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History of Incense as it Applies to Ritualism & Spirituality


Incense has a long history, going as far back as ancient times. Valued as a precious commodity, it was offered as a gift to people of honor. The word incense comes from Latin origins: incendere, meaning to burn and it has the same meaning as the word perfume — the aroma given off with the smoke (per fumar ) of an odoriferous substance when burned. 

Incense plays an important role in many different religions. In the Old Testament, passages describe the burning of incense as a part of worship. But long before that, until the time of Constantine the Great, who ruled Rome between AD 306 and 337, incense was not used in Christian  public worship ceremonies. Its use as an offering was condemned by the early Fathers, like Cyril of Alexandria because of its association with pagan practices.

Aloe, camphor, cloves, sandalwood, myrrh, frankincense, cedar, juniper, balsam, galbanum, and turpentine have all been used as incense. Since ancient times incense has been an important part of religious rites and practices around the world. Incense has been used to appease the gods, sanctify a place or an object, display reverence and respect and honor commitments.

Ritualistic Use

As we burn incense and strong scents fill an area, olfactory sensations in us become stimulated. As a ritual, incense can involve burning it to achieve certain purposes. Native Americans engage in smoke and smudging ceremony — these rituals contain similarities to burning incense. While you meditate, you can burn incense to help achieve a level of calm and focus. Buddhists will burn incense to purify an area.

Because its fragrance is thought to be pleasing to the gods, incense has played an important role in worship and is used in ceremonies of offering, prayer, mediation, or purification. It’s used to attract the attention of, or establish a connection with, a deity and is also used to exorcise evil or harmful forces

Spiritual use of incense is often accompanied by prayers, invocations, and spells. Smoke rising to the sky represents that the requests have arrived at the destination and will get approval from the divine entities. 

Personal use of incense can help you too. You can clear your room from negative energy and purify it with the help of incense. This can help free your mind and increase concentration during meditation and other activities requiring concentration.

Incense Around the World

During Buddhist ceremonies, devotees burn bundles of incense as they bow to plaques or statues in the temple. Incense assists with bringing up or adjusting the energy in a space. 

Frankincense and spirituality have a strong connection in the church. Burning incense in Mass is used together with composing a congregation for prayer and rituals associated with religious service. Catholics use incense as a type of offering to God and an expression of devotion. 

In Chinese, the word xiang can mean both "aromatic" and "incense." In China incense is sometimes burned alongside aesthetic pleasure, like reading, writing compositions, or performing music. In Chinese Daoism, incense was used to disperse evil and to appease the gods. In Japan incense was an important part of the tea ceremony

In the Islamic tradition, incense is burned to create a pleasant aroma in places of worship, but it does not have any specific religious significance. The Muslims of India burn incense sticks on auspicious occasions like weddings, births, or religious festivals. Incense is frequently offered at the tombs of saints, which people visit in order to obtain blessings. 

Healing Use of Incense

Incense and fragrance have historically been connected to healing. In China incense was employed in rituals for the cure of disease. As well, various incense blends can produce positive effects for people suffering from depression or anxiety. The name Frankincense comes from the Old French, “franc encens” —meaning high quality incense. Considered to be a pure incense, it was most desirable in comparison to other types of incense. It’s woody, earthy, spiciness and fruit nuance is used in aromatherapy. It can have a strong sedative effect, bringing peace and relaxation to those who breathe it in. And it’s believed to invigorate the respiratory system. Sandalwood incense has sacred properties, and it may help relieve insomnia and depression. Eucalyptus incense properties have been used to help respiratory ailments

The Mystic Use of Incense 

Here, an excerpt in part from un Rose-Croix des temps modernes, or A Rose-Cross For Modern Times, by Ralph Maxwell Lewis, on the pleasures of Incense.

“One thing philosophers of days gone by yearned for was to bring all of man’s senses, at the very least the physical senses, into harmony with one another. For them, perfect physical harmony meant something being equally and simultaneously pleasurable to each of the five senses.  It was believed that by achieving this, the resulting ecstatic state would enable harmony with the spiritual forces within and around us. It is the distraction of the physical which anchors the soul of man the earth, as Socrates said in the Dialogues of Plato.

Certain delicately scented aromas relax and soothe the body and liberate physical forces. They are highly conducive towards meditation and provide us with the increased energy we need to overcome the challenges of our day. We know from experience that in churches incense seems to become one with the place itself, its tranquillity, the beautiful music and solemnity. Mystics know why.

This goes to the symbol in the rising smoke, and only a symbol, of a spiritual essence which is present in man and resembles a silver thread which leaves him and connects his body with the Cosmic realm. Even if (...) incense can influence our psychic centres, it is nevertheless true that, like any other form of material, it is not absolutely essential to achieve cosmic harmony or to appreciate the spiritual and make use of our connection with it.  By developing our inner selves, we can go without music, incense or aesthetic influences; but even if we attain such self-control, our inner self will nevertheless always enjoy contact with sounds, scents or an inspiring natural ambiance.”

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