Writing my way through the A-to-Z blogging challenge, I’ve tasked myself with throwing open the cabinet of curiosities and wondrous things I call my brain and leading you on a tour of what actually resides in there – all through the lens of unusual, obscure, or simply charming-to-me words.
T is for…
thymiama [noun] – incense; fumigant
As a natural perfumer and aromatherapist there’s no question that fragrance is an important part of my life. My body and my home are always scented, and I use scent both for personal pleasure and adornment and in sacred spiritual practices.
Incense definitely has a large place in my world. While you may tend to think of incense in the form of sticks, there are actually many forms, but the thing they have in common is that they are burned.
There is clear evidence that incense has been burned throughout the world for many thousands of years. In addition to use for simple perfuming, for meditation and spiritual practices, incense is also used for healing, for divination, for clearing, cleansing and purifying, for blessing, in offerings, and for elevating one’s mood.
Smell is such a complex sense – and can easily produce altered states. Ancients understood this and felt it was a way to connect with the sacred. Many of the early botanicals burned were capable of producing ecstatic feelings.
So what exactly was and is burned? Woods certainly – Palo Santo is a favorite of mine, but Agarwood and Sandalwood, as well as Cedar have long been loved. Roots are used – Costus wood was very popular in ancient times, as was Vetiver. Sage bundles are used for smudging, but so are bundles of other botanicals – Juniper is a favorite, as is Sweetgrass. Resins are some of the oldest materials used, and probably my favorite. Resins include Frankincense, Myrrh, Copal, Labdanum, Sytrax Benzoin, Camphor, Mastic, and Elemi. Dried flowers are used – lavender buds and rose petals are favorites, along with mugwort. Herbs include Rosemary and Bay Leaf. These are just some of the many beautiful choices.
India has a rich incense tradition. Specific blends were created to honor specific gods. But at an even more fundamental level, aromatics were part of cultivating deep conscious breathing practices.
Incense blending has developed into an exalted art in Japan. Temple incense is a must, and it is understood that the aromatic smoke helps lift prayers.
A particular form of herb burning is part of traditional Chinese medicine still practiced. Moxibustion is the burning/smudging on specific acupuncture points of the body.
In Arabic cultures their incense is called bakhoor, traditionally agarwood soaked in fragrant oils and mixed with resins and other fragrant ingredients. I’ve seen bakhoor used to scent clothing and hair, and that’s certainly a tradition I find beautiful.
Another incredible use of incense was in the creation of incense clocks. Such clocks were used in China as early as the 6th century, although there is some evidence that they in fact made their way there from India. While incense clocks came into wide use, they were also particularly linked to Buddhists, and traveling monks brought them to Japan where they also become widely used and refined.
The two main types of clocks used stick incense and powered incense. With the stick clocks, the burning rate of the incense had been calibrated so time could be calculated. Often there were weights attached and when the incense burned past them they would drop into a tray adding a sound component as well. Stick incense could also be formed into spirals which hung.
Powered incense was laid out in trails in elaborate patterns with calibrated burning times. This method allowed for “breaks” to be incorporated into the trail – and a different scent filled in these spots. When the scent of the incense changed it would register consciously and one would be made aware of the time passage. This was particularly helpful when working on long projects.
I like the ephemeral nature of incense – it calls for our attention, our focus, our presence. It’s here for a moment and then it’s gone. It teaches us to pause and reflect.
I think William Law had it right when he said:
“All that is sweet, delightful, and amiable in this world, in the serenity of the air, the fineness of seasons, the joy of light, the melody of sounds, the beauty of colors, the fragrancy of smells, the splendor of precious stones, is nothing else but Heaven breaking through the veil of this world, manifesting itself in such a degree and darting forth in such variety so much of its own nature.”
Scent is an integral part of my life, and using incense is a component of that. Whether part of a ritual or simply for the pleasure of it, I’m on board. A favorite project that I really should revisit because I enjoyed it so much, involved make incense beads. The process isn’t much different than making herbal beads which I do on a fairly regular basis, but it involves slightly different ingredients. But the big difference is that upon creating the beads, I (and the other people I made them for) wore them non-stop for several days, infusing them with our energy and wishes, and then we burned them in ceremony during a full moon. It was lovely and powerful.
What about you – are you an incense fan? Do tell – you know I love to hear.