Bible Review 7:3, June 1991

Ancient Aromas

Good and bad

By Kjeld Nielsen

The Roman poet Ovid, in Metamorphosis (10:298–518), relates a story that sensitively reflects much about one of the best-known aromatic substances in the ancient world, myrrh.

In the story, Myrrha, the beautiful daughter of the king of Cyprus, falls in love with her father. She disguises herself and proceeds to seduce him. When the king discovers what his daughter has done, he decides he must kill her. Frightened, Myrrha flees, asking the gods for protection. The gods transform her into a myrrh tree; in that way she escapes and avoids being killed. She is pregnant, however. Accordingly, nine months later, the bark of the myrrh tree cracks, giving birth to her child, who is none other than the god Adonis. Water nymphs care for the child, anointing him with Myrrha’s tears.

There is reason to believe that this myth ultimately has its roots in the ancient Near East, although its ancestor has not yet been found. In the myth, Myrrha represents myrrh, an aromatic substance that comes from South Arabia. Adonis is the Greek counterpart of the Mesopotamian god Tammuz,1 the well-known ancient Near Eastern deity of spring vegetation, who is mentioned in the Bible: In Ezekiel 8:14, the prophet has a vision in which he sees women weeping for Tammuz at the gate of the Temple.

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