AskDefine | Define myrrh

Dictionary Definition



1 aromatic resin used in perfume and incense [syn: gum myrrh, sweet cicely]
2 aromatic resin burned as incense and used in perfume [syn: gum myrrh]

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. A red-brown resinous material, the dried sap of the Commiphora myrrha tree.
    • 1916, James Joyce, ''Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Macmillan Press Ltd, paperback, p. 98)
      The glories of Mary held his soul captive: spikenard and myrrh and frankincense, symbolising the preciousness of God's gifts to her soul, rich garments, symbolising her royal lineage, her emblems, the lateflowering plant and lateblossoming tree, symbolising the agelong gradual growth of her cultus among men.


dried sap of the myrrha tree

Extensive Definition

Myrrh is a reddish-brown resinous material, the dried sap of the tree Commiphora myrrha, native to Yemen, 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. erythraea (sometimes called East Indian myrrh), C. opobalsamum and Balsamodendron kua. Its name entered English via the Ancient Greek, μύρρα, which is probably of Semitic origin. Myrrh is also applied to the potherb Myrrhis odorata otherwise known as "Cicely" or "Sweet Cicely".
High quality myrrh can be identified through the darkness and clarity of the resin. However, the best method of judging the resin's quality is by feeling the stickiness of freshly broken fragments directly to determine the fragrant-oil content of the myrrh resin. The scent of raw myrrh resin and its essential oil is sharp, pleasant, somewhat bitter and can be roughly described as being "stereotypically resinous". When burned, it produces a smoke that is heavy, bitter and somewhat phenolic in scent, which may be tinged with a slight vanillic sweetness. Unlike most other resins, myrrh expands and "blooms" when burned instead of melting or liquefying.
The scent can also be used in mixtures of incense, to provide an earthy element to the overall smell, and as an additive to wine, a practice alluded to by ancient authorities such as Fabius Dorsennus. It is also used in various perfumes, toothpastes, lotions, and other modern toiletries.
Myrrh was used as an embalming ointment and was used, up until about the 15th century, as a penitential incense in funerals and cremations. The "holy oil" traditionally used by the Eastern Orthodox Church for performing the sacraments of chrismation and unction is traditionally scented with myrrh, and receiving either of these sacraments is commonly referred to as "receiving the Myrrh".


Myrrh is a constituent of perfumes and incense, was highly valued in ancient times, and was often worth more than its weight in gold. The Greek word for myrrh, μύρον, came to be synonymous with the word for "perfume". In Ancient Rome myrrh was priced at five times as much as frankincense, though the latter was far more popular. Myrrh was burned in ancient Roman funerals to mask the smell emanating from charring corpses. It was said that the Roman Emperor Nero burned a year's worth of myrrh at the funeral of his wife, Poppaea. Pliny the Elder refers to myrrh as being one of the ingredients of perfumes, and specifically the "Royal Perfume" of the Parthians. He also says myrrh was used to fumigate wine jars before bottling.

Religious context

In Christian Scriptures, Myrrh was one of the gifts of the Magi to the infant Jesus according to Matthew, and is cited in Mark as an intoxicant that was offered to Jesus during the crucifixion:
Because of both of these contexts, myrrh is a common ingredient in incense offered during Christian liturgical celebrations (see Thurible). In Roman Catholic liturgical tradition, pellets of myrrh are traditionally placed in the Paschal candle during the Easter Vigil.
In Eastern Christianity, the use of incense is much more frequent than in the West. In some traditions, special emphasis is placed on the offering of incense at Vespers and Matins, because of the Old Testament regulation regarding the evening and morning offering of incense.
Because myrrh was the primary ingredient in the anointing oil God commanded Moses to make (Bible verse |Exodus|30:23-33|HE), it is used in the preparation of chrism which is used by many churches, both Eastern and Western.

Traditional medicine

In Chinese medicine, myrrh is classified as bitter, spicy, neutral in temperature and affecting the heart, liver, and spleen meridians. Its uses are similar to those of frankincense, with which it is often combined in decoctions, liniments and incense. Myrrh is said to be blood-moving, while frankincense is said to move the Qi more, and is better for arthritic conditions. It is said to be useful for amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea, menopause and uterine tumors, as it is said to purge stagnant blood out of the uterus.
Myrrh is said to help toothache pain, and can be used in liniment for bruises, aches and sprains.
Myrrh is most commonly used in Chinese medicine for rheumatic, arthritic and circulatory problems. It is combined with such herbs as notoginseng, safflower stamens, Angelica sinensis, cinnamon and Salvia miltiorrhiza, usually in alcohol, and used both internally and externally.
Myrrh is used more frequently in Ayurveda, Unani medicine and Western herbalism, which ascribe to it tonic and rejuvenative properties. A related species, known as guggul in Ayurvedic medicine is considered one of the best substances for the treatment of circulatory problems, nervous system disorders and rheumatic complaints, Myrrh (Daindhava) is used in many rasayana formulas in Ayurveda.
However rasayana herbs have special processing. Outside of this form myrrh is said to be contraindicated for pregnant women or women with excessive uterine bleeding, and not be used with evidence of kidney dysfunction or stomach pain.

Modern medicinal usage

In western pharmacy, Myrrh is used as an antiseptic and is most often used in mouthwashes, gargles and toothpastes for prevention and treatment of gum disease. Myrrh is currently used in some liniments and healing salves that may be applied to abrasions and other minor skin ailments. It is also used in the production of Fernet Branca.


  • In an attempt to determine the cause of its effectiveness, researchers examined the individual ingredients of an herbal formula used traditionally by Kuwaiti diabetics to lower blood glucose. Myrrh and aloe gums effectively improved glucose tolerance in both normal and diabetic rats.
  • Mixing myrrh gum into vinegar increases its ability to remove blood congestion and relieve pain.

Further reading

  • (US ISBN 0-520-22789-1), pp. 107–122.
  • , pp. 226–227, with additions
  • Abyssine Myrrh
  • The One Earth Herbal Sourcebook: Everything You Need to Know About Chinese, Western, and Ayurvedic Herbal Treatments by Ph. D., A.H.G., D.Ay, Alan Keith Tillotson, O.M.D., L.Ac., Nai-shing Hu Tillotson, and M.D., Robert Abel Jr.
myrrh in Old English (ca. 450-1100): Myrra
myrrh in Arabic: مر (نبات)
myrrh in Bengali: গন্ধরস
myrrh in Catalan: Mirra (planta)
myrrh in German: Myrrhe
myrrh in Estonian: Mürr
myrrh in Spanish: Mirra
myrrh in Esperanto: Mirho
myrrh in French: Myrrhe
myrrh in Upper Sorbian: Myrowc
myrrh in Italian: Mirra
myrrh in Hebrew: מור (בושם)
myrrh in Malay (macrolanguage): Morhabshi
myrrh in Dutch: Mirre
myrrh in Japanese: 没薬
myrrh in Norwegian: Myrra
myrrh in Polish: Mirra
myrrh in Portuguese: Mirra
myrrh in Russian: Мирра (смола)
myrrh in Serbian: Измирна
myrrh in Swedish: Myrra
myrrh in Contenese: 沒藥
myrrh in Chinese: 沒藥

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

ambergris, ambrosia, aromatic, aromatic gum, aromatic water, attar, attar of roses, balm, balm of Gilead, balsam, bay oil, bergamot oil, champaca oil, civet, essence, essential oil, extract, fixative, heliotrope, jasmine oil, lavender oil, musk, myrcia oil, parfum, perfume, perfumery, rose oil, scent, volatile oil
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