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Ceramic incense burners and fragrant smoke

Pre-Columbian incense burner, Costa Rica (Carlos Museum)

Pre-Columbian incense burner

The use of incense is an ancient practice and it has long been used as an aid to spiritual practice, altering one’s frame of mind or perceptions. There are many references to incense in sacred texts and it is associated with divinity. Heady mixtures are also burned as  offerings in temples and churches. In times past, ingredients were precious enough and dear enough to limit use among the masses, but it was widely used by nobles in dynastic eastern cultures, along with the priestly classes. In very ancient times, the use of incense would have accompanied ritual sacrifice. As a child and teenager, I breathed in the incense at church and looked forward to the exotic scent of myrrh. Smudging for purification is another spiritual practice. While it may not be thought of as incense, sage and sweet grass create scented smoke and these natural substances are sacred to members of First Nations.

Huonghoa, Silk painting. Incense and fruit sellers. Artist : Phạm Sỹ. Via Wikimedia Commons

Incense is also used for social or cultural purposes. A big fad in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, incense was tied to Eastern mysticism and burning it became the ‘in’ thing to do. As well, incense masked odors or was thought to enhance recreational drug use. During the hippie heyday, most incense probably came from India. (Writing about this just made me think of Timothy Leary, who I saw in a much more watered down version in the mid-1980s.) Sold on a large-scale, like at Pier 1, or in shops that specialize in such goods, incense can be found with accoutrements for myriad spiritual practices.

Pagoda incense burner, Johann Freidrich Eberlein, Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, c. 1735-1740

A form of aromatherapy, incense can influence your moods, perk you up or relax you. Yet, if you breathe air laden with incense over a long period of time, it can be dangerous  for your health because of carcinogens. While I can appreciate an incense deemed to be organic, it, too will burn and release chemicals. Just because something is ‘natural’ or organic doesn’t give us a green light for wholesale use. As the Buddhists say, moderation in all things… Temperate use and good ventilation are important when burning incense. If you plan on making an incense burner out of clay, make sure your vessel can easily disperse the smoke, which carries the scent. Holders either have openings or are flat and the shape determines the form you use, sticks or cones. You can pretty much turn any piece of greenware, vessel or sculpture, into a simple incense burner by just tunneling a little hole in it, wide and deep enough to hold the wooden wand on a stick of incense. Burning does create ash, so want to make sure it’s safe and will catch the residue. There are some nice incense burners offered on Etsy and I especially like this flat one called “Don’t Be So Blue,” by Heritage Valley Pottery. There are any number of ways to use incense…to aid meditation, to spruce up a mid-winter home. Gone are the days when patchouli reigned supreme, but I still enjoy sandalwood…

Stele Ra-Horakhty Louvre N3795

Upper tier: the priest Padiuiset burning incense in honour of Ra-Horakhty-Atum; Lower tier: offering formula to Osiris. Coated and painted wood, ca. 900 BC (22nd Dynasty). Louvre.

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