Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Caspar’s Gift: Myrrh

Myrrh, the gift traditionally held as being that of the magus Caspar, is most often found blended with its rich, resinous cousin, frankincense. By itself, myrrh invokes images of wound-dressing and the embalming of dead bodies. In Matthew’s account it foreshadows the death and burial of Jesus. Myrrh is bitter and astringent (hence it coagulative properties); it emits an cool, earthy, balsamic scent which, at least to me, stings the nose in a pleasantly appealing way, making me think of the historical antecedent to a modern-day nurse’s office, albeit with fewer tongue-depressors and more mortals and pestles. Like frankincense, myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) also harks from short gnarled shrubs which thrive on the semi-arid desert plateau, though it should not be confused with the so-called “sweet myrrh,” more commonly referred to as opoponax. If frankincense is opulent and otherworldly, there is something tenderly human in the austerity of myrrh. It reminds me of the cell of an octogenarian monk I once lived with, of his habit, the box in which he rested his careworn chaplet. The only popularly available single-note myrrh I have come across lately is from Diptyque and it comes in both candle and roomspray formats. I must admit I like to use the roomspray on coats and scarves –– that is, when I’m not spraying it liberally in the basement or near my books. As for the blends where it plays the top note, I would point to the same house and their L'Eau Trois eau de parfum (1975), which manages with the help of body heat to pleasantly sweeten the myrrh without resorting to the usual churchy accords more recently found in Heeley’s Cardinal and Comme des Garçons’ Incense: Avignon.

Image credit: Caspar detail from The Adoration of the Magi, mosaic, Basilica of St. Apollinarius, Ravenna.


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