Everything you need to know about incense

4 mins
12 Jan 2023
Everything you need to know about incense

Burning incense is a practice with thousands of years of history and almost as many spiritual and wellness properties

image Team Woo

words Rhys Thomas

Incense, that nice-smelling smoky stuff, but much older than vapes. The word comes from the Latin for “to burn”, and archeologists think we discovered the idea of burning things to release their scents more-or-less since we discovered fire (there’s evidence of old fire pits with cedarwood and berries in, which could have been done to release the aroma). In the British Museum’s collection, there’s an incense burner that is possibly 2,500 years old. It was found in modern-day Yemen.

The oldest known incense burner is around 5000 years old and comes from the Fifth Dynasty of ancient Egypt. There’s even an incense burner hieroglyph. By around 600AD, you could find incense being used across many parts of the world. Thanks in part to the Incense Route which was a whole network of land and sea trading routes that mainly traded (yup) incense, along with spices and other luxurious goods.

Incense as we know, a powdery substance on a stick (like a really skinny corn dog), or compacted into a cone shape, was first used in ancient Egypt. It was documented to have two main purposes: to repel bugs and bad smells, but also to protect against demons (or at least please the gods because it smells nice and wafts on up into the sky), and that was typically done in tandem with meditative or religious rituals.

How is incense made

It’s essentially mixing types of dust and sticky, smelly things together and then binding them into a solid or coating them over a stick. You need a dust which is flammable, to keep the stick burning (often a wood or a charcoal), and you need the fragrance you want to be able to smell (which is usually a sap from a tree, as with sandalwood, or an essential oil). Mix that together and, if needed, add a binding agent (a sort of natural glue, usually from plants though sometimes synthetic ones are used). Let it dry, and then you have incense. A town in Vietnam makes about 50,000 lovely pink incense sticks a day in the buildup to Tết Nguyên Đán, which is a festival celebrating the first day of the Lunar New Year.

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Why do people use incense today?

Today it’s still used for both purposes mentioned above, but we also use it just to enjoy the smell, and for aromatherapeutic reasons. You could utilise incense as a form of sense-hacking, too. Noticing the smell means positioning yourself in the present. Like how you might hear a chime or a bell. That sudden shift from whatever you were thinking about, into thinking about nothing can then be used to help you feel mindful, to let go of thoughts and worries (and the other phrases you’ll hear when you do yoga and/or meditation).

Sure, essential oil diffusers and candles also exist, but incense is pretty affordable and far less likely to set things on fire than a candle. However, they can sometimes set off a smoke alarm (open a window and put the incense nearer the window than the alarm to avoid this) and, if you’re renting, technically your landlord could consider it smoking.

Which fragrance should I get?

There’s a huge variety of fragrances that can be cast into an incense stick. Their scents have different aromatherapeutic and spiritual qualities, so if you’re looking to evoke any specific atmospheres, you’ll want to check out the properties. Or just give them a sniff and see what you like (you might prefer something sweet and woody to something citrusy, for example). Here’s some insight into popular fragrances.

Do I need an incense burner, or holder?

You don’t need one, traditionally people use things like a bowl of rice to prop the stick in, or even just a mound of dust from previous incenses burned. But a holder keeps things less messy, and it’s easier to then discard the dust.

You might be wondering how to light incense...

Simply light the thicker end of a stick, or the top of a cone, with a match or lighter. Leave it to ignite for a few seconds and then blow the flame out. If you're using a stick and not a bespoke holder, make sure it's angled upwards at a 45 degree angle.

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