Incense: Origins of, Choosing, and Burning Incense for Beginners
Ah, Incense. I imagine anyone reading this has at least taken a whiff of incense at some point. Incense is lovely. To me, it's the smell of intention and mysticism. I burn it most days as part of my morning routine and have come to rely on it as much as I do my coffee to feel as if my morning is off to a good and productive start.
What is Incense?
Before we dive in, please just don't burn the house down. Be smart about where you leave anything smoldering, don't ever leave active incense in any form unattended and always use on a heat-sensitive surface. Ok? Please? Thank you.
At its core, incense is simply organic material burned for fragrance or as a cleansing aid. Most commonly you will find it in stick or cone form but even burning a piece of wood or bundle of herbs for its fragrance is considered incense.
The history of incense is as rich as its fragrance. We think it was initially discovered accidentally. It is believed people eventually began to burn for fragrance the same plants they ordinarily used for fires. There are records of ancient civilizations using various combinations of plants to commemorate special occasions and eventually used these combinations in rituals and ceremonies. It is thought that incense was also used as a primitive form of perfume. The earliest documented use of incense dates back to ancient China. Relics of incense have been found in many parts of the world, though, especially in the Middle East.
What is Incense Made Of?
Aromatic, organic matter + heat source = incense.
In its original, raw form, "organic matter" could mean one or several varieties of bark, wood chips, resins, roots, leaves, seeds, and flowers.
Modern day incense typically is made from powdered organic ingredients made into a paste using a binding agent. The paste is then either shaped into a cone or rolled into a stick, in multiple, thin layers.
Types of Incense
Incense sticks are the most popular form of incense on the market today. You can find them either with a wood core or without.
Incense sticks with a wood core are made by dipping multiple, thin layers of incense paste onto a thin, skewer-like stick, typically made from bamboo or sandalwood. The resulting stick is finer at the bottom and thicker at the top. The bottom of the stick remains bare and fits perfectly in most incense stick burners.
Incense sticks made without a wood core are made by rolling incense paste into long stick shapes and allowing the result to dry before lighting.
The same incense paste used to make sticks can be shaped into a coil and is burned from one end on a fire-proof surface once it has dried.
The same incense paste used to make sticks and coils can be shaped into a cone and is burned the same way once it has dried. Cones vary in size depending on the version but are all burned the same.
A variation on the humble standard cone, backflow cones are made with a hole in the bottom. Incense smoke flows downwards through the hole. These require a special type of burner. The resulting cascade of smoke is quite beautiful depending on the burner used.
All stick, coil, and cone incense should be lit at one end. The flame should be left for a few seconds and then blown out once the end of the incense starts to smolder. Always use a heat-proof surface!
Rope incense is made by rolling powdered herbs into a long strip of paper. Once dried, its is rolled or braided into a rope. Rope incense can be burned in a fire-proof dish or from a hanging rope incense burner.
Resin incense is closer to its natural form than any other incense made using a paste. Resin incense is typically burned using a charcoal disc. Please note - resin incense burned on charcoal creates quite a lot more smoke than what you might be accustomed to with stick or cone incense. This can be a good thing in the instance it is being used to cleanse but can take the user by surprise if not prepared. Make sure you place the charcoal disc on a heat-proof surface and use in a well-ventilated area or near an accessible window.
Each variety has its place in ritual or home fragrance. The format does not matter much and is up to personal preference.
What is Incense Used For?
Besides the fragrance aspect, incense is used in rituals and for cleansing. Many cultures around the world use smoke as a cleansing agent. It is thought to ward off negative energy and replace with positive. Typically, you will want to open a window when burning incense so the negative energy can flow out of the room.
The best incense for you is really up to you, depending on what your goal for the incense is. Choose one that smells lovely (Nag Champa is the world's most popular incense fragrance) or choose one for its spiritual or cleansing properties (Cedar, Sage, and Palo Santo are all wonderful choices). There are also quite a lot of amazing incense blends to choose from (check our out here).
Best of luck on your journey into the world of incense! I'd love to hear what your favorites are and if you learned anything from this little blog post.