Herbal Incense is as old as history itself. The early Egyptian and Indian civilizations utilized incense as a basic ingredient for sacrificial rituals, and the manufacture of Herbal Incense was nothing less than a sacred art. Employed to counteract disagreeable odors and drive away demons, Incense was said both to manifest the presence of the gods (fragrance being a divine attribute) and to gratify them.
Historically, the chief substances used as Incense were such resins as frankincense and myrrh, along with aromatic woods and barks, seeds, roots, herbs and flowers. The Incense used by the ancient Israelites in their liturgy, for example, was a mixture of frankincense, storax, onycha, and galbanum, with salt added as a preservative. Although at one time the Israelites erected separate altars for the offering of Incensesuch was its importanceit is no longer a part of Jewish liturgy today.
Incense has been a feature of religious ceremonies worldwide since ancient times. It is mentioned on an inscribed tablet dating from the year 1530 before the Common Era (BCE), placed on the Sphinx at Giza, Egypt. Even earlier records, the Vedas of India, eloquently mention the virtues of Incense as early as 5,000 BCE. In Vedic times, aromatic woods such as sandalwood, and natural oils extracted from various flowers and spices, were offered as a natural Incense in the sacrificial fire for the pleasure of the deities.
What is technically known as Incense grows exclusively, even today, on the southwestern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, in Somalia. Best known are frankincense and myrrh, but the resins of various other plants have also been collected and traded since approximately the year 3,000 BCE. The Egyptians used oil of myrrh for embalming, and later on their priesthood discovered other ritual, medical, and cosmetic uses for Incense. The world trade in Incense has never declined since that time.
Hindus use Incense for all temple and domestic offerings, while Buddhists burn Incense at festivals, initiations, and daily rites. The Chinese use Incense to honor ancestors and household or tutelary deities, and in Japan it is a mainstay of Shinto ritual. The Orphic Greeks burnt Incense as an oblation and for protection as early as the 8th century BCE, and in Rome it was an important element in public and private sacrifices, especially in the worship of the emperor.
The early Christian church utilized Incense to symbolize the ascent of prayers of the faithful, and to honor God and the saints. It is noteworthy that frankincense and myrrh were offered to Jesus Christ in his infancy by the Eastern Sages. Although its use was restricted for a time after the Reformation, Incense was widely restored to ritual in Protestant liturgy by the 19th century Oxford Movement. Elsewhere in Christendom, Incense use has been a constant feature of ritual in the Eastern and Western branches of Catholicism, as well as in Eastern Orthodox Churches.
In the Americas, the use of Incense is documented from the very first encounters between the indigenous populations and the Europeans in the 15th and early 16th centuries. Copal, an aromatic resin, is still offered today by the descendants of Aztecs and Mayas to worship their ancestral deities as well as the Catholic saints of their adopted religion. In North America, tobacco, sage, and other aromatic herbal substances are important components of traditional indigenous Native American ritual.
Manufacture of Incense
In the 17th and 18th centuries, natural and herbal Incense ingredients began to be supplanted by chemicals used in the perfume industry, and this trend toward the use of synthetic substitutes in Incense continues to the present day. The cost of manufacturing, particularly in the industrialized West and in Japan, has also meant that traditional Incense production has been abandoned in favor of mechanized mass production. The only notable exception remains India, and especially South India, where the natural masala method is still followed scrupulously.
The manufacture of Incense is both a science and an art. Varieties of Incense are composed of diverse leaves, flowers, roots, barks, woods, resins, gums and oils. Semiprecious stones may also be added to Incense, much as emeralds were once burned in fires by ancient Meso-American peoples, and pearls or coral are added to some Ayurvedic medicinal preparations.
The most frequently used ingredients in Incense manufacture in the West today are frankincense, myrrh, sandalwood, rose petals, cinnamon, juniper, copal, thyme, pine, benzoin, cedar, bay, rosemary, and basil. In India, sandalwood, lavender, golden champa, patchouli, rose, jasmine, vanilla, cloves, nutmeg, gur, cedarwood, cananga, lime, lemon, orange, ylang, geranium, citronella, sesame, hibiscus, cardamom, saffron, vetiver, ginger, lotus, kadamba, hena, and camphor are extensively used.
Two types of Incense are commonly available: combustible and non-combustible. The combustible type usually contains potassium nitrate (saltpeter) to aid in burning, while the latter does not. Combustible Incense can be burned in the form of bricks, cones, sticks and other shapes, whereas non-combustible Incense must be sprinkled onto glowing charcoal blocks or directly onto a fire to release its fragrance. We give a few simple non-combustible Incense Recipes for your pleasure.
Each ingredient in non-combustible Incense must be finely ground, preferably to a fine powder. The resins and gums are usually mixed first, and then the powdered leaves, barks, flowers and roots are added. Any essential oils or liquids (such as honey) that are included in the formula are added last.
Non-combustible incense is most commonly smoldered over a self-igniting charcoal block, placed in a censer or other adequate fire-proof container. Once the charcoal is glowing a half-teaspoon or so of the incense is placed on the block. Formulas for incense containing large amounts of resins and gums (frankincense and myrrh, for example) will burn longer than those mainly composed of woods and leaves.
Charcoal blocks are necessary for burning non-combustible incense. They are available in a wide range of sizes, from over an inch in diameter to approximately a half-inch size. Potassium nitrate is added to these charcoal blocks during their manufacture to help them ignite. When lit, fresh charcoal blocks erupt into a sparkling fire which quickly spreads across the block.
Combustible incense in the form of cones, blocks and sticks is more complex in its composition. It contains saltpeter (potassium nitrate) in order to allow it to burn without the need to place it over charcoal. Gum tragacanth glue or mucilage is the basic ingredient of most molded Incenses in the West. Tragacanth has enormous absorption qualities, and an ounce will absorb up to one gallon of water, becoming a thick paste. The consistency of the mixture depends on the form of incense desired. For sticks the mixture should be relatively thin; for blocks and cones a thicker mucilage must be made. In the absence of tragacanth, gum arabic is also utilized.
Next, a base is mixed, usually containing sandalwood dust and other such materials, including charcoal. Resins and gums are mixed in, followed by powdered leaves, barks, flowers and roots. Essential oils are added last. Saltpeter may be added at different times in the process, depending on the manufacturer's preference. Once it is compounded, the procedure for making cones, blocks, or sticks is perhaps the most difficult, labor intensive, and critical, especially for fine sticks. Mechanical production of incense sticks has been known to alter the quality of the fragrance, and therefore hand-rolling is the preferred method. Only South Indian masala incense is traditionally manufactured in this way.