The History Of Incense


Incense (from Latin incendere “to burn”)is composed of aromatic biotic materials, which release fragrant smoke when burned. The term incense refers to the substance itself, rather than to the odor that it produces. It is used in religious ceremonies, ritual purification, aromatherapy, meditation, for creating a spiritual atmosphere, and for masking unpleasant odors.

Incense is composed of aromatic plant materials, often combined with essential oils. The forms taken by incense differ with the underlying culture, and have changed with advances in technology and increasing diversity in the reasons for burning it. Incense can generally be separated into two main types: “indirect-burning” and “direct-burning.” Indirect-burning incense (or “non-combustible incense”) is not capable of burning on its own, and requires a separate heat source. Direct-burning incense (or “combustible incense”) is lit directly by a flame and then fanned or blown out, leaving a glowing ember that smoulders and releases fragrance. Direct-burning incense comes in several forms, including incense sticks (or “joss sticks”), cones, and pyramids.

Incense was used by Chinese cultures from Neolithic times and became more widespread in the Xia, Shang, and Zhoudynasties. The earliest recorded use of incense comes from the ancient Chinese, who used incense from herbs and plant products (such as cassia, cinnamon, styrax, sandalwood, amongst others) during the rites of formal ceremonies.Eventually, the Hindus adopted the use of incense from the Chinese, but they were the first to also use roots for incense.

Incense was used by the ancient Egyptians, not only to counteract unpleasant odours, but also to drive away demons and please the gods.They thought that Resin balls were found in many prehistoric Egyptian tombs in El Mahasna. The oldest incense burner found dates back the 5th dynasty.The Temple of Deir-el-Bahari in Egypt contains a series of carvings that depict an expedition for incense.

Some of the oldest references of incense appear to be within the Vedas (ancient Hindu texts) themselves, especially the Atharva Veda, indicating that the use of incense is quite old, dating back at least 3500 years and more likely closer to 6000 to 8500 years old at a minimum.

At around 2000 BC, Ancient China was the first civilization who began the use of incense in the religious sense, namely for worship.

The Babylonians used incense while offering prayers to divining oracles. Incense spread from there to Greece and Rome.

The Indus Civilization used incense burners. Evidence suggests oils were used mainly for their aroma.

Brought to Japan in the 6th century by Korean Buddhist monks, who used the mystical aromas in their purification rites, the delicate scents of Koh (high-quality Japanese incense) became a source of amusement and entertainment with nobles in the Imperial Court during the Heian Era 200 years later.

In China, incense usage reached its peak during the Song Dynasty with many buildings erected specifically for incense ceremonies.

During the 14th century Shogunate, a samurai warrior might perfume his helmet and armor with incense to achieve an aura of invincibility (as well as to make a noble gesture to whomever might take his head in battle). It wasn’t until the Muromachi Era during the 15th and 16th century that incense appreciation (Kōdō) spread to the upper and middle classes of Japanese society.


Some commonly used raw incense and incense-making materials (from top down, left to right) Makko powder (抹香;Machilus thunbergii), Borneolcamphor (Dryobalanops aromatica), Sumatra Benzoin(Styrax benzoin), Omanifrankincense (Boswellia sacra), Guggul (Commiphora wightii), Golden Frankincense (Boswellia papyrifera), the new world Tolu balsam (Myroxylon toluifera) from South America, Somali myrrh(Commiphora myrrha), Labdanum(Cistus villosus), Opoponax(Commiphora opoponax), and white Indian sandalwood powder (Santalum album)

Throughout history, a wide variety of materials have been used in making incense. Historically there has been a preference for using locally available ingredients. For example, sage and cedar were used by the indigenous peoples of North America. This was a preference, and ancient trading in incense materials from one area to another comprised a major part of commerce along the Silk Road and other trade routes, one notably called theIncense Route.

The same could be said for the techniques used to make incense. Local knowledge and tools were extremely influential on the style, but methods were also influenced by migrations of foreigners, among them clergy and physicians who were both familiar with incense arts.

Natural Solid Aromatics

The following fragrance materials can be employed in either direct- or indirect-burning incense. They are commonly used in religious ceremonies, and many of them are considered quite valuable. Essential oils or other extracted fractions of these materials may also be isolated and used to make incense. The resulting incense is sometimes considered to lack the aromatic complexity or authenticity of incense made from raw materials not infused or fortified with extracts.


Woods and barks

  • Aloeswood
  • Cassia
  • Cedar
  • Cinnamon
  • Cypress
  • Juniper
  • Sandalwood

Seeds and fruits

  • Cardamom
  • Coriander
  • Juniper
  • Nutmeg
  • Star anise
  • Vanilla
Resins and gums

  • Amber
  • Bdellium
  • Benzoin
  • Camphor
  • Copal
  • Dragon’s blood (a plant resin)
  • Elemi
  • Frankincense
  • Galbanum
  • Guggul (Indian Myrrh)
  • Kauri Gum
  • Labdanum
  • Mastic (plant resin)
  • Myrrh
  • Opoponax
  • Sandarac
  • Storax
  • Tolu balsam

  • Balsam
  • Bay
  • Patchouli
  • Sage
  • Tea

Roots and rhizomes

  • Calamus
  • Costus
  • Galangal
  • Orris
  • Spikenard
  • Vetiver
Flowers and buds

  • Clove
  • Lavender
  • Saffron
  • Rose

Animal-derived materials

  • Ambergris
  • Civet
  • Musk
  • Operculum

Combustible base

A charcoal-based incense cone

The combustible base of a direct burning incense mixture not only binds the fragrant material together but also allows the produced incense to burn with a self-sustained ember, which propagates slowly and evenly through an entire piece of incense with such regularity that it can be used to mark time. The base is chosen such that it does not produce a perceptible smell. Commercially, two types of incense base predominate:

  • Fuel and oxidizer mixtures: Charcoal or wood powder forms the fuel for the combustion. Gums such as Gum Arabicor Gum Tragacanth are used to bind the mixture together while an oxidizer such as sodium nitrate or potassium nitratesustains the burning of the incense. Fragrant materials are combined into the base prior to formation as in the case of powdered incense materials or after formation as in the case of essential oils. The formula for the charcoal-based incense is superficially similar to black powder, though it lacks the sulfur.
  • Natural plant-based binders: Mucilaginous material, which can be derived from many botanical sources, is mixed with fragrant materials and water. The mucilage from the wet binding powder holds the fragrant material together while the cellulose in the powder combusts to form a stable ember when lit. The dry binding powder usually comprises about 10% of the dry weight in the finished incense. This includes:
    • Makko (抹香・末香 incense powder): made from the bark of various trees from the Persea such as Persea thunbergii (Jpn. 椨の木; たぶのき; Tabu-no-ki)
    • Xiangnan pi (香楠皮): made from the brak of Phoebe genus trees such as Phoebe nanmu (楠木), Persea zuihoensis (香楠).
    • Jigit: a resin based binder used in India
    • Laha or Dar: bark based powders used in Nepal, Tibet, and other East Asian countries.

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