The Legend of the Myrrh Tree


(Balsamodendron myrrah)
Who is this that cometh out of the
wilderness like pillars of smoke,
perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant?
Behold his bed, which is Solomon’s.
The Song of Songs 3:6-7

“The legend of these incense-bearing trees”
Is told by Ovid in the episode
Of Myrrha, in his Metamorphoses.
Young, ardent Myrrha, princess of the blood,

On whom the vengeful Aphrodite cast
Madness, a frenzy of unnatural love;
Poor child, it overmastered her at last.
No matter how she agonised and strove

With shame and dread against that gross desire
For union with her father and her king;
The goddess only added to her fire.
Her nurse in darkness so arranged the thing

That when she crept into her father’s bed
Trembling for love and trembling even more
With horror at her act, so Ovid said,
The ancient nurse kept watch outside the door.

Night after night for ecstasy she wept;
By day she wept for triumph, for guilt, for fear.
The King rejoiced, not knowing with whom he slept,
Till the lamp kindled made his shame too clear.

In the soft glow of that accusing light
She woke and shrieked to see him draw his sword
And fled stark-naked out into the night.
“Full of her father” (it is Ovid’s word),

And wandering through a friendless world and wide,
Broken and big with child and near her time,
In her despair on all the gods she cried —
If any god would help in such a crime.

Yet some god listened to her misery,
Disdaining man-made law and, pitying her
Because she loved much, changed her to a tree
From which her tears still ooze as fragrant myrrh.

Sweet myrrh, which grows in the Sabaean waste
Where Myrrha found surcease is none the less
Though heavenly fragrant, bitter to the taste,
And its Arabian name means “bitterness”.

Its perfume in the ancient east was said
As smoke of incense garnered from this tree,
To summon back the spirits of the dead
And give men union with divinity.

In unguents it enhanced the glowing bride
And with miraculous vigor nerved the groom;
And, mixed with holy nard, for those who died,
Kept fresh their corpses even in the tomb.

Myrrh was the gift the Queen of Saba brought
Which perfumed all the house of Solomon
That night when on her body he begot
The Lion of Judah, Menelik, their son.

Myrrh was the gift the magi brought the child
Whose virgin mother Solomon’s god had wed
Quickening her womb; her flesh left undefiled
Brought no betrayal of the marriage-bed.

That child became a god and preached new laws
Of love, but set the godly all astir
Saying of the wanton Magdalene, “Because
She loved much, much is now forgiven her”,

So that his enemies, thinking him a man,
To trap him and then nail him to the tree,
Once brought before him, in their subtle plan
A woman taken in adultery;

“Ay, in the very act, master,” they said,
Brandishing cruel stones; “what must we do?
Shall we, as Moses bade us, stone her dead?
Preacher of love and mercy, what say you?”

He stooped and with his finger in the dust
Wrote something in a script to them unknown,
Then, rising said: “The laws he made are just:
Let him who has not sinned first cast his stone!”

And bent again to his mysterious script,
Ignoring their silence which went on and on,
Ignoring their trembling victim, bound and stripped.
When he looked up the lynching crowd had gone;

For one by one, each conscious of his sin,
Troubled in heart, faltered and crept away
And left the woman unharmed. This much is in
The gospel of St John. It does not say

What an old legend adds, not known before:
That when Christ bade her go and said to her,
“Neither do I condemn you; sin no more!”
The air was heavy with the smell of myrrh.

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