The Great Incense FAQ – The Smelly Truth: Part 2



Well here we are, at the beginning of the second edition of the Great Incense FAQ.  The first part covered most of the basic questions I get, so this second part will be dedicated to some of the more obscure inquiries that I have found interesting, and also to some of the important questions that few people ask but should.  So, without further ado, on to the questions!

Q: Where does incense burning come from?

A: As early as the 50th century BCE, people have been burning incense in one form or another.  The date is probably much earlier than that, really, but when one looks back 7000 years things get a little fuzzy.  It’s doubtful that cavemen would have missed that placing certain woods or resins on the fire produced a certain, distinctive aroma.

The earliest records of incense trade date to around the 30th century BCE, and it is known that some of the areas involved in this kind of trade included Vedic India, ancient Egypt, Persia, Babylonia and Rome.  All of these cultures used incenses of different kinds in a spiritual capacity, whether in actual religious ritual or to bring about aromatheraputic benefits (a term that would not be coined until 1937 AD).

Q: Will I set my house on fire with incense?

A: Probably not.  Like anything that burns or smolders openly, once incense is lit it is inadvisable to leave it unattended.  That being said, I have to admit that I have never heard of anyone burning their house down in this way.  The worst things that have been reported to me involve burning a line in the carpet (from a dropped incense stick), and circles on the table (from burning charcoal in a brass screen burner without a coaster).  Candles are far more dangerous.

Q: ‘Ash Catchers’ don’t seem to do a very good job of catching ash.  Is there a tidier way?

A: There are three kind of burners that I can recommend for this problem:

  • Smokers – most commonly, smoking bottles and statues.  This is very tidy because the incense is enclosed, so there is nowhere for the ash to fall except straight back into the burner.
  • Lay-down-type burners – any kind of burner that has a wide-mesh metal screen or a row of small metal bars that allow you to lay the incense flat instead of sticking it into a hole and leaving it suspended.
  • A wide bowl filled with sand – you wouldn’t think that this would be one of the tidier ways, but incense that is stuck straight up in sand will have a tendency to collect more ash before it falls off the stick, making it heavier as a whole and limiting the distance it is likely to drift with small eddies in the air currents.

Q: You mentioned some incenses in your previous article that can cost in the hundreds of dollars.  Is the expensive stuff REALLY that much better than the less-costly variety?

A: ‘Better’ is a relative term.  Some people think so (especially in Japan), others much prefer the more pedestrian incenses.  The best answer/advice that I can give to this is, if you are interested or curious about finding a ‘better’ incense, to start at the lower end of the spectrum and pick up some of the rolled Japanese incenses.  These are your best bargains, and give you an idea of what to expect from some of the more expensive ones.  If you want to jump straight into the really fine stuff, our Plymouth shop carries 8-stick sample packs that bring the price down to a more comfortable level for most people.

Q: Should I use incense when I’m meditating/praying/performing a ritual?

A: Of course you should!  People have been doing this since time immortal, and even mainstream religon continues to do it to this day!

What I recommend in a meditational incense is a very light variety – something that scents the air without demanding attention, so to speak. Keep it a respectable distance from where you will be sitting, because there is little more distracting than getting a noseful of scented smoke while you’re trying to transcend the material plane.

For ritual use, on the other hand, I recommend getting old-school and using charcoal and resins/herbs/woods.  This is the purest way to burn (the way the Catholics do it), and the most fitting offering to your respective deity/spiritual power.  The downside, of course, is that it requires more attention than the self-burning variety.

Q: My incense is called ‘frankincense and myrrh’, does that mean it actually contains those things?

A: Not necessarily – in fact, much of the time the answer is ‘No’.  Most incense is made with scented oils which, no matter how much they smell like real materials, do not actually contain them.  The only ones you can be assured contain real resins/herbs/woods are some of the better Japanese varieties and Fred Soll’s resin-on-a-stick line.  If you need absolute purity and certainty in what you are burning, buy the natural material by itself and burn it on charcoal.

Well, that’s about all the things I can think of to say about incense right now.  I hope that this little tutorial has been instructive to some of you, and that the next time you come in to pick up a pack of incense you will do it with more confidence as a better-educated consumer.  The only way to learn more about the subject is, in my opinion, to start trying different kinds and brands.  If ever you are in doubt, the Earth Lore staff can usually make some good reccomendations.

Happy sniffing!


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