For more than five thousand years, people have burned aromatic substances in order to commune with the divine and to infuse their lives with fragrant serenity and sensual pleasure. Incense is the perfume that flowers, herbs, gums and resins exhale when burned in celebration or as an offering to a deity. The word incense derives from the Latin incensum, which means "to set on fire". The word also means "to arouse passion or emotion".
To be immersed in a scent world, even temporarily, is to shift your consciousness and to awaken to the moment more fully. You can burn incense to strengthen your spiritual practice, to ease your troubles in a decadent aromatic bath, to spark creativity, to promote good luck, or to kindle desire. Its sweet smoke can enhance everyday activities, such as doing chores around the house, reading books, or listening to music, lending a mysterious air to a cocktail party or helping to banish mosquitoes at an outdoor barbecue. The heightened sense of awareness that incense inspires can also help us celebrate the major milestones in our lives - the births of children, marriage ceremonies, and memorials for loved ones.
Of the five senses, smell holds the most powerfully direct link to our emotions and memories. A single whiff of a long-forgotten fragrance can instantly provoke a cascade of memories, transporting us back through time to a precise moment and place.
Our reaction to smell is primal and intense because we process olfactory stimuli through the limbic system - the area of the brain responsible for emotion, lust, hunger, memory, and imagination. Unlike sight, touch, and taste, olfactory sensation is perceived in the free-spirited right side of the brain, rather than through the analytical, rational left side. We're hardwired to feel responses to smells before we have a chance to formulate any thoughts about them.
Nearly all of the world's spiritual traditions - from Catholicism to Judaism to Buddhism to Hinduism to Islam to New Age Paganism - incorporate incense in their rituals. Incense is burned as a sacrificial offering during prayer and meditation, and while casting magic spells. During ancient times, incense was more valuable than gold, so to burn it was to sacrifice one's personal wealth for the gods.
Incense deliniates, purifies and sanctifies sacred space. The rising clouds of fragrance carry prayers to heaven. Before modern times, incense was burned in temples and churches - places in which large groups of people gathered - also because herbs and resins possess strong disinfectant and antiseptic properties; thus incense burning was an important sanitary measure before indoor plumbing existed.
The passion for the beauty of incense and belief in it's divine powers spans the globe. The ancient Egyptians (3000 B.C. - AD 600) were entranced with incense, burning it in sacred and medicinal rites, as well as for pleasure. Three times a day, they made offerings of incense to the sun god ,Ra. At sunrise, they greeted him with smouldering resins; at noon, they ignited myrrh for him: and at sunset, they made a final offering of burning Kyphi, a magical blend of spices and herbs.
The Egyptians believed that the gods were fond of delectably sweet odors and that passage to the afterlife could be ensured if the corpse was accompanied by enough fragrance. They embalmed mummies using camphor and myrrh and lined the pharohs' tombs with marble urns filled with aromatic spice mixtures. Ancient tomb robbers would often steal the scented oils, leaving behind ornate containers richly decorated with gold.
Since Vedic times (1200-500 B.C.), practitioners of Ayurvedic holistic medicine in India have prescribed incense burning to treat physical and mental ailments. The sages of ancient India held that incense represented the idea that every human life should be like a delicate flower emitting the fragrance of good words, good deeds, and good thoughts. Even today, the air in India is still redolent with the earthy, sweet smell of sandalwood incense burned daily in religious celebrations.
In Europe, incense was an integral element of temple rites and civic celebrations. The early Greeks burned cedar, juniper, and myrrh to mask the burning flesh during animal sacrifices to the gods. The priestess at Delphi inhaled smoldering sulfuric mineral and bay laurel leaf fumes to induce her prophetic trance.
According to the authors of the bible: gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh were the three gifts the Wise Men (also called The Three Kings or Magi) brought from the East to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:11). Frankincense and Myrrh are aromatic resins extracted from rare trees. Frankincense, an almost white resin, was one of the most prized and costly substances in the ancient world, worth more than its weight in gold. It was used in medicines and incense (Exodus 30:34). Myrrh, a dark resin, was widely used in perfumes, incense and embalming. Some biblical scholars speculate that the kings may have been carrying fragrant, golden-colored ambergis instead of actual gold.
The Roman emperor Nero (A.D. 100) who reportedly perfumed his palace fountains and slept on a bed of rose petals, is said to have spent the equivalent of $100,000 to scent just one party with a staggering quantity of incense. Records show that during this era Rome imported some 2,800 tons of frankincense and 550 tons of myrrh per year. The Romans in fact, were so taken with incense that they called their loved ones "my myrrh" and "my cinnamon", in the way we would use the endearments "cupcake" or "sweetie".
The world's voracious appetite for fragrance made the rulers of the Arabian kingdom extremely wealthy during this era. Their rocky desert was the key source of frankincense, myrrh, and aloeswood. Following the twenty-four-hundred-mile-long Incense Trail, which stretched from what is now southern Oman through Yemen and Saudi Arabia to Petra, a port in Jordan, caravans of as many as three thousand camels exported the precious resins by the ton. Their journey intersected with the Silk Route, thus extending incense trade to Europe and Asia.
In addition to enjoying the profits from their exports, the Arabs reveled in their region's bounty of fragrant delights. The Islamic prophet Muhammad said the three things he loved most in this world were prayers, women, and pleasant fragrances. To this day, Yemeni women burn incense to perfume their clothing with a seductive medley of musk, aloeswood, sandalwood, clove, and rose.
The Japanese have a venerable tradition of taking the aesthetics of incense appreciation to exquisite heights. Before modern times, members of the court practiced the refined art of the Kodo incense ceremony, as well as the art of flower arranging and the tea ceremony. Men and women scented their kimonos, their rooms, and their writing paper with signature blends of incense. Up until the mid-1900s, geishas used incense clocks to track their services, billing callers according to how many incense sticks burned during their visit. It is traditional in Japan to name especially large pieces of precious aloeswood and treat them as state treasures and family heirlooms. Some of these prized pieces of incense are more than 1500 years old, and valued at over a million dollars.
Native Americans have long infused traditional ceremonies with the pungent smoke of sage, tobacco, and sweet grass. Since pre-Hispanic times, indigenous peoples in Latin America have smoldered copal resin, believing they can see their astral deities in the billowing clouds of smoke. The Mayans of Mexico believe that when copal is burned, it transforms into otherworldly tortillas for the deities to eat. Indigenous shamans in latin America make extensive use of herbs and resins, interpreting omens in patterns of smoke, and determining the root of a person's fear by tossing burning copal into water - once cooled, the underside of the resin is thought to reveal a picture of what caused the fright.
The magic of incense lies in the belief that when natural substances burn, the power stored in the plant materials is released. In fact, anyone with a sense of smell can experience these sensual aromas. The consciousness altering effects are immediately self-evident and unmistakably profound.