Most ancient cultures used incense for sacred, healing and practical purposes. It’s likely we even tossed a few pleasant smelling plants into the fire back when we lived in caves. And were delighted to find some of them even kept the bugs out, could heighten the senses, get you high or just cover up the stench of human habitation.
It probably wasn’t long before folks were dedicating this fragrant smoke to their gods or ancestors, or what have you. Watching as their hopes, prayers and wishes spiralled upwards on the air currents produced by flame and wind.
The earliest historical records we have for the use of incense dates back to Egypt, though there are some references that may be about incense use in ancient Sumeria. As far back as 1000 BCE, ancient civilizations made use of peppermint essential oil. Archaeologists have even caught wifs of peppermint while entering ancient Egyptian tomb. As early as 3000 B.C. the Egyptians were importing large quantities of myrrh. This was used in the embalming of their dead, as an antiseptic medicine, and to burn on their altars as a sacrifice to the gods. They also believed it purified the worshippers. In certain Egyptian temples there are carved the ingredients for incense: Frankincense, Spikenard, Mastic, Henna, Rose, Cinnamon and Myrrh.
Among the oldest sources we have regarding herbalism and incense is the Indian Vedas, where we see a mixture of herbalism and incense burning used for healing, sacred rites and what we would consider magick. Other ancient cultures to use incense are everything from Japan to Mesopotamia, Phoenicia to Arabia, Greece to India.
Incense was among one of the highest valued and most moved commodities in the ancient world. By the 1st century A.D., Rome was going through about 3,000 tons of imported frankincense and 500 tons of myrrh per year.
For many years Frankincense from the Arabian peninsula was actually a more valuable currency than gold or silver. Frankincense was used by the ancient Egyptians, Persians and Assyrians, and later the Romans. The Frankincense trade flourished for fifteen hundred years, peaking at the height of the Roman Empire. The word incense comes from the Latin verb incendere, which means “to burn”.
The Babylonians used Cedar of Lebanon, Cypress, Pine and Fir Resin, Myrtle, Clamus and Juniper in incense.
Phoenician merchants traded in Chinese Camphor and Indian Cinnamon, Pepper and Sandalwood.
The First Nation People of North Americans have also burned herbal smoke mixtures in ceremonial cleansing and healing rituals for thousands of years. This is the practice we know as smudging.
A somewhat similar practice found in Scotland and possibly other Celtic countries was sainning, which typical involves the burning of aromatic plants and wood, such as juniper and spreading or fanning the smoke with a goose feather or some instrument.
Buddhism has helped to spread the use of incense all over the world. It has been used during Buddhist meditations to create a favourable atmosphere for seeking wisdom and truth, and to help free them of negative states of mind.
According to the Norse Poetic Eddas, incense was used to honour the Norse Gods and to herald the coming of a Warrior into Valhalla.
There are references to incense in the Bible. The three wisemen gifted baby Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Roman Catholics still use incense in their religious rituals.
According to the Old Testament when the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon and Egypt, the ancient Hebrews adopted the habit of using fragrant products, especially incense and used it to consecrate their temples, altars, candles and priests.
Today incense is also popular amongst modern day Pagans, Heathens and Witches
The connection between incense, religions, medicine, and shaman practices is obvious, it would be impossible to separate them, or say which came first. In nearly all religions, aromatic oils, leaves and powders were considered a gift from the Gods, symbolic of divine grace.
Incense works on subconscious level. Scent can cause an instant and sometimes very strong reaction, either pleasant or unpleasant, in a way that no other sensation can. Scent is connected with memory, and is therefore a powerful mood affecter.
Other benefits of burning of incense include the purification of an area, to cleanse and disinfect living spaces, to change a mood and trigger certain states of mind (which can facilitate meditation or religious practices) to create atmosphere, to drive away unwanted insects and possibly guests as well, to send our prayers and energy to the otherworlds and to burn as offerings. Let’s not forget how people use it to symbolize certain elements as well!
Incense has come to signify the much cherished and heartfelt link between the seen and the unseen.