Myrrh: Myth, Resin, Love, and the Everlasting

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Orpheus sings of the unfortunate Myrrha, who, overcome by a perverse love for her father, tricked him into having sex with her with the help of her loyal nurse. When her father took a lamp to the face of his nubile mystery lover and found his very own daughter, he snatched his sword and made to kill her. She ran away and wandered from Arabia to Sabaea.

After nine months, her burden weighing heavy, she collapsed and prayed for metamorphosis; she wished for deliverance from the living but not to join the dead. The gods heard her prayer and transformed her into a tree, whose essential sadness flowed in precious tears. Here’s how Charles Martin describes her plea and her fate in his 2004 translation:

“‘O gods, if there should be any who hear my confession, I do not turn away from the terrible sentence that my misbehavior deserves; but lest I should outrage the living by my survival, or the dead by my dying, drive me from both of these kingdoms, transform me wholly, so that both life and death are denied me.

Some god did hear her confession, and heaven answered her final prayer, for, even as she was still speaking, the earth rose up over her legs, and from her toes burst roots that spread widely to hold the tall trunk in position; her bones put forth wood, and even though they were still hollow, they now ran with sap and not blood; her arms became branches, and those were now twigs that used to be called her fingers, while her skin turned to hard bark.

Loss of her body has meant the loss of all feeling; and yet she weeps, and the warm drops spill from her tree trunk; those tears bring her honor: the distillate myrrh preserves and will keep the name of its mistress down through the ages.

But under the bark, the infant conceived in such baseness continued to grow and now sought a way out of Myrrha; the pregnant trunk bulged in the middle and its weighty burden pressed on the mother, who could not cry out in her sorrow…

This infant, Myrrha’s son and brother, will grow into the most beautiful of men, Adonis, lucky and unlucky lover of the very goddess of love herself, but that is another story.

Myrrh was used by the ancients in perfume, medicine, incense and embalming. The word is an ancient one, coming to us via the Greek with Semitic origins, meaning “bitter,” as well as referring to the tree. When I told my buddy David that I was writing about myrrh, he said, “It’s a fun word with the double rrh,” and I had to agree, there is something quite precious about its ability to preserve through the centuries its exotic spelling. Perhaps this is because of its frequent and memorable appearances in the bible, from the sexy Song of Songs to one of the three gifts of the wise men, the spelling feels cemented in the language of the sacred text.

What is Myrrh?

Myrrh derives most often from the resin of a hearty little desert tree, Commiphora myrrha. In their book Aromatherapy, Keville and Green describe it thus:

This small, scrubby tree from the Middle East and northeast Africa isn’t handsome, but the precious gum it exudes makes up for its lackluster look. An important trade item for more than a thousand years, myrrh was a primary ingredient in ancient cosmetics and incense.

Resin is a generic term that can point to many viscous substances of both organic and synthetic origins, but for our purposes, we are interested in the substance that flows from trees when injured. According to Plant Biology, resin is an example of secondary chemical compounds that “protect or strengthen plants or aid in reproduction”:

The roles of secondary compounds in plants include defense against herbivorous animals and disease-causing microbes. Because plants cannot run away, they depend on chemicals for defense; consequently, they have become experts at chemical warfare. Plants are surrounded in nature by voracious herbivores, including swarms of ravenous insects, and deadly microbes–yet still they flourish…. Plants also cannot move to accomplish mating or migration, as animals can, so they often use animals to transport reproductive cells or seeds. Secondary compounds are involved in producing flower and fruit colors and fragrances that entice animals to serve as dispersal agents…

In other words, what we think of as aromas are, from a plant’s perspective, powerful tools to manipulate mobile organisms, to attract or repel, for example. Oftentimes traditional aromatics serve humans in ways similar to how they served the plant from which they derive.

Myrrh and frankincense, which is also in the burseraceae family, illustrate how usefulness may be intertwined with sacredness. In The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy, Valerie Ann Worwood makes this connection clear in her introduction:

The holy anointing oil that God directed Moses to make from “flowing” myrrh, sweet cinnamon, calamus, cassia, and olive oil, would have been a powerful antiviral and antibiotic substance, the use of which gave protection and treatment to all those to whom it was administered. Cinnamon is a powerful antiviral and antibacterial agent as well as being antifungal. Myrrh is an effective antiseptic and one of the best cicatrisants–that is, it stimulates cellular growth–and its healing effects on open wounds, ulcers, and boils was legendary even before Biblical times.

When I first smelled myrrh as an essential oil, it was not so much learned as remembered and named. Its initial medicinal sharpness must have been part of a medicine cabinet belonging to one of my grandmothers, who used it on my child self for a cut or a cough. But when mixed with a carrier oil and allowed to sit, or when burned as incense, the initial bitterness flees and something almost floral emerges, with a rich, spicy warmth that adds the solidity of an earthy resonating base note.

A bundle of myrrh is my well-beloved unto me

Myrrh is all over the Bible as a precious commodity and sacred offering, but its metaphorics really explode in The Song of Songs. This from the King James Version:

1:12 While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof.

1:13 A bundle of myrrh is my well-beloved unto me; he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.

And then:

5:4 My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.

5:5 I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock.

5:13 His cheeks are as a bed of spices, as sweet flowers: his lips like lilies, dropping sweet smelling myrrh.

It seems that myrrh’s viscosity, its quality of flowing from the cut tree, as much as its fragrance, insinuates it into these passages. Myrrh is sweet-smelling, yes, but it also drips from lover’s lips and seems even to lubricate love-making.

In his literary appreciation of the King James Bible, The Shadow of a Great Rock, the literary critic Harold Bloom (himself a great rock) writes this in response to the above passage:

“Whether you read the Song of Songs as a dramatic lyric celebrating (and contrasting) the erotic ecstasy of a woman and a man or as a visionary canticle of Yahweh’s own sexual fulfillment you encounter a unique instance of ancient Hebrew poetry: intensely metaphoric and having rather more in common with its literary descendants than with other biblical poetry. When I read the Song of Songs, whether in Hebrew or in the Geneva Bible or in the KJB, I think of the poetic tradition it fostered, which flows from the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria through Renaissance erotic lyricists on to Walt Whitman, Coventry Patmore, and Hart Crane.

A consideration of myrrh in ancient cultures would not be complete without a glance at Egypt, whose mummies were wrapped in myrrh-scented linen. In her book Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt, Emily Teeter describes the use of myrrh in the festival of Osiris:

The festival began with the arrival of the royal delegation. Within the dark confines of the Osiris Temple, a priest offered myrrh, wine, and other ‘divine products’ to ‘Osiris, in all his identities.’

And in the Feast of the Valley, which celebrated the close proximity of the dead to the living:

The union of the living and dead was thus both physical – through the three-dimensional representation of the dead family member – and also mystical and intellectual, a meeting achieved through heightened stimulation of all the senses. The properties of smell, sound, and taste were thought to be capable of transcending the barrier between life and death to reach the deceased and bring him or her into the celebration. These senses were further stimulated by copious amounts of beer and wine, which created an ecstatic state and brought the living closer to the dead.

The odor of food filled the necropolis. The dead were presented with fragrant roasted birds and meat. Sweet myrrh oil was poured on the meats, making the scents even more alluring.

In preparing for this article, my friend Lloyd Floyd, my partner Alabaster, and I made a miniature Feast of the Valley at the base of the obelisk built in the time of the pharaoh Hatshepsut and set in New York’s Central Park. At the base of this improbable monument, transplanted from across the world and misnamed–along with its twin in London and cousin in Paris–a Cleopatra’s Needle, we clutched libationary nips and burned precious resins on a tiny alter. As the sweet smoke rose to tickle the noses of the gods, Lloyd Floyd, who conducts charmingly expansive and knowledgeable tours of The Met’s Egyptian collection, explained how the incense helped the dead transit between the Duat (other world) and this one.  And so, with anecdotal authority, I assure you that myrrh, a tree with the power to weep precious tears, being not quite of the living nor the dead, almost spirit but still of the senses, is pleasing to both gods and humans.

*First published at Quail Bell Magazine*