Sunday, 21 December 2014

Okay, gold, frankincense and myrrh... Um, what's that all about?

I'll admit I've got a bit of a butterfly mind. Well, let's be honest, I can't really deny it...

What happens is that I hear or read something, then I realise I'm curious and want to know more. 

For this particular post, I can firmly blame Monty Python's Life of Brian. In particular, the sketch where the wise men turn up at the wrong stable.

In the Christian tradition, three magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus. They’re also referred to as the three kings or three wise men, but there are no names or titles in the biblical story which has reached us. I believe there has been speculation that they may have been members of a Persian priestly clan, Zoroastrians, or astrologers from Babylon, who knew about the Jewish Messiah through Jewish exiles. 

Or maybe, since a lot of the stories in the bible are apocryphal, the events didn't actually take place?

Like the story about people returning to the towns of their birth to give a census return. The Romans were way too organised to think of anything so patently dumb as that.

So, the story must mean something, surely?

According to my brief researches into the Christian tradition, the gifts are symbolic. Gold symbolised kingship. Frankincense, as an incense burned in the Temple, symbolised deity. Myrrh, associated with death and embalming, symbolised death. 

So, even considering the short life expectancies at the time, not exactly a cheerful selection of gifts for a new-born baby, I guess...

So, what are these materials in the non-symbolic world?


Gold is a dense, soft, shiny, malleable and ductile metal. Dense? A cubic meter weighs 19.3 tonnes. A cubic meter of water weighs 1 tonne. Malleable and ductile? Gold leaf can be beaten thin enough to become transparent, useful in radiant heat visors in heat-resistant suits and spacesuits.

This is what a tonne of gold bullion looks like. You could easily it onto a typical car seat, but that's well up the "don't try this at home, kids" list. 

Gold powder and leaf are edible - it's E175 here in Europe. Too soft for day-to-day use, it's typically hardened by alloying with copper, silver or other metals. The gold content of an alloy is measured in carats (k). Pure gold is 24k. Jewellery is typically 18k (ie 75% pure). English gold coins intended for circulation from 1526 into the 1930s were typically a standard 22k hard alloy called “crown gold”.

It's relatively unreactive, but it can be dissolved in aqua regia (25% nitric 75% hydrochloric acid). This was a little known fact that Neils Bohr made use of. He dissolved the Nobel Prize medals given to two Jewish physicists in aqua regia and left the solution in a bottle in a Copenhagen laboratory, to hide them from the Germans during their occupation of Denmark. The gold was later recovered, the medals recast and represented.

It's estimated that 85% of all the gold ever mined is still available in the world's easily recoverable stocks. The latest estimate for all the gold in the world is 171,300 tonnes, which could form a cube about 20.7m on each side. Or cover the centre court at Wimbledon to a depth of 9.8m.

It's clear that we've valued gold for quite a while. Some of the oldest known gold artifacts were found in Bulgaria, in graves built between 4700 and 4200 BC. What may be the oldest known mine is in southern Georgia, dating back to the 3rd or 4th millennium BC.
Gold and silver are extracted using sodium cyanide, sulphuric acid and a lot of energy. The gold for one ring generates thirty tonnes of waste used ore. 

This 860kg lump of ore contains around 30g of gold, which is the tiny spot in front of it.

The world consumption of new gold produced is about 50% in jewellery, 40% in investments, and 10% in industry.

About 50% of all gold ever produced has come from South Africa. India is the world's largest single consumer of gold, purchasing about 25% of the world's gold (approximately 800 tonnes) every year, mostly for jewellery.


Frankincense, or olibanum resin, is an aromatic material used in incense and perfumes, obtained from the trees of a few of the 15 species of Boswellia. It's tapped by slashing the bark and allowing the exuded resins to bleed out and harden to form “tears”. The trees start producing resin when they are about 8 to 10 years old and they're tapped 2 or 3 times a year. The current annual world production of frankincense is about 1,000 tonnes, most from Somalia.

Once one of the most valuable substances known to mankind, it's been traded for more than 6000 years, as far as China. In Roman times, some 7000 tonnes were being exported annually by sea just from the port of Dhofar. Moving the material across land may have been one of the reasons for domesticating camels.

Historically used in incense by the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and other cultures, frankincense is still used by the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.

The resin is edible and was used in Greek, Roman and Chinese medicines. It's still used in various traditional medicines in Africa and Asia for digestion and healthy skin. Ayurvedic medicine has used it for centuries to treat arthritis, heal wounds, and as a sort of antiseptic. Indian frankincense has been shown to help Crohn's disease and is being evaluated as treatment for ulcerative colitis, asthma and arthritis.

Frankincense resin, like almost all natural materials, is a complex and variable mixture. It contains several complex acids and a range of other organic compounds including monoterpenese, sesquiterpenes, monoterpenols, sesquiterpenols and ketones. One of the chemicals it contains has cancer-killing properties. Burning frankincense repels mosquitoes, protection from mosquito-borne illnesses such as malaria, West Nile Virus, and Dengue Fever. A component of Frankincence smoke appears to be psychoactive, relieving depression and anxiety.


Myrrh is a common aromatic oleoresin, a natural blend of an essential oil and a resin. The name derives from the Aramaic murr, meaning "was bitter". It's collected from a number of small, thorny tree species of the genus Commiphora. in the same way as frankincense, cutting the tree to the sapwood, so the tree bleeds a resin.
Myrrh gum is commonly harvested in Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea, eastern Ethiopia, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula.

Used throughout history as a perfume, incense and medicine. myrrh has at times been even more valuble than gold.

Myrrh was used by the ancient Egyptians with natron (sodium hydroxide) to embalm mummies. It was used in the consecrated incense described in the Hebrew Bible and Talmud. Mixed with frankincense and sometimes other scents, it's still used in almost every service of the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and traditional Roman Catholic Churches.

In traditional Chinese medicine, myrrh is said to have special efficacy on the heart, liver, and spleen meridians, and has similar uses to Frankincense. In Ayurvedic medicine, it is ascribed tonic and rejuvenative properties.

In modern Western medicine, myrrh is an antiseptic, used in mouthwashes, gargles, and toothpastes. This bactericidal action is due to the sesquiterpene lactones it contains. Myrrh also has anti-inflammatory properties, currently used to treat abrasions and other minor skin ailments, bruises, aches, and sprain. Myrrh has also been used as an analgesic for toothaches. It has been shown to have potential in treating diabetes and help balance cholesterol LDL and HDL. The medicine Mirazid, a mixture of myrrh and essential oils, has been shown to be effective against some of the parasitic blood flukes which cause schistosomiasis.

So, maybe these traditional gifts might actually have been good choices. A valuable metal and two valuable traditional medicines with antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, one of which can be burned to repel disease-carrying mosquitoes. The modern equivalents, say bearer bonds, an insectide-treated mosquito net, antiseptic and ibuprofen, don't sound quite as romantically mysterious.

Thinking of Christmas has got my butterflies excited. Now I'm wondering why that big bird in the freezer is called a turkey...

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