Saturday, July 30, 2005

Traditional Incense - The History Part One

This three part series focuses on Traditional Incense (resins, woods, grasses, leaves, etc). The history, what is needed and directions for burning, and how to choose traditional incense and the different types.

The History

Five hundred thousand years ago, a few of our brave ancestors began to conquer fire. As they tossed various woods, shrubs, grasses, spices, oils, dried flowers, fruits, barks and tree saps onto the fire, another great discovery was made that is till with us today… Traditional Incense.

The use of incense can be traced back to the earliest written records of almost every culture in the world. The words “incense” which mean “to burn” and “perfume,” which means “through the smoke” are interchangeable. The ancients believed that a soul dwelled in every objects and that the souls of essences of objects could be released through burning. Figurines dating from 30,000 B.C. have symbols of smoke etched on them. Incense burners from 7500 B.C. have been found in Jericho. Both the Koran and the Tales of the Arabian Nights refer to the ancient Arab city of Ubar (3000 B.C.) as the queen of the frankincense trade. In Egypt, the subject most often carved or painted is the Pharaoh worshiping the presiding deity by presenting offerings, including anointing oils and incense. The Sphinx at Gizeh (1533 B.C.) shows Tuthmosis IV pouring a libation of wine on one side and offering incense on the other to the sun-god Ra. Ancient Hebrews used incense as the vehicle by which prayers could be conveyed to their god. In ancient India, incense was used as a cosmetic, a sign of luxury, as medicine and to anoint their dead. The ancient Assyrians cremated themselves alive on a pile of fragrant wood, suffocating in the fragrant smoke. The Ancient Greeks and Romans dedicated much of their personal life to the worship of the senses. Frankish monarchs filled their coffins with gums and resins. Alexander The Great had myrrh and resins burned before his throne. The gift of the Magi to Jesus Christ was frankincense and myrrh.

The ceremonial use of Traditional Incense is still practiced by many cultures today in much the same way as their ancestors. Both the Hindu heaven and Mohammedan paradise are filled with fragrances having the power to restore the vitality of the mind and soul. In Japan, the Buddha’s ministering angels fill the air with the scent of flowers. The Chinese burn incense to communicate with their ancestors and the Aztecs put sweet smelling flowers on graves to help the spirit rise to the heavens. Eskimo medicine men and Australian Aborigines sing magical songs and incantations while anointing the sick with pastes and perfumes. Native Americans burn sage and cedar to repel bad spirits and draw out good spirits.

The practical use of Traditional Incense is for the enjoyment of incense in its purest form, whether a single botanical is chosen, or a unique blend of the user’s own creation. The trick of using Traditional Incense is discovering the right amount of heat for the botanical, or blend of botanicals, to be burned to achieved the incense effect. The incense effect can be described as just enough heat which allows the ingredient(s) to smolder, or vaporize, resulting in a pleasing aroma. The essential temperature is the specific amount of heat required to release the essence or spirit of the material to be incensed. Overheating the material(s) will create the undesirable effect of scorching it, or worse, setting it on fire. In part two we'll discuss how to burn Traditional Incense.


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