Incense – an introduction


The term ‘incense’ originates from the latin term ‘incendere’ meaning ‘to burn’.  Incese is made from aromatic materials which release fragrant smoke when burned.  Incense is used in many ways – for religious ceremonies, ritual purification, aromatherapy, meditation, for creating a spiritual atmosphere and for masking unpleasant odors.

There are two main types of incense – ‘direct burning’ and ‘indirect burning’.  Lets look at these types:

Direct burning incense (also known as combustable incense) is lit directly by a flame, then blown out to leave a glowing ember that smoulders and releases the fragrance.  Direct burning incense can be in the form of incense sticks (or ‘joss sticks’), cones and pyramids.

Indirect burning incense is not capable of burning on its own and needs a separate heat source – usually charcoal.

The history of incense and its uses can be traced way back in time.  For instance certain Chinese cultures dating back to neolithic times have used incense and it is with the ancient Chinese where we find the earliest documented use of incense composed of herbs and plant materials in ceremonial rituals.   The Hindus adopted the use of incense from the Chinese.  Ancient Egyptians used incense both to cover odours and also for mystical uses as they believed the smoke from incense deterred malevolent beings and would appease their gods with its pleasant aroma.  Indeed resin balls were found in prehistoric Egyptian tombs in El Mahasna.  Some of the oldest references of incense can be found in the ancient Hindu texts – the Vedas, indicating that the use of incense dates back at least 3500 years and more likely closer to 6000 – 8500 years old!

Moving on in time Ancient China appears to be the first civilization who began the use of incense in religious worship around 2000BC.  The Babylonians used incense while offering prayers and incense spread from here to Greece and Rome.

Incense was brought to Japan in the 6th century by Korean Buddhist monks.  They used the mystical aromas in their purification rituals.  The high quality Japanese incense known as Koh was very widely used and 200 years later its use had spread from the monks to the Imperial Court.

So we can see that incense as we know it has a rich and varied history – today we can enjoy incense in its many forms with ease within our own homes and environments.

You may be familiar with the term ‘smudge stick’ – this refers to either a single herb or a combination of herbs, dried and bound with string in a small bundle.  Many cultures have their own traditions of which herbs were used in such smudge sticks with the traditional herbs such as Mugwort and Lavender being particularly popular.

Many different materials are used in the make up of direct and indirect burning incense – these can include:

Woods and barks – aloeswood, cedar, cinnamon, cypress, juniper, sandalwood
Seeds and fruits – cardamon, coriander, juniper, nutmeg, star anise, vanilla
Resins and gums – amber, camphor, copal, dragon’s blood (a plant resin), frankincense, myrrh
Leaves – balsam, bay, patchouli, sage, tea
Flowers – cloves, lavender, saffron, rose

So you can imagine the variety of fragrances that can be blended by the use of different materials.

At Lizian we’re pleased to stock a wide range of incense – both indirect and direct burning – indian sticks, japanese koh incense sticks, cones, resins, and essential oils for your home fragrance needs.  So next time you reach for the incense to light for whatever reason, to mask cooking smells, to create the mood for meditation take a moment to think about the tradition of incense burning and how it has evolved to what we know today.


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