The Gifts of the Magi As An Embalming Kit
Since I attended a church-run high school, I had to sit through plenty of Bible classes as a teenager, but never once in any of those lessons did I hear the theory that the gifts of the Magi (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) were actually meant as an embalming kit. I have no idea if this explanation of the gifts's meaning is widely accepted among scholars, but it struck me as weird, in an interesting way. From SFGate.com
The Magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh - odd gifts to give a newborn, but rife with symbolic meaning, for those three elements are related to the funeral and burial of corpses.
A long-standing tradition, dating back to the ancient Greeks, involved placing one gold coin on each eye of the dead, so that his or her soul would have the boat fare to cross the River Styx, that is, pass from the land of the living into the land of the dead.
Frankincense, the scent found in Catholic and Orthodox churches around the world, is a meditative aid, but is also burned in abundance around bodies before burial to cover any unpleasant odors.
Myrrh was an embalming ointment used until the 15th century to dress bodies before funerals. It is also known as "holy oil," and is still used in traditional Eastern Orthodox burial ceremonies. Myrrh, mixed with wine, also would be offered to Jesus before his crucifixion, as this was an intoxicant, which would have made him less susceptible to pain. The gifts of the Magi at Jesus' birth were all in anticipation of his death...
So, as you open your gifts this Christmas morning, think back to the very first Christmas presents. Aunt Flora's pink-and-brown knit tie may not be quite what you were hoping for, but it's a good deal cheerier than an embalming kit.
Listed in chronological order. Newest comments at the end.
I'd learned that in the Lutheran School/Church I when I was a kid.
The one that had me stumped for many and many a year was a "rounyon virgin". Of course I was too young to "know" what a virgin was but, at least, I know WHO they were singing about but what in the @#$@#$ was a "rounyon"???
Posted by Expat47 in Athens, Greece on 12/26/12 at 12:12 PM
One of the verses of "We Three Kings of Orient Are" refers to myrrh's use as an embalming agent:
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume / Breathes of life of gathering gloom / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying /
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb
Now there's a Merry Christmas for you!
ExPat, my cousin was confused about that too, only in a different way. He drew a picture of the Nativity in catechism class featuring Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, three kings, a shepherd, various farm animals, and, up in a tree next to the stable, a fat man looking down on the scene. It wasn't a misplaced Santa. When asked who it was, cousin answered, "Round John."
Posted by ScoutC on 12/26/12 at 12:51 PM
I always wondered what gold, frankincense, and myrrh had in common that they would *all* be important enough to present to a newborn King.
It seems they are a recipe for a heresy!
I had a friend in school in the 80's - an obese red-headed geek named John - whom I nicknamed "Round John the Virgin". Unfortunately for him it stuck!
Posted by tadchem on 12/26/12 at 01:40 PM
The connection between these three gifts, and likely what the writer, or whoever came up with this story element, had in mind, is that they are all very valuable items at the time, and associated with the Magi, priests of Zoroastrianism, and the East. The Magi were healers, priests, and astrologers - the learned people of their culture. Both frankincense and myrrh were used as drugs in the ancient world, and the kind of thing people traveling from the East, such as Persia, would have brought for trade. I would hazard that, at the time, frankincense and myrrh, like gold, were more important in life than in death.
The three "Wise Men" brought drugs and money - useful, valuable items which did not have the moral connotations that began to develop in the late nineteenth century.
Posted by sudon't on 12/26/12 at 02:45 PM
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