Incense Use Throughout History in Religion and Ritual


Incense, the word itself seems to conjure up magical scents of swirling smoke. The thought of inhaling those heady scents brings the mind and body to a relaxed transcendental state. A state of mind where creation is brought to life, the doors to imagination are flung open wide, and the world awaits. Those who know the scent will never forget it; whether in a West coast spa, a rooftop gathering of friends, or a far East Temple. It is sacred and a delightfully permanent part of humanity. Its use dates back to the cradle of civilization as a key element of many religious practices and other important ceremonies. Modern scholars cannot place an exact date of when it was first used. There is however, physical evidence of incense being used in burial rites by the ancient Egyptians. Ancient records verify the use in India as far back as 3300 B.C..

From India it spread throughout Asia, and then to the Middle East and into Europe. Traders would make the long journey across the known world with loads of spices, goods, exotic textiles, and incense. We can only assume that it’s use spread quickly, even though there is no surviving documentation. Use in China can be confirmed by records that date before the year 2000 B.C.. The Middle East and surrounding lands adopted incense slowly, over the next few thousand years. Through trade and conquest, incense came to the Roman Empire and then the Christian tribes, where it was documented extensively. The Holy book of Christianity, the Bible, mentions the use of incense more than 150 times.

The use of incense in Japan can be traced back to the 6th Century. Initially it was a luxury item, being an imported item from China. Along with incense, the Chinese were introducing Buddhism to the island nation. The many gardens filled with exotic plants and woods became spiritual places which merged nicely with Buddhism. The royals and aristocrats quickly adopted incense use after experiencing all of its wonders in religious ceremonies. As the demand for exotic pleasures from around the world grew, incense became a staple. Such an immersive sensory pleasure was initially reserved for the upper class. Eventually as availability became common, use spread to the common citizen.

As the sands of time flowed through the hourglass, the influence of incense throughout the world continued to grow. Use spread throughout the rest of Europe, Australia, the Pacific Rim and to the Americas. Today incense is commonly used in just about every nation, with the majority of the use coming from religious practices.

Use in Religion

The use of incense in Islam dates back into antiquity where it was originally used for purifications and other special ceremonies. In ancient times in the practice of Judaism, incense was used in the temple as a regular part of daily services. Modern Judaism still uses it for the Havdalah ritual. In China and other parts of Asia, followers of both Buddhism and Taoism have an intimate relationship with incense. It is constantly burning within the confines of their shrines. Inside, followers wave clouds of smoke in the direction of religious statues as part of prayer rituals. Use in Japan originated with Buddhism but soon spread to other Japanese tradition, including Samurai.

Over 1 billion Indians practice the Hindu religion in addition to millions of others around the world. This group is recognized at the largest user group on earth. For them incense is used as a spiritual cleansing tool, for purification and rituals of renewal. Christianity is the youngest of all major religions on earth, only being in existence for about 2,000 years. The religion came to strength during the time of Rome, with coverts coming from Judaism, Pagan tribes, and Roman citizens. Incense was already a part of that world, so it was a natural addition to the growing faith. However as Christianity evolved, there was s definite split within the church.

About 500 years ago, Protestants (protestors) left the Catholic church citing the greed of the papacy and the false cult of Saints, which were incapable of performing the miracles the church promised. They took very little with them aside from the Bible and the sacrament. Today, the Catholic side of the religion continues to use incense at their Holy Mass. Its primary use is when the priests enter and exit, before any reading of their bible, and to bless the sacrament. The Protestant side rarely uses incense, except the Lutherans, but only on occasion. Many New Age religions in America, Australia, and Europe have adopted its use. Some of the applications are for use as a medium to facilitate meditations, bring a relaxed atmosphere to spiritual healings, plus as a mood enhancer during reiki and other energy work practices.

Many of the modern pagan and neo-pagan religions including Wicca, have integrated incense into their practices, however it only plays a minor role. American pagans instead use smudging to a greater degree. The practice of burning bundles of herbs and grasses for the smoke value is deeply rooted in Native American tradition. White Sage is most often used, but not exclusively.


What Exactly is Incense Made Of ?

Today’s product has a similar make-up to ancient times. We know this because of the meticulous record keepers of ancient China. While doing research, scholars unearthed a very old ancient document which lists a recipe for incense. It was a simple mixture of herbs, flowers, woods and resins. As the known world expanded and commerce was common, more exotic woods and resins were incorporated into the different recipes, however the basic premise remained the same. Simply put, its an aromatic mixture of things found in nature, that when burned produces a strong scent. This mixture is blended into a combustible sticky binding material that can be formed into a particular shape; often powdered wood or charcoal.

With many aromatic woods being endangered and some of the spices and resins of old no longer available in large quantities, modern incense makers often use essential oils in their recipes. Some of the commonly used resins are amber, myrrh and frankincense. Commonly used woods are cinnamon, sandalwood and pine. The choice of herbs can include just about anything that burns with a nice smell. Essential oils of jasmine, sweet rose, and davana can be added to personalize the scent.

Incense Forms

India is the world’s largest producer of incense, in additions to being the largest consumer. There are four major forms of incense; sticks, cones, powder, and coils.

Incense sticks are very simple to make and to use. The most common type is that of a thin bamboo stick coated with an incense paste and allowed to dry. These are available almost anywhere. They are portable but burn away rather quickly. Another type of stick is called a dhoop. They are thicker, shorter and break easily as compared to regular stick incense. They burn longer due to having more combustible material. Agarbatti sticks can be long or short, thin of fat, but what makes them unique is their wood core instead of a bamboo core. There are also culturally or regionally specific types of stick incense. They only differ in recipe, which incorporates locally grown and unique woods, resins and/or herbs. Each one is sold by a specific name that identifies where it was produced. Some parts of the world, such as Japan, produce incense sticks without a stick. They hand roll the paste into a thick rod and allow it to dry.

Powdered incense usually refers to the individual materials before being blended into a paste for further processing. Many aromatic resins are powdered and burnt in their raw form on red hot charcoal discs. A small sprinkle releases a cloud of aromatic smoke which permeates the area quite rapidly. Likewise, several powders can be combined to create unique individualized scents.

Incense coils are made from incense paste with no wood or bamboo support inside of them. Long pieces are rolled and formed into coils for strength and the natural strength the circle shape adds. The process of making coils provides a finished product that will burn for hours and hours. The most common use is in religious practices. Buddhist temples have dozens of coils hanging from the ceiling which are constantly burning, filling the chamber with luxurious smoke.

Cone incense comes in two forms, regular cone and backflow cone. Regular cones are also called dhoop incense. The main and only difference between the two are how they are shaped. Backflow cones have a vertical hole running through their center. Regular cones are solid. Regular cone incense has a longer burn time as compared to sticks, but it still is rather short compared to a coil. Cones are lit and allowed to burn for a minute before being extinguished. They will then slowly smolder, releasing a thin snaking trail of smoke as they do. It might seem thin, but the scent fills a room within a few minutes. Backflow cones are only effective when used with a backflow burner. IN this application, the cone is placed over a hole in the burner. The smoke is heavier than air, so it drops through the cone and into the burner, where it looks like it is flowing downward into an artistically created bowl. The picture below is a good visual aid to understanding this concept. If you like the style, shop for it at Lucky Incense.


In Conclusion

Burning incense is more than just making a room smell good. It relaxes everyone, brings about a tranquil state, and reduces stress. Depending on which scent you’ve chosen, you might find yourself on a creative journey into your own mind. Or perhaps engaged in a deep conversation about ancient lands and faraway places. You’ll find yourself confident, energetic, and at peace while you bask in an exotic sensory experience of scent.

Additional Reading

If you enjoyed this brief look into the history and use of incense, and would like to read more by this author, please click this link to be taken to the home page of this website.

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