Spiritual Offerings: The Uses of Incense

By Dave Stern

Stored within our memory banks are the delightful odors of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Remembering these holidays almost recreates the wafting fragrances of roasting food, the mouth-watering smell of fresh baked cookies or pumpkin pie, and the scent of a fresh pine tree, which evoke the emotions of pleasant holidays with the family.

We may also remember exploring, as we were growing up, closets and kitchens and discovering a cache of bottles of various cleaning agents. Perhaps we opened bottles of clear substances and remember our nose and sinuses being violently assaulted by rapidly penetrating vapors that induced copious tears. Ammonia and other potent cleaning agents are described as very negative odors. By remembering these and similar events in our personal lives, we discover one major law applicable to everything in creation: the law of opposites, or of the positive and negative.

Ancient peoples also learned the lesson of the positive as well as the negative, so they selected that which was most pleasurable to their senses and well-being. Being awe struck by what appeared to be supernatural powers or forces, they deified these forces, thus creating gods. They reasoned that the gods too would prefer offerings that were pleasant and sweet, and so would react more favorably towards humanity.

Within their houses and temples of worship, ancient peoples burned substances in a brazier or censer that released pleasantly scented smoke. It wafted upwards, carrying the prayers and messages of men and women to the gods.That smoke was a physical, psychological, and spiritual link between our tangible world and the intangible realms beyond our senses.

The various substances used in such activity were eventually called “incense,” a term derived from the Latin incendere “to set afire.” The equivalent Chinese term hsiang refers to that which is an aromatic or perfume.Incense includes scented wood, berries, spices, herbs, seeds, roots, flowers,and aromatic resins blended together. Many incense recipes generate a positive, spiritual, peaceful, loving sense of well-being, raising both human and atmospheric vibrations. However, some incenses actually cause a reverse or negative condition. Incense was burned in ancient times during pagan rites, alchemical processes, ritual magic, sacrifices, initiations, and church services.

In ancient times, the harvesting, processing, mixing, curing and forming of incense into sticks, bricks, powders, and cones became a thriving commercial activity that continues even today. Ancient caravans carried loads of incense for sale or trade. In the huge Wadi Musa (Valley of Moses) are the remains of the trade center of Petra; its warehouses stored quantities of frankincense and myrrh shipped from the ancient Moslem-inhabited Arabian Sea island of Socotra (now the protectorate of Aden) and southern Hadramaut, known in Biblical times as Hazarmaveth.

In Arab nations, the suqs (traditional outdoor markets that move to different regions on each day of the week) still offer the sacred incenses as they did in centuries past. The tradition and business of producing incense throughout Arabia successfully continues long centuries after the camel caravans plied the Silk Road with these highly valued substances. It is still the Arabic practice of good manners and friendship to offer to guests incense or perfume before they leave. The merchants of the suqs still sell frankincense in various forms just as they did in olden times: bark, rolled balls of gum, or small pressed disks that fit in the palm of the hand, perhaps containing sandalwood or other aromatic essences.

In ancient Egypt, immense quantities of incense were burned for religious and healing purposes. Records indicate that during the thirty-one-year reign of Pharaoh Ramses III, 1,938,766 pieces of incense were used. So important was incense that the Egyptians created an office within Pharaoh’s Court, managed by the Chief of the House of Incense.

The Egyptians held several incenses, such as that called kyphi, in such high esteem that it was burned only in their Temples. Plutarch explained the art of compounding the sacred incense kyphi, which consisted of such ingredients as honey, raisins, sweet rush, wine, myrrh, frankincense, calamus, seselis,bitumin, dock, cardamom, and orrisroot, mixed by a secret ritual to the chants of sacred texts. The vibratory rates of kyphi induced peace and sleep, intensified dreams, relaxed the body, and soothed anxieties, while generating harmony and order in all who inhaled the sacred vapors. The Egyptians also used frankincense and terebinth gum on the hot coals of incense burners to please both gods and humans.

The ancient Jews used frankincense, coriander seed, and aloes (of the lily family) as offerings. For the god Krishna, the Hindus favored ground or powdered sandalwood in addition to dried flowers, seeds, roots, and camphor. In Rome, Christians who refused to burn incense before the statue of the Emperor were crucified. Those who renounced their religion to escape that fate were known as turificati “burners of incense.”

The Greeks, before importing the sacred resins and gums, knew of thefragrant odors of cedar wood, citrus, and myrtle, burning these in privatesanctums within their abodes. At the Temple of Delphi, just before delivering aprophecy within the adytum, the priestess breathed the smoke of pinewood, mixed with incense, henbane, laudanum and other intoxicating materials.

Four incenses were especially prized in ancient cultures for their sacredness and potency: frankincense, myrrh, copal, and sandalwood.

Frankincense, the most sacred of incenses, ruled by the life-sustaining Sun,was used for blessings, purification, and protection, and also as a physician’s cure-all. It was used for boils, internal disorders, fevers, leprosy, and hemlock poisoning, as well as a general tonic; it was also used in embalming. Frankincense is produced when the bark of an Asiatic tree of the Boswellia genusis incised, exuding a milky liquid that slowly hardens into yellow-amber drops.

Myrrh is often used in purification and consecration rites and to ward off evil and negativity. It is ruled by Saturn, and is also a gum resin harvested from several Arabian and African thorny shrubs, Balsamodendron myrrha. The intrepid merchants of Phoenicia and Persia often sailed far and wide to locate quantities of the sacred resin; even the high priests of Judah greatly prized the substance, and so too did the Romans, who employed it in celebrating the victories of their Caesars.

A third, lesser known incense predates Columbian times in tropical America:copal. A generic term for resins obtained from several plants and trees, copal was a sacred incense in the area of present-day Mexico.

The fourth sacred incense is sandalwood, used for healing as well as for blessings and protection. It is made from the inner yellow and aged core of the tree Santalum album of southern Asia and has a sweet and peace-producing vibration and fragrance.

Ancient mystics held that particular delicately fragrant scents can stimulate and activate the psychic centers and assist in meditation. Some incense can help users to center themselves within the core of the higher being resident within us all, thus establishing contact with the higher self. Other incense produces a scent that soothes the nerves, is sexual in nature,stimulates the psychic centers, or evokes human emotions and passions.

Present-day Rosicrucians favor little red bricks of rose incense. SomeTheosophists prefer sticks of sandalwood blended with camphor, rose essence, and cinnamon to create a spiritual atmosphere that aids in meditation. The mystics of old held that vibrations emanating from an incense burner produce first a physical effect, then a mental effect, and finally a spiritual effect, the last being the true purpose of incense burning.

Certain native Americans long ago created a simple ceremony performed with a positive and spiritual state of mind. The Shasta Indians, living near Mt.Shasta, have a mystical ceremony when a couple are married. The couple retain some of the sage from their wedding ceremony and keep it in a pouch. When they experience marital problems later on, they burn some of the sage--giving up their problems to the Great Spirit and knowing those problems will be solved and the marriage will endure.

Incense produces an agreeable scent. But more important, as the smokerises from the incense burned by men and women, their consciousness “rides the smoke” and blends with the divine emanations of cosmic light, allowing a brief spiritual attunement with the Divine Consciousness.


Dave Stern is a contributor to aeronautical magazines on the history of aviation, a poet, and a writer on such culinary matters as the history of ketchup as well as other topics.


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