“INCENSE” – THE NAME
The English word “incense” derives from the Latin word for “to burn”, incendēre.
So in its most basic sense (no pun intended), incense is just different plant materials that are burnt for their fragrant smells. You might have heard of the common incense ingredient sandalwood. Burning a piece of sandalwood for its smell is considered burning incense.
STORIES OF THE FIRST INCENSE:
We think that the initial discovery of incense was accidental. Somewhere sometime in the ancient world, men and women used branches, leaves and other parts of plants to light fires, and soon realized that the different plants produced different aromas when burnt. In fact, some plants smelt really nice when they were burning. Over time, they began to use the nice smelling plants more, and mixed them in different combinations for different special occasions. This, was the beginning of incense.
Although we mostly dwell into the history of incense in China, and the earliest documented use of incense was in fact in ancient China, incense relics have been found across many ancient civilizations. They are known to be used from Africa in Egypt, to Europe in Greece and Rome, to many parts of Asia, prominently in India, and most certainly all through the Middle East by the Babylonians.
What we know about the use of incense in ancient China, we believe to also be true in other regions in those eras – that they were used for a far wider range of purposes than today. In scope were: divine blessings, healing powers, exotic flavoring, and general vanity – to make the user smell nice and attractive to the opposite sex. As summed up so eloquently by the late Chinese historian Edward H. Schaefer:
“… In the medieval world of the Far East there was little clear-cut distinction among drugs, spices, perfumes, and incense – that is, among substances which nourish the body and those which nourish the spirit, those which attract a lover and those which attract a divinity”
WHAT IS INCENSE MADE OF?
There are two basic elements to incense: aromatic substances, and a heat source.
The aromatic substance in its “original” or raw form includes a variety of woods, resins, seeds, roots, and sometimes leaves and flowers. In ancient and medieval times, incense tended to be burnt in its raw form, like the sandalwood chips.
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In the medieval Chinese palace for example, incense burners would have a top section with a small plate which held wood chips or resins, with a heat source like burning charcoal underneath.
Even today, wood chips called bakhoor, burnt over charcoal, are the preferred form for incense in most Arab countries. Although for variety and affordability reasons, these chips have been dipped in essential oils and mixed with other fragrant ingredients. (High quality, raw fragrant wood chips are extremely expensive today.)
In most of the rest of the world, incense today tends to be in the form of pastes or powders, made into shapes like sticks. The pastes or powders are made from a mixture of aromatic substances ground up from their raw form, with a binding agent added. The incense stick (or whatever other shape its in) can then be directly lit. We will go into more details on the various shapes of incense below.
INCENSE STICKS – WITH CENTER:
The earliest stick shaped incense appeared in China in the Ming Dynasty (1348-1644), and has become the most popular form of incense in use today. Sometimes incense sticks are referred to as “joss sticks”, although this is mostly used in the context of cheaper sticks burnt in large numbers for temples, shrines or other public events.
There are in fact two broad types of incense sticks available on the market today, one with a center, and one without.
The type with a center is seen as more Indian in its origin and associations, although it is also used in parts of China. The widespread Nag Champa incense is almost always made with a bamboo center. Centered incense is made by dipping a thin bamboo stick into waters, essential oils and incense powders in layers. The final incense stick is thin at the bottom, where the bamboo stick is bare, and thick in the body, where the incense mixture has covered the stick.
INCENSE STICKS – WITHOUT CENTER:
The type without a center is the one more commonly used in China, and almost exclusively through Japan and Tibet. It is made simply by rolling the incense paste into a stick shape, and allowing it to dry.
OTHER COMMON FORMS OF INCENSE:
The powder or paste used to make incense sticks can also be made into other shapes.
Coil: A round, spiral shaped incense commonly used in China.
Cone Spiral: Those of you who have travelled to certain temples in Hong Kong may have seen a special type of coil incense which opens up to be a cone spiral.
Cone: created in Japan in the 1800s, also widely adopted by the Tibetans. The Tibetan cones have evolved to be quite a bit larger than the Japanese versions.
Backflow Cone: a variation of the usual cone, where a hole made at the bottom and through the center allows the incense plume to flow downwards (in every other type of incense the smoke flows upwards)
Incense today is still widely used in religious ceremonies all across the world. In China, almost all temples and shrines have large incense burners, and visitors will burn incense as part of their prayers. Many people also burn incense to honor their ancestors, for the opening of new stores, businesses, or moving into new homes.
Many people find the act of lighting, watching and smelling an incense calming. So it is widely used to accompany meditation practices all across the world, or other relaxation activities such as drinking tea or reading.
But more and more incense has been re-integrated into “normal” aspects of modern lives. Many of our friends (and of course us!) use incense as home fragrance, and light a few incense sticks (or cones) a day just to have the smell in their home. When not in use, incense burners are also often great home accent pieces for the shelves or coffee tables.