Incense 101: History and Products
There are few better ways to fill your home with mystic aromas than burning incense. You may have noticed that a lot of high-end stores burn incense to add to the ambiance of their retail space, but the glowing ember of a burning piece of incense can bring untold smells to your own home, too. So, if you’re thinking about exploring the aromatic world of incense, we’ve pulled together this primer to give you some context and know-how when it comes to those burning sticks of goodness you see in your favorite stores.
What is Incense?
Incense is an aromatic biological material that produces fragrant smoke when burned. Made of plant materials and essential oils, incense is used for ambiance, therapy, mediation, and many other uses. Incense generally comes in two forms, indirect burning and direct burning.
Indirect burning incense is a loose resin that requires a constant separate heat source to keep the substance burning, while direct burning incense is lit and fanned out shortly after to create a glowing ember that will slowly burn down the piece of incense, releasing aromatic smoke.
Direct burning incenses are the most commonly used in contemporary settings, therefore this article will focus on this generic form of incense. Direct burning incenses are usually pressed into a shape such as a cone or a block, or formed around another supporting material such as a stick of bamboo. We will run down the different forms of incense and how each is burned shortly.
A Brief History of Incense
The word incense comes from the Latin worn incendere, meaning ‘to burn’. The use of incense can be traced back to ancient Egypt where incense is depicted to have been used by priests for fumigating ceremonies and tombs. Egyptian graves have been discovered to contain traces of fragrant resins such as frankincense and myrrh. It is widely believed that Egyptians would have used incense to hinder the presence of demons and likewise as an offering to their gods during worship and ritual.
Incense history is synonymous with ritualism and spirituality. It’s believed to have been used in India and other parts southern Asia as early as 3300 BC, with the use of incense spreading to ancient China around 2000 BC where it was used for worship and prayer. India is now the world’s main producer of incense and the burning of incense has been a fundamental part of Hinduism for thousands of years.
The earliest documented evidence of the use of incense is in fact in ancient China, where it was made from blends of herbs and plants such as cinnamon and sandalwood, two fragrances that are still widely used in modern incense. It is even documented that buildings were designed and built specifically for the burning of incense in late 12th-century China.
Resin-based incense such as frankincense is known to have been distributed to parts of what is now Europe as early as the 601BC. A major trading route known as the Incense Route saw spices and incense move from Arabia to the Mediterranean. Incense is also known to have been used in Japan as early as the 6th century, and it is recorded that 14th-century Samurai warriors would sometimes perfume their helmets as a pseudo-gesture to those who may decapitate them in battle. Later, in the 15th and 16th centuries, incense became popular with the upper and middle classes of Japan who established Kōdō, the art of appreciating incense in a ceremonial fashion. The recreational and ritualistic use of incense has since remained present throughout Asia and many other parts of the world.
Typical Forms of Incense
Kuumba Regular Incense Assortment, $11 from HAVEN.
Incense sticks, also known as joss sticks, are made from a thin stick of bamboo coated in incense. Different brands of incense will have different burn times, but you can typically expect an incense smolder for around 30 minutes to an hour. They can also come in various lengths which result in varying burn times.
Norden Goods Idyllwild Incense, $20 at Wilson & Willy’s.
Satya Incense Gift Set, $13.99 at Amazon.
Satya Incense Dhoop Cones, $5.57 from Amazon.
Dhoops are raw incense molded into a shape that can be lit at one end to create a smoldering ember. Dhoops can be used to create a more intense hit of incense ideal for filling larger spaces. The Satya Sai dhoop cones linked above come in the legendary Nag Champa fragrance. A smooth and creamy blend of magnolia and sandalwood hailing from India, it could be argued that Nag Champa is the archetypal incense fragrance.
Square Trade Goods Co. Big Sur Incense Cones, $18 at Brooklyn Tailors.
Haeckels Juniper Incense Cones, £16 (~$21USD) from Haeckels.
The Incense Match 15 Pack of assorted incense matches, $21.99 from Amazon.
A more contemporary form of incense, you can use incense matches for a quick hit of aroma to refresh a room. Coming in a wide variety of scents, these matches burn for a shorter duration but pack a punch in certain fragrances. Simply strike the match against the reverse of the box, wait a few seconds, blow out the flame and drop into an ashtray or metal dish and let the match smolder away.
Hibi Incense Match Sticks, $12 at Armitage & McMillan.
Incense Holders and Chambers
Cinnamon Projects Linea Incense Burner, $50 from Need Supply Co.
Incense sticks will need a holder with a small hole to lodge the stick into. Holders of this kind allow smoke to flow completely freely and provide wide smoke distribution. You can grab a simple incense holder with ease for pocket change and they often come free with multiple packs of incense.
Junlinto Incense Holder in Ash, $2.03 from Amazon.
Kiriko Incense Holder, $28 from Kiriko.
Made Solid Incense Burner, $48 at Stag.
Alternative Imagination Wooden Coffin Incense Burner, $13.99 from Amazon.
If you don’t like the idea of ash spillage and general clean up from incense burning, a coffin style holder may be for you. Coffin style chambers can be used to burn joss sticks with a small hole at either end and dhoop cones by using the small brass dishes. In addition, you can burn incense with the coffin lid closed, causing an attractive smoke display from the perforations in the box.
Incense of the West Adobe House, $14 from Trading Post.
Incense burning can be truly ornamental by using an incense chamber. Often made from clay or ceramic, there is a whole host of chambers out there in a range of playful and creative designs with clever hole placements that allow the fragrant smoke to compliment the design. The Incense of the West Teepe Burner above would be ideal for burning the aforementioned dhoop cones.
Neighborhood x Old Joe Brand Incense Chamber, $252 from Goodhood.
Alternatives to Incense
If you suffer from Asthma or other respiratory condition that means smoke is a no-go for you. There are alternatives to burning incense that can achieve a similar aromatic experience. Ultrasonic diffusers use an ultrasonic wave to disperse a clean, fragrant mist that can fill your living spaces with a variety of fragrances. Though the aroma is not as intense or rich as smoldering incense, Ultrasonic diffusers are safe for people who cannot burn incense and it could be argued that an even wider range of fragrances can be achieved through diffusion as the mist is created from essential oils that can be blended with countless other biological extracts.
Muji Ultrasonic Aroma Diffuser, available for $119.50 from Muji.
Room sprays work similarly to diffusers and disperse fragrance without any smoke involved. There’s less of a tactile experience and ritual with a room spray, and how long the scent lasts will vary.
P.F. Candle Co. Room Spray, $10 at Milworks.