Writing my way through the A-to-Z blogging challenge, I’ll be using manicules (those pointing finger symbols) to direct your attention to something I’m pondering that delights or interests me. Each entry is somehow related to an unusual, obscure, or simply charming to me word.
K is for…
knissomancy – a form of divination primarily through observing and interpreting burning incense smoke, but which may include the way incense ash falls as well.
This form of divination, also known as libanomancy, is very old indeed. It is documented in Babylonian manuals dated 2000-1800 BCE. From Mesopotamia it traveled to Egypt and later became known in Europe.
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 very clear evidence that incense has been burned throughout the world for many thousands of years. In addition to divination, it is used for simple perfuming, for meditation and spiritual practices, healing, for clearing, cleansing and purifying, for blessing, in offerings, and for elevating one’s mood. Less commonly know, but utterly fascinating to me, was the use of incense clocks. They first appeared in China in the 6th century, although there is some evidence that they in fact made their way there from India. While they came into wide use, they were also particularly linked to Buddhists and traveling monks brought them to Japan where they also became widely used and refined.
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 and use myself.
With regard to incense clocks, there were two main types – one using stick incense and the other powdered 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.
What about you – are you an incense fan? Do tell – you know I love to hear.
…interpreting burning incense smoke! Oh that’s a new idea for me. I’m not a fan of incense or cheap scented candles [or strong perfume]. I get a headache and sometimes feel queasy. I do like the scent of fresh fruit like lemons or items baking in the oven. Or peppermint. I like that scent.
The chemicals used in synthetic scent are a real problem for many people Ally. Lemon and peppermint are bright and cheery scents – lifts my spirit just thinking of them.
I’m a scent fan but haven’t done incense. I used to love candles but my cat got into them so now I do melted wax.
It’s certainly always better to be safe than sorry around our beloved pets.
I used to burn incense sticks fairly regularly but have not done so for several years. I am attracted to earthy scents — often described as “masculine” — like cedar and camphor and bergamot, and also to light aromatics like lavender.
No patchouli though, thanks! *laugh*
Vetiver might be something you like as well. It’s funny – patchouli is making a bit of a comeback in perfumery, although it’s mostly a hint rather than straight up. But it’s certainly one of those scents that people are very clear about whehter they like it or not.
I do like incense. Sandlewood is a favorite of mine and another that I cannot recall the name of at the moment. I do not like strong smells though. The incense clock sounds amazing.
The diffuse smoke of incense can be a lovely way to experience scent without being too strong.
I am a fan – I remember my parents being gifted some incense sticks by a foreign visitor – I am not sure where from, they were pure cedar with no other perfumes and I wish I could find some…
I love Frankincense and benzoin though I only know the latter as Friars Balsam.Loved this post…
I’d not heard of Frairs Balsam and you inspired me to look it up Andrew. How interesting! I hope you’re able to find your cedar someday. If you have access to a Japanese incense store you might try there. They often have very nice woods. You might enjoy hiba wood as well.
My Indian heritage is responsible for my love of incense, I think:)
My husband has a little daily ritual. Before he leaves for work, he burns an incense stick as an offering to the Universe. And he does the same in the evening after he gets back from work. I like to pick different perfumed combinations for him.
I’m a bakhoor fan too. But. I’m yet to master the art of burning it without causing the fire alarm to go off:)
Thank you for the information about incense clocks. I had no idea. How wonderful they sound.
Your husband’s ritual is lovely – and it delights me that you get to pick the scents. I know the bakhoor smoke alarm dilemma quite well – LOL. But I’ve managed to outwit mine, for which I’m truly grateful. Not only do I have a sensitive perfumer’s nose, but I have especially sensitive hearing and the alarm going off is so painful it almost always makes me cry.
Thats such a meaningful quote… i love good smells…i am an Indian , and we light lamps and incense sticks everyday… i love the smell of burning camphor , ground sandalwood and fresh jasmine… they could be so uplifting and are used in temples to a great extent
Just reading your favorite scents makes my nose tingle with delight.
I am not really into incense, most of it is scented too strong for me. But I do love watching the smoke curl from it when someone burns it. I can see why it would be a natural medium for divination.
The Multicolored Diary
Incense smoke really can be mesmerizing and it does make perfect sense it’s been a divining tool for so long.
Love the William Law quote:) One worth keeping on the fridge.
Yeah, I agree. 🙂
I don’t like the smell of incense – in fact most smells like perfumes, air fresheners, etc are too strong for me. (Even some flowers – when my hoya is blooming I can’t be in the same room! lol) But I do love the designs smoke makes in the air, and I love the idea of reading the pictures in the smoke. I also love the idea of the clock with the different smell alerting you to the passage of time, or that it’s time to take a break. It’s a great practice to think about using our different senses in different ways.
K is for Knowledge
I like your comment about using our senses in different ways Anne. That literally has been a topic of conversation with friends for a while now. I’m holding that we can (and need to) expand the senses we have; and that the evolution of new senses will involve the conscious devlopment of synesthesia.