Spiritual Corner: A Brief History of Incense

The sense of smell….. is there anything more powerful?  Walk into a bakery and let the scent of cinnamon and butter transport you back in time to your home during the holidays…. Memories may and often do flood in…. It is a fact that all of our senses go through a few biological relays before entering the brain, except for the sense of smell which is directly wired to the brain…..and it is thought that smell may be to oldest or most ancient of all our senses…………Could this be why some spirits attempt to communicate with perfume, cologne or pipe smoke?
Incense has been used for centuries as a tool…. Early Man has left some signs of its use since fire was introduced.  It is believed that early man realized that smoke was a good way to clear away insects…. They would put large bundles of plants and wood onto the fire and soon discovered that some of these had a nice scent as well as bug proofing capabilities. When early man gathered around his fire, the smell of aromatic woods, herbs and leaves carried by heaven-wards spirals of smoke was a rare sensory pleasure. From this discovery it was no doubt a short step to dedicating fragrant products to the Gods, by adding them to a fire, which would also carry the good wishes and prayers of men upwards on the heat of the flames.  Other benefits ascribed to the burning of incense included the purification of an area, to change a mood (to facilitate meditation or religious practices) and to cleanse and disinfect living spaces, especially after pollution caused by, for instance, death or illness.

Since the beginning of time incense has played a significant role in the human
existence. Ever since the beneficial invention of fire, mankind has found that
many materials release an odor when burnt, some very pleasing, and others
not so much. These aromatic scents often accentuate the senses. Some
experts believe that the burning of items such as cedar, berries, roots, and
resins gave us our first true incense. Incense relics that are thousands of years
old have actually been found all over the world. So, it is pretty safe to bet that
incense has been a part of many different cultures for a very long time. It is
because of this information that the exact origin of incense cannot be traced.
The basics of incense are really quite simple. It is a combination of aromatic
elements and a heat source. Incense has always had ties to the religious and
medical aspects of various cultures, and still does today.

The name Incense is actually derived for the Latin verb incendere, meaning to burn.
Incense is believed to be an essential element in any offerings made to the
gods. Therefore, the trading market for these herbs and spices was very
popular. The market demanded only the best scents and the need for
prompted the market to consider these items an asset. For many of the early
years before Christ, Frankincense was actually worth more than silver and
gold’s value. The use of Frankincense can be traced all the way back to the
Ancient Egyptians, Persians, and Assyrians. This popular fragrance and its
uses were learned by the Romans. This knowledge was gained through the
contact that they had with the Eastern nations. The Frankincense trade thrived
for some fifteen hundred years. The peak of this time was during the Roman

The decline of the Frankincense trade occurred shortly after this time. This was
because of the heavy taxes of the trade routes, and the fall of the Roman
Empire. Simply the demand was no longer great enough.
Frankincense is now more commonly known because it was one of the gifts
brought to baby Jesus in celebration of his birth. The three Wise men brought
three gifts: Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. The gifts of Gold and Frankincense
were considered “fit for a King”. The Myrrh, which is bittersweet, symbolized
the new Messiah’s fate.

China brought in the Stick incense as known today. Not the inexpensive wooden or charcoal brand found everywhere. Their’s was the ultimate form as it was self-burning. Those that have worked with powders or herbs can relate to this, as it is hard to keep them lit. The problem is that it even though China is the leading producer of the cheap stick-dipped brand, it is hard to get the original ritual kind that is not allowed out of the country.  Please be aware that the cheap single sticks that are sold individually can cause health problems. If they have wild neon colors and unusual scents like wild berry or other funky names, they most likely are synthetic and contain formaldehyde witch is highly toxic.

Incense and Modern Religion

The use of incense in organized religion continues as a relevant and important aspect of several confirmed religions, being used to prepare the congregation for prayer and ritual. In the Roman Catholic and Eastern churches, incense is a sacramental, that is, “an action or object of ecclesiastical origin that serves to express or increase devotion”

The Roman Catholic Church has always recognized the value of rites and ceremonial observances, not only for increasing the solemnity of her services but for arousing a spirit of devotion in those who minister at them and those who attend them. For a period the use of incense was discontinued in the Western Church because of its close association with pagan worship, but it has always been used in the Eastern Church. The incense used today is powder or grains of resin or vegetable gums or other such substances which, when burned, give off a sweet smelling of smoke. It is interesting to note that the Roman Catholic church now shares a devotion to rituals involving incense with the increasing number of practicing pagans and wiccans, the very groups it sought to dissociate itself from.

The mystical meanings ascribed to incense by the church hardly differs from those of our ancestors. By its burning, incense symbolizes the zeal of the faithful, its sweet fragrance echoes the “odor of sanctity” believed to be exuded by saints and martyrs, and its rising smoke symbolizes the ascent of prayers to heaven. Also, incense creates a cloud, which is another symbol for godliness.

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