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Myrrh is a red-brown resinous material, the dried sap of the tree Commiphora myrrha. It is native to Somalia and the eastern parts of Ethiopia. The sap of a number of other Commiphora and Balsamodendron species are also known as myrrh, including that from C. erythaeca (sometimes called East Indian myrrh), C. opobalsamum and Balsamodendron kua. Its name entered English through the Ancient Greek, μύρρα, which is probably of Semitic origin.
Myrrh is a constituent of perfumes and incense that was highly prized in ancient times. It was used as an embalming ointment and, up until about the 15th century, as a penitential incense in funerals and cremations. Myrrh was widely used in the ancient world as an incense, in cosmetics, in medicine, and as an agent during embalming and funerals. In ancient Roman funerals it was burned to mask the smell from charring corpses. It was expensive, often worth more than its weight in gold.
In the Old Testament, myrrh is depicted as a valuable commodity in trade and in the religious setting as an ingredient in oil for anointing: Exodus 30:23. Its use as a perfume and as an agent for purification of women is mentioned in a number of books: Esther 2:12, Psalms 45:8, and Proverbs 7:17.
In the New Testament, Matthew 2:11 mentions myrrh as one of the gifts presented by the Magi to the infant Jesus at his birth. In Mark 15:23, myrrh is mentioned a an ingredient in the mixture of "wine mingled with myrrh" as a drug to produce insensibility for those condemned to death.
The title "Myrrh-bearer" is given to those who were present at Christ's passion and went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. John 19:39 describes Nicodemus bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloe for embalming when St. Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus in the sepulchre. They are celebrated with the myrrh-bearing women on the Sunday of Myrrh-bearing Women.
Some saints and icons are called "Myrrh-flowing," "Myrrh-streaming," "Myrrh-gushing" or "Myroblete" which indicates that the relics or icon exudes the holy and sweet-smelling oil. The oil is often miraculous. "This wonder of myrrh has been given to the holy relics in order to indicate that Christians are truly 'a sweet-savour of Christ unto God' (II Corinthians 2:15), sweet-smelling to God and to heaven. The truth of the Gospel is that the sin of man is a foul odor before God and every sin pleases the devil. Through the holy mysteries and holy virtues, Christians become 'a sweet-savour of Christ unto God.' For this reason, then, the holy relics of the Saints pour forth myrrh."1
- 1 The Place of Holy Relics in the Orthodox Church by St. Justin Popovich, From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. VII, No. 1, p. 9. Translated from the Serbian by the Reverend Gregory Telepneff.