Why Burn Incense?

PBP Week 17 I.  I is for Incense.

There are many parts of a ritual. You have the auditory part – the sounds used in the ritual.  There are vocal parts to rituals:  the words you say.  Of course action part – the things you do.  The tactical and visual: what you touch, the tools you use, the way things look.  And also, the olfactory: how things smell.  Now, I know when discussing ritual “how things smell” does seem a little crazy. However, scientifically, how things smell can be quite important.  Scent is a major memory trigger, scents can make you feel things.   Think about it: what scents are powerful for you?  Is there a scent that can take you right back to your childhood?  Playdough always works for me on that one. What about scents that trigger bad memories? Do scents you dislike trigger disgust? What about scents triggering powerful emotions of happiness?  For me, the smell of walnuts and walnut trees always makes me remember my great grandparents house in the country.  The crazy part is I don’t just “remember” the house I see it, I smell it, I feel the cool grass on my feet – I spent the summers there and the grass by the house underneath that tree was always deliciously cool.  I can even hear my great grandparents voice – Myrtle calling “Hullo!” from the porch or my great grandpa’s throaty chuckle and how he always used to refer to himself as “Grandad…” in third person.

For magic and religious ritual, scent shouldn’t be neglected. Incense comes in many forms and all can be used ritually.  In my experience, the most common form in the Neopagan community is burned ritual incense in censers or stick form.  You can make your own resins and herbal blends or buy many ready-made blends from head shops and occult stores all over the United States.  Some blends are even designed to be thrown directly into bonfires. A scent profile for ritual may be created by carefully choosing specific woods to burn in ritual bonfires. Oils may also be used as incense if you find smoke disagreeable.  Additionally, ritual smudging for cleansing is done with home sprays or carpet powders as well.  I think carpet powders are good for “ground in” energetic problem solving while room sprays are a quick fix of “fresh air” for an area.  If you are experiencing a problem, then I recommend utilizing both.  “Incense” in this article is used loosely since oils are equally powerful at creating and cleansing the home they can be substituted in some ways for ritual incense.

Scents and scent memories can be used to create powerful rituals.  Knowing your own scent triggers helps you use scent in magic.  I associate lavender with my great grandmother’s house – specifically her work room where I used to sleep as a child.  As a result, when I want to feel comforted and protected, I often use lavender.  My best friend loved white flowers and daisies most of all, she died right around the time Marc Jacobs Daisy became a popular fragrance: even before I its name, the first time I smelled it I thought “this smells like Saera.”  It’s not likely she ever used this perfume, but even her mother exclaimed after hugging me while I was wearing “ohmigod you smell like my daughter!” I always use this perfume to anoint offerings or physical gifts to her.  My ex has a strong reaction to dragon’s blood.  I associate dragon’s blood with magic and rituals.  When designing rituals, you can take advantage of these associations to use specific scents to trigger certain feelings.  You can also create new scent blends to use only with rituals or magic to create new feelings and associations.  Over time, if you always use a certain incense for ritual, smelling this scent will help you easily slip into your ritual mindset. Common ritual incense across cultures are frankincense, myrrh, dragon’s blood, and amber.

Of course, sometimes ritual incense works on a physiological level as well.  Some substances when burned have physical effects.  I am neither endorsing or condoning the use of these plants, but I if you choose to use these plants ritual please be careful.  The Baneful Herbs often are toxic when burned, and are also common magical incense ingredients.  It’s best to use these herbs outside in well ventilated areas.  Obviously, using an incense that will alter your mental state will change your ritual.  Some may help your work, others may hinder your work.  Everyone will have to experiment on their own for these effects.  Some herbs that I have used ritually include Salvia, clary sage,  wormwood, mugwort, belladonna, and foxglove.  If you choose to use any of these ingredients in ritual incense, please be careful.

Incense also functions in many rituals symbolically.  In rituals where I want to represent the elements, incense represents the element Air.  For me, the association with Air comes from the visual of seeing the smoke circle up wards giving a visual representation of an element usually difficult to see.  One common practice is to walk the incense around the circle for protection, purification, or to “call the quarters” element Air to be present.  In this instance if you find smoke disagreeable or are in a situation where smoke poses a problem, oils to create a “home spray” may be used similarly. (Though, obviously, you won’t be visualizing Air with smoke if there is no smoke.)  Other incense may work symbolically for a purpose of their own associations.  For example, sage is protective and cleansing and many people burn sage for these reasons.  Now, I am not sure if sage is cleansing or has protective qualities on its own, but so many people give credence to this idea that burning sage for protection and cleansing certainly works.  Things are as powerful or irrelevant as you make them.  Certain incense blends to represent certain goddesses or gods function in this way as well.  You burn the incense to symbolically represent that deity.  Additionally, incense may be used as an offering to deity.  In my practice, Dionysos likes patchouli and earthy scented incense and finds them to be acceptable offerings.  Aphrodite likes vanilla, rose, amber, and sensual incense offerings.  I have not burnt any incense for Hecate, but I may start by trying some florals. Incense can be used in many ways in rituals and even function in many levels at once.

What other ways do you use incense in rituals?


About Pixie

I'm just your average 20-something trying to figure it out. I am also a theologian, yogi, witch, pagan, dirty hippie, activist (progressive politics), feminist, knitter, environmentalist, and friend. I've also been accused of being a hipster - I am not sure about that. I am sometimes happy to be Gen Y (go Harry Potter) and most of the time confused (seriously guys... ) by everyone else. My hobbies including knitting (and maybe crochet), quilting, recycling, cooking, writing, reading, and biking. I'm finishing up a masters in public policy and when I worked worked in political nonprofits as an activist.
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5 Responses to Why Burn Incense?

  1. Erska says:

    I learned in my neuropsych course that the scent intake pathways into the brain are more direct than those of the other senses – hence, they have unparalleled potential to trigger memory. Anyway, thanks for a beautiful post!

  2. Wendy S. says:

    Scent is one of my strongest “gifts” and this post is excellent in pointing out the benefits of incense. Some people are more attuned with candles, crystals and I never thought of having a strong connection to scent for magick really. I always burn incense when doing magick but you made my appreciation for scent and connections even stronger now : )

  3. harzgeist says:

    Reading your post I just had the biggest “duh!” moment – in daily life, I know which smells to use to get into a certain mood (e.g. I have a perfume I bought on my year abroad – using it always gets me back into the mindset of freedom). But I wouldn’t have dreamed of applying the same associations of smells to my ritual work. Thanks for opening my eyes on this one!

  4. After reading a blog post by A Forest Door (http://forestdoor.wordpress.com/2012/01/22/sacrifice-bridges-the-worlds/) about sacrifice and offerings, I started to literally feel different about incense.
    For a long time I used it in my rituals as a representation of the element of air, but also just to create a certain ambiance. I used corresponding scents because, well, “Aphrodite likes roses and apples, so I’ll burn roses and apples. It’s her smell!” Now, however, I really try to recognize it as an offering, not just a magical correspondence, and try to feel it being consumed (energetically, of course) by whomever I am offering it to. The scents and smoke are for Them, not for me! I try to feel it as the bridge between worlds that an offering is meant to be, and it has brought a certain kind of weight to my work since then.

    Maybe that is something for you to try; instead of seeing it as a tool or symbol, try seeing it as a true-blue offering and see where it takes you!?

    • Pixie says:

      I do that sometimes devotionally yes, though, it has become somewhat routine for me. I need to shake things up a bit in the offering department I think. 🙂

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