Incense Traditions Around the World
Powerful smells have been a part of cultural traditions for thousands of years. That should come as no surprise when you realize that the sense of smell is closely linked to both memory and emotion. That’s why incense, as a cultural and religious tradition, is also so widespread and popular throughout the world.
Incense is made of aromatic plant materials that are often combined with essential oils to form a sticky paste which can be formed into different shapes, such as cones, or stuck around sticks made from bamboo or other materials. There are also two main types of incense – combustible and non-combustible. Combustible incense is lit by a flame and then blown or fanned out, leaving an ember that continues to smolder and release fragrant smoke. Non-combustible incense needs a separate, constant heat source for it to work, such as a steady flame or chunk of charcoal.
Used since the times of Ancient Egypt, people have burned (and continue to burn) incense for a lot of reasons – from the most mundane to the holiest. Those same Egyptians, for example, would burn incense to mask the unpleasant smells of everyday life – no roll-on deodorant 5,000 years ago – as well as to ward away demons and please the gods with its pleasant scents. Balls of resin incense have been found in many Egyptian tombs, which signifies that incense also had purpose regarding a person’s afterlife. Babylonians used incense during prayer offerings to oracles – from Babylon, the practice spread to Greece – maybe you’ve heard about the Oracle at Delphi – and Rome.
On the other side of the world, in China and India, incense came to be increasingly used in religious ceremonies by 2000 BCE. Priests and monks used incense to help them in their meditations, purification ceremonies, and other religious rituals.
Finally, the New World – the modern-day United States, Canada, and Mexico – also have traditions of burning aromatic plant matter for spiritual and ceremonial purposes, even though it is rarely referred to as incense specifically. Shamans and medicine men burned plants such as sage and sweet grass to purify and grant protection to people, places, and objects.
This article will take a deeper look at the various incense traditions around the world, what materials were and are used to make incense in each tradition, and what the significance is of those materials in each culture. Keep reading to find out more about incense!
Incense in the Middle East
The modern Middle East was the birthplace of what we call incense. The first recorded uses of incense and incense burners come from the land of mummies and the Nile – Ancient Egypt. While the period is so far back in history that it is hard to know what specific recipes the Ancient Egyptians used to create their incense, we have some recorded information and can also make some educated guesses. Since local materials were favored in ancient incense-making simply because they were easy to get hold of, it’s accepted among scholars that Ancient Egyptians used ingredients such as camel grass, papyrus, and honey in their incense. They might also have used mastic obtained from mastic trees towards the beginning of the Common Era, as well as resin from fruits such as dates and raisins to give the incense the stickiness needed to shape it.
According to official records of the pharaoh’s court, a good deal of highly-valued incense ingredients were imported spices and materials. Since aromatic wood was in short supply in Egypt, for example, the pharaohs sent trade expeditions to retrieve fragrant cedar wood from the Levant, modern-day Lebanon. The Greek essayist and historian Plutarch wrote that the Ancient Egyptians burned frankincense in the morning, myrrh at midday and “kapet” or “kyphi,” a type of incense made from various ingredients, in the evening. Specific Egyptian gods were associated with specific kinds of incense – for example, the god Hathor was associated with myrrh. Frankincense and myrrh were also imported, as they didn’t grow in Egypt in the amount demanded by priests and other incense users. The Egyptians also imported and used cinnamon, cassia, and galbanum as incense. Incense was made by grounding up the ingredients and throwing them on hot coals or shaping them into small pellets using resinous ingredients (such as raisins or dates) and then burning them. In addition, resin incense was often used as common component to many perfumes of the time.
In more modern times, “bakhamoor” or "bakhoor" is incense used by Muslims as a hospitality ritual and is often burned in a burner known as a "mabkhara". In this practice, a mixture of frankincense, sandalwood, and natural oils, are burned in the mabkhara when guests come visiting and is passed from the host to one guest after the other as a sign of greeting and acceptance. This is also often practiced in the corresponding mijilis (congregations or councils).
Of course, you can’t forget the importance of frankincense and myrrh to early Christians, either – the three wise men or magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to honor the birth of Jesus. In fact, incense was a part of jewish liturgy many years prior due to middle eastern trade routes extending into their region. And studies seem to show that the aroma of frankincense oil, when inhaled, reduces stress, heart rate, and blood pressure. [Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2493463/]
The Jews have a rather unique incense which they burn in the Temples of Jerusalem. The Book of Exodus states that it is a mixture of stacte, onycha, galbanum, and frankincense.
Incense in Europe
The word “incense” itself comes from the Latin word incendere, which means “to burn.” With civilization and advanced human culture reaching places in Europe such as Greece and Rome from civilizations such as the Egyptians and Babylonians, a lot of the traditions surrounding incense in Europe came from the Middle East. Not to mention that aromatic plants didn’t just grow in the Middle East – many of them also grew in Greece, modern-day Bulgaria, Italy, and other locations on the European continent.
In the north of Europe, far away from Middle Eastern incense traditions, pagans burned juniper – berries, resin, and wood – to ward away evil spirits and ensure the protection of their households during the long winters, as well as in burial ceremonies.
Incense in Asia
Asia is probably the first place that comes to mind for many people when they hear or read the word “incense.” The Asian nations of India, China, Japan and others have some of the richest incense traditions in the world, ones practiced by both the elites and the masses of each society. The abundance of fragrant trees and plants throughout the Indian subcontinent and East Asia meant that there was no shortage of raw material for incense. And as civilizations developed and trade between them grew, Chinese and Indian merchants were sending silk and spices by the Silk Road to the West and coming into contact with new types of fragrant plants – like frankincense and myrrh – that they brought back to their homelands.
In all three of these countries, incense has been a central part of religious traditions – among high-ranking priests and simple country-folk alike. In India, the Vedas - ancient Hindu holy scriptures – describe how incense can be used as a form of medicine. In fact, creating a beneficial environment of good smells was considered one of the first stages of healing a patient in the Ayurvedic tradition, so incense was made mostly by monks and doctors. In that tradition, ingredients for incense are based on the five Ayurvedic elements and used according to that system. Incense, with its powerful smells and medicinal-herb ingredients, is taken very seriously in India.
Incense use in China began as far back as 2000 BCE during religious rituals, with its highest point being during the Song dynasty from the 10th to the 13th centuries. During this time, whole buildings were constructed for incense rituals alone. China was the birthplace of solid stick incense, so-called because it doesn’t contain a solid wood core. The Chinese, ancient and modern, used incense to venerate their ancestors as well as in traditional medicine. For eye troubles, they would burn camphor, for example, as well as using it for ailments of the stomach and heart. As the art of incense-making became even more refined, the Chinese invented “incense clocks,” which were sticks of incense that burned so evenly and regularly that you could set clocks by them. A popular ingredient in incense both in ancient times and today is sandalwood, which also made its way along trade routes to the Middle East. So were cloves, agarwood, and anise, as well as the already-mentioned camphor.
In Tibet, burning resin incense in it's raw form was quite popular but they also made a rope incense by wrapping herbs and resins inside of braided rope, sometimes perfuming the rope as well. Tibetans consider incense to be medicinal, and the ingredients used were often based on ancient Vedic or Ayurvedic medical texts. Common ingredients included flowers, juniper, ashwagandha, frankincense, lemongrass, cedar, and other fragrant compounds found in the region.
Tibetan incense most commonly had an earthy, herbal fragrance. They often incorporate 30 or more ingredients and sometimes over 100, into a single formulation.
In modern times, Tibetan incense has become somewhat commercialized and many new incense manufacturers are starting businesses to help their communities support economic growth. It's not uncommon for big businesses in these Tibet and India to donate to social programs within their developing countries.
In Japan, incense, as many somewhat “ordinary” things that arrived on the islands from the mainland, was elevated to a form of high art. After arriving with Buddhist monks from China, incense was used by religious folk, among them samurai warriors, who would perfume their helmets with aromatic incense before battle as a sign of respect for anyone who might take their head. From there Japanese elites took it up and turned it into an art form called kōdō, which was similar to the tea ceremony. Burning incense would be passed around in a special burner and participants in the ceremony would take turns commenting on its properties, as well as playing games to guess the ingredients. Agarwood and sandalwood are the main base ingredients used in Japanese incense sticks, but many different types of plants and herbs, among them ginger lily, patchouli, cinnamon bark, licorice, lavender, safflower and more are used in the Japanese incense-making tradition.
In the sixteenth century, Zen priests were believed to have a document, known as The Ten Virtues of Koh, that describes the inherent qualities of incense, as well as it's benefits:
The Ten Virtues of Koh
- It brings communication with the transcendent.
- It refreshes mind and body.
- It removes impurity.
- It brings alertness.
- It is a companion in solitude.
- In the midst of busy affairs, it brings a moment of peace.
- When it is plentiful, one never tires of it.
- When there is little, still one is satisfied.
- Age does not change its efficacy.
- Used everyday, it does no harm.
Almost 70% of Japan's incense is now crafted on a small island known as Awaji Island.
Incense in North America
A culture that has a rich tradition of burning aromatic plants, but which is rarely directly called an incense tradition, is the culture of Native Americans. Many different groups across the modern-day United States, Canada, and Mexico speaking different languages, nevertheless had some common traditions. One of these was the burning of various plants, or smudge sticks, during ceremonies of ritual cleansing. We all know that tobacco burning originated with Native Americans, but shamans and healers also used the smoke of bundles of either desert sage, or white sage and other plants to purify people, objects, and places. These bundles are called “smudge sticks,” named so due to the smudges that their burnt ends leave when rubbed across a surface, such as skin.
Sage and Artemisia were popular ingredients in smudge sticks, as was sweet grass, cedar, and tobacco. Each had their specific uses in North American shamanic tradition, but an elder of the Cree nation indicated the importance of these plants by saying:
“Where you go in North America, one of these sacred plants will be growing.”
Native Americans would use incense or smudge sticks during sacred rituals, such as war dances, as well as to cleanse people when they entered dwellings (such as teepees) where rituals and ceremonies took place.
Throughout time, across the world, and in every culture pleasant smells have made people happy, have (supposedly) healed them, soothed their minds and nerves, taken the edge off after a difficult day at work... The power of burning incense was and continues to be appreciated by religious figures and common folk alike. It has even made it into the holy books of the world’s largest religions such as Christianity and Hinduism.
Here is a list of the common ingredients of incense mentioned in this article:
• Agarwood • Rose • Mastic • And more…
But this is just a short list of the most popular and easily-obtainable ingredients. Incense can be and is made out of anything that smells good when burned. And some ingredients are very rare – either naturally or due to human over-exploitation – and so very expensive. “Kyara”, for example, is the resin of the agarwood tree that is highly prized in Japanese incense-making tradition. Lower-grade kyara goes for around 20,000 yen or $180 per gram, and higher-grade kyara can sell for twice as much. This is because agarwood trees have been over-exploited and there are few remaining that produce high-quality resin incense, which is one reason why the Japanese art of incense appreciation isn’t as well-known as tea ceremonies or flower-arrangement.
In any case, the world of incense is a rich and wonderful one to explore and discover. Smell is one of the strongest human senses, and people who lose their sense of smell have been reported to fall into worse depressions than those who go deaf or blind. Incense is a way to appreciate the world in a unique way – experiencing the smells of faraway lands simply by lighting a small stick, resin incense, or cone of plant material. You can go on wonderful olfactory journeys from the comfort of your home – bon voyage!