Many religious ceremonies and spiritual purificatory rites employ incense, a practice that persists to this day. Incense is also used in medicine and for its aesthetic value. The forms taken by incense have changed with advances in technology, differences in the underlying culture, and diversity in the reasons for burning it.
The use of incense dates back to biblical times and may have originated in Egypt, where the gums and resins of aromatic trees were imported from the Arabian and Somali coasts to be used in religious ceremonies. It was also used by the Pharaohs, not only to counteract unpleasant odors, but as they believed, also to drive away demons and gratify the presence of gods.
The Babylonians used incense extensively while offering prayers to divining oracles. It was imported into Israel in the 5th century BC to be used in religious offerings. It spread from there to Greece, Rome and India, where both Hindus and Buddhists still burn it in their rituals and at festivals. In India some 2000 years BC various writings mention 'perfumers' and 'incense sellers'. Evidence suggests oils were used mainly for their aroma.
Brought to Japan in the 6th century by Chinese or Korean Buddhist monks who used the mystical aromas in their purification rites, the delicate scents of Koh (high quality Japanese incense) became a source of amusement and entertainment with nobles in the Imperial Court during the Heian Era 200 years later.
During the Shogunate period in the 14th century, samurai warriors would perfume their helmets and armor with incense to achieve a proud aura of invincibility as they prepared to meet their foe and their fate. But it wasn't until the Muromachi Era during the 15th and 16th century that the elegant art of incense appreciation spread to the upper and middle classes of Japanese society.
Kōdō, or incense appreciation, has long been the spiritual nourishment of Japanese culture. Fast becoming a popular custom in the United States and all over the world for those seeking quiet reflection and peace of mind, this elegant art not only creates a feeling of tranquility and an added dimension in gracious living but also opens up a new world of temporal and spiritual awareness.
Modern practitioners of Kōdō now use incense to enhance the ambiance of their homes or offices, to entertain guests, to celebrate special occasions, to relax the body and calm the mind after a trying day and to soothe tired nerves before retiring.
The same could be said for the techniques used to make incense. Local knowledge and tools were extremely influential on the style, but methods were also influenced by migrations of foreigners, among them clergy and physicians who were both familiar with incense arts.
Most recently, incensole acetate was isolated from Boswellia carterii and shown to be a potent TRPV3 agonist and cause anxiolytic-like and antidepressive-like behavioral effects in mice with concomitant changes in brain c-Fos activation, a marker for changes in neuronal activity.
The following fragrance materials can be employed in either direct or indirect burning incense. They are commonly used in religious ceremonies, and many of them are considered quite valuable. Essential oils or other extracted fractions of these materials may also be isolated and used to make incense. The resulting incense is sometimes considered to lack the aromatic complexity or authenticity of incense made from raw materials not infused or fortified with extracts.
Woods and barks|
Seeds and fruits
|Resins and gums||
Roots and rhizomes
Flowers and buds|
|Essential oils||Artificial scents|
The combustible base of a direct burning incense mixture not only binds the fragrant material together but also allows the produced incense to burn with a self-sustained ember, which propagates slowly and evenly through an entire piece of incense with such regularity that it can be used to mark time. The base is chosen such that it does not produce a perceptible smell. Commercially, two types of incense base predominate:
Indirect burning incense, also called non-combustible incense, is simply a combination of aromatic ingredients not prepared in any particular way or encouraged into any particular form, leaving it mostly unsuitable for direct combustion. The use of this class of incense requires a separate heat source since it does not generally kindle a fire capable of burning itself and may not ignite at all under normal conditions. This incense can vary in the duration of its burning with the texture of the material. Finer ingredients tend to burn more rapidly, while coarsely ground or whole chunks may be consumed very gradually as they have less total surface area. The heat is traditionally provided by charcoal or glowing embers.
The best known incense materials of this type in the West, are frankincense and myrrh, likely due to their numerous mentions in the Christian Bible. In fact, the word for "frankincense" in many European languages also alludes to any form of incense.
Direct burning incense also called combustible incense, , generally requires little preparation prior to its use. When lit directly by a flame (hence the appellation) and then fanned out, the glowing ember on the incense will continue to smolder and burn away the rest of the incense without continued application of heat or flame from an outside source. This class of incense is made from a moldable substrate of fragrant finely ground (or liquid) incense materials and odorless binder. The composition must be adjusted to provide fragrance in the proper concentration and to ensure even burning. The following types of direct burning incense are commonly encountered, though the material itself can take virtually any form, according to expediency or whimsy:
Direct burning incense of these forms is either extruded, pressed into forms, or coated onto a supporting material.
It is quite the opposite for direct burning incense. On top of producing a pleasant scent when burnt, this type of incense must burn completely to ash with a stable ember. Ideally the incense should burn slowly and evenly with no trace of the supporting core after burning. In order to obtain these desired combustion qualities, attention has to be paid to certain proportions in direct burning incense mixtures:
The incense mixture can be extruded or pressed into shapes, which use water soluble binders like makko (抹香・末香). small quantities of water are combined with the fragrance and incense base mixture and kneaded into a hard dough. The incense dough is then pressed into shaped forms to create cone and smaller coiled incense, or forced through a hydraulic press for solid stick incense. The formed incense is then trimmed and slowly dried. Incense produced in this fashion has a tendency to warp or become misshapen when improperly dried, and as such must be placed in climate controlled rooms and rotated several times through the drying process.
In the case of cored incensed sticks several methods are employed to coat the sticks cores with incense mixture:
In Japan a similar censer called a is used by several Buddhist sects. The egōro is usually made of brass with a long ) and no chain. Instead of charcoal, makkō powder is poured into a depression made in a bed of ash. The makkō is lit and the incense mixture is burned on top. This method is known as Sonae-kō (Religious Burning).
For direct burning incense, an end of the incense is held against a flame or a heat source until the incense begins to turn into ash at the burning end. Flames on the incense are fanned out and the incense is allow to burn on its own.
Charcoal incenses are made by dipping an unscented "blank" (non-perfume stick) into a mixture of perfumes and/or essential oils. These blanks usually contain a binding resin (sometimes sandalwood) that holds the sticks' ingredients together. Most charcoal incenses are black in color.
Many Tibetan incenses are thought to have medicinal properties. Their recipes come from ancient Vedic texts that are based on even older Ayurvedic medical texts. The recipes have remained unchanged for centuries.
Agarwood (沈香 Jinkō) and Sandalwood (白檀 Byakudan) are the two most important ingredients in Japanese incense. Agarwood is known as "Jinkō" in Japan, which translates as "incense that sinks in water", due to the weight of the resin in the wood. Sandalwood is one of the most calming incense ingredients and lends itself well to meditation. The most valued Sandalwood comes from Mysore in the state of Karnataka in India.
Another important ingredient in Japanese incense is kyara (伽羅). Kyara is one kind of agarwood (Japanese incense companies divide agarwood into 6 categories depending on the region obtained and properties of the agarwood). Kyara is currently worth more than its weight in gold.
Incense fragrances can be of such great strength that they obscure other, less desirable odors. This utility led to the use of incense in funerary ceremonies because the incense could smother the scent of decay. Another example of this use, as well as of religious use is the Botafumeiro, which, according to tradition, was installed to hide the scent of the many tired, unwashed pilgrims huddled together in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
The regular burning of direct combustion incense has been used for chronological measurement in incense clocks. These devices can range from a simple trail of incense material calibrated to burn in a specific time period, to elaborate and ornate instruments with bells or gongs, designed to involve and captivate several of the senses.
Incense made from materials such as citronella can repel mosquitoes and other aggravating, distracting or pestilential insects. This use has been deployed in concert with religious uses by Zen Buddhists who claim that the incense that is part of their meditative practice is designed to keep bothersome insects from distracting the practitioner.
Incense is also used often by people who smoke indoors, and do not want the scent to linger.
Use of incense in religion is prevalent in many cultures and may have their roots in the practical and aesthetic uses considering that many religions with not much else in common all use incense. One common motif is of incense as a form of sacrificial offering to a deity.
Research into the effects of incense burning and health are unclear at this time.
Research carried out in Taiwan in 2001 linked the burning of incense sticks to the slow accumulation of potential carcinogens in a poorly ventilated environment by measuring the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (including benzopyrene) within Buddhist temples. The study found gaseous aliphatic aldehydes, which are carcinogenic and mutagenic, in incense smoke.
In contrast, a study by several Asian Cancer Research Centers showed: "No association was found between exposure to incense burning and respiratory symptoms like chronic cough, chronic sputum, chronic bronchitis, runny nose, wheezing, asthma, allergic rhinitis, or pneumonia among the three populations studied: i.e. primary school children, their non-smoking mothers, or a group of older non-smoking female controls. Incense burning did not affect lung cancer risk among non-smokers, but it significantly reduced risk among smokers, even after adjusting for lifetime smoking amount." However, the researchers qualified the findings by noting that incense burning in the studied population was associated with certain low-cancer-risk dietary habits, and concluded that "diet can be a significant confounder of epidemiological studies on air pollution and respiratory health.
Boswellia incense has been shown to cause antidepressive behavior in mice.
History of Incense: http://www.nipponkodo.com/culture/column02/index.html