is for incense
While you may tend to think of incense in the form of sticks to light, there are actually many forms; and since most of them are botanical in nature I’d say the topic is fair game for this abecedarium.
The term incense comes from the Latin incendere which means “to burn.”
Incense can be used for simple perfuming, for meditation and spiritual practices, for healing, for divination, for clearing, for blessing, in offerings, and for elevating one’s mood.
There is clear evidence incense has been burned throughout the world for many thousands of years.
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 current favorite, but Agarwood and Sandalwood, as well as Cedar have long been loved. Roots are used – Costus root 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, Styrax 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. So 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 of dried mugwort 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 that’s certainly a tradition I find beautiful.
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 and breath.
I love this haiku image from master poet Basho:
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?