For thousands of years and throughout the world, fragrant smoke has purified the air and comforted individuals who were in physical, emotional, or spiritual need. At first, tossing a few fragrant plant twigs into the fire served the purpose, but eventually solid incense was created using ground gums and plants mixed with honey. These were formed into solid cubes and set on a coal from the fire. In many cultures, elaborate ceremonial burners were designed to hold cubes of incense atop smoldering coals.
The ancients filled temples, council rooms, and homes with incense, using it even more liberally than we would an air freshner. Small wonder, since incense was able to dispel the disagreeable smells of unsanitary living conditions. In Europe, Arabia, India, China, and throughout North America, dwellings were fumigated to drive out the evil spirits that were believed to cause illness while, at the same time, ridding the dwelling of fleas and bugs. During epidemics, people who flocked to temples and churches were probably helped by the burning of antiseptic herbs. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is said to have freed Athens from the plague by burning aromatic plants, as did Moses and Aaron in the desert (Num 16:46-50).
Respiratory and rheumatic ills, headaches, unconsciousness, and other medical problems were treated by breathing in smoke arising from aromatic plants. And sometimes wet, aromatic herbs or herb teas were dropped on hot rocks to create a steam that was inhaled. Both techniques proved effective in treating sinus congestion, lung problems, or earache.
During religious and healing ceremonies, Native Americans burned tight bundles of fragrant herbs and braids of the vanillalike sweet grass and surrounded themselves in the smoke. And to heal the sick, rocks steaming from the tea of goldenrod, fleabane, pearly everlasting, and echinacea were placed next to a patient, and both were covered with hides or blankets to make a type of aroma-filled mini-sauna.
Throughout Europe, Arabia, and India, incense proved to be immensely versatile; it was used as perfume, medicine, and even mouthwash. Remember, early incense contained nothing other than ground herbs, plant gums, and honey. (Only much later was messy charcoal and inedible saltpeter added so that, once ignited, it would continue burning.) Since most of the herbs were highly antiseptic, when rubbed on the skin and melted by body heat, they released a scent and disinfected wounds. Incense was even ingested as medicine. It is no surprise, then, that the Greek word aromata had several meanings: incense, perfume, spice, and aromatic medicine. The Chinese also had one word, heang, to describe perfume, incense, and the concept of fragrance.
Some aromatics were even found to help with weight loss, digestion, or menstrual regularity. Rome's most famous perfume, Susinon, when ingested was a diuretic and relieved various types of inflammation. Amarakinon treated indigestion and hemorrhoids and encouraged menstruation, either when ingested or applied directly to the affliction. It was also worn as perfume. Spikenard was the main ingredient in another perfume that could be sucked as a throat lozenge to relieve coughs and laryngitis.
An Intoxication of Mind and Emotions
Throughout the world, incense has been employed to affect mind and emotions. According to the Japanese, it fosters communication with the transcendent, purifies mind and body, keeps you alert, acts as a companion in the midst of solitude, and brings moments of peace amidst busy affairs. The fragrant smoke billowing from Chinese bronze incense burners was classified into six basic moods: tranquil, reclusive, luxurious, beautiful, refined, and noble.
Certain plants have been burned for their intoxicating or aphrodisiac properties. In Delphi, Greece, the oracle priestesses sat on stools over holes in the floor that emitted fumes of bay leaves to inspire visions. While little of Delphi's grandeur remains today, you can still see the hidden incense chamber underneath the floor. Women in Tibet called dainyals held cloths over their heads to capture cedar smoke, which would send them into prophetic chanting. Aromatic plants with hypnotic properties were used similarly by Australian aborigines and by Native Americans.
Cleopatra used the bewitchment of scent to lure Mark Anthony. Her slaves fanned smoke from burning incense onto the sails of her ship. In Anthony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare describes these sails as "so perfumed that the winds were love-sick with them." This was probably not far from the truth, since the scent she chose is thought to be that of the delicious camphire (henna) mentioned in the Song of Solomon—long regarded as an aphrodisiac.
Religious Uses of Incense
In nearly every culture, incense was believed to attract the gods and goddesses, keep evil spirits at bay, and purify both body and soul. Ancient peoples, believing that spirit and life entered the body through their breath, also thought that inhaling certain odors brought them closer to God. Fragrance was considered akin to the divine because it was invisible, mysterious, and attractive. They called aroma the soul of the plant and thought it a gift from God. They also believed that the deities would find prayers -- breathed into the smoke which carried them aloft -- more pleasing when sweetly scented.
Its association with sensuality and its excessive use by Arabs, Romans, and Jews gave incense a bad name among most early Christians. However, some sects did use it exclusively for religious ceremonies. Gnostic Christians of the first to fourth centuries were deeply influenced by Egyptian philosophy and adopted the ancient belief that a plant's fragrance is associated with the soul of man. Eventually, the Catholic church embraced the use of incense to purify and bless their statues, relics, altars, and those participating in the mass.
To the Chinese Taoist, fragrance also held a religious significance. Among the 10,000 rites of Taoist Buddhism, it is said that the "burning of incense has primacy," representing the soul's liberation from limitations of the material world. To enhance their experience, they sometimes incorporated psychoactive plants such as cannabis into their incense. The incense burner itself, called fa lu, became an object of worship.
The Art and Practice of Scent
Although the Japanese came relatively late to the use of incense, they quickly developed it into a sophisticated art called koh-do that was taught in special schools. Still practiced by a few people today, participants in the incense ceremony had to bathe and dress in clean clothes so that they carried no odors into the room. They then tried to guess the different characteristics of the incense. The winner went home with a prize.
The Japanese, during the Nara and Kamakura Periods (710-1333 C.E.), were especially practical when it came to household uses of incense. A clock changed scent as time passed. A more sophisticated clock announced the time according to which chimney issued smoke. Geisha even kept track of their customer’s stay by how many sticks of incense burned. A special headrest called a kikohmakura imparted perfumed smoke to a lady's hair, and kimonas were hung on a rack over scented smoke.
The world's first novel, Prince Genji, written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu in the eleventh century, describes the practice of scenting one's kimono sleeves. Small incense burners were "held for a moment inside each sleeve" so that scent floated about whenever a motion was made by the hand.
The European elite also scented their sleeves. Ladies of the court pinned scented pendants that held solid perfumes imported from Arabia into the sleeves of their cut-velvet gowns. They also kept the perfume in lockets worn around the neck where they could be conveniently sniffed. Orange blossom oil was extracted and combined with pressed almond pulp to make the very popular perfume ointment pomades. Pomme d’ambre, on the other hand, were scented balls of ambergris, spices, honey, and wine that hung from the belt in a small, perforated container. Even the slightest movement of a skirt would surround one in fragrance.
Another major step in the evolution of aromatherapy was the advent of body oils. We'll cover this development on the next page.
To learn more about Aromatherapy and other alternative medicines, see:
- Aromatherapy: Here you will learn about aromatherapy, how it works, what part essential oils play, and how to use aromatherapy.
- Essential Oils Profiles: We have collected profiles of dozens of plants that are used to produce essential oils. On these pages, you will learn the properties and preparations for the most popular essential oils.
- How to Treat Common Conditions With Aromatherapy: Aromatherapy can be used to treat a number of conditions, from asthma to depression to skin problems. Here you will learn how to treat some common medical problems with aromatherapy.
- Home Remedies: We have gathered over a hundred safe, time-tested home remedies for treating a wide variety of medical complaints yourself.
- Herbal Remedies: Herbal remedies and aromatherapy can be very similar, and they stem from similar historic roots. On this page, you will find all of our herb profiles and instructions for treating medical problems with herbal remedies.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.