Frankincense and myrrh have been prized for their aromatic properties and used in religious and spiritual contexts for thousands of years. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Frankincense and myrrh symbolize divinity, prayer, sacrifice, healing, and more due to their rarity, preciousness, and use in biblical times.

This article will explore the extensive spiritual symbolism and significance behind these valuable resins in depth.

This article will provide a comprehensive overview of the rich spiritual meaning, symbolism, history, and significance of frankincense and myrrh. We’ll explore where these resins come from, their uses throughout history, their extensive symbolic meanings, and why they have remained such enduring religious and spiritual symbols over millennia.

The Origins and Sources of Frankincense and Myrrh

The Frankincense Tree

The frankincense tree scientific name is Boswellia sacra. Frankincense is produced from the sap of the Boswellia tree, which is native to parts of Africa and Arabia. The trees grow up to 22 feet tall and begin producing Frankincense resin when they reach about 8 to 10 years of age.

The Myrrh Tree

The myrrh tree, Commiphora myrrha, is native to parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Arabia. Myrrh is obtained from the resin of the tree – it oozes out from cracked bark and branches. The small, thorny trees grow up to 15 feet in height.

Where Frankincense and Myrrh Grow

Both frankincense and myrrh trees are adapted to dry, desertlike conditions. They are found in the hilly, rocky areas of Somalia, Yemen, Oman, and eastern Ethiopia. Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern regions have been sources of frankincense and myrrh for thousands of years.

According to a 2017 report, an estimated 82,000 tons of frankincense and 12,000 tons of myrrh are still produced each year from Arabian trees. Somalia produces the highest yields of frankincense – up to 80% of the world’s supply.

Tree Botanical Name Native Regions
Frankincense Boswellia sacra Arabia, Northeast Africa
Myrrh Commiphora myrrha Arabia, Africa, Middle East

The Historical and Biblical Significance of Frankincense and Myrrh

Use in Ancient Religious Rites

Frankincense and myrrh have a long history of use in spiritual and religious contexts. As far back as 2000 BC, frankincense was highly valued in ancient Egypt for use in religious ceremonies and rituals. Ancient Egyptians burned frankincense as an offering to their sun god Ra.

Likewise, myrrh resin was used in the embalming process and to anoint the bodies of pharaohs before burial.

In ancient Mesopotamia and Persia around 1700 BC, frankincense was an important trade item and was believed to be connected to the gods. It was burned ceremonially to ward off evil spirits.

References in The Bible

Both frankincense and myrrh are mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament, New Testament, and in references to the life of Jesus Christ in the Bible. They were highly prized substances at that time.

In the Old Testament, frankincense and myrrh were included in the list of offerings made by the ancient Israelites (Leviticus 2:1, 2:15). The Magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh when visiting the young Jesus (Matthew 2:11).

Many interpretations state that these gifts had spiritual meaning – the gold representing Jesus’s royal standing, frankincense his divine role, and myrrh his mortality.

Gifts for Baby Jesus

The account in Matthew 2:11 describes the three gifts presented by the Magi, or Wise Men, when they visited Jesus shortly after his birth:

“On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”

While the Magi’s exact motivation for selecting these gifts is not known, many Bible scholars believe each item carries symbolic meaning related to Jesus’s life and purpose:

  • Gold represented his royal standing as “King of the Jews”
  • Frankincense represented his divine role as the Son of God
  • Myrrh represented his mortality, foreshadowing his suffering and death

Symbolic and Spiritual Meanings of Frankincense

Prayer and Communication with the Divine

Since ancient times, frankincense has been used in religious and spiritual contexts as a tool to communicate with the Divine. When burned, frankincense releases an aromatic smoke which has been seen as a vehicle for prayers and petitions to rise up to heaven (Exodus 30:34-38).

This is likely due to its heavenly fragrance and the way smoke naturally drifts upward. The smoke of frankincense burning is believed to carry one’s prayers and hopes to God or spiritual beings. This reflects the plant’s longstanding association with spirituality in many faiths and cultures.

In Christianity, frankincense remains a popular incense burned in churches. The fragrant smoke represents the prayers of congregants rising to heaven. Frankincense smoke is also symbolic of the presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4).

And in the Bible, frankincense is one of the gifts presented to the infant Jesus by the Three Wise Men (Matthew 2:11), showing its ancient connection to honoring the Divine.

Holiness, Divinity and Righteousness

In many ancient cultures of the Middle East and North Africa, frankincense was closely tied to concepts of holiness, divinity, and righteousness. Frankincense resin was burned ritually to honor gods and goddesses.

The smoke was thought to carry prayers and blessings to the heavens where deities resided. Temple priests also burned frankincense to purify sacred spaces and drive out malevolent spirits.

This association of frankincense with the holy and divine continues today in modern religious practice. For example, frankincense remains a popular incense in Catholic and Orthodox Christian ceremonies.

The sweet smelling smoke is symbolic of divinity, righteousness, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Traditionally, frankincense smoke was used to sanctify churches, altars, and other religious artifacts like the Holy Communion table.

Sacrifice and Suffering

Frankincense resin has long been a valuable trade commodity in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. In ancient times, frankincense was as precious as gold. The frankincense trees only grow in arid climates and rocky soil, making cultivation difficult.

Frankincense resin is harvested by hand in a laborious process. The precious resin must be carefully collected drop by drop from incisions in the bark of boswellia trees.

This difficult method of harvesting contributes to frankincense’s symbolic ties to sacrifice and suffering. The small resin beads represent the suffering of Christ according to Christian belief, as well as the sacrifices made more broadly in religious worship.

Frankincense’s use as a burnt offering ties into its connections with sacrifice and righteous suffering (Leviticus 2:1-2). So the smoke from burning frankincense resin carries solemn spiritual meaning.

Symbolic and Spiritual Meanings of Myrrh

Healing and Soothing

Since ancient times, myrrh has been revered for its soothing and healing properties. Its aroma was believed to promote well-being, calm the mind, and ease worries. Myrrh extracts have anti-inflammatory effects and were applied topically to wounds and inflammations.

Spiritually, the warming and uplifting scent of myrrh came to represent hope, comfort, and the healing power of one’s faith.

Embalming and Transition to the Afterlife

In ancient Egypt, myrrh was a key ingredient used to embalm mummies and prepare the deceased for their journey into the afterlife. The Egyptians believed that mummifying the body and surrounding it with the fragrance of myrrh allowed the soul to live eternally in the next world.

Thus, myrrh took on profound symbolic meaning – its sweet aroma was intimately linked with death, rebirth, and immortality of the soul.

Interestingly, later in the Bible, myrrh was one of the burial spices brought to wrap the body of Jesus after his crucifixion (John 19:39). This underscores how myrrh retained its enduring association with death rituals and the gateway to eternal life.

Suffering and Christ’s Passion

In the New Testament, myrrh was one of the gifts presented to the Christ child in Bethlehem. But along with its connection to royalty and divinity, myrrh also came to symbolize Christ’s passion and suffering that lay ahead.

As one of the bitter herbs of crucifixion, myrrh represents the pain inflicted on Jesus before his death (Mark 15:23).

More broadly, myrrh’s bitter taste yet sweet aroma evokes the belief that one must endure suffering before reaching profound spiritual understanding. Just as Christ’s agony led to salvation, the bitterness of myrrh leads to its sweet perfume.

Modern Spiritual Uses of Frankincense and Myrrh


Frankincense and myrrh have long been used to deepen meditation practice and connect with the divine. The scent alone can induce a contemplative state for many. Burning frankincense resin during meditation is said to link the physical and spiritual planes, promoting feelings of peace and acceptance.

Studies show frankincense contains compounds that elicit anxiolytic effects, which calms anxiety (see research). Myrrh too has meditative benefits – its earthy, slightly bitter aroma focuses the mind inward. Ancient texts like the Bible reference myrrh oil to “activate” prayer (Exodus 30:34-38).


Both frankincense and myrrh essential oils are hugely popular in aromatherapy for their healing properties. Frankincense oil uniquely taps into the emotional brain. Science shows it upgrades the messenger chemical serotonin and acts on the region controlling mood and anxiety – the amygdala (see research).

Just smelling frankincense can make one feel more balanced and relaxed. Myrrh oil’s anti-inflammatory, circulatory and immune-boosting powers also have therapeutic effects. Studies confirm using myrrh aromatherapy benefits arthritis, infections, skin health, and antioxidant protection (see research).

Using frankincense and myrrh oils synergistically enhances wellbeing.

Religious Ceremonies and Rites

Frankincense remains integral to religious ceremonies worldwide today. It’s burned in Buddhist temples in east Asia, Pagan rituals across Europe, and Shinto shrines in Japan for purification and blessing. Chinese medicine utilizes frankincense similarly.

India’s Ayurvedic healers recommend frankincense remedies to nurture spiritual vitality. Did you know over 1 million pounds of frankincense is still imported globally each year for Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian masses (with 60% use in services)?

Biblically, frankincense symbolizes prayer rising to heaven as its aroma lifts upward when burned. Myrrh too plays a crucial part in religion. Hinduism uses myrrh resin mixtures during special pujas to focus devotionals.

While Christianity applies holy myrrh oil in consecrating altars, sacred vessels and vestments. Just like the Magi bringing myrrh oil to bless Christ, modern Christians carry this anointing tradition through rites involving myrrh.


Frankincense and myrrh have remained enduring religious symbols for thousands of years due to their preciousness, association with the divine, and versatility as spiritual tools. Their rarity and difficulty to obtain adds to their precious symbolism.

Beyond their references in The Bible and use in ancient times, frankincense and myrrh continue to carry profound meaning for spiritual practices today. Their unique aromas and properties make them ideal for ceremony, prayer, contemplation, healing, and accessing higher planes.

This exploration of the extensive symbolic and spiritual meaning behind frankincense and myrrh only scratches the surface of why these resins have remained so valuable. From their earliest religious uses to their modern applications, frankincense and myrrh are deeply meaningful and spiritual substances.

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