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The History of Incense

A Walk Through History
For centuries cultures around the world have used incense to appease and honor their Gods and Goddesses. It is a practice seen in every religion and in every region of the world. Today you can find thousands of books and resources giving guidance and direction for the use of herbs and oils to make soaps and creams. You can find resources for using leaves of various plants to create medicinal teas. Plus countless works for how to reference books for how to create your own incense.
Not many of these touches on the history behind the use of herbs and spices in incenses, or a historical look at how they were used.
One of the oldest surviving texts, (the Ebers Papyrus 2000 BC), defines a list of medicinal herbs in use around 1800 BC. From ancient texts like these, and Egyptian Hieroglyphs we know that burning incense was a big part of this early cultures spiritual life. Priests are depicted burning incense on street corners during festivals to appease the Gods. Writings indicate that a healer would burn incense to cast out demons from an ill patent. Incense was always kept burning within temples to honor the Egyptian gods and goddesses.
Ancient writings provide insight into how religions and cultures of old used incense in their practices. From the Hebrew and Christians, to Buddhists, Hindu, Pagan, Native American cultures and more. All these cultures from around the world had access to various plants, herbs, spices and oils from which to develop a recipe for pleasing the nose and mind.
In Exodus 30:34-36 of the Torah, God gives his first instructions to Moses for using and preparing incense. He says to Moses, "Take sweet spices, stace and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall be an equal part) and make an incense".
In Luke 1:8 of the Bible, we find an account of how the Priests used incense in the temple. "Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood it fell to him by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense."
In Revelation 5:8 of the Bible, we find another description of the importance of incense and in particular its smoke. "And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints."
In Revelation 8:3-5 of the Bible, we find a description of how the Biblical Angels used incense. "And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth;"
Buddhists provide offerings of incense to spread its fragrance to remind practioners to cultivate good conduct. It symbolizes the fragrance of pure moral conduct.
According to Liu Zhongyu of the Taoist Culture and Information Center, "The earliest known record of Daoist using incense is mentioned in the History of Wu in the Annals of the Three Kingdoms, which states that the Daoist Yu Ji taught people to burn incense and read Daoist books in the eastern reaches of the Yangtze River."
It is a Chinese tradition of Chan Buddhism; we find the origin of the 'Incense Board'. In Chan meditation, the incense board is in the shape of a sword. This symbolizes the diamond wisdom cutting off ignorance and illusions. The board is lit and a prayer is said over the flames. A practitioner meditates in a seated position for a short time; they will stand and continue their meditation while walking. In this manner, the length of the board and how long it takes to burn determines the length of the meditation.
Incense sticks are part of the 16 essential offerings during a Hindu ritual. Each of these offerings have symbolic spiritual significance and are offered to the Divine in a particular order. In Hinduism, incense keeps the practioner calm while performing ritual worship. The other offerings in these rituals are betel-nut, betel-leaf, cardamom, camphor, clove, cloth, diva (lamp) flower, fruit, grain, naivedyam (mixture of nine offerings), sandal paste, and water.
The ancient Greeks provided a scientific approach to the use of incense. The father of medicine, Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.), is believed to be the first person to establish and set down a scientific system of medicine. In this system, the use of aromas through incense is said to play a significant roll. Legend says Hippocrates freed Athens from the plague by burning aromatic plants through out the city.
The Japanese came relatively late to the use of fragrances and incense compared to other parts of the world. But once the Nara and Kamakura Periods (710-1333 C.E.) stepped onto the bandwagon, they carried it to a fine art. According to the Japanese, incense purifies mind and body, improves communication, acts as a companion in the midst of solitude, and brings moments of peace amidst ciaos.
According to the Norse Poetic Eddas, incense was used to honor the Norse Gods and to herald the coming of a Warrior into Valhalla. The Eddas contains many descriptions of a warrior being set upon a boat with his belongings, treasures and often times a maiden who would be killed as the ship was set ablaze and pushed into the sea. These tales describe great lanterns to light the way and a fire of incense burning at the rear of the boat to herald the great warriors arrival to Valhalla.
Native Americans throughout the Americas have long used smudge sticks for purification, honoring the Spirits and inducing psychic visions. A smudge stick is a bundle of dried herbs that are tied with sinew in the shape of a stick, or braided and tied together. When smudging, an individual would hold the smudge or place it in a bowl and use an eagle's feather to fan the smoke in an area or over a person.
In Celtic legend, Leprechauns kept their prize possessions in large cauldrons made of brass, copper or iron. When anyone came along who might discover their store of gold or gems, the Leprechaun would throw a handful of powdered oak or pine into the cauldron releasing a great smoke and hiding his precious treasure. An other tales speaks of Leprechauns who sprinkle powdered Irish clover over the head of a sleeping human who has earned the respect or compassion of the little people. The clover would bring the person luck in the matters of there that was causing them trials or trouble.
For pagan practioners of Witchcraft and Celtic Shamanism, incense has long been used to summon an individuals chosen deity, spirit guides or a specific type of energy needed in a spell or ritual. These practices have been kept secret since the "Burning Times" of the European Inquisitions. But with the modern era of openness, many are coming out of the broom closet to share their knowledge. Bringing information from ancient family Grimoires that describe how the God, Goddess, or energy to be used within the ritual, will dictate the fragrance to be used during the ritual. Knowing this allows the Witch or Shaman to blend a variety of herbs and spices to meet their specific needs.
Each of these societies looks upon the use of incense as a necessary part of their spiritual life and practice in honoring both their chosen Divine force and for their own personal enlightenment.
The Purpose of Incense
The concepts behind all these ancient cultures and practices are found today in modern society. And not just in the societies descended from these cultures. As the west grew, so did the influx of immigrants bringing with them their many cultural and religious practices.
These aromas can enhance meditations or devotional activities as the fragrance of the incense lingers in the air. In meditation, an individual can pull in the aroma and energy of their chosen mixture and allow it to carry their conscious thoughts to a higher state of awareness. In doing so, the consciousness turns its control over to the subconscious and provides an opportunity for Divine Spirit connection and communication.
For this reason, incense can be a valuable tool for any spiritual practioner. Incense is used to heighten an individual's awareness, focus their thoughts, and bring about calm or healing energies during spiritual work. They are used for giving thanks and honoring spirits. Or they can be used to assist a practioner during meditation to achieve a particular goal.
When used to enhance energy, incense provides assistance to direct one's energy in a specified direction to work on self healing, Divine communication and even altering one's inner perceptions about the self to create a more positive and successful life. Of course incense cannot do this alone. But it can help create or enhance the desired energies.
Many agree that lighting an incense starts this process of empowering an individuals thoughts or prayers into the blended herbs. And many agree that the smoke of the incense carries the prayers or desires up and into the spirit world for manifestation. This is seen in Hebrew, Christian, Pagan and Native American practices. The smoke itself is the instrument or vehicle that carries the desire energy to the Divine Spirit.
Whither walking clockwise in an area to clear and cleanse the energy for spiritual work, or using a feather to fan the smoke over a body or object, the smoke is an important component. But the fragrance also has an important role to play. If it didn't, than any mixture of herbs, flowers or trees would do the trick. But the focus on fragrance from the past shows us the first working knowledge of aromatherapy for bringing about change. For thousands of years and into modern times, what we smell affects our views, perceptions and energies.
In his book "Incense, Oils and Brews", Scott Cunningham describes how ancient people looked beyond the physical world of science and saw into the mystical connections of nature. Including the connection between humans and plants, their fragrances and medicinal uses. Learning about which incense can enhance or support certain energies is a key step to using incense for rituals and spiritual activities.
Choosing The Right Incense
For centuries there have been mystical properties associated with various herbs, trees and flowers. Apples for instance have long been associated with knowledge and wisdom. Used for love, healing, immortality and garden magic rituals. Knowing which herb or plant to use is an exercise in using the right energy with the right purpose.
Correspondence lists have been published in magazines, books and newspapers for centuries. The Old Farmer's Almanac has often published a listing of herbs, flowers and their mystical meanings. Even the recent publication for the 2008 Almanac contains a listing of the Symbolic Meanings of Herbs, Trees and Flowers. Some of the oldest correspondence listings can be found in Benjamin Franklin's "Poor Richards Almanac", published from 1732 to 1758.
Of course there isn't one set in stone correspondence listing. But a good search of resources and historical publications can give an individual a good listing and cross reference of mystical properties. I have placed a short-listing of Incense Symbology to share my own research.
Tools: Incense
- A History Of Incense
- Creating Your Own Incense
- Incense Symbology

Source: 1, h1, h2, h3, h4, h11, h12, h13, h14, h15, h16
Created: 05.14.2008 Updated: 05.14.2008

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