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perfume diffused by the burning of aromatic gums or spices. Incense was used in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome and is mentioned in the Old and the New Testaments. It is also found in the major religions of Asia. The Babylonians used it while praying in the 6th and 5th cent. B.C. and the Greeks used it as protection against demons during the 8th cent. B.C. The earliest clear record of its use in public worship in the Roman Catholic Church is c.500.
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(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Incense is the perfumed fumigation that results from the burning of various gum resins, flowers, barks, roots, dried seeds, and herbs. Burning incense has been a part of magical and religious rites for thousands of years. True incense is actually limited exclusively to frankincense, the gum resin of trees of the Boswellia family, growing chiefly on the Somali coast of east Africa. But today the term "incense" is applied to a variety of substances. It was believed in the past that incense smoke carried one's prayers up to the gods.

A memorial stone placed on the breast of the Sphinx in Gaza, Egypt, shows Tuthmosis (Thothmes) IV (1533 BCE) pouring libations of wine to his deity Ra and offering him incense. Worshiping deities and burning incense in their honor is one of the most common scenes depicted in ancient Egyptian art, which is carved and painted in the temple interiors. Egyptians worshiped Ra at sunrise with resin, at midday with myrrh, and at sunset with kuphi (a compound of sixteen ingredients, including sweet calamus, honey, raisins, resin, myrrh, and wine). The usual Egyptian censer, or thurible, was a hemispherical bronze bowl supported by a long handle. The bowl rested in a formed hand, while at the other end there was the symbol of Ra, most often a hawk's head crowned with a disc.

From early use in Egypt and Babylonia, incense spread to Greece and Rome. Homer mentions the burning of incense, as does Hesiod. It is probable that gums and resins from around the Indian Ocean began finding their way into Greece by the eighth or seventh centuries BCE. The Orphic Hymns specify a variety of incenses for the deities, all of which were selected based on some occult significance. Frankincense became popular with the Romans, first for religious rites, then for state occasions. It was offered on a daily basis to the household deities, the Lars familiaris.

Incense did not find its way into Christian ritual until the fifth century CE,

although it had been a part of Judaic ritual since the seventh century BCE. One of its earliest uses occurred in England, as remains that have since been labeled "incense cups" were found in barrows on Salisbury Plain, not far from Stonehenge. According to Doreen Valiente, the cups are small round vessels of clay with perforations on all sides that could only have been used for burning incense.

Incense is a part of all Wiccan rituals. Not only does it create a positive atmosphere, but it also induces a feeling of being separated from the ordinary, everyday world. Witches speak of their time inside the consecrated Circle as being "between the worlds"—neither in this world nor yet in the next. The smoke and perfume of the incense, combined with the flickering candlelight, help reinforce that feeling.

Modern incense is usually available in three different forms: as long, thin sticks that may be lit and that burn down slowly; as small concentrated cones, which again may be lit and are self-burning; and in a powder, which must be sprinkled onto burning charcoal. Although the first two forms are convenient and are commonly used in homes and private ritual rooms, the powdered form is most commonly used in coven rituals. A lit charcoal briquet is placed in a censer, and the incense is sprinkled on it. Frequently the censer is suspended by chains, so that it can be swung to keep the charcoal alight. Such thuribles are used by Witches, Pagans of all types, ceremonial and other magicians, and by Christian and other churches and temples. Some Solitary Witches favor the Native American practice of burning such dried items as white sage, cedar, and sweet grass.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


1. any of various aromatic substances burnt for their fragrant odour, esp in religious ceremonies
2. the odour or smoke so produced
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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306-73 CE) was a theologian known for the supple and penetrating brilliance of his poetic method.(1) `The Fragrance of Life', riha' d-hayuta' (and variants) is a phrase occurring in a handful of his hymns.(2) At first glance the phrase conjures a set of stock olfactory images shared across the religious practices of the ancient Mediterranean world, pagan, Jewish, and Christian.(3) Incense and sacrificial offerings filled the air with sweet savours `pleasing to God'; aromatic holy oils anointed initiates, the consecrated, the sick, and the dead; lavish scents were associated with all that was sacred, heavenly, or divine.(4) Smells were a vivid and constant accompaniment to the religious rituals and experiences of the ancient world.
Chapter 1 looks at the role of incense in modern life, and how it can help us feel a connection with nature and the spirit.