Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

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The Christmas carol We Three Kings tells the story of three kings who followed a star to visit Jesus in a stable just after he was born. Many British school children learn this story at a very young age and can recite the names of the gifts each king gave to Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. While gold is still well-known today, what are frankincense and myrrh? Do the three gifts have a special significance? The verses to the carol give us a hint – let’s look at them a little more closely.


‘Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.’

Gold is a precious metal which has long been valued for its rarity, softness (which makes it easy to cast into coins, jewellery, and ornaments), and bright yellow colour. The word derives from the Proto-Germanic ‘ghultham’ from the PIE root ‘ghel’ which means ‘to shine’. Gold is still treasured today and is symbolically associated with being ‘the best’ and ‘most precious’: gold medals and trophies are often awarded to winners, wedding rings are often cast from gold, fiftieth anniversaries and jubilees are referred to as ‘golden’. In this verse of We Three Kings, Jesus is presented with gold to celebrate his royalty. The gesture is an acknowledgement that he is ‘King forever’.


‘Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, all men raising,
Worship Him God Most High.’

The verse tells us that Frankincense is some kind of incense used in prayer, so we can deduce that the gift is offered to Jesus to acknowledge his holiness. Frankincense is a resin that comes from Boswellia trees. It is hardened and used in incenses and perfumes. Frankincense has been traded in North Africa and Somalia for over five thousand years and is mentioned in the Bible as a consecrated incense. The word comes from the old French ‘franc’ meaning ‘noble’ or ‘pure’ and ‘encens’ meaning ‘incense’.


‘Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.’

We know from the verse that myrrh is used as a perfume. Like Frankincense, it is made from a resin which is extracted from a tree and hardened. The word comes from the Old English ‘myrre’ which comes from the Latin ‘myrrha’. Both words come from a root word meaning ‘was bitter’ and as the verse suggests the perfume was known for its bitter qualities. One interpretation of the story is that myrrh was given to symbolise the bitterness and suffering that Jesus would experience in his later life.

If you enjoyed this post, you can find more of our Christmas articles here:

From all the team at Spellzone, MERRY CHRISTMAS!

26 Dec 2017
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