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.
The foundation I work for has its own “storytelling scent” created by an aromatherapist. Every time we go to tell stories, we put a drop on the children’s wrists, so they can smell the story scent, and get into the mood of listening 🙂
The Multicolored Diary
We used to burn incense all the time but haven’t for years. I do like burning candles but only certain scents. I don’t like overpowering flowery smells. I’m more a vanilla and cinnamon girl. My husband burns incense sticks occasionally in his garage. Makes it smell much nicer than an old garage!
LOL – a good-smelling garage definitely beats a funky-scented one.
I’m Catholic, and incense is used regularly at Mass. Our parish has a sign to warn people when incense is going to be used, so those who don’t care for the scent or have trouble breathing with it can seat themselves in an area less affected by it. Of course, our priests do go a little wild with it, and the smoke really hangs over the altar…
The warning sign makes sense John. With the increasing prevalence of asthma and allergies it’s wise to be careful.
I used to be an incense fan. Something changed as I got older, and now a lot of odors bother me.
It’s not uncommon to experience changes in the sense of smell with age. People are increasingly sensitive to the chemicals used in lab-created scents which are used in so many products these days as well, so that may be a factor as well.
Lovely word Deborah! We have a locally made smudge stick which I’ve used on occasion. The one time that comes to mind was the day we moved to where we are almost 6 years ago – it was June, the winter solstice and a full moon to boot! Mpepho (an African word) is used to drive out harmful energies and bring in the new.
I do use incense – and burn it, mostly sandalwood.
I feel for a few of my friends who have lost their sense of smell, and one or two who do not like the scent of flowers or scented soap or perfume of any kind.
Thank you for the interesting history. I remember a few years ago getting up early in the morning (somewhere in Vietnam or Cambodia) and arriving to a street where the Buddhist monks were walking in their saffron coloured robes and burning incense – we offered them rice bowls or some kind of food if i remember correctly –
A very auspicious time to smudge Susan. And what lovely memories of the Buddhist monks.
I love sandalwood as well, although lately I’m quite enjoying Hiba wood.
In my childhood, it was a regular practice to have the rooms ‘smoked’ just after sunset with what we called ‘dhuno’ (Indian frankincense) – this was done in all the houses I visited in Calcutta, my grandparents’, my aunt’s. I was told it would keep the rooms pest-n-insect-free, not sure if it was correct or not. Incense sticks were/are used of course for the daily prayers at the household shrines in those houses. Sadly the custom of using incense for ‘pest-control’ is no longer so common.
Incidentally, drying the hair with incense smoke was also a tradition in India.
I find that absolutely fascinating! And truthfully I can only imagine with delight how much I would have appreciated such an immersive scented experience on a daily basis.
I love fresh, clean, citrusy scents–but don’t burn anything because of my cat. She is very agile and can get to any high place in my house that I think might be safe.
Cats always seem magnetized to the things we’d rather they didn’t mess with.
Incense clocks? That’s fascinating and certainly something that’s been lost over the ages.
I’m not much for scents. Most give me a headache, but I do have a Jo Malone candle that I like. And I have one Hermes perfume that is soft and doesn’t mess with my head. So maybe I should say I’m selective about scents? [Or that I’m a name dropper about scents! 😉]
I was utterly intrigued by the incense clocks. I can definitely imagine marking time that way would be so different than what we do now.
I am regaining use of my childhood home, after having renters in there for 8+ years. I am arranging a smudging session with a highly intuitive colleague to cleanse and restore my house.
Perfect Beth! And wishing you all the best in your new/old home.
I loved my incense. And my scented candles. Then I started dating a man (my husband) who is allergic to artificial scents. I gave my candles to my sister. I kept the incense for a while, burning it when he wouldn’t be around for a few days, but eventually gave it all to his daughter when she moved out of his house. Now I have an essential oil diffuser. Sometime, I’ll get back into incense. I want to set up an incense lantern on the back balcony, where I do my yoga.
I’m with you. I love incense.
I’m not sure most people understand the prevalence difficulties that can be traced to exposure to products scented artificially – our overall exposure to unnatural chemicals is downright scary. So it’s always wise in my opinion to be mindful and careful.
Diffusing essential oils is lovely. And I love your idea of the incense lantern on the balcony – sounds like a wonderful addition to your yoga practice.
Enjoyed reading the history of incense. I was fascinated by incense stick clocks! That is really innovative.
In my family, it is a regular practice to burn incense while praying. We also light a deep (diya) and dhoop. I prefer dhoop sticks of various fragrances like sandal, mogra, rose, lily, lavender.
Though some researchers claim that the fumes of incense or dhoop sticks are harmful…but we have been using it since ages. Personally, I am not sure if its use should be discontinued.
I’m fascinated by the incense clocks as well Kislaya. Your practice of using incense sounds lovely. And I certainly hope the use of incense is never discontinued.
Hi Deborah. I hopped over from Susan Scott’s blog, realizing you are also doing the AtoZ.
You are right. Incense is not just any scented smoke. It can have powerful effects on our psychology and physiology.
I once got a pack of mixed incense dhoop-battis. They are small conical shaped, instead of the usual sticks. Some of those dhoop-battis were so peaceful, while some actually made me depressed, or even angry!
So yeah, aromatherapy is not a laughing matter. You need to choose your fragrances wisely. What might work for someone else, might not work for you.
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Thanks for stopping by Kaddu. I absolutely agree, we’re all unique, and should always use care with what we expose ourselves to.