Incense is aromatic biotic material which releases fragrant smoke when burned. The term refers to the material itself, rather than to the aroma that it produces. It is composed of aromatic plant materials, often combined with essential oils. Incense is used for a variety of purposes, including the ceremonies of all the main religions, to overcome bad smells, repel insects, spirituality, aromatherapy, meditation, and for simple pleasure.
While the burning of incense, and the use of sacred fires that put off smoke, is found in many cultures worldwide, smudging with sage or other herbs sacred to Indigenous people is a different and culturally-specific practice. History tells us that Incense has been used as a sacrifice to both Goddesses and Gods, as a Smudge to help drive away evil spirits, and as a tool to draw in good luck, love and wealth. But many modern practices don't see a difference anymore.
The word incense comes from Latin for incendere "to burn". The first recorded use of incense was by the Egyptians during the Fifth Dynasty, 2345 BC. Combustible bouquets were used by the Ancient Egyptians, who employed incense within both pragmatic and mystical capacities. Incense was burnt to counteract or obscure malodorous products of human habitation, but was widely perceived to also deter malevolent demons and appease the Gods with its pleasant aroma.
Ancient China began the use of incense in the religious sense, namely for worship. For over two thousand years, the Chinese have used incense in religious ceremonies, ancestor veneration, Traditional Chinese medicine, and daily life. Agarwood and sandalwood are the two most important ingredients in Chinese incense.
Along with the introduction of Buddhism in China came calibrated incense sticks and incense clocks. The poet Yu Jianwu (487-551) first recorded them: "By burning incense we know the o'clock of the night, With graduated candles we confirm the tally of the watches." The use of these incense timekeeping devices spread from Buddhist monasteries into Chinese secular society.
Incense is also often used in Neopagan rituals to represent the element of air, although more modern approaches to incense magic demonstrate that incense actually represents all of the elements. This is attributed to the fact that incense smoke wafts through the air, is created through the use of fire, the incense materials are grown from the earth, and combustible incense is formed using water. Incenses of a wide range of fragrances are also used in spell and ritual for different purposes.
Generally speaking, Neopagans and Wiccans use incense for two basic purposes in modern rituals. First, incense is believed to create a magical atmosphere that is appropriate for the invocation (or inviting) of deities and spirits often present around the Pagan altar. Second, burning the incense is believed to release the large amount of energy stored within natural incense so that it can be used for magical purposes.
Indirect-burning incense or non-combustible incense, is a combination of aromatic ingredients that are not prepared in any particular way. Ninety-five percent of the incense used in magic is the noncombustible, raw or granular type. The use of this class of incense requires a separate heat source since it does not generally kindle a fire capable of burning itself and may not ignite at all under normal conditions. The heat is traditionally provided by charcoal or glowing embers. This incense can vary in the duration of its burning with the texture of the material. Finer ingredients tend to burn more rapidly, while coarsely ground or whole chunks may be consumed very gradually as they have less total surface area.
In the West, the best known incense materials of this type are frankincense and myrrh, likely due to their numerous mentions in the Christian Bible. Within the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, raw frankincense is ground into a fine powder and then mixed with various sweet-smelling essential oils.
Direct-burning incense also called combustible incense, is lit directly by a flame. The glowing ember on the incense will continue to smolder and burn away the rest of the incense without continued application of heat or flame from an outside source. Direct-burning incense is either extruded, pressed into forms, or coated onto a supporting material. This class of incense is made from a moldable substrate of fragrant finely ground (or liquid) incense materials and odorless binder. The composition must be adjusted to provide fragrance in the proper concentration and to ensure even burning.
One example is the stick incense that has a supporting core of bamboo. Higher quality varieties of this form have fragrant sandalwood cores. The core is coated by a thick layer of incense material that burns away with the core. This type of incense is commonly produced in India and China. When used for worship in Chinese folk religion, cored incensed sticks are sometimes known as "joss sticks".
A reed diffuser is form of incense that uses no heat. It comes in three parts: a bottle/container, scented essential incense oil, and bamboo reeds. The incense oil is placed into the container and bamboo reeds are then put into the same container. This is done to absorb some of the incense oil, as well as to help carry its scent and essence out of the container and into the surrounding air. Reeds typically have tiny tube openings that run the entire length of the stick. Oil is absorbed by the reed sticks and carried along the entire reed. These are do-it-yourself incense sticks that do not burn and look almost identical to typical incense sticks.
The sense of smell is one of the most primal of senses. It stirs the deep-seated emotions that lie forgotten in the body. And since the most primal of emotions is the desire for union and the Divine, scent can be influential in spiritual pursuits. You can make your own quite easily, using a blend of herbs, flowers, wood bark, resins, and berries. Most of these are items you can grow yourself, find in the woods, or purchase inexpensively:
- Basil is burned to exorcise and protect against evil entities such as demons and unfriendly ghosts, and to attract fidelity, love, good luck, sympathy, and wealth. This is also an excellent incense to use when performing love divinations.
- Bay is burned to facilitate the psychic powers, and to induce prophetic dream-visions.
- Benzoin is burned for purification, astral projection, clears negative energy, emotional balance, eases sadness, depression, weariness, grief, anger, anxiety and to attract prosperity.
- Cedar is burned for purification, to stimulate or strengthen the psychic powers, attract love, prevent nightmares, and heal various ailments, including head colds.
- Cinnamon is for luck, love and prosperity.
- Copal is burned for purification and to attract love. With the help of incense charcoals, you can release the intense fragrance of these fine resin granules.
- Frankincense is an ancient and holy incense that comes down to us from the spiritual rites of the Jewish peoples. It is burned on charcoal and has become the preeminent incense for spiritual worship and work. It can also be blended with other incenses and herbs in almost any rite to help invigorate and empower the work.
Juniper is for safety, protection, love and affection. In spiritual practices, Juniper berries can also be found in attracting good and healthy energies, particularly where you are seeking love and protection. Juniper Berries can be burned or carried to enhance psychic powers.
- Lavender in spiritual practices the lavender flowers seek love and healing, as well as inner calm or a peace of mind. With these properties it became a favored component in spells seeking money, protection, purification, or contact with good spirits. Use lavender in love spells and sachets. Scatter about the home to maintain peacefulness. It is also added to purification baths.
- Myrrh is also a resin and as such must be burned on charcoal. It shares the same rich history as Frankincense, and the two are often burned together for healing and purification. Its nature by itself is one that helps create peaceful, healing, relaxing, and protective environments and also can help stimulate sensual love.
- Pine needles or resin pitch is burned for purification and to banish negative energies, exorcise evil supernatural entities and attract money.
Rose petals is used for love magic, and to return calm energies to the home. Buds and Petals are also used for psychic powers, healing, divination, luck, Protection. Petals are used in healing incense and sachets, and burned to provide a restful night's sleep.
- Rosemary is burned to purify, aid in healing, prevent nightmares, preserve youthfulness, dispel depression, attract fairy folk, and promote restful sleep and pleasant dreams.
- Sandalwood is burned to exorcise demons and evil ghosts, conjure beneficial spirits, and promote spiritual awareness. Sandalwood incense is also used by many Witches for protection, astral projection, healing rituals and in wish-magick.
- Sweet grass comes to us from Native American traditions and it possesses a unique scent unlike anything else. It is used as a sacred offering for blessing, consecration, and funerary rites. It is found in long braided lengths and is intended to be lit and burned as a smudge, which, depending on your magical working, may take several days.
- Thyme is burned for the purification of magical spaces prior to rituals, to aid in healing, and to attract good health.
- White sage is offered in the form of smudge bundles. It is a traditional herbal incense used for cleansings, purifications, and protection work among some Native Americans nations, and as such it has become very popular for the same uses with Magical and Spiritual workers from many different traditions.
Before using scent in public or group settings, check to make sure all participants are comfortable with the fragrance. Many people are allergic, and that can ruin not only their day (or health), but the whole ritual. Also do not leave lit coals or other flame items alone.