The Pagan Experience focuses on letters of the alphabet this week so my first post of the weekend focuses Incense, tying in with the Tools of the Trade series of posts. Check out the tab at the top to see my musings on other tools.
Incense and aroma have played in role in many religions throughout history and still plays a major part in many today. Ancient cultures, such as the Egyptians and Romans used incense in their rituals in a number of different ways and living religions today, such as Japanese Shinto, Judaism, Catholicism and Hinduism all continue to make use of incense today. Modern paganism also makes extensive use of incense in preparation and ritual so let’s look at some of the applications.
Incense can be used in a number of different ways in a religious context. It can be a method of purification, represent an offering to deity or can be a vehicle to carry messages and prayers between ourselves and our Gods. These things are tied into the very action of burning incense and the function mostly revolves around the kind of scent being used.
For example, sulphurous and unpleasant scents are most often used to cleanse spaces and objects of negative forces. This might be because there is a suspected haunting. In this case it is important to know thy enemy so that you do not inadvertently use something that will encourage or strengthen the entity you are dealing with. A particularly tricksy spirit might revel in scents most noxious whilst retreating ahead of something sweeter smelling. Don’t assume that one size fits all and just sage an area. Learn about what you are dealing with first. Also, remember not to blast an area clear of all energies without bringing in positive ones. Nature abhors a vacuum and you might leave yourself open to worse yet if you don’t replace what you remove.
On the other hand you can prepare areas to work with certain energies and deities by burning incense that is sacred to them, and this is a common uses in a pagan context. Again, it is important to know the individual likes and dislikes of a deity through research and experience as you want to draw them closer with things they like rather than turn them away with scents that they don’t. This ties into the use of incense as an offering to the God/s. You can dedicate the act of burning the incense to the deity you are working with.
Incense, by its nature, is often very expensive but particularly so for ancient cultures. Resins, woods, essences etc would be transported great distances at great expense and the rarity of a particular incense would increase its value. In Japan there are some scents used in religious ceremonies even today that are more expensive than its equivalent weight in gold and there are many people who will never smell it for this reason. The purchase of particular ingredients or blends makes the process an offering to the gods which is carried to the divine realms on fragrant smoke, the essence of the incense.
Then there is using incense and scent as a method of communication in ritual. I like this little excerpt from Terry Pratchets Going Postal when thinking about scent and ceremony.
“As I understand it,” said Moist, “the gift of sausages reaches Offler by being fried, yes? And the spirit of the sausages ascends unto Offler by means of the smell? And then you eat the sausages?”
“Ah, no. Not exactly. Not at all,” said the young priest, who knew this one. “It might look like that to the uninitiated, but, as you say, the true sausagidity goes straight to Offler. He, of course, eats the spirit of the sausages. We eat the mere earthy shell, which, believe me, turns to dust and ashes in our mouths.”
“That would explain why the smell of sausages is always better than the actual sausage, then?” said Moist. “I’ve often noticed that.”
The priest was impressed. “Are you a theologian, sir?” he said.
Terry Pratchet – Going Postal
The smoke carries with it the words of the human devotee and if the words are as pleasing to the ear as the incense is to the nose of the divine (the theory goes) the Gods will surely look upon the petition with favour. Or at least so we hope.
Incense sets the tone and mood for ritual. Given that in western traditions we have roots in Christian denominations which make extensive use of incense as a tool of purification, communication and of offering (which in turn is rooted in Jewish and Roman origins and uses) and that the use of incense is still occurring in religions around the world it is unsurprising that its use has found its way into Pagan traditions.
Now a days incense of varying qualities are available to us. There are joss sticks and incense cones a plenty available from only a couple of pound. These types of incense might be more within our budget or circumstance and we shouldn’t turn our nose up unnecessarily. If all you want to do is set the mood then they are the perfect option. If we can and want to make the action of burning incense more elaborate or of deeper meaning then loose incense, charcoal disks and censures are alternative which can add an element of ceremony to your ritual. Or you can go one step even further and make you own incense.
And finally, incense on the witches altar is most often used as a representation of the element of air in calling the quarters and honouring the elements, but as you can see above there are many other uses. Many of the associations of the element can be found in the too itself. On both the mundane and spiritual level incense (and smoke) represents a form of communication, be is smoke signals or the method of carrying intent. Scents can often be a source of inspiration and mood, that ‘new car’ smell (for example) will often invoke a sense of new beginnings in people, just as the east and air are associated with new beginnings, imagination and inspiration.
Have some fun with incense, see how you would like to fit it into your ritual and go from there.
Incense Burner and Smoke by Z-GrimV