I can only imagine mankind’s earliest use of incense. Was it the same day that fire was discovered, or was it the day after? Since that beginning, the fragrant smoke of ancient fires has risen in rhythm with the sun, the moon, and the tides: the heartbeats of life on earth.
The burning of sweet gums, resins, woods, and plants has taken hundreds of beautiful, diverse cultural forms, many of which persist today. Ancient Egyptians burned offerings to the sun god, Ra, on his daily trek across the heavens. Frequent references to the use of incense in the Old Testament suggest that the Jews have used it since very early times. Modern Hindus burn camphor and incense before the image of Krishna. The Greeks burned sweet incenses to make sacrifice and prayer more acceptable to the gods. Little use of incense is evident in Islamic traditions, and incense was unknown in early Buddhism, opposed as it was to external dogma. However, public and private use of incense has now become widespread among Tibetan, Japanese, and Chinese Buddhists. By the fourteenth century, it had become part of most of the established Christian rituals, and is still used for such ceremonies as high mass, processions, and funerals. Modern pagan and neopagan practices also involve highly developed ritual uses of incense. In Native American religion, sage, sweet grass, yerba santa, uva-ursi, cedar, and tobacco are burned ceremonially for purifying oneself and one’s environment, for sending up prayers to the Great Spirit, and for connecting with one’s spirit helpers—the unseen forces that assist humans.
Besides its place in ceremony and religion, incense is often used simply to evoke a mood or create an atmosphere for shopping, entertainment, romance, or home relaxation. It’s a mental stimulant that can bathe ordinary events and activities in a special glow.
Incense makes use of many botanical products which cannot be liquefied or distilled into a perfume. Tree barks and saps, gums, resins, roots, flowers, fragrant leaves, and needles can be combined in myriad ways to create a rising, mood-enhancing bouquet of fragrant smoke. The botanical ingredients may be purchased, grown, or gathered from the wild.
Incense can take many forms, from simple, loose ingredients to be thrown on glowing coals to ornately shaped cones, cylinders, sticks, or coils. All are fun to make and enjoyable to use. All except loose incense consist of four basic ingredients: an aromatic substance or mixture, a burnable base, a bonding agent, and a liquid to change the bonding agent into a glue. Coloring agents can be added as well.
BASIC INCENSE INGREDIENTS
Aromatic. Any herb, spice, or botanical powder that gives off a pleasingly scented smoke when burning. These include many kinds of wood (such as sandalwood and juniper) and bark (such as cinnamon) as well as some leaves. The smoke from burning herbs smells different from the fresh or dried herb itself. To test the fragrance of herb smoke, drop a small amount of the dried herb on a hot piece of charcoal. I have never heard of an herb whose smoke was toxic, though certain mushrooms can produce narcotic fumes. Essential oils also can be substituted for the aromatic plant material; again, test on hot charcoal.
Base. A substance that burns readily with either a pleasant aroma or no aroma at all. The base aids in the burning of the aromatic and often enhances or tempers the scent. The most popular bases are powders derived from woody plants: sandalwood, cassia, vetiver, willow, evergreen needles, and charcoal. You can make the wood powders yourself by processing sawdust in your blender for two minutes on high speed. Talc or clay is sometimes added to slow the rate of burning, but I don’t recommend talc because it can cause respiratory irritation. Potassium nitrate (saltpeter, available at drugstores) may be added to a base to ignite it more quickly and evenly.
Bonding agent. A resin or gum that holds the aromatic and base together. Bonding agents that burn well without giving off toxic smoke and are readily available include agar, karaya, gum arabic, and tragacanth. Of these, tragacanth is the binder most often recommended, and I find that it’s the easiest to work with and gives the best results for shaped incense.
Liquid. Water is easiest and cheapest, although creative incense makers may not be satisfied when there are much more interesting liquids to use: wine, brandy, herb waters, olive oil, and tinctures, to mention just a few. I haven't noticed a significant difference in either the odor or the burnability of the incense.
Coloring agents. The easiest way to color incense is with food coloring, but plants can also supply natural colors: for example, red sandalwood for red, willow for brown, safflower for yellow, and charcoal for black.
TOOLS, METHODS, AND RECIPES
The recipes that follow are simply examples of what’s possible. You can apply the basic methods and proportions to the creation of your own scented treasures. You’ll want to keep a journal of your formulations, lest the perfect blend be created only once!
You’ll need a blender, a wooden spoon, a bowl or two, and a set of measuring spoons and cups. Be aware that porous utensils may take up some scents from your aromatic ingredients. Brown paper will protect your work surfaces, and a wooden board can serve as a drying surface.
The volume of aromatic substances should be about twice that of the base, and all dry ingredients should be powdered. Use about three parts liquid to five parts dry mixture. Besides changing the bonding agent from a dry powder into a glue, the liquid also serves to dissolve the potassium nitrate.
For each recipe except the loose incense, mix together liquid and potassium nitrate and add enough tragacanth to make a thick paste (start with 1 teaspoon and add more as needed). Then stir in the blended dry ingredients. If the dough is too soft, add more tragacanth powder; if too dry, add more liquid. The consistency should be like that of soft putty or moist dough—neither too runny nor too dry to be easily shaped.
You may shape prepared incense dough into all manner of cones, cylinders, or coils or roll it onto sticks. Bamboo skewers split lengthwise with a razor blade make suitable sticks. After forming cones, cylinders, and coils, place them on a wooden board and set them aside to dry in a sunny window, a warm attic, or even a closed vehicle on a hot day. Avoid humidity, which will make your incense mildew. When drying stick incense, poke the lower ends of the sticks into a piece of clay or styrofoam.
When the incense is thoroughly dry, store it in airtight containers. Dark, dry conditions will help to preserve color and scent.
Loose incense consists of dry ingredients which are simply mixed together and sprinkled over smoldering charcoal. Store as you would other kinds of incense.
Throughout this article, charcoal is referred to as a base ingredient, a coloring agent, and the smoldering heat source for loose incense. Most books recommend willow charcoal (available from incense suppliers), but any charcoal can be used. The briquettes that are made for use in barbecue grills are suitable unless they have been impregnated with lighter fluid or other chemicals to enhance burning.
Fettner, Ann Tucker. Potpourri, Incense, and Other Fragrant Concoctions. New York: Workman Publishing, 1977.
Smith, Steven. Wylundt’s Book of Incense. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1982.
— Sandy Maine is the founder and owner of Sunfeather Herbal Soap Company, an exceptionally fragrant mail-order company based in the Adirondack Mountains of New York.