priests or magicians), we know for certain that firmly established trade routes enabled the travelers to bring their offerings from remote areas to Palestine. The three gifts, including gold that in today’s market would cost about $325 per ounce, would have been a kingly offering.

Scents were believed to bring good will and good wishes. Frankincense and myrrh were used to perfume ceremonial oils. When burned, the smoke was thought to bring prayers to the heavens.

Even today, during liturgies of the Eastern and Western churches, incense is often burned.

In the Arab world, the scenting of guests is a gesture that has been in practice for more than 1,000 years. Scents stimulate the senses. The silk or cotton tassels of the dishdashas worn by men of the Gulf are sewn into the garment for this reason.

The perfume on the tassels lasts all day and serves as a gentle greeting as men welcome each other by offering their tassels to smell.

The Bible has no shortage of references to frankincense and myrrh resins cultivated from desert-growing trees. Oils scented with them are noted nearly 200 times.

When God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai he prescribed that a sacred ointment should contain quantities of pure myrrh and perfume or incense should contain quantities of frankincense. The use of frankincense by the Jews is noted in the Pentateuch as an ingredient to be used with the bread of the Sabbath and stored with other valued spices in the great chamber of the Temple at Jerusalem.

Following the crucifixion, Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes for the linen shroud of Jesus. Indeed, the crown of thorns that Christ wore on the cross may have been formed from the sharp claws of the myrrh bush.

Oman was the starting point for the frankincense trail that took the fragrant gums from what are now Oman, Yemen and Somalia and sent them up the Red Sea to Egypt and throughout the reaches of the Roman Empire. The gums that bubble from the trees into pearly white beads can still be found in southern Oman. Herodotus wrote that more than two tons were burned annually in the Temple of Baal in Babylon. Darius, King of Persia, received some 25 tons of incense every year. Nero was a great lover of the scent and burned a year’s worth of the crop at the funeral of his wife, Poppaea.

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