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Heavenly Scents & Earthly Impacts: Incense in Worship, Death, and Sustainability

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

A man in hat

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived.”

Helen Keller, American author, disability rights advocate, political activist, and lecturer.

The Origin

The word “incense” is derived from the Latin words for “in” and “censere”, which means to burn with fragrant substances. The burning of incense sticks during various religious rituals is an ancient tradition found in nearly every religion and has been in existence for thousands of years. Initially, it was used solely for divine purposes. Over time, it has also been utilized for secondary purposes like air freshening and insect repelling, and most recently aromatherapy in the wellness industry. Incense stick burning holds significant religious and spiritual importance in Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism each with its own belief behind its usage.

Incense-bearing trees were imported from the Arabian and Somali coasts into ancient Egypt. The white sap extracted from tapping the bark of the Boswellia Sacra (Frankincense tree) was known as“The tears of the Gods.”Imagine the daily liturgy before the cult image of the sun god Amon-Re and at the performing of mortuary rituals, when the souls of the dead were thought to ascend to heaven in the flames. Incense was said both to manifest the presence of the gods (fragrance being a divine attribute) and to gratify them, it was also employed to counteract disagreeable odours and drive away demons. The Babylonians used it extensively while offering prayer or divining oracles. It was imported into Israel before the Babylonian Exile (586–538 BC) and assigned miraculous powers; later, in the 5th century BC, altars were set apart for incense offerings.

Incense and the Divine

The Bible mentions incense nearly two hundred times. Incense is used in Catholic liturgies to venerate, bless, and sanctify. Its smoke adds a sense of mystery and awe, and its use reinforces the transcendence of the Mass, linking Heaven with Earth, allowing us to enter into the presence of God. The smoke symbolises the burning zeal of faith that should consume all Christians, while the fragrance symbolises Christian virtue. Today, both clerical and lay individuals include incense burning as part of their private prayers or during the Liturgy of the Hours. The Roman Ordos have documented the use of incense at various points during liturgical celebrations, including the Gospel reading, Offertory, and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. It is used in a variety of solemn processions, graveside services, and the blessing of new churches, cemeteries, and sacred items. Frankincense and myrrh are blessed during the Feast of the Epiphany to commemorate the visitation of the Magi to Baby Jesus. Attendees are given the blessed incense to use on their family altars and reserve for Easter to prepare their home paschal candles.

The Frankincense used by the Roman Catholic Church is primarily sourced from the Boswellia Sacra trees of Somaliland. In its day it was worth more than the price of gold. Frankincense trees survive and grow in the most inhospitable desert environments, with shallow roots and infertile soil, on cliff faces and craggy rocks, its a miracle that they grow at all. Over harvesting, poaching, fires, and land clearing for agricultural purposes, as well as lack of proper management and regulations over the cutting and restoration of the Frankincense trees, is resulting in forest degradation with an immediate need for conservation and protection.

The practice of burning incense exists in almost all schools of Buddhism and Hinduism. It is a common ritual used during worship, meditation, and as an offering of respect. The origin of incense can be traced in India, to early Hindu monks using them for their pleasing aroma and medicinal properties long before Buddha’s birth. Today, India remains the top producer of incense, and follows the Ayurvedic principles that categorizes the ingredients into five classes: Ether (fruits) like star anise; Water (stems and branches), like sandalwood, aloeswood, cedarwood, cassia, frankincense, myrrh, and borneol; Earth (roots) for example turmeric,vetiver, ginger, costus root, valerian, Indian spikenard: Fire (flowers) like clove; and lastly Air (leaves) like patchouli.

Purification and source

Buddha discovered the path to enlightenment, and the use of incense has been an integral part of Buddhism ever since. Incense is frequently mentioned in the Pali Canon, the oldest complete scriptures on the practice of Buddhism. Burning three sticks of incense typically represents the Three Jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, his teachings, and the community of Buddhist monks, or faith, practice and study. India later exported its spiritual practices of Buddhism along with incense-making and its usage to other countries in Asia, such as China and Japan. The Incense Tree (Aquilaria sinensis) is a precious tree species only found in southern China and Hongkong. The fragrant resinous heartwood also known as agarwood, is highly desirable and has led to poaching and illegal cutting down of these historical and culturally significant trees. Its existence in fengshui woods and country parks is under threat constantly because of high market demands for its use in perfumes traditional medicines and religious ceremonies. Conservation and protection can be found at Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden, Hong Kong.

Worship, Death, and Sustainability

The use of incense in Islamic worship is based on the Sunnah, or the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who used incense in his own personal rituals. The Quran also mentions the use of incense in the context of the story of King Solomon, who is said to have used incense as a means of purifying his court. Various Islamic rituals, including the five daily prayers, Friday congregational prayers, and special religious occasions such as Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha include this olfactory element. It is typically burned in a censer, or thurible, which is swung back and forth to spread the smoke throughout the space. The smoke is believed to purify the air and create a sacred atmosphere suitable for worship. In addition to its use in worship, incense has also played a role in Islamic medicine and hygiene. Islamic physicians in the mediaeval period used incense as a means of purifying the air and preventing the spread of disease. They also used it as a treatment for various ailments, such as headaches and respiratory problems. In art and architecture, incense burners were often used as decorative elements, particularly in the form of hanging lamps or chandeliers. These burners were often elaborately decorated with calligraphy and geometric designs.

The Hebrew term for incense is “ketoret”, which comes from a root word meaning “to smoke”. In the Jewish religion, incense was used in the Temple as part of the daily offerings, and also on special occasions. The ingredients of the incense used in the Temple were carefully chosen and prepared according to specific instructions given in the Torah. The mixture included various spices, such as myrrh, cinnamon, and frankincense, as well as other ingredients, such as stacte and onycha. The incense was burned on a special altar, and the smoke was believed to symbolise the ascent of prayers and petitions to heaven. The use of incense in Jewish worship has ancient roots, dating back to the times of the Patriarchs. Interestingly, the burning of incense was not meant to appease the gods, but rather to express devotion and gratitude to God. In modern times, the use of incense in Jewish worship has largely been discontinued, as the Temple was destroyed and the practice was not carried over to synagogues. However, some Jewish communities still use incense on special occasions or during certain prayers, as a way of connecting with their spiritual heritage.

Other types of incense

Smudging is a traditional indigenous practice of worship, death, and sustainability that involves burning sacred herbs and using the smoke to cleanse and purify a space or person. The practice is believed to clear negative energy and promote healing, balance, and harmony. The practice has been used for centuries by many indigenous cultures throughout the world, including Native American and Australian Aboriginal cultures (traditionally using the four sacred herbs, white sage, cedar, sweetgrass and tobacco,) African (frankincense, copal, myrrh and dragons blood) Celtic (juniper, bay, rosemary and lavender), vedic (Holy Basil /tulsi, camphor and sandalwood). However, it has become increasingly popular in recent years as more people seek out alternative forms of healing and spirituality. While some people use smudging as a form of relaxation or aromatherapy, it is important to respect the cultural and spiritual significance of the practice.

Lastly, we will take a look at contemporary paganism where incense is believed to release natural energy, and thus, synthetic or artificial incense is avoided in order to preserve the natural energy. For its followers it creates an atmosphere conducive to invoking deities and spirits that are typically present at the Pagan altar. It releases the energy stored within natural incense to be utilised for magical purposes. The specific botanical materials used and the magical attributes associated with them vary widely between different Pagan traditions. Frankincense and myrrh are two of the most widely used incenses, with frankincense associated with the Sun and masculine powers, and myrrh associated with feminine powers, healing, and attraction. Benzoin is used for purification, while sandalwood is associated with devotion and purification. Copal is used for spiritual cleansing, and dragon’s blood is burned for love, strength, and courage. Pine and cedar are also used to cleanse spaces of negative energies.

In a world where humans have long sought a connection with the divine, the act of burning incense, smoke rising to the sky and the purification and alteration of the olfactory experience, has evoked a strong emotional and sacred response to our practice and worship. It is important that we honor the land and environment where we collect the ingredients for the incense, and conserve and protect the plants that provide them.


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