Incense is the most recognizable form of olfactory communication in the world. Coming from the Latin word incendere, meaning “to burn,” incense emits a aromatic smoke that activates the senses and immediately alters the mood of those that smell it. It is an ancient treasure still revered today as having potent physical, psychological and spiritual significance. It has been prized for religious purposes and for the simple enjoyment of the senses, but the uses of incense varies drastically according to the culture and person using it. Fragrance, aromatherapy, ceremony, aesthetic, purification, prayer, meditation, insect repellant and even time clocks are some of the ways that incense is used.
The history dates back beyond antiquity. Since the discovery of fire, early man took quick notice to the powerfully pleasant aromas that arose from the different woods and leaves when burnt. Many plants produced unique odors and, naturally, man collected and harnessed these raw materials for intentional use.
Historic evidence suggests that incense was mainly employed for healing and religious rites. Since smoke rises to the sky, it would appease the gods and carry prayers to the heavens. Aromatic oils, herbs and spices were considered gifts from the divine, and practically every culture that used incense considered it sacred. Incense purifies an area and influences the mood for meditation or other religious practices. It has also been used to disinfect an area of the stench of illness and death.
The ancient Chinese are credited with the first recorded use of incense around 2000 BCE for ceremonial worship, but evidence from prehistoric tombs suggests that ancient Egypt had been using incense to satisfy their gods a thousand years prior. The ancient Hindu texts of India, the Vedas, indicate that the use of incense may be even older, dating back to 3500 BCE. Nevertheless, many more ancient civilizations, including Assyria, Babylon and Persia, had been using incense conjunctively and for similar reasons.
Trade routes flourished for centuries in the Middle East due to the abundance of native gums and resins such as frankincense and myrrh. Many of these aromatics were highly desirable and very expensive, and some were even considered more valuable than gold. The trade reached its peak when the Incense Route from the Arabian peninsula and India reached the Greeks and Romans. Eastern Christian churches adopted incense for purification ritual and prayer and the Roman Catholic Church soon followed suit. The incense business into Europe waned soon after the fall of Rome.
India was the first to create a uniform and codified system of incense-making. They categorized incense in five classes: Fruit, water, fire, earth and air. Indian Hindu and Buddhist culture used incense for its scent-related medicinal properties, and incense-making was almost exclusively done by monks. Incense and aromatherapy are intrinsically linked to the ancient Indian healing science of Ayurveda. Indian Buddhists introduced this form of incense-making to China around 200 CE.
In China, incense-making became an esteemed art form along with tea making and calligraphy. The Song Dynasty erected numerous rooms and buildings specifically for incense ceremonies. Incense was even used as simple chronological devices in the Buddhist temples; they were essentially clocks designed to burn and mark a certain time period.
When incense was introduced to Japan by Korean Buddhists in the 6th century, it served to entertain the aristocracy. For the samurai in the 14th century, incense was kept around his head and helmet to achieve impeccability in battle. Only in the 15th and 16th century did the upper and middle classes gain access to incense.
Native North Americans also used incense and still practice a special kind of rite, called smudging. Smudging is a purification ritual called the “sacred smoke bowl blessing.” It is an integral part of life that is done before every healing, public gathering, powwow and sweat lodge. Found in the smoke of the plant is the “sacred plant helper” that drives away negative energy, heals, blesses and restores balance. Common plants for smudging are Cedar, sage, sweet grass and tobacco.
Incense has as many styles as there are cultures making it. Different combinations of botanical materials are used from select aromatic plants, like fruits, stems, branches, leaves, bark, root, gums and resins are all applicable for making incense. Some herbs commonly used are sandalwood, agar wood, Makko powder, cedar wood, Sumatra Benzoin, guggul, Tolu balsam and star anise. Indian incense-makers will even add ginger and turmeric to some compounds. Essential oils can be combined to the mixture to create a stronger aroma.
There are essentially two types of incense: Direct-burning and indirect-burning. Direct-burning incense is also called “combustible incense” and is lit by flame. This type is made with an ignitable base that also binds the mixture together. Once the flame is blown out, an ember smolders and releases smoke regularly until the incense is depleted; this happens with such consistency that it can mark time. Indirect-burning incense is called “non-combustible incense” because it needs an outside heat-source, such as coals, to keep it burning since it doesn't contain substances that will keep it ignited by itself.
The base is formulated as a dry binding powder to contain the incense and hold the mixture together. In the combustible form, oxidizers like sodium nitrate are added to burn evenly and consistently. It can be made with honey, charcoal, wood, mucilaginous material or gum, such as Gum Arabic.
There are many forms of incense, but some of the most commonly found in the marketplace are sticks and cones. Cored sticks are direct-burning and have a supporting core of bamboo or sandalwood coated with a layer of incense material that burns away with the core. Solid sticks are made completely of incense material and can be broken into smaller pieces depending on how much one wishes to burn. Cones are also a self-combustible form of incense. They can be pyramid shaped or rounded and look like a miniature volcano when lit. They were invented in Japan in the 19th century. They often have a charcoal base and burn relatively quickly. Other forms of incense include coils, powders, paper and rope.