Simon Cotton explores the chemistry of myrrh, one of the Magi’s presents


Myrrh is referred to in several different parts of the Bible. At this time in the Church’s year, we associate it with the visit of the Magi: ‘And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh’ (Matthew 2.11). It also foreshadows Christ’s Passion: ‘And they gave him to drink wine mingled with myrrh: but he received it not’ (Mark 15.23). So myrrh was esteemed for its analgesic properties and also for its use among the spices used in embalming the dead body: And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight’ (John 19.39).

But myrrh goes back much further than that, its use in perfumery recorded in Esther 2.12 : ‘so were the days of their purifications accomplished, to wit, six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with sweet odours, and with other things for the purifying of the women’. Beyond that, even further, to the anointing oil in Exodus: ‘Take thou also unto thee principal spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even two hundred and fifty shekels, and of sweet calamus two hundred and fifty shekels, And of cassia five hundred shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of oil olive an hin: And thou shalt make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil’ (Exodus 30.23-25).

Myrrh comes from Commiphora species of the Burseraceae family, small trees with short branches found particularly in southern Arabia and northeast Africa, especially Somalia, which is reportedly the world’s largest source of myrrh; it is also produced in a wider area including the Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and as far south as Kenya. Myrrh is collected through a similar method to frankincense (ND December 2021, pp 9-10) by cutting into the bark of the tree and collecting the yellow sap, which solidifies to a reddish-brown solid. As far back as 2800 BC, myrrh was imported into Ancient Egypt from the Land of Punt, now believed to have been what we know as Eritrea and eastern Ethiopia. Myrrh was brought into Mesopotamia and Europe from India and Arabia over what became known as the spice route.

As with frankincense, myrrh has a variable composition, with the molecules present and their amount depending upon factors like geography and climate, as well as the particular species of tree. Like frankincense, myrrh has a characteristic fragrance, though its fragrance is more earthy and bitter. Remember the hymn line ‘Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume Breathes a life of gathering gloom’? Well, in Arabic, the word murr means ‘bitter’.

Myrrh is made up of many different molecules. 4-ethynyl-4-hydroxy-3,5,5-trimethyl-2-Cyclohexen-1-one, accounts for the highest percentage of the components in myrrh essential oil (12.01%). 

Perhaps the most important of the molecules is furanoeudesma-1,3-diene, which is not just an important contributor to its smell. 

  About 25 years ago, scientists at the University of Florence carried out some tests on mice. They placed them on a hotplate at 52°C and timed how long it took for the mice to lick their paws, a sign that the hotplate was causing pain. They then fed the mice a dose of myrrh, and found that the mice held out longer before licking. Other tests showed that of the molecules in the myrrh, furanoeudesma-1,3-diene and another similar molecule, curzerene, acted as painkillers, and that they were acting on the opioid receptors in the mouse brain (the same receptors that painkillers like morphine act upon). 

Hydrocarbons like b-elemene and copaene are also abundant in myrrh, whilst other molecules present in myrrh include myrrhone and myrrhanol A, of which the latter has attracted scientific interest on account of its anti-inflammatory properties.

  Medicinal uses of myrrh go back thousands of years. Historically, myrrh was often used in perfumes and medicines, for healing wounds, including bleeding gums and sore throats (it is put into mouthwashes and toothpaste to this day) and to preserve bodies. It has been used in the East too; myrrh is associated with women’s health, including treatment of menstrual pain. It is a significant drug in Chinese Traditional Medicine, where it is known as mo yao and has been used for the treatment of syphilis, leprosy and rheumatism. In Eastern medicine myrrh is frequently used in conjunction with frankincense; it has often been reported they when used together they exhibit synergistic effects (i.e. ‘stronger together’).

Recently extracts of myrrh have been found to have antibacterial properties against bacteria including Staphyllococcus aureus. One compound mentioned in that context is tau-cadinol. More than that, such extracts have been found to possess activity against certain liver, colon and breast cancer cell lines.

A molecule with a steroid-like structure called guggulsterone, found in Commiphora mukul from the Indian subcontinent, has been claimed to reduce cholesterol levels, but several independent research groups have found no evidence to support these claims.

Myrrh’s history goes back thousands of years, but there is scope for many more discoveries in the future.