Incense though history

Incense is not a new way of perfuming sacred spaces or homes. It has been present for thousands of years in everyday life.

Egyptian illustration showing a person using a censer burning resins or wood.

The beginning of the story

Since man first learned to use fire, he discovered that some woods, resins, leaves and roots gave off intense fragrances when burned: a thing of the gods!

As far back as our memory goes

Photo of a burning Egyptian incense burner on a handThe first explicit mention of incense dates back to the 15th century BC - 3500 years ago! We find it in the tomb of Queen Hatsethsup, who had sent an expedition to the kingdom of Punt (Yemen, Somalia?) in search of frankincense trees and aromatic woods because, for the Egyptians, incense was the "scent of the gods".

What is kiphi?

Kiphi was a mixture of 16 substances including sweet flag, cinnamon, mint, lemon balm, juniper, henna, myrrh, cypress, olibanum, sage, rosemary, saffron, cardamom and moss.

Kiphi was later in vogue among the Greeks and Romans, and according to the Greek historian Plutarch, this mixture calmed anguish and cheered dreams.

Scents that last for millennia

Several containers containing oils and essences were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb that still retained their aroma after 3300 years. Analysis of their contents revealed that they contained olibanum and tuberose.


Incense among Greeks and Romans

In Greece and Rome, incense was essential at festivals, theatre and amphitheatre performances, at the Olympics, private banquets... Many cities became rich by trading in incense, such as Pylos, which flourished in Mycenaean times.

When Alexander the Great took the city of Gaza, he accumulated 500 talents of frankincense and 100 talents of myrrh among the precious objects of the spoils of war.

 The origin of perfume

The Romans borrowed perfumery and the custom of bathing every day in the baths from the Egyptians and combined aromas and sensuality with vigorous extravagance. They gave rise to the word perfume, from the Latin per fumun, meaning "through smoke".

A flourishing and prosperous business

Greek style stone censer in the shape of a head representing a Greek god.Incense came from Arabia. Incense even landed in the Red Sea from China. In the 1st century, a Greek navigator named Hippos discovered the rhythm of the monsoon winds for the West, which enabled Eudoxus to sail across the Red Sea and then the Indian Ocean to India. A year later, he returned with a cargo of incense and spices. From then on, 120 ships sailed to India every year carrying Arabian frankincense and returning with other perfumes.

From the 4th century onwards, with Christianity as the Roman state religion, the use of incense and perfumes declined.


Incense in pre-Columbian cultures

The use of resin was a widespread practice in pre-Columbian America. Impressive copal offerings have been recovered from the Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itza and from the Laguna de la Luna, in the Nevado de Toluca, as well as sculptures of this resin found in the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan.

Copals were used by pre-Hispanic cultures for ritual, ceremonial, festive, therapeutic, and medicinal purposes. Its relevance survived the Inquisition itself, and it is still used by many indigenous and mestizo peoples.

The white god

Its vigorous validity is reflected in the fact that every language and variant spoken in the country has a word to refer to copal in one of its forms: tree, resin or smoke, copalli in Nahuatl being the most representative due to its wide distribution.

For the ancient Mexicans, copal was a protective god, and they called it 'Iztacteteo', which means "white god", due to the colour of the smoke it emits when it burns. In Aztec and Mayan offerings, copal has been found in the form of small tortillas, tamales or corn kernels, so it is thought that copal was considered food for the gods.

 Pre-Columbian round-shaped incense with animal silhouettePre-Columbian round-shaped incense with human head silhouette


Incense in the Bible

 The Old Testament is full of references to incense. In the book of Exodus Yahweh commands Moses to make an altar for burning incense:

 "And Aaron shall burn upon it sweet incense every morning, and when he lights the lamps at evening, he shall burn incense, a perpetual rite before Yahweh.... Thou shalt not offer upon it strange incense, nor burnt offering, nor burnt offering, nor drink offering, nor pour any drink offering upon it."

What does the Song of Songs say?

"What is that which comes up from the wilderness, like a column of smoke, smoking with myrrh and frankincense, with dust of exotic aromas? Thy buds, a paradise of pomegranates, full of luscious fruits, spikenard and saffron, scents of cinnamon, trees of frankincense, myrrh, aloes, with the finest balsams?"

Incense as a sacred offering

Sculpture of a little angel on a church façade where he is using a botafumeiro (incense burner) to spread the smoke.Incense is a prayer offered to God: "May my prayer rise up before you like incense".

The Magi visit the newborn Jesus: "When they came into the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and fell down and worshipped him, and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh".

Incense in Japan

 Incense entered Japan in the 6th century with Buddhism as it helped to create an atmosphere of depth and concentration in meditation and temple rituals.

It soon moved from the temples to the imperial court, where courtiers competed to make the most evocative blends of aromas. There was always incense to welcome the seasons, to entertain visitors…

What did the samurai use it for?

The samurai scented their armour to create an aura of invincibility. This way, they went into battle without fear of death. They specially scented their helmets so that if they fell in battle, a heavenly perfume would rise when their heads were cut off.

Purifying the body and mind

Japanese bronze and wood censer of worship decorated with flowersIncense was also essential when signing an agreement or a contract. Rooms were purified with incense made from aromatic wood. At the entrance to Japanese temples, there is a large censer for burning sticks. Devotees impregnate their whole bodies with the smoke for the gods to mask the horrendous smell that we humans have.

The emergence of incense sticks in Japan

Incense sticks were invented in the 15th century and quickly became popular. When Japan came into contact with the West again at the end of the 19th century, liquid scents and perfumes from the Europeans arrived in Japan.

The perfume revolution

Japanese master perfumers researched how to use these oils and perfumes in incense sticks. In 1905, the first floral incense appeared: Hana no Hana, incense sticks of rose, lily and violet that Nippon Kodo still makes today. Today, the Japanese use incense daily as a tribute to their ancestors, to revitalise themselves at work or to perfume their homes. The scents they choose become an integral part of the home.

Koh Do, the incense ceremony

In the Muromachi era (15th century), burning incense became an art: Koh Do, the way of incense or the art of incense. It is a ceremony in which fragrances are enjoyed and sensitivity is cultivated. It is an aesthetic and spiritual experience, an excursion of the soul through a world of elegant simplicity in the spirit of Zen. 

How does it work?

Japanese artwork depicting the incense ceremonyIn a quiet room, the participants feel (listen to) the fragrances according to certain rules of etiquette. They leave the hustle and bustle of everyday life behind, calm the mind and turn their gaze inwards.

Like the floral art of ikebana, the chado tea ceremony or martial arts, the mastery of Koh Do allows the spirit to soar and concentration to deepen. Only the aromatic woods of aloe and sandalwood are used.

The ten virtues of incense

We end this post with the ten virtues of incense compiled by a 16th century Zen monk:

  1. Facilitates communication with the transcendent.
  2. Purifies mind and body.
  3. Eliminates obsessive thoughts.
  4. Keeps the mind alert.
  5. Accompanies us in solitude.
  6. Brings peace amid the daily hustle and bustle.
  7. When it abounds, it does not tire.
  8. When it is scarce, a little also satisfies.
  9. Even when stored for a long time, its fragrance lingers.
  10. Using it every day is harmless.

We hope you have enjoyed the content of this post and hope it inspires you to burn incense as it has been done since time immemorial.




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