Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto in Asia
The first recorded use of incense was by the Egyptians.
Incense use in religious ritual was either further or simultaneously developed in China, and eventually transmitted to Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Incense holds an invaluable role in East Asian Buddhist ceremonies and rites as well as in those of Chinese Taoist and Japanese Shinto shrines. It is reputed to be a method of purifying the surroundings, bringing forth an assembly of buddhas, bodhisattvas, gods, demons, and the like.
In Chinese Taoist and Buddhist temples, the inner spaces are scented with thick coiled incense, which are either hung from the ceiling or on special stands. Worshipers at the temples light and burn sticks of incense in small or large bundles, which they wave or raise above the head while bowing to the statues or plaques of a deity or an ancestor. Individual sticks of incense are then vertically placed into individual censers located in front of the statues or plaques either singularly or in threes, depending on the status of the deity or the feelings of the individual.
In Japanese Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, the sticks of incense are placed horizontally into censers on top of the ash since the sticks used normally lack a supporting core that does not burn.
The formula and scent of the incense sticks used in various temples throughout Asia vary widely.
Incense has been employed in the worship of the vast majority of Christian groups since antiquity, particularly in the Eastern Christian churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and some Anglican and Lutheran Churches. The practice is probably rooted in the earlier traditions of Judaism in the time of the Second Temple. The smoke of burning incense is interpreted by the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Christian churches as a symbol of the prayer of the faithful rising to heaven. This symbolism is seen in Psalm 141 (140), verse 2: "Let my prayer be directed as incense in thy sight: the lifting up of my hands, as evening sacrifice." It is often used after the manner of a purification ritual.
In the Book of Revelation, incense symbolises the prayers of the saints in heaven - the "golden bowl full of incense" are "the prayers of the saints" (Revelation 5:8 cf. Revelation 8:3) which infuse upwards towards the altar of God.
A thurible, a type of censer, is used to contain incense as it is burned. A server called a thurifer sometimes assisted by a "boat bearer", approach the person conducting the service with a thurible with burning charcoals. Incense, in the form of pebbly grains or powder, is taken from what is called a "boat", and usually blessed with a prayer and spooned onto the coals. The thurible is then closed, and taken by the chain and swung by the priest, deacon or server/acolyte towards what or who is being incensed: the bread and wine offered for the Eucharist, the consecrated Eucharist itself, the Gospel during its proclamation/reading, the crucifix, the icons (in Eastern churches), the clergy,the congregation, the Easter candle or the body of a deceased person during a funeral.
Incense may be used in Christian worship at the celebration of the Eucharist, at solemn celebrations of the Divine Office, in particular at Solemn Vespers, at Solemn Evensong, at funerals, benediction and exposition of the Eucharist, the consecration of a church or altar and at other services.
Aside from being burnt, grains of blessed incense are placed in the Easter candle and were formerly placed in the sepulchre of consecrated altars, though this latter is no longer obligatory or even mentioned in the liturgical books.
Many formulations of incense are currently used, often with frankincense, myrrh, styrax, copal or other aromatics.
Hinduism was probably the first religion in which incense was used and sacrificed to show loyalty to God. The use of incense is a traditional and ubiquitous practice in almost all pujas, prayers, and other forms of worship. As part of the daily ritual worship within the Hindu tradition of India, incense is offered to God in His deity forms, such as Krishna and Rama. This practice is still commonplace throughout modern-day India. It is said in the Bhagavad-Gita that, "Krishna accepts the offering made to Him with love", and it is on this principle that articles are offered each day by temple priests or by those with an altar in their homes.
In Islam, incense is used throughout the Islamic world to remind the believers of the rewards of righteous believers in Paradise:
"The first group of people, who will enter Paradise, will be glittering like the full moon and those who will follow them, will glitter like the most brilliant star in the sky. They will not urinate, relieve nature, spit, or have any nasal secretions. Their combs will be of gold, and their sweat will smell like musk. The aloes-wood will be used in their censers. Their wives will be houris. All of them will look alike and will resemble their father Adam in being sixty cubits tall."
The ketoret is the incense described in the Bible for use in the Temple. Its composition is described in greater detail in the Talmud. Although it was not produced following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Orthodox Judaism studies the composition of the ancient Temple incense for future use in a restored Temple as part of daily Jewish services.
Contemporary Judaism uses aromatic spices in religious ritual only as part of the havdala ceremony ending the Sabbath. There is, however, a blessing for smelling pleasant smells.
Incense is also often used in Neopagan rituals to represent the element of air, although more modern approaches to incense magic demonstrate that incense actually represents all of the elements. This is attributed to the fact that incense smoke wafts through the air, is created through the use of fire, the incense materials are grown from the earth, and combustible incense is formed using water. It is also believed to release natural energy. Incenses of a wide range of fragrances are also used in spell and ritual for different purposes.
Although many Pagan traditions associate specific botanical materials with certain magical attributes (see below), those definitions vary widely from one tradition to another. Generally speaking, Neopagans and Wiccans use incense for two basic purposes in modern rituals. First, incense is believed to create a magical atmosphere that is appropriate for the invocation (or inviting) of deities and spirits often present around the Pagan altar. Second, burning the incense is believed to release the large amount of energy stored within natural incense so that it can be used for magical purposes.
The use of "perfumed", "dipped", or synthetic incense is generally avoided during magical workings, since such artificial materials are believed to not contain the energies useful for magic.
The associations below do not hold true for all traditions, but provide a general look at the magical associations of incense.
- Frankincense — burned for purification, spirituality and is associated with the Sun. Frankincense is associated with masculine powers.
- Myrrh — has similar properties to frankincense, though it is also used for healing and attraction as well. Myrrh is associated with feminine powers.
- Copal — most often burned for purification, both spiritual cleansing as well as for cleansing physical items. Copal is actually a generic term referring to many different types of resins. Varieties include white, black, and golden.
- Dragon's blood — burned for love, strength, and courage and can be used to add potency to any spellwork.
- Pine and Cedar — help cleanse space of negative energy.
Some forms of Satanism use incense to create an atmosphere that is capable of bringing 'demons' into the room, to perform such tasks as telling the future, healing the ritual practitioner or another person, and in some cases, Satanists believe they can 'curse' or 'hex' someone if the demons are willing to help.
Although Satanism uses a variety of incense sticks, the one most commonly used is Patchouli (Graveyard Dust). Patchouli, when burnt in a small room or altar with several burning black candles, is said to bring forth those demons the practitioner wishes. Practitioners may bathe in water and then dress in black to perform these rituals, which may put the practitioner into a trance like state.
Indeed, it can be seen that the uses of incense in this 'tradition' are similar to those in other traditions - that is, the creation of atmosphere and an air of out of the ordinary into which change can be invited.
Incense in Christian worship
- Incense (New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. V)
- Catholic Encyclopedia (1917) on Incense
- EWTN Catholic Questions: Why is incense used during Mass?
- General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM) - incensation
- The Liturgical Customary of the Church of the Advent, Boston (Episcopalian) - Thurifer
- A Reason for Incense (Lutheran)
- The Archbishops on the Lawfulness of the Liturgical Use of Incense Anglican document from 1899.