The Incestuous Origins of Myrrh as Told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses
What is Myrrh?
Myrrh is one of those things that occasionally pop up in the Bible that most people only have a vague idea about. That was the case for me. Most famously in Mathew 2:11, myrrh was one of the gifts brought by the "three magi" from the east, along with gold and frankincense. According to Mark 15:23, when Christ was crucified, he was offered but refused some myrrh-spiced wine to mitigate his suffering. Finally, in John 19:39, myrrh was used to anoint Christ's body after his crucifixion.
But what exactly is it, I still wondered? All I knew was that it was a luxury spice in the ancient world and that it's supposed to smell good. That's about it. I definitely wouldn't recognize it by sight or smell. I suspect I'm not alone in this particular knowledge gap. So I did what we all do nowadays when we have random questions like this about some bit of esoteric trivia: I asked Google.
Here's the quick version of what I found.
Myrrh is a sap-like resin from the myrrh tree, a small, thorny, flowering tree found mainly in Somalia, Ethiopia, and the Arabian Peninsula. In the ancient world, it had many uses. During the Egyptian New Kingdom (1570 BCE - 1069 BCE), myrrh powder was used for its pest repellent qualities in the embalming process of Egyptian mummies. Along with frankincense, myrrh was a crucial ingredient in pagan religious ceremonies requiring the burning of incense.
The Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) estimated that 211 tons of myrrh entered the first century Roman Empire every year. The spice market for frankincense and myrrh alone amounted to around 50 million sesterces annually (Harvey 35). Myrrh was also sought-after for its medicinal properties like treating digestive problems, killing harmful bacteria, and reducing inflammation, just to mention a few.
The ancient myrrh trade benefited enormously from well-developed trade networks and supply chains fostered by Greece and then Rome's political control of the Mediterranean. This golden age of frankincense and myrrh continued until the Empire's irreversible political decline accelerated in the late fourth century. Early Christian ambivalence about the use of myrrh eventually gave way to acceptance, especially in the liturgical practices of the Eastern Orthodox Church. During this transition from paganism to Christianity, myrrh managed to keep its place as an important olfactory component of religious experience. Beyond its continued relevance in ritual, the rise of the Internet and a global supply chain have made myrrh accessible to the general public. Today one can easily find myrrh and myrrh-based products on sites like Amazon.com.
That's all fine and interesting enough. I'm now ready to bore someone to death with my obscure Christmas nativity trivia. And now you are too. What really caught my attention is the myth behind that fragrant spice that those three magi brought to the little baby Jesus on that first Christmas some two thousand years ago. And as is often the case, the myth is far better than the reality.
Myrrh's backstory is a spice of another variety. It's the sad and lurid tale about a young princess named Myrrha and the forbidden desire she had for her father and how, not surprisingly, that did not go well for her. But it's more than that. This myth is also a window into the ancient Greco-Roman sexual psyche.
The author of the most famous version of the Myrrha myth was the Roman poet Ovid. Ovid wrote during the Augustan era (31 BCE - 14 CE) and was deeply literate in Greco-Roman mythology. The narrative poem Metamorphoses was his masterpiece, belonging with the Odyssey and the Iliad at the top of the canon of classical literature.
The unifying theme of Metamorphoses is change or transformation. The gods rape, reward or punish mortals with capricious abandon. To cite just a few examples, Arachne was transformed into a spider for beating the goddess Minerva in a weaving contest. Jove raped the nymph Callisto and then changed her into a bear and later a constellation in the sky. Pasiphae, the wife of Minos, fell in love and copulated with a bull, giving birth to the half-man, half-bull Minotaur that Minos hid in a massive labyrinth designed by Daedalus.
And so on, the gods and mortals interact. In the end, someone gets transformed into something, sometimes as a reward, often as punishment, yet sometimes just because the gods felt like it. Ovid's themes are not for the faint of heart. Wanton rape, gruesome violence, bestiality, and doomed love are repeated themes in Ovid's telling of the classic myths.
And also incest, which gets us back to poor Myrrha.
Whether Roman or Greek, no matter, incest was still icky, taboo even, as it remains for most societies, including our own.
Yet, this taboo came with some surprising caveats and ambivalence. The Greeks and Romans knew the official line about incest - it was an abomination against the gods and nature, and therefore illegal. So while Ovid proclaimed his proper horror at the very thought of incest, he also slyly challenged this assumption while still being careful not to openly endorse it. But before getting into that, let's take a look at the Myrrha myth.
The full translated version of the myth can be found here for those interested.
My brief summary follows from Book X of Metamorphoses.
The Myrrha Myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses
King Cinyras of Cyprus had a beautiful daughter, Myrrha, whom he loved dearly. Myrrha had many suitors who sought her hand in marriage. When asked by her father what kind of husband she was looking for, Myrrha replied, "A man like you." Cinyras was moved by her modesty, feeling proud to have raised a daughter who wanted nothing more than to have a husband like her dad.
The problem, of course, is that Myrrha harbored a dirty little secret. She secretly lusted after her father, wanting to be with him in carnal ways that daughters should not be with their fathers. Myrrha knew her desire was unnatural, that it should never, ever be realized. And yet, she was tormented by a deep longing to sleep with her very own father.
At last, she could take it no more and resolved to hang herself. At least this way, she thought, she could escape her burning desire and put an end to her suffering once and for all without sinning against nature, her dear father, and the gods. Unfortunately, her nurse caught her in the act of killing herself and begged her to stop. The nurse pressed for why she had been driven to suicide and promised to do anything in her power to help the troubled young girl. Eventually, the nurse got to the truth. Though horrified at first, she resolved to aid the fair maiden in consummating her unnatural desires.
The timing was just right. The city was set to begin a nine-night observance of the annual sacred rites of the goddess Ceres. During this time, sexual contact between husbands and wives was taboo. For everyone else, it was business as usual. Knowing that the King and Queen would not share a bed for the next nine nights and that the King's libido would not wait that long, the nurse came up with a plan to get Myrrha in her dad's bed.
At the darkest midnight hour of a moonless night, as the flames of the fires died out, the nurse led Myrrha through the darkness to the King's bed-chamber. There she whispered, "Cinyras, take her, she's yours." And so he did, not only that night but on the following nights as well; the two indulged each other's passions in the darkness. But the King finally became curious to see the face of the girl who had warmed his bed and given him such amazing sex all these many nights. So, one night he crept up to the bed with a torch and found...gasp...his very own daughter, Myrrha, lying in the bed. In a rage, he grabbed his sword to cut her down on the spot.
Myrrha fled. Cinyras pursued. And so it went for nine months, the terrified and shamed daughter pursued relentlessly by her outraged and humiliated father. After nine months on the run, totally exhausted and unable to flee any further carrying her father's baby in her womb, in desperation, Myrrha begged the gods to take pity on her and end her suffering. She knew her evil deeds had forfeited any right to continue among the living or even exist in the afterlife among the dead. She felt she was no longer worthy of either.
Mercifully, the gods heard her plea and took pity by turning her into a tree - the first myrrh tree. But the tree that was once Myrrha was still carrying her incestuous baby. As an epilogue to Myrrha's tale, that baby turned out to be Adonis, so famed for his beauty that even the goddess of love herself, Venus, fell for him. This, too, ended badly, like so many Greek myths where humans and gods interact. Adonis was killed by a wild boar, his death breaking the immortal goddess's heart.
And that's how this sad tale ended. Cinyras reportedly committed suicide in the aftermath of the whole affair. Myrrha became a pregnant tree. Her gorgeous son was killed by a wild boar. Venus grieved hard, as Greek gods were wont to do, and then probably moved on just fine, as Greek gods were wont to do.
Ovid's Treatment of Incest in Metamorphoses
In this story, the first thing we notice is Ovid putting some distance between himself and the topic he's covering. He opens with a trigger warning to readers, telling them he's about to shock them with a tale of utter depravity.
"It's a shocking story. Daughters and fathers, I strongly advise you to shut your ears! Or, if you cannot resist my poems, at least you mustn't believe this story or take it for fact. If you do believe it, then also believe that the crime was punished. If nature, however, allows such a crime to be perpetrated, I have to congratulate this domain on her distance from countries
where horrors as foul as this have been witnessed" (Ovid Metamorphoses X.299-306).
Not only that, but Ovid adds another layer of distance by having the legendary musician Orpheus sing the story. Ovid is in effect telling the scandalous story by having someone else tell the story. If the story's theme is morally controversial, well, can we really shoot the messenger? Ovid's just singing Orpheus's song. That's important to remember because it gives Ovid some artistic license to make some interesting arguments through the voices of his characters. It also allowed him to subtly humanize Myrrha as the story progresses, despite her transgressions, to the point where the dramatic finale leaves the reader feeling sympathy for the girl's plight and relief that she was rather mercifully put out of her misery rather than brutally punished.
Once Ovid had made the mandatory proclamations of disgust that proper etiquette required, the reader gets treated to a fascinating tale on the morality of incest. Older versions of the story have Aphrodite afflicting Myrrha because she somehow failed to honor the goddess properly. Ovid's version conspicuously leaves this detail out. In fact, he states that "Cupid himself denies that his arrows were Myrrha's downfall and clears his torches of such an indictment" (Ov.X.309-310). This is interesting because, in many Greek myths, the protagonist's agency is removed by some divine magic. In other words, they couldn't help doing what they did. The gods made them do it.
Ovid doesn't let Myrrha off that easily. She can't blame the gods for her predicament. No, on the contrary, she feels what she feels and knows that it's wrong. We get no lamentations about the gods afflicting her with this desire. We're told early on that Myrrha "was fully aware of her passion and battled against it" (Ov.X.318). By doing so, Ovid transforms the first part of the poem into an inner monologue as Myrrha's moral self battles her libidinal self. Not until the end of the poem do we get any supernatural interference, and then it's as an act of mercy.
Instead, we listen in as she debates herself about the disturbing nature of her desire and her awareness that it's wrong. Still, Myrrha questions the justice of the incest taboo. Is incest really wrong? And if it is so bad, Myrrha wonders, then why are there so many counterexamples in the natural world?
"All other creatures can mate as they choose for themselves. It isn't considered a scandal for bulls to mount the heifers they've sired or for stallions to serve their own fillies; goats may cover the young they've spawned, and even a bird can conceive her chicks by a mate who happens to be her father. How lucky they are to do as they please! How spitefully human morality governs our lives. What nature freely allows us, the jealous law will refuse" (Ov.X.325-331).
Of course, that last point about "the jealous law" is really all that matters, and Myrrha knows it. She understands that her desire goes entirely against the grain of society's sexual rules, and no amount of clever sophistry can change that. People are not goats and cattle and birds but must conform to moral laws which govern our sexual behavior. Those moral laws vary by time and place but are binding to members of those societies. Moral laws make us distinct from beasts acting purely on instinct. No governing Council of Cattle will intervene to punish a bull for mating with a heifer he sired. No Synod of Stallions will ostracize the randy stallion for mounting his filly. Only humans do that. Myrrha might argue that this actually makes us less free than the beasts in the fields. The latter at least get to indulge their true natures without being bound by the shackles of custom. If that's the case, if animals in nature are doing it, then how is incest "unnatural?" That's one side of the argument to justify incest.
Another incest story from Metamorphoses expands on this theme from another direction. This is about the unrequited love of Byblis for her brother, Caunus. In contrast to Myrrha, who looks to the natural world to justify her desires, Ovid has Byblis look up to the gods for examples to validate sibling incest, of which there were many.
"But the gods have certainly slept with their sisters. Saturn was married to Ops, whose blood was the same as his own; Ocean and Tethys are husband and wife, like Juno and Jove. But the gods have rules of their own. It is idle to measure our human codes and customs against the different conventions of heaven" (Ov.IX.497-500).
Between these two incest stories, Ovid has smuggled in some interesting moral questions. Can incest be unnatural if there are so many examples of it in the natural world? And can incest be immoral for mortals if the all-powerful beings we worship, the gods, practice it all of the time? Here we get two interesting counterarguments against the incest taboo. Why are people any different? At a glance, it seems that Myrrha and Byblis have a point.
But Ovid only goes so far. Mortals are not beasts in the fields governed solely by instincts. We're superior by reining in those instincts. Nor are we like immortal gods who are so powerful that they are removed from standard moral equations. Here we're inferior. In the end, we're somewhere in between goat and god. Those animal instincts remain powerful - we are animals, after all. Yet, our intelligence, ability to reason, and use of complex language to express sophisticated thoughts make us relate more to the gods. As cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker once put it, "We are gods with anuses."
We're as mortal as the beasts and share their instincts and drives. The gods have those same instincts and drives yet can indulge them without consequence or penalty. Immense power and immortality effectively make them immune to the kind of morality that governs human interactions. We are also held accountable to each other. Our appetites and actions have consequences not only for us but also for those around us in ways that clearly do not apply to immortal gods. There are "human codes and customs" that demand our compliance and taboos that we cannot transgress. Doing so comes with a real cost, either biological or social.
We comply because we tacitly believe that conformity is necessary to uphold the social fabric. Incest is one of the most universal taboos around the world for this reason: it undermines familial hierarchies and corrupts gene pools. Most people are repulsed at the very idea of mating with close family members. When incest happens, it's rarely done with mutual consent and with the approval of the wider community. Mostly, it's a dirty little secret or an act of sexual predation that must be kept hidden at all costs.
In Myrrha's case, Ovid shows that she can only consummate her desire by subterfuge. She knows her father doesn't lust after her the way she does for him. Yes, he loves her dearly, just not in that way. Never in that way. The thought never crossed his mind. The wily nurse knows this as well. Deceit is the only way to sate Myrrha's desire. So the nurse concocts her fateful plan to dupe Cinyras into bedding his daughter.
Only in the darkest of nights, where two naked bodies, one man and one woman, blindly meet on a purely biological and instinctual level, only in a space like this can unfiltered libido temporarily erase our moral predisposition and conditioning. This is as close as Myrrha's beasts-do-it-too argument can come to reality. Only in this unsustainably contrived scenario would Cinyras ever make love to his own daughter. Yet so deceived, not only by Myrrha but by his own libido, he did exactly that and immensely enjoyed the carnal fun while it lasted, there in his bed united body to body in the dark with his daughter.
But this was not a sustainable reality. No, it was a bubble of reality doomed to collapse in upon itself. And that's what happened. Cinyras, finally curious to see who his partner was, shined a light on the bed and revealed the situation for what it was: an unforgivable transgression against human sexual morals. They say the truth will set you free. Maybe it does, but not this time. With everything revealed, everything changed, and the erotic wet dream awakened into an endless nightmare for both. The man and woman who had rutted with such primal abandon now became father and daughter again. Now the appropriate familial tenderness was gone forever. Both are aware, and both are ruined for that awareness.
There's no coming back from this.
That's not entirely true. Soon after turning into a tree, Myrrha's son (and brother) Adonis was born. He was hardly the deformed idiot monster we expect incest babies to be. On the contrary, the youth became synonymous with his physical beauty, so that even Venus fell madly in love with him. His untimely death in a hunting accident had the grieving goddess transform his blood into the beautiful red anemone flower as a lasting memorial of her love. Myrrha, as myrrh tree, produced sap that became renowned throughout the ancient world as one of the two main ingredients (frankincense was the other) for incense in rituals honoring the gods. Ovid wants the reader to see this as a sort of redemption, that the gods gave her a second chance to return some beauty back into the world.
At the end of Myrrha's tale, Ovid writes, "Although the emotions she had once felt were lost with her body, she still continues to weep and her warm tears drip from the new tree. Even tears can have honor. The resin distilled from the bark is given the name and fame of myrrh in lasting remembrance" (Ov.X.497-504).
That's a far better fate than Myrrha would find in Dante's Divine Comedy. Dante, who had clearly read Ovid's version of the story, was less forgiving. His imagination condemned Myrrha to spend a bleak eternity on the Eighth Circle of Hell as an insane shade dashing about the pit, biting and tearing apart the other shades.
It's an odd thing to say, but the point scored here for offering some measure of mercy and redemption goes to the pagan Ovid and not to the Christian Dante.
After reading Dante's Inferno, becoming a tree doesn't sound like such a bad fate.
With few exceptions, incest is avoided across almost all societies (Bittles 178). Not only is incest avoided, but disgust and revulsion are normal responses. Those responses, both legal and social, become harsher the closer the relationship is. Father-daughter, mother-son, and sibling incest are normally illegal and the most reviled. Indeed, those reactions are reflected in Ovid's stories about Byblis (sibling incest) and Myrrha (father-daughter).
Elsewhere in Greek mythology, a few other notable examples spring to mind. Most famously is Oedipus, who unwittingly killed his father and married his own mother, with whom he sired four children before discovering the awful truth. There's also the less known story of Periander and his mother Cratea, a sort of inverse version of Myrrha's tale. Here, Cratea dupes her son into sleeping with her by arranging a "dark room" scenario (sound familiar?) where he doesn't know the woman's identity with whom he's been bedding down every night. You know how this goes. Periander showed up one night with a lantern and surprised his lover. Of course, he was angry that his lover was none other than his mother. He went mad and "...fell into habits of savagery, and slaughtered many citizens of Corinth." Meanwhile, his mother, "after long and bitterly bewailing her evil fate, made away with herself" (Parthenius.XVII). The end.
While incest is forbidden in most societies, it still exists universally, if only on the margins. The uncomfortable truth is that incest appears to be a natural, if not normal, part of human sexuality. People do it. True, like me, most are strongly disinclined by nature and nurture from sleeping with family members. Doing so is rightly despised, banned, proscribed, and definitely bad for the genetic inheritance of any offspring. However, it still happens from time to time in probably every society. Incest taboos thus uncomfortably exist universally along with incest. That such deviant behavior occasionally causes tragedy is evident in Ovid's poem. Myrrha knew what she was doing was wrong yet could not control herself.
How often might that be the case, this inner struggle between the culturally and evolutionarily conditioned conscience and the throbbing drive of the libido? I would wager more often than you might think. Ovid understood this too. He rightly condemned her behavior while still humanizing the scared, desperate girl who could not control her passions. He left the reader to breathe a sigh of relief at her final, merciful transformation, rather than vengefully thirsting for her eternal damnation like Dante. It really is an early form of humanism.
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