Burning Incense(90084)Credit: Photo by B. Simpson (Cairocamels)

Aromas from burning incense are widely diverse in their appeal.  Odors and fragrances illicit many memories and emotions from people. Aromas even effect what we eat; without smell, food would not have the same taste.   The use of incense is common in religious rituals and aromatherapy is a thriving business. 

 The History of Incense

 When did it become common practice to use incense for rituals? In ancient times incense was used throughout the world as part of religious or spiritual rituals and for healing as well as a simple way to mask unpleasant odors.  However, the exact date and where this practice began are uncertain.   In Christian and Hindu texts references are made to the burning of incense and in China the practice goes back to the Neolithic times.

 In biblical times Frankincense from the Arabian Peninsula was more valuable than gold or silver.  Egyptians, Assyrians and Persians used frankincense in large quantities.  Through contact with these eastern nations, Romans incorporated the burning of frankincense into their culture.   For centuries, the trade of frankincense flourished and only declined after the fall of the Roman Empire when the demand for it diminished and the taxes along the trade routes hugely increased. 

 In North America, Native Americans burned herbs and resin as a practice of ceremonial cleansing and healing. “Smudging,” the name given to the sacred smoke bowl blessing has been a tradition for centuries and is still an integral part in the Native American culture.  The most common herbs used include sage, cedar, tobacco, and sweetgrass.  Smudging is a purification ritual and is used during important ceremonies as well as purification of healing tools and spaces.

 Types of Incense

 Throughout history of burning incense, various materials have been used, usually from local ingredients.  The actual making of the incense generally followed local skills and tools but was also influenced by foreigners migrating to areas.  Natural solid aromas generally come from one of seven categories.  Their oils can also be isolated to make incense, but are sometimes considered less aromatic than the raw materials.

  • Wood and bark: sandalwood, cedar, cypress, juniper, cassia, and cinnamon
  • Resins and gums: amber, copal, kauri gum, frankincense, myrrh, bedellium, benzoin, and ladanum, storax, elemi, camphor, gabanum, dragon’s blood, sandarac, mastic, opoponax, guggul, and tolu balsam
  • Seeds and fruits: juniper, nutmeg, vanilla, star anise, cardamom, and coriander
  • Leaves: sage, tea, bay, balsam, and patchouli
  • Flowers and buds:  clove, saffron, lavender, and rose
  • Roots and rhizomes: calamus, galangal, costus, orris, vetiver, and spikenard
  • Animal-derived materials: musk, civet, operculum, and ambergris

 Incense comes in various forms and degrees of processing.  Typically, incense is either a direct-burning type or an indirect-burning type.   The composition of the two is different as the direct-burning incense requires stable, even, sustained burning.  The direct-burning incense has a combustible base that binds the fragrant materials and allows the incense to burn with a self-sustained ember.  The base does not produce a perceptible smell to interfere with the fragrance of the burning incense.

 Direct-burning incense is also called combustible incense and typically requires little preparation to use.   The incense is lit and then fanned out leaving a glowing ember to smolder and burn the reStick Burning IncenseCredit: Source: Wikimeida Commonsmainder of the incense without additional heat or flame. Direct-burning incense is made from either moldable finely ground or liquid fragrant material with an odorless binder added.   Direct-burning comes in various forms:

  • Coil: this form does not have a core and is shaped into a coil.  It can burn for extended periods of time and is commonly manufactured and used by the Chinese culture.
  • Cone:  This form burns fairly fast and was invented in Japan in the 1800s.
  • Cored stick: The common cored stick incense has a bamboo core while the higher quality varieties have fragrant sandalwood cores.  The core is coated with a thick layer of incense material.  This type of incense is commonly manufactured in India and China.  Cored sticks are also known as “joss sticks” in the Chinese culture and are used for religious worship.
  • Solid sticks: This form of incense is formed entirely of fragrant materials and has no supporting core. The stick can be broken into pieces to burn specific amounts.  It is most commonly used in Japan and Tibet.
  • Powder:  This form is loose incense powder typically packed into long trails on top of wood ash.
  • Paper:  In this form, incense is infused into paper which is folded into an accordion. The paper is lit and then blown out.
  • Rope:  Incense powder is rolled into paper sheets and then rolled into ropes, twisted tightly, doubled over and twisted again.  The larger end can be stood in a shallow dish of sand or pebbles and the smaller end is lit.  This form of incense has long been used in Tibet and Nepal.

 Indirect-burning incense is also called non-combustible incense.  It is a combination of fragrant materials not specifically prepared or molded into any form and therefore unsuitable for direct combustion.  Indirect-burning incense requires an outside heating source and can vary in the duration of burning depending upon the texture of the materials.  Heat is typically provided by charcoal or glowing embers.  Frankincense and myrrh are examples of incense materials of this type.  Indirect-burning incense comes in various forms:

  • Whole: Incense material is burned in its raw state on top of coal embers.
  • Powdered or granulated:  The incense material is broken into finer pieces which burn quickly and provide intense smells but for a shorter time.
  • Paste:  Powdered or granulated incense material is mixed with an incombustible, sticky binder and formed into small pastilles or balls. These can be matured in a controlled environment to allow the scents to comingle and combine. The pastes can also be dried and cut into pellets.

 Uses of Incense

 The stimulation of the olfactory nerve can produce effects physically, emotionally, and psychologically.  As scents reach the nose, responses are created in the limbic system in the brain and transmitted to the conscious sections of the brain.  Because scents affect the nervous system independent of any thinking process, they can instantly cause a reaction, either pleasant or unpleasant.   Because scents can illicit such diverse emotions that are often linked to an individual’s own experience, the uses of incense is almost limitless.

 Many cultures use incense in religious or spiritual rituals and ceremonies.  Incense is often used for meditation and purification.  Uses also include aromatherapy to aid in physical healing.  Manufacturers of incense sometimes advertise their products as more natural deodorizers over the chemical sprays and oils produced by some companies; and with the numerous fragrance choices, incense is a good natural alternative.




Madehow.com. Accessed March 16, 2012. http://www.madehow.com/Volume-5/Incense-Stick.html


Healthy.net. A History of Incense. Accessed March 16, 2012.  http://www.healthy.net/Health/Article/A_History_of_Fragrance/1712/2


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