Thursday, June 4, 2009

History of Incense and Methods of Use

Mankind has used incense, in its earliest forms, since the dawn of human history. With the discovery of fire, our ancestors would have realized that most materials give off a unique and sometimes powerful aroma when burnt. The difference between the smell of a handful of Parsley and that of a Pine tree branch is greatly emphasized when each is burnt. Then as now, the air is quickly filled with intoxicating aromas simply by throwing some dried leaves, spices or twigs into a fire. There is historic evidence in most cultures that our ancestors used incense burning for sacred and healing purposes. From ancient times people recognized that aromas produced by burning materials could heighten the senses, both sight and smell. When early man gathered around his fire, the smell of aromatic woods, herbs and leaves carried by heaven-wards spirals of smoke was a rare sensory pleasure. From this discovery it was no doubt a short step to dedicating fragrant products to the Gods, by adding them to a fire, which would also carry the good wishes and prayers of men upwards on the heat of the flames. Other benefits ascribed to the burning of incense included the purification of an area, to change a mood (to facilitate meditation or religious practices) and to cleanse and disinfect living spaces, especially after pollution caused by, for instance, death or illness. Several thousands of years before the advent of Christianity, the plants, herbs and spices that produced the best incense were traded as highly desirable commodities. For many years Frankincense from the Arabian peninsula was actually a more valuable currency than gold or silver. In almost every religion, aromatic oils, leaves and powders were considered a gift from the Gods, symbolic of divine grace. Frankincense was used in vast quantities by the ancient Egyptians, Persians and Assyrians, and via them, by the Romans, who would have learned of its use when coming into contact with eastern nations. The significance of the belief that the three wise men brought Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh to the infant Jesus was both the princely nature of the gifts and their symbolic significance. Frankincense was a costly gift literally "fit for a king," while Bitter Myrrh (which is said to seal the auric field) referred to the bittersweet fate awaiting the messiah. The trade in Frankincense flourished for centuries, particularly in the Arabian peninsula area of Oman, and its use can be traced back to the reign of the Queen of Sheba, who reigned over the Hadramut Kingdom which included Oman. The Frankincense trade flourished for fifteen hundred years, peaking at the height of the Roman Empire. The trade only declined due to reduced demand after the fall of the Roman Empire and also because of the exorbitant taxes levied along the strictly controlled trade routes. The idea of purification through smoke is certainly not the sole preserve of the world to the east of the Atlantic. The Native North Americans have also burned herbal smoke mixtures in ceremonial cleansing and healing rituals for thousands of years. Smudging (the common name given to the sacred smoke bowl blessing) has been a part of Native American tradition since ancient times. As with its Eastern counterparts, the "smudging" or burning of herbs and resins was and continues to be a practice held literally sacred by many traditional cultures. Smudging takes many forms; herbs are either tied into bundles called "smudge sticks," or the longer, tendril like herbs may be braided into "ropes." Smudging calls on the spirits of sacred plants to drive away negative energies and restore balance. The most popular herbs and plants for smudging include Cedar, Sage, Sweetgrass and Tobacco. Each of these plants is imbued with a unique quality and specific energy and as such are known as "Sacred Plant Helpers." Their smoke is ceremonially fanned through the energy field (aura) to cleanse negative energies, heal, bless and attract positive forces. Smudging continues to this day as an integral part of Native American purification rituals. All spaces and the tools used for healings must be smudged, and smudging is an integral part of other important ceremonies such as medicine wheel gatherings, the vision quest and sweat lodge. The use of incense in organized religion continues as a relevant and important aspect of several confirmed religions, being used to prepare the congregation for prayer and ritual. In the Roman Catholic and Eastern churches, incense is a sacramental, that is, "an action or object of ecclesiastical origin that serves to express or increase devotion". The Roman Catholic Church has always recognized the value of rites and ceremonial observances, not only for increasing the solemnity of her services, but for arousing a spirit of devotion in those who minister at them and those who attend them. For a period the use of incense was discontinued in the Western Church because of its close association with pagan worship, but it has always been used in the Eastern Church. The incense used today is powder or grains of resin or vegetable gums or other such substances which, when burned, give off a sweet smelling smoke. It is interesting to note that the Roman Catholic church now shares a devotion to rituals involving incense with the increasing number of practicing pagans and wiccans, the very groups it sought to dissociate itself from. The mystical meanings ascribed to incense by the church hardly differs from those of our ancestors. By its burning, incense symbolizes the zeal of the faithful, its sweet fragrance echoes the "odor of sanctity" believed to be exuded by saints and martyrs, and its rising smoke symbolizes the ascent of prayers to heaven. Also, incense creates a cloud, which is another symbol for godliness. Incense has quite rightly been called the forefather of modern Aromatherapy, and its use as the earliest form of healing based on scent is undisputed. Today, there has been resurgence in the use of essential oils and the burning of incense as tools to employ the power of Aromatherapy, which is now recognized as being able, via the stimulation of the olfactory nerves, to produce physical, emotional and psychological effects independent of the thinking process. As we smell scents, whether it be incense, fresh paint or sausage and mash, our mind is busy working on a subconscious level, deciding whether we like it and determining whether we recognize it. These responses are created in the limbic system, or more accurately, the information is sent via the nerves to the olfactory epithelium, which is part of the limbic system in the brain. Data is then transmitted to the conscious parts of the brain. The limbic system is the oldest and most primitive section of the brain. It stores information about every scent ever smelled, and provides responses and reactions to various stimuli. It is considered the seat of memory, and as such is a powerful mood affecter. All smell is molecular. In other words, when we smell a scent, we are registering a physical molecule that disconnects itself from its carrier and drifts in the air, arriving through the nose to the mucous membrane which has millions of odor-receptor cells and cilia to catch and identify scent molecules in the air. Unlike our other four senses, the nerve system for smell is directly exposed to its source of stimulation. This explains the immediate, unthinking effect of scents on the nervous system. Scent can cause an instant and overwhelming reaction, either pleasant or unpleasant, in a way that no other sensation can. In addition, our ability to learn and our capacity for sympathy are also located in the limbic system, hence the often close link that feelings of sympathy and antipathy often have with smells. The limbic system is also responsible for creativity, inspiration, and all non-thinking, automatic life processes such as heartbeat, hormone regulation and respiration. Scent can affect all of of these powerful bodily processes. The use of incense, and of essential oils in modern Aromatherapy, has validated the belief held by our ancient forefathers. Many of the reactions and decisions we make are intrinsically linked to our sense of smell, and many areas of our health and relaxation can be positively affected by smell, and by definition, through Aromatherapy. Incense can help to: - cleanse the atmosphere - aid calm and reduce anxiety, stress, and fear - revitalize, stimulate, and renew energy - alleviate insomnia - prepare the mind and body for prayer, meditation and contemplation - accelerate healing. Follow the example of the ancients, and allow the fragrant smoke from incense to cleanse your living space, relax your body, calm your mind, create a spiritual atmosphere and heighten your awareness.
Incense Burners: An incense burner can be as simple as an old can or as elaborate as an ornate temple burner. Some incense users are content to own one or two simple burners. Others have giant collections of burners from around the world. It's important to buy the right burner for the type of incense that you are using, especially for safety. Cones and CylindersChoosing a good cone burner is important. While nearly anything can catch the ash from a stick, a cone or a spaghetti stick will burn completely. That means anything you use as a burner for cones, cylinders, or spaghetti sticks has to be able to withstand the heat. Never burn cones on wood. The most common form of cone burner is the small brass burner. It is a raised brass "bowl" with a lid. Brass burners of this style are wonderfully functional and will last forever if you buy a good one and take care of it. Don't buy a burner that's too small. If you only see one size at a store, then you probably need to find a different store. A good brass burner should have a mouth at least an inch and a half across (two to three inches is best). If you can't put three fingers in the mouth at once, it's too small. It is best to light cones and then put them in the burner. If the mouth is too small you'll burn your fingers. Ideally, the walls of the "dish" should be at least one inch tall. This is to make sure the cones can't fall out.A note about lids. I've heard many complaints about cone burners that "put the cone out" when the lid is put on. If you buy a larger burner that is properly ventilated, cones will burn with the lid on. You'll have to clean the lid frequently to keep oils and resins from ruining the finish if that's important to you. Over time, the lid will take on a fragrance all its own. That scent will be released when the lid is heated, so it will become a part of any incense you burn. Some burners can become nicely "seasoned" in this way over time. If your incense burner extinguishes your cones, you need to buy a larger one. It's a very good idea to put a small amount of sand or ash at the bottom of cone burners. This will improve the air flow under the cone (to help make the entire cone burn) and help to protect your burner. You should replace sand after every four or five uses. If you use ash it can be sifted and re-used indefinitely. Never use a brass burner on a wooden surface. Brass conducts heat pretty well, and even raised burners can burn the wood they sit on. A ceramic tile or ashtray works fine. For the serious burner of cones, I recommend soapstone burners. Most forms of burner and ash catcher are available in soapstone and they are the best for cone burning. You'll usually pay a little more for the soapstone, but it is well worth a few cents. Most soap-stone cone burners can be used on a wooden surface (don't chance it with a new burner, use it on tile or in an ash tray the first time and see how hot it gets before using it on wood). Ash or sand in the bottom is still an excellent idea. Loose Incense: You basically need a tiny charcoal grill. Often they are made of brass. They can be mere overgrown cone burners. They are large brass bowls (some with lids). The mouth of your burner should be at least three and a half inches across (four to five is better). You can either put sand or ash in the bottom or use a piece of metal screen that is bent around the edges to let it stand an inch or so off the bed of sand. That way you can scrape ashes from the top of your charcoal into the bottom before adding new items to burn. Put one or two charcoal bricks (only side by side, never stacked) in your burner on top of the wire mesh or sand. Light the edges of the bricks with a match or barbecue lighter (bamboo charcoal, which is preferred, may require an extra effort to light) and you're ready to go. Be sure not to touch the sides of the censer when in use. It is very hot! Never use a censer on wood. Sticks (with Bamboo Rods): The most common stick holder is known as a "boat." These are long, flat wooden pieces that curve at one end. There is a small hole in the raised end and the uncoated end of the bamboo stick is inserted through the hole. This is the most basic form of ash catcher. You'll find these virtually anywhere that sells incense. They are also made of bone, ceramic, glass, and stone. Some have an enclosed box beneath the curved piece. That is supposed to be a storage area for unburned sticks, but I wouldn't keep incense in a wooden box unless the sticks were bagged in plastic or similarly sealed. Many of these catchers are inlaid with brass or hand painted. There is another category of stick holders that I call "trees." These holders are usually wooden or stone centerpieces with a series of holes drilled into the top. They will hold several sticks at once and hold the sticks nearly straight up and down. They require less space and hold more incense than boats, so they are a good investment. Sticks (not spaghetti sticks, however) can also be inserted into the ground. Push the uncoated end of the bamboo into dry ground, clear away any combustible materials from underneath the stick, and light it up. Take care not to burn incense outdoors if the wind is strong as it might blow sparks off the end that could start a fire. Also keep burning incense away from paths where anyone might walk next to them. Spaghetti Sticks: Spaghetti sticks, cylinders, and cones burn completely so they can't be used in wooden incense boats. They are usually safe to use in soapstone or metal boats. The best way to burn spaghetti sticks is in a censer. Light one end and insert the other end into the ash far enough to allow the stick to stand straight. This type of incense and burner together is usually the least messy of any combination. Combination Burners: Some manufacturers make burners that can handle several types of incense. Usually they are made from soapstone or are ceramic. Most are large cone-burning dishes with special lids or holes drilled in the bottom for sticks. Cylinders and even loose incense can be burned in ones with a large enough mouth. Spaghetti sticks can also be used in them. Sand or ash is also a great idea in the bottom of your combination burner, as long as it doesn't block any of the holes or other special features. Censers: The censer is the best type of burner for anyone serious about incense and is the typical incense burner used in rituals. It's also the ultimate type of combination burner. A censer is a dish, bowl, ashtray, or similar object filled with a nonflammable substance, most often sand or ash but gravel, decorative rock, etc., can also be used. Sticks, cylinders, and spaghetti sticks can be inserted into the sand or ash. Cones, coils, and charcoal for loose incense can be burned on the surface of the ash (coils will usually put themselves out when burned on the surface of sand). They can also be used for kodo-style or makko burning. A good censer will handle all of your incense burner needs. Lighting Incense: To light stick, cone, or cylinder incense, hold a lit match or, better yet, a butane lighter, to the tapered or coated end of the incense (or either end of a spaghetti stick or cylinder). Hold the flame there for ten seconds (more for some) then take the flame away. If everything is perfect, the incense will continue to flame for a second or two and then the flame will go out and the end will continue to glow and slowly burn. Some incense will not go out on its own. If it flames for more than twenty seconds, blow the flame out. The smell you get just after the flame goes out is not necessarily the way the incense really smells. Incense is made up of materials that will burn at different rates while flaming, so all you smell in that first few seconds are the materials that didn't vanish in the flame. Give it twenty or thirty seconds, then the true scent will start to come through. When it comes to dipped incense (as most commercial incense is), you might even notice that long after the incense is lit there are long wisps of black smoke in the air. If you reach up and touch one you'll discover that it's not smoke at all. It is actually a long chain of oil molecules. They use such high quantities of synthetic oil that it doesn't all burn, so these chains of oil are also spewed into the air. One of the most popular brands of incense in the United States is notorious for doing this. That's one of the reasons I recommend sticking with natural incense instead of that synthetic stuff. Remember, your incense should give off a pale white smoke, that's the sign of good combustion. If your incense gives off black smoke, that means that it's not burning completely. As the incense is made, they may roll cones (or other shapes) that won't burn. This is also a problem with commercial cones, both rolled and dipped. I wanted to mention a clever little trick when you encounter this problem. Try burning the cone upside down. Try it—it really works. Hazards: There are a number of factors you need to keep in mind when it comes to safety. First is fire safety. Since incense must be burned you should always be conscious of where it is and what it might come into contact with. Here are some important fire safety guidelines. 1. Make certain that no part of burning incense comes into contact with wood or other flammable materials. 2. Never burn incense inside cupboards or with anything hanging above the burning incense. The rising heat from the incense (along with the smoke) can cause discolorations and is potentially a fire hazard. If you want to use incense smoke to scent clothing, hang it at least eighteen inches above the burning incense. 3. Incense burners can heat up. Even soapstone burners get hot. Always be careful where you place the burner. A hot burner can damage or discolor wooden surfaces. They can also burn you if you try to move them while they are in use unless they have a chain or a handle. Never leave burning incense unattended. If you have to leave while your incense is still burning, put it out. If you have to, you can put it out under water. A better method, if you use a censer, is to turn the incense upside down and bury the burning end in the sand or ash. That will put it out but still allow you to relight it at some future time. To put out a coil of incense you can break off the glowing tip and discard it in water. 5. Although this seems obvious to say, burning incense is hot. Just grazing the glowing tip of burning incense can cause a significant burn on skin and clothing. It really smarts! 6. Watch burning incense and make certain the ash is dropping where it should. If the ash is falling outside its container you might need to reposition it or use a different burner. It's a very good idea to contain the ash. It can discolor furniture and might even be hot enough to be a fire hazard itself. 7. Remember that the Element of Fire is powerful and deserves your reverence. Do not be careless with burning incense or charcoal out of respect for the power of Fire. Another important consideration with incense and safety is the material that you burn. Burning loose incense over charcoal may pose a hazard according to some experts. I personally have never noticed a problem, but some have suggested that burning charcoal in a well-insulated, poorly ventilated, or enclosed environment may cause dangerous levels of carbon monoxide to collect. This is especially true when you are using the "self-lighting" type of charcoal or incense that contains saltpeter, but even the finest charcoal might have this effect. As I said, I've never encountered a problem myself but it's best to be careful. You can buy one very good incense burner and it will last your entire life. Or, if you prefer, you can collect them and own hundreds. Just keep in mind which type of incense can be used in which type of burners and where to place them for safety. If used with care, incense is quite safe and amazingly pleasant. My favorite Incenses are any of the Nag Champa ones (I get them at and the finest incense I have ever found is from the The Holy Transfiguration Monestary (at Its located at 278 Warren Street Brookline, MA. 02445-5927. Enjoy!