By Nora Brunner
Originally published in ASCP's Skin Deep, February/March 2007.
Just as our gathering in a circle around a fire has been imprinted on our brains from ancient times, the fragrances of burning bark, wood, flowers, and herbs—perhaps first enjoyed in front of that same fire—have left a deep impression on our collective psyche.
Tantalizing our sense of smell with incense can open a gateway to powerful emotional responses. The secret lies within our limbic brains, the nerve clearinghouse that processes and associates aromas and deep emotions.
Incense lore is largely an oral tradition, but there are references to its use since the beginning of recorded history. First noted in China and Egypt, incense use has appeared in many cultures and religious traditions. Down through millennia, the fragrances of burnt natural substances have been used for pleasure and in sacred rituals evoking reverence, prayer, and longing for communion with a greater power.
“Where there is incense smoke, there is the fire of faith and prayers,” says Gina Hyams, author of Incense: Rituals, Mystery, Lore. Smoke curling toward the skies is often seen as a linking of heaven and earth, and is believed by many to be the carrier of prayers to God.
You may have heard of the Silk Road, a trading route that once connected China with the Mediterranean. But did you know caravans of merchants and their camels also traversed a very profitable Incense Road that spanned nearly twenty-five hundred miles across the Arabian world? King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba made fortunes on the incense trade through their territories.
Over time, the burning of incense has taken on many meanings and purposes—purification, healing, sending prayers heavenward, warding off negativity, and serving as a support to meditation and relaxation.
Egyptians used the rising smoke at death to spirit souls of the deceased upward. The three kings of the Orient thought frankincense and myrrh suitable gifts for the newborn Christ. Incense today is a frequent feature in Eastern Orthodox and Catholic worship. Buddhists and Hindus use it liberally in ceremonies and on sacred ground. Incense is an integral part of Native American medicine wheel gatherings, vision quests, and sweat lodges, where it is thought to restore balance to the environment, and heal.
Incense comes in many forms, such as sticks, cones, coils, spirals, braided ropes, granules, and powder. It can be burned indirectly, such as when it’s a coating on a stick that is set afire and left to smolder. Or it can be burned in direct contact with ashes or hot surfaces. Incense is usually a blend of a combustible substance with tree sap, gums, resins, raw woods, dried herbs, seeds, flowers, roots, pastes, powders, and oils. There are endless blends of substances and many means to shape them into fire-ready forms. When the incense is a cheaper, mass-produced form, it often has synthetic substances added to it or may contain no natural substances at all. Its hallmark is that it makes thick black smoke and overly sweet smells that can be irritating. This is a case where natural is definitely better.
Fortunately, the good stuff is well within reach of the average consumer and there is something for everyone. Whether we burn our sandalwood in front of a campfire or on a stick at home, we are communing directly with our ancient selves in the language of scent.