Brief History of Incense
by Margaret McGoverne
Mankind has used incense, in its earliest forms, since the dawn of human
history. With the discovery of fire, our ancestors would have realized
that most materials give off a unique and sometimes powerful aroma when
burnt. The difference between the smell of a handful of Parsley and that
of a Pine tree branch is greatly emphasized when each is burnt. Then as
now, the air is quickly filled with intoxicating aromas simply by throwing
some dried leaves, spices or twigs into a fire.
There is historic evidence in most cultures that our ancestors used
incense burning for sacred and healing purposes. From ancient times people
recognized that aromas produced by burning materials could heighten the
senses, both sight and smell. When early man gathered around his fire, the
smell of aromatic woods, herbs and leaves carried by heaven-wards spirals
of smoke was a rare sensory pleasure. From this discovery it was no doubt
a short step to dedicating fragrant products to the Gods, by adding them
to a fire, which would also carry the good wishes and prayers of men
upwards on the heat of the flames. Other benefits ascribed to the burning
of incense included the purification of an area, to change a mood (to
facilitate meditation or religious practices) and to cleanse and disinfect
living spaces, especially after pollution caused by, for instance, death
The Rise of Incense and The "Frankincense Trail"
Several thousands of years before the advent of Christianity, the plants,
herbs and spices that produced the best incense were traded as highly
desirable commodities. For many years Frankincense from the Arabian
peninsula was actually a more valuable currency than gold or silver. In
almost every religion, aromatic oils, leaves and powders were considered a
gift from the Gods, symbolic of divine grace. Frankincense was used in
vast quantities by the ancient Egyptians, Persians and Assyrians, and via
them, by the Romans, who would have learned of its use when coming into
contact with eastern nations.
The significance of the belief that the three wise men brought Gold,
Frankincense and Myrrh to the infant Jesus was both the princely nature of
the gifts and their symbolic significance. Frankincense was a costly gift
literally "fit for a king," while Bitter Myrrh referred to the
bittersweet fate awaiting the messiah.
The trade in Frankincense flourished for centuries, particularly in the
Arabian peninsula area of Oman, and its use can be traced back to the
reign of the Queen of Sheba, who reigned over the Hadramut Kingdom which
included Oman. The Frankincense trade flourished for fifteen hundred
years, peaking at the height of the Roman Empire. The trade only declined
due to reduced demand after the fall of the Roman Empire and also because
of the exorbitant taxes levied along the strictly controlled trade routes.
The Parallel History of Smudging
The idea of purification through smoke is certainly not the sole preserve
of the world to the east of the Atlantic. The Native North Americans have
also burned herbal smoke mixtures in ceremonial cleansing and healing
rituals for thousands of years. Smudging (the common name given to the
sacred smoke bowl blessing) has been a part of Native American tradition
since ancient times.
As with its Eastern counterparts, the "smudging" or burning of
herbs and resins was and continues to be a practice held literally sacred
by many traditional cultures. Smudging takes many forms; herbs are either
tied into bundles called "smudge sticks," or the longer, tendril
like herbs may be braided into "ropes." Smudging calls on the
spirits of sacred plants to drive away negative energies and restore
balance. The most popular herbs and plants for smudging include Cedar,
Sage, Sweetgrass and Tobacco. Each of these plants is imbued with a unique
quality and specific energy and as such are known as "Sacred Plant
Helpers." Their smoke is ceremonially fanned through the energy field
(aura) to cleanse negative energies, heal, bless and attract positive
Smudging continues to this day as an integral part of Native American
purification rituals. All spaces and the tools used for healings must be
smudged, and smudging is an integral part of other important ceremonies
such as medicine wheel gatherings, the vision quest and sweat lodge.
Incense and Modern Religion
The use of incense in organized religion continues as a relevant and
important aspect of several confirmed religions, being used to prepare the
congregation for prayer and ritual. In the Roman Catholic and Eastern
churches, incense is a sacramental, that is, "an action or object of
ecclesiastical origin that serves to express or increase devotion"
(Merriam Webster online dictionary).
The Roman Catholic Church has always recognized the value of rites and
ceremonial observances, not only for increasing the solemnity of her
services but for arousing a spirit of devotion in those who minister at
them and those who attend them. For a period the use of incense was
discontinued in the Western Church because of its close association with
pagan worship, but it has always been used in the Eastern Church. The
incense used today is powder or grains of resin or vegetable gums or other
such substances which, when burned, give off a sweet smelling of smoke. It
is interesting to note that the Roman Catholic church now shares a
devotion to rituals involving incense with the increasing number of
practicing pagans and wiccans, the very groups it sought to dissociate
The mystical meanings ascribed to incense by the church hardly differs
from those of our ancestors. By its burning, incense symbolizes the zeal
of the faithful, its sweet fragrance echoes the "odor of
sanctity" believed to be exuded by saints and martyrs, and its rising
smoke symbolizes the ascent of prayers to heaven. Also, incense creates a
cloud, which is another symbol for godliness.
The Founder of Modern "Aromatherapy"
Incense has quite rightly been called the forefather of modern
Aromatherapy, and its use as the earliest form of healing based on scent
is undisputed. Today, there has been resurgence in the use of essential
oils and the burning of incense as tools to employ the power of
Aromatherapy, which is now recognized as being able, via the stimulation
of the olfactory nerves, to produce physical, emotional and psychological
effects independent of the thinking process.
As we smell scents, whether it be incense, fresh paint or sausage and
mash(!), our mind is busy working on a subconscious level, deciding
whether we like it and determining whether we recognize it. These
responses are created in the limbic system, or more accurately, the
information is sent via the nerves to the olfactory epithelium, which is
part of the limbic system in the brain. Data is then transmitted to the
conscious parts of the brain. The limbic system is the oldest and most
primitive section of the brain. It stores information about every scent
ever smelled, and provides responses and reactions to various stimuli. It
is considered the seat of memory, and as such is a powerful mood affecter.
All smell is molecular. In other words, when we smell a scent, we are
registering a physical molecule that disconnects itself from its carrier
and drifts in the air, arriving through the nose to the mucous membrane
which has millions of odor-receptor cells and cilia to catch and identify
scent molecules in the air. Unlike our other four senses, the nerve system
for smell is directly exposed to its source of stimulation. This explains
the immediate, unthinking effect of scents on the nervous system. Scent
can cause an instant and overwhelming reaction, either pleasant or
unpleasant, in a way that no other sensation can.
In addition, our ability to learn and our capacity for sympathy are also
located in the limbic system, hence the often close link that feelings of
sympathy and antipathy often have with smells. The limbic system is also
responsible for creativity, inspiration, and all non-thinking, automatic
life processes such as heartbeat, hormone regulation and respiration.
Scent can affect all of of these powerful bodily processes.
Coming full-circle - From Ancient Rituals to Modern Day Holism
The use of incense, and of essential oils in modern Aromatherapy, has
validated the belief held by our ancient forefathers. Many of the
reactions and decisions we make are intrinsically linked to our sense of
smell, and many areas of our health and relaxation can be positively
affected by smell, and by definition, through Aromatherapy. Incense can
- cleanse the atmosphere
- aid calm and reduce anxiety, stress, and fear
- revitalize, stimulate, and renew energy
- alleviate insomnia
- prepare the mind and body for prayer, meditation and contemplation
- accelerate healing
Follow the example of the ancients, and allow the fragrant smoke from
incense to cleanse your living space, relax your body, calm your mind,
create a spiritual atmosphere and heighten your awareness.
Margaret McGoverne is the founder of The Holistic Shop website, a
new experience in online shopping for goods that promote a holistic
approach to health, relaxation and spirituality. http://www.theholisticshop.com
You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org