Incense Workshop 2014 by Katlyn
The Perfect Prayer: Incense and Scent Crafting
by Katlyn Breene
May the air clear my mind
May the water open my heart
May the earth support and nurture my body
May the fire purify my spirit
And the smoke carry my prayers….
The burning of incense can be a perfect prayer. Gather the bounty of the earth, drink in its sweet fragrance, transmute the prayer with fire and watch it rise to heaven taking your heartsong with it. In solitary ritual, the sweet smoke rises and the priestess sits by the light of a single flame and a glowing censer, letting the aroma guide her back to center, letting it uplift her spirit, healing body and soul. A mental/spiritual bond is created between the scent and the feeling, so that as priestesses we may bring that connection to our community.
For a priestess who seeks to guide people to a common purpose and intent, the sacred smoke ascending to the sky can bring the focus of a group together and help them visualize their prayers being lifted and released.
As the sweet smoke rises, all in the circle share the blessing. The scent unifies the intent and the group heart to one purpose. There is magic in scent creation; it can change and enhance consciousness. The wisdom of the body and the senses recalls ancient memories of the sacred smoke used in every temple, in every age and in every place on earth.
Incense is a universal magickal tool, and a priestess is wise to understand its power. Incense transforms both ourselves and our environment. It creates sacred space in a breath. It focuses and purifies in a breath. It is in-spiration, combining all the elements into an experience that is shared. Scent is powerful:
Scent is powerful. It is the sense that connects directly to the limbic system , our primal brain. Smell is not limited by our logic and inspires our passion. When we offer to another a gift of flowers, essential oils or incense, we are giving a deep and lasting scented memory. Scent is our path into the wild, the uncensored, and the primitive natural world.
Knowing what botanicals to burn and how to burn to them to greatest effect is knowledge worth exploring. There is an art to using incense and getting it to release its complete aroma. Here are a few ways for the priestess to effectively use and understand incense in ceremony and personal transformation. May this open a path of deeper appreciation and aid you in the work.
Ways to Effectively Use Incense:
Olfactory connections enhance inner work, personal transformation and therapy. Create them and create a positive scent memory. Incense can be used very effectively during guided meditations. The scent can change with the place or feel of the place that you are leading your listeners to in the meditation. It can also serve as a cue to return from their journey. For example, if your meditation begins “imagine that you are in a forest and the scent cedar and pine wafts over you,” then you might want to introduce the fragrance of cedar or pine. Blessings at rites of passage, such as handfasting, birth celebrations, passing over and memory all can be more beautiful and meaningful with the use of sacred smoke. Developing and making your own blends for special occasions is a gift of love.
It is my opinion that priestesses should not wear perfume into a ceremony but should have the ability to create magic by weaving carefully chosen scents though natural anointing oils, essential oil mists or incense. It is also a courtesy to others who have sensitivities to synthetic perfume. Hydrosol mists or essential oils in an atomizer with water are excellent for those who might be smoke sensitive.
Frankincense, rose, lavender, or white sage essential oil are all good basics for creating mist. Start with about five to ten drops per ounce of water then add more if desired. Remember to always shake the atomizer bottle well before use. Mists are cooling, grounding and easy to use in any situation.
There is magic in the smoke of the incense itself, so do not disregard it. Instead use it effectively, even if the odor of the smoke is not sweet or pleasing. A veil of sacred smoke can banish and protect, acting as a vehicle for visions and consciousness. Smoke has also been used for divination and scrying in many ancient cultures.
The aroma of the smoke will be diffused if you are outdoors. In that case more incense should be used. Smudging herbs, bundles and resins on charcoal are best in an outdoor setting. The scent of a stick or a delicate blend can be lost on the wind, which is fine if your intent is to make an offering or a prayer but not if you want the incense to affect your group ritual.
Indoors there are other many options for creating a light pure scented atmosphere. If anyone has smoke allergies, an electric heater allows all the fragrance and energy of the scent with very little smoke. While it is not ideal for ritual because the cord restricts movement, it is effective for setting a mood and intent in the home.
If using a mixture of leafy plants and herbs, perhaps following a traditional formula or recipe, consider adding a few drops of the essential oil of your chosen herb to help the scent come through when used as incense. Unfortunately most leafy plants and herbs when dried and burned only smell like burning leaves when turned to smoke, but these old blends do have intent and tradition behind them, so used wisely herbs can enhance a blend. (FN2, here)
There are many fine incense formularies available today, ones that were written by incense artisans and scent crafters to create synergistic blends that really smell good and act as an olfactory invocation. You can tell when reading many old “spellbooks” that the writer might not have actually burned the blends they wrote about but put together a recipe from folklore and lists of correspondences.
As with wine, food and perfume, one gets what one pays for. Inexpensive resins and other botanicals have most likely been ground up and stored in a warehouse until most of the scent has dissipated. It is well worth the time and effort to find a good source, or by trading or wildcrafting, to obtain incense materials.
If sage grows in your area find someone to trade with, just as those in the desert might trade for cedar from folks who live in cooler climates. There is nothing better than consciously gathered fresh botanicals for priestess work. Store materials in an airtight container and keep them out of direct light or sun until ready to use. Resins that have not been ground or broken up have the longest shelf life.
When ready to use, break resins into smaller bits that are easier to burn and have better scent dispersion by placing the resin chunk in a freezer weight plastic bag and striking it with a mallet until is the desired size. If the resin is very sticky, like raw tree sap, freeze it before breaking it up. This works really well.
A priestess might consider always having with her a “road kit” for use in ritual or when wildcrafting. It could contain a few types of incense that are easy to use and transport such as smudge bundles, natural stick incense, a feather, a lighter, as well as a small knife and container dedicated to collecting tree resin and incense botanicals. Remember to always ask permission of the plant first and to give thanks to the plant teachers when wildcrafting.
A censer is the container in which incense is safely burned, which can be anything from a ceramic pot or dish or a seashell to an ornate work of art. The censer should have a wide opening at the top to allow circulation; it should be made of fire resistant material and should have an aesthetically pleasing appearance. Brass, bronze, stone or ceramic is usually used. Abalone shells are best used only for smudge bundles for they get too hot to touch with charcoal.
Place some sand and white rice chaff ash in the bottom of the censer. Sand at the bottom of the censer will help absorb the intense heat of the charcoal and protect the censer and the surface upon which it rests. Ash placed on top of the sand allows air under the charcoal letting it burn well. The sand and ash can also hold stick incense. The sand can be earth, salt, aquarium sand, marine or volcanic sand; it is nice to use some kind of sacred earth such as from a favorite beach or desert location. Rice chaff ash can be found at fine incense suppliers or a Chinese market; it is made just for use with incense and has no scent of its own.
I highly recommend that priestesses use a censer with a wooden handle so that the censer and incense can be moved without burning fingers.
There are two types of incense charcoal, self-igniting and natural. The easiest to use is the self-igniting charcoal which comes in disks that are inexpensive and work well outdoors. They contain potassium nitrate or aka, “Vesta powder,” as a burning agent which causes the sparkling effect when first lit. The downside to this is that they do give off a slight odor when being lit.
The second type is a natural charcoal that has no burning agents. This charcoal, usually made from willow or bamboo, is known as Japanese style charcoal. This type takes longer to light but it is very clean burning and perfect for indoor use. And, there is little odor when lit.
When preparing to do a ritual, be sure to light the charcoal at least fifteen minutes before it is to be used which gives it enough time to light completely and to have a nice bed of white ash on top. The ash keeps the incense from scorching too quickly and allows for more scent. The coal can be extinguished if the incense is placed on it too soon.
To light any type of charcoal, use the flame of a candle or, if outdoors, use a wind-proof lighter. Hold the tablet--with pinchers, charcoal tongs, chopsticks or carefully with your fingers--over the candle flame or lighter until the edge begins to glow. Place the coal into the prepared censer. Wait until the charcoal is covered with grayish-white ash so that the ash will cushion the incense from the direct heat of the coal. This will take about five to fifteen minutes. Fan or blow on the charcoal to help get the tablet started.
Make sure the charcoal has enough air flow so it doesn’t go out. Sand alone won’t allow the charcoal to breathe like ash will. There are also censers that come with a metal screen that fits over the bowl to hold the charcoal, these work well but some of your of your blend can fall through it if not applied carefully. Place your incense directly upon or next to the charcoal. Most charcoal will stay hot enough to burn incense for about thirty-five to forty-five minutes. I like to light one coal first and then place another near it (just touching) in the censer, thus ensuring you have live coals for a longer time. Be sure to store your charcoal in an airtight container, tin foil, or plastic bag when not in use as moisture in the air can make the charcoal difficult to light.
Purification and Smudging
Purification is one of most well-known uses of incense for priestess work. Using incense to cleanse a space for spirit to enter is a powerful tool. There are many different types of incense that can be used for this work, including: white sage, frankincense, copal (copal blanco is my favorite), bruzinho (or bru claro), palo santo, dragon’s blood, juniper, or camphor.
Burning a smudge stick will clear a space or a person’s energy. White sage (Salvia apiana) is a panacea of healing and clearing. The smell of fresh white sage is intensely therapeutic, and sage maintains it potency when dried for long time. It will lose some scent over time, but compared to other herbs it is very long-lasting. Store sage bundles (as well as all types of incense) in an airtight container.
To smudge a person or an object burn the clippings of dried herbs or resin on charcoal, or use a sage bundle in an abalone shell or clay bowl. Rub your hands in the smoke then gather the smoke and bring it into your body or rub it onto yourself, especially onto any area that you feel needs spiritual healing. Focus on your intent all the while. When completed move on to smudge others. Use your hands, or a feather or fan, to lightly wave the smoke over the person. Direct the smoke to the whole body paying special attention to the heart and the over the head. Look for shadows in a person's energy field and fan the smoke to these areas. This helps to heal the spirit and to "close up" any holes in their energy. If smudging a large group try just making a clockwise spiral of smoke from the solar plexus over the head and to the heart. A single wing feather is my favorite smudging tool. You can feel the current of air and vitality as it moves around the person being smudged.
Smudging should be done with a constant feeling of love and humility, giving respect to the Sage itself for sharing its medicine. It is such a beautiful ritual tradition and we should always be thankful to our plant teachers.
For those who want to learn, participating in a purification ritual is very good way to experience and to take the beginning steps onto the path of the priestess.
Rolling Your Own
To roll your own bundles of smudge, try using a bamboo sushi mat. I like to gather the boughs of fresh sage or other botanicals into the bundle size desired and then bind the stems together at the base with a rubber band. Let the sage hang for a few days until limp (not dry) and then use the mat to roll the boughs tightly together, just like a sushi chef creates rolls. Then rubber band the mat closed and let them dry in a cool place out of direct light. When you open it, it will be firm and compact and ready to tie with cotton thread and thoroughly dry. Other herbs or boughs that have meaning to you, or are traditional, can be added, but pure sage bundles are best. Some botanicals particularly suited for smudge bundles are: cedar, rosemary, sweet grass, desert sage (sagebrush) and many types of artemisia and lavender.
Blessing and Protection
It is a wonderful idea to cense your whole home often. Use a censer with a wooden handle so that you may move around freely. Light the incense and simply carry the censer from room to room. Focus on the energy you want the smoke to contain, banish negativity and blockage, banish worry and stress and invite in peace. Soon your home will acquire a lasting sacred scent, for the burning of resins, precious woods and sage creates a lingering perfume that builds over time.
It is a good idea to do a house blessing ceremony every year in your home, traditionally in the first part of February or after your spring cleaning. It is also a good way to clear a new home of unwanted "old stuff" and negative energy. Doing it as a family can bring everyone’s intentions of future happiness together, releasing any old patterns or presences.
- Have all involved decide together upon the night to do the ceremony and agree upon what you what the ceremony to accomplish. You can do this alone or with family and friends. This work is good for almost any spiritual tradition, or just to do a general "house cleaning".
- Have your censer, lit charcoal, incense, smudge fan or feather, and a single white candle ready before you begin. I recommend frankincense, white sage, or a good purification blend.
- After dark, gather together and take a moment to focus on your intention; it should be very clear in all your minds. Is it to cleanse and clear the house for the coming year? "Banish" some energy that does not feel right? Bless a new home to make it your own and cut any connections to the past occupants?
- Now room by room turn off all the lights in the house until you are in the last illuminated room.
- Light the candle (or each person present could have lit a candle as well), then turn off the last light. Try to have the candle(s) in a holder that will catch the wax drips.
- When everyone is ready, take a few moments for complete silence. This is the time to focus on calling in the Sacred to help you in this work or picture in your mind what you to accomplish.
- Place a pinch of the incense on the hot coal or light your sage bundle. Don't use too much all at once, just a little bit for each room. You don't want too much smoke.
- Beginning with the room you are in, carry the light of the candle and the smoke of the incense to every corner of the room, and don't forget to open closets as well. Imagine the light and smoke completely ridding the space of all that is not desired. Let them act as the symbolic bringers of peace and tranquility.
- Walk silently to every room in the house, letting the light and smoke do their sacred work. If one place feels extra "uneasy," spend some more time there until it feels clear. Salt and water can also be cast in these areas to ground and clear these spots.
- Do this until all rooms have been purified. Open a door or window to the outside at this point, picturing all negativity you "banished" rushing out of the house.
- Come back to the room you started in (turn the lights back on if you want). Blow out the candle while saying out loud something together like, "So be it!" or "It is done!" Take in and release a deep breath and know that it is completed.
- Give thanks for the unseen help you called to do this work and to the spirits of the medicine plants that aided you.
When at a circle or gathering, try placing a censer of burning incense on the ground at the entrance. Each person entering steps over the censer, allowing the sweet smoke to rise up and envelope them. Women can take a moment to let the smoke beneath their skirts and scent their veils.
A good piece of “ritual tech” for large gathering is a smudge gate. Have two people stand at the entrance to the sacred space or circle with censers of incense or smudge bundles representing the elements of fire and air. Everyone entering passes between them and is purified with sacred smoke. It creates a portal or threshold between the worlds and moves very quickly. You may also want two additional portal people to represent water and earth with rose water or water and salt to bless folks at the smudge gate.
There are times in gatherings when people need to speak from their heart, vent their emotions or talk things out. This sensitive time can be made sacred and the process eased by the use of incense as a purifying agent. When you as a priestess see that someone needs a safe space in which to speak, light the smudge bundle or incense and clear the area around them, bringing them clarity and gentle focused attention. This is an effective way to initiate a conscious transition and a thoughtful exchange.
When building a sacred fire, before laying the wood place an offering of incense, resins, flower petals or spices on the earth. This can be done artistically in a pattern or design that reflects your intent for the ceremony. At the fire, flat stones can be placed close to the perimeter of the fire itself. When the stones get hot during the night it makes a perfect way to burn your chosen incense as an offering with no need for charcoal.
When you need to center and ground yourself for sacred work, let your sense of smell aid you. Choose incense that is special to you to burn when you seek inner peace. Let it help you make that connection. For me, the scent of frankincense immediately uplifts my spirit and allows me to let go of stress and get out of my head. After using a certain fragrance or botanical many times a link in your consciousness will be formed and will help take you to your desired mental and emotional state.
After many years of being involved with all types of incense, there are a few things I would like to recommend, especially for personal meditation. This a time that you take for yourself and your inner well-being; you do not want a lot of strong scent and smoke. I find that fine Japanese incense sticks are the best for indoor meditation and quieting the mind. They are refined and beautiful, tiny thin sticks of pure precious woods, resins and herbs which can be very costly but worth the price. Consider finding a blend you like from a reputable Japanese company or supplier; most suppliers will offer sample packs of their more precious sticks.
Throughout history, cultures and religions have used certain incenses to honor their deities. Incense is used to offer prayers because the smoke rises to the heavens, carrying the prayer from the physical to the spiritual plane. The ancients believed incense provided access to the gods.
In creating blends for deities and archetypes think of the element the deity or archetype represents as well as botanicals of the region of the deity or archetype. Consider what grows in their country of origin, but also invoke your personal “scentual” experience and impressions. Go to the ancient texts and get a sense of what was used. In the process of creation you might find a great deal of magick and synchronicity occurs.
Here is lesson I learned the hard way. When going out into nature or any wild place to do sacred work it is always a good idea to give offerings to genus loci or the spirits of the land. Ask for their blessing and permission to work there. Incense or small bits of organic food can serve as an offering, something that will be assimilated and leave no trace. Remember say “thank you” as well when your work is done.
Aarati (Arati) is a Hindu devotional ritual that consists of burning camphor pellets or cakes held in a small censer or plate. The censer is waved in gentle circular movements before the image of a deity or honored person to symbolize devotion, blessing, and the dissolution of the ego. This simple rite is amazingly powerful and beautiful; the dancing light playing upon the altar or beloved seems to bring all to life in a mystical way.
Camphor is highly purifying and very sacred, and is used to represent the dissolution of the ego since it burns completely without leaving any trace. When burned it emits a sweet, strong fragrance, which symbolizes how we too should sacrifice of ourselves to serve society and in the process spread the perfume of love and happiness to all.
Aarti is a form of worship which is performed to purify the mind, to express devotion, and to connect with the Divine. The burning of camphor in ritual removes or burns away that which separates us from the Divine. Aarti can be used by all to purify and bless with light and scent.
Place several pellets of ceremonial camphor (not mothballs) in a heatproof bowl or censer, preferably one with a wooden handle . These are available from Indian markets or websites that supply “Puja” (ceremonial devotion) tools. Light them with a match or lighter. They will flame for several minutes and then go out on their own. It is best to let them burn away completely, do not extinguish them. Pellets can also be floated while burning in a bowl of water. This creates “Holy Water” to be used in ceremony. Light the pellet then pick it up with tongs or tweezers and place it gently on the surface of the water. It is a very beautiful sight as the flames dance upon the water.
A Guide to Incense Botanicals
Botanicals are all types organic plant material, but not all work to produce the scent when burned that is present when fresh.
There are four main types of botanicals used in incense, I will briefly touch upon some of my favorites that are considered traditional.
Resins, Balsams and Gums -
Basically tree sap, Elixir vitae - the blood of trees or a sticky plant balsam extracted from a plant or shrub. The drops of sap are known as “tears”. They are the “base” of a blend. Resins are the great healers and have chemical components that have antiseptic, anti-microbial properties, repel insects, bind wounds, and sooth the soul – just think what they do for the trees…
Herbs and Plants–
Aromatic plant material, only certain ones translate well into scent when burned. But you may include any herb in blends for energetic and symbolic reasons. Also consider using essential oils with fragile herbs and flower petals to give a more potent opening scent. They are the “top notes” of a blend.
Precious woods, these are the “body and binder” of a blend. Woods are best used in powder form, or sawdust. But small chips are traditionally used as well. Try dipping a sliver of fragrant wood in your favorite Essential oil and then burning it as incense.
Highly aromatic seeds and barks. They can sweeten and warm a blend. Try buying you spices from a big on line supplier instead of the grocery store, much more fresh and potent with a wider selection.
These four botanical types are traditionally burned in combination and come from every place on the planet, or some, your own backyard. They can be more costly than gold, but many with the most wonderful scents are very reasonable and now easily obtainable.
There are good formularies (DIY, recipe books) now available, and many sources for incense sticks and blends, but it is good to know what the pure ingredients smell like and try blending them yourself. Finding all natural incense is very difficult, just because it says “natural” on the label doesn’t make it so. You can call an incense blend " natural” if it has no artificial binders or ignition chemicals in it, but most on the market have synthetic fragrance oils in them. These can smell lovely, but for sacred work you might want to consider mixing your own.
This list is a place to start your explorations…
Recommended Resins and Balsams:
Benzoin Styrax – (Styrax benzoides) Known also as Gum Benjamin. Benzoin is very aromatic with an amber vanilla odor from Asia. Used widely in perfumes as a fixative it is remarkably sweet and enlivening. A mental stimulant to promote creativity. “Ben” means branch Hebrew and fragrant in Arabic and “Zoa” means exudation. Benzoin is often combined with Frankincense to make Byzantine incense used for religious ceremony. Add Benzoin to sweeten any blend like adding “aromatic honey”. True Benzoin also gets confused with many sweet aromatic gum resins called Jawi's, from the Middle East and India.
Bruezinho (or Brue Claro): Tree resin from Brazil, very sacred and traditionally used in Shamanic work. It is collected from the forest floor to use in ceremony. It has an earthy , smooth, rainforest scent. This is the incense used for the Ayauasca ceremonies of Brazil. A wonderful Earth offering, harvested with without wounding the tree.
Copal: (Bursera) Copal literally means “tree sap,” and there are many types of copal from all over the Americas. My favorite is Copal Blanco is from Mexico , it is white, sticky and aromatically potent. Negro copal is also lovely, sweeter and darker. Other types such Gold, are generally not as fragrant, but very pleasant. The clean fresh scent of Copal has a long history of sacred use in the Meso-American cultures. Gazing through its smoke is said to reveal energetic patterns and carry messages to the spirit world. It is known as “food for the gods” and is burned for Day of Dead ceremonies to guide the spirits home. Copals are a very good choice to burn for almost any type of work from divination to purification.
Dragon’s Blood Resin – (Daemonorops draco ) A deep red resin used for banishing and protection. The Sumatran dragon’s blood used for incense is from a climbing rattan palm of Eastern Asia. It is most commonly found in a hard fist size ball stamped with a gold impression. Add it to a blend to make it more potent, it has alchemical properties.
Elemi – (Canarium luzonicum) The name Elemi comes form the Arabic phrase “Above and Below”
There are many types of Elemi but the most often used in incense is from the Philippines. It has a beautiful fruity, pine wood scent with herbal notes. It inspires creativity and fertility, and is I feel is Lunar in nature. White sticky when fresh and dries and ages to become brittle and dark. Perfect for full moons and visionary work.
Fir Balsam (Abies balsamea ) It is secreted by the balsam fir of northeastern North America. The raw Conifer balsams are best found by folks who live in the forest, they are hard to get on the market. But so lovely. You can get what they call Fir Balsam absolute which is a thick fragrant syrup with a forest-like sweet fruity scent that is unforgettable. Like the essence of the Green world, nurturing and calming, a balm for the spirit.
Frankincense (Bosellia sacra or carteri): Frankincense (especially Sacra of Oman) is one of the finest aromas incense has to offer. It is expensive but worth every penny. If you have not tried “Hougary” ,the best frankincense of Oman, you have a treat in store! The most prized is white or greenish in color and translucent like a gemstone.
Also known a Olibanum, it is obtained from the resin tears exuded from trees in Africa and the Middle East and harvested by hand. Frankincense is the gold of the ancient world and has now been proven scientifically to ease stress and relieve anxiety. The cost can vary greatly, look for large white to pale yellow tears to start, it should have a nice scent when rubbed between your fingers. There are many types and grades from green to black. A Universal Solar medicine.
Labdanum – (Cistus creticus)
Labdanum was an important ingredient in Ancient Egyptian Incense and perfumery.
This an amazing earthy resin that comes from the Rockrose or Cistus bush. It is sexy and dark, with scents of leather, oakmoss, wood and flowers in honey. In the past it was collected by goats let loose in the fields to feast , resin sticks to their beards and coat and was later combed out and cleaned by boiling. Long rakes of leather strips are also used to harvest now in Crete to collect the dark sticky resin. The false beards worn by Egyptian pharaohs were actually goat’s hair held together by labdanum. If you cannot find the resin in its raw form, try the oil….remarkable. Earth in a scent, seductive, animalic and underworld.
Mastic (Pistacia lentiscus)
In ancient Egypt mastic was called "the fragrance that pleases the gods." Most Mastic , (or Mastiha) is from Chios an island in Greece and is a rare and pure incense experience. It properties are Mercurial and Healing and its fragrance soft and subtle. Burning it as incense is a very soothing but uplifting balm to the soul. Since ancient times, mastic has been used as a natural medicine. A leaf fossil from a mastic tree has been found dating back six million years. The Incense makers of ancient Egypt used mastic resin in their Kyphi mixtures . “ Mastiha is a stimulant that has a mysterious virtue and power to feed the pleasures of Venus and to arouse in a remarkable way . One of the original ingredients in Holy Oil - It was the first chewing gum used to sweeten the mouth.
Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha )This is one of the oldest and most renown of the incense resins. Myrrh is amongst the first scents used in both prayer and in perfumery as far back as 3,700 years ago. Most comes from Somalia or Yemen. It has been used since antiquity in incense mixtures to heal, honor the Goddess, and to strengthen and transform the spirit. Used in its pure form as incense it rather smokey and bitter , but it is an important element none the less. Try adding the essential oil if you want true rich Myrrh scent to come through in smoke. It has ties energetically to funerary rites and, for me, dark moon rituals, it has a air solemnness. Yet it is also referred to a balm of passion in the Song of Solomon – “A bundle of Myrrh is my beloved to me” The word myrrh comes from the Hebrew murr or maror, which means "bitter". Burn it gently.
Pinon Pine : (Pinus edulis) A smooth, warm southwest resin that is easy to obtain. It can be very sticky when fresh but dries with time, ages well. Lovely burned on its own. A very different scent from other pine saps (some can be slightly “sour”). Pinon is used in the Native American tradition for protection and blessing. One of my favorites scents is burning resin rich pinon pine logs in the fireplace during the desert winter. It surrounds our home with the protective scent of incense and smudges the neighborhood.
Peru Balsam – (Myroxylon balsanum) )This balsam is from a tall tree in Central America. It is a warm dark, reddish-brown syrup, with a cinnamon vanilla type scent. It was considered by the early church to be very sacred and was used as a sacramental oil in ordination. Used to make things Sweet and comforting. A great Healer.
Salupati or “Sal” (Shorea robusta) - India, Himalayas “the deliverer of intoxicating resin” Salu pati is a resin from the tropical Sal tree (Shorea Robusta) The Sal tree is an object of worship among Buddhists and Hindus in India and the adjoining countries. This Tree is considered sacred because of its characteristics. It is nearly indestructible, attains a great stature and produces copious amounts of resin by the scaring the bark. It it used by shamans as a traveling agent for its psychoactive properties. The resin when placed on coals gives forth billows of white smoke. Many shamans enter deep trances through this incense and all in its presence are uplifted. . It is said that the Buddha was born under a Sal tree.
Storax (Liquidambar orientalis ) This is obtained from a small tree now mostly found in Turkey. The balsam and the bark are both used in incense. The smoke sweet and cinnamon like and it warms any blend. Sometimes mistakenly known as Balm of Gilead due to it remarkable healing properties. Other types of storax were held sacred by the MesoAmerican cultures and used to carve votive images and in smoking blends as well as incense. The Turkish Storax bark makes a wonderful incense thought to used in Kyphi.
Tolu Balsam – (Myroxylon balsamum) From a tree of Venezuela, Colombia and Peru. Incisions with a V-shape are made in the trunk and the balsam exudes slowly and is collected in gourds. It is brown brittle resin which looks and smells like brown sugar and vanilla .
It has been used for salves and ointments as well as incense. Like Benzoin it has great fixative powers and sweetens any blend. Rich and caramel like, reminding one of the sweetness of life.
Recommended Herbs and Plants
Artemisia(s) - Named after the Greek Goddess Artemis, These include Mugwort, Wormwood and Sage brush ,or Desert Sage, which add wonderful green herbal scents. Desert Sage is a traditional herb used in Native American incense for smudging and sweat lodges. (not to be confused with White sage) Wormwood and Mugwort are used in trance, lunar and dreaming blends . Though very bitter herbs, they add a note of moon magic and sorcery. Wormwood is the herb used in Absinthe and Flying ointments. It is best to grow your own and all are easy to cultivate.
Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis) A gift from Gaia grown at the Greek Oracle of Delphi , It has a rich history , it is said the leaves were burned and ingested by the priestesses to bring on trance. Bay was also burned in Greece as a fumigation for protection and good fortune. A symbol of triumph , wisdom and victory. Bay has a warm sweet scent very pleasant and meaningful in incense. Use the branches for aspurging and as an incense for rites of divination.
Lavender – Lovely lavender the herb of peace, healing and learning; the mother of aromatherapy. The stems are traditionally used for strewing and aspurging. (To purify ritually by sprinkling with salt water) The fresher the lavender the more aromatic it is, so try to harvest it yourself. When burned it may not carry a lot of its true scent into smoke, but it will give a blend an uplifting feel and freshness. A natural anti-depressant and stress reliever. Adding a few drops of essential oil to the buds is a good idea for incense or a dream pillow. I remember Anne Key throwing bundles of homegrown lavender on the temple fire and the fabulous scent that surrounded us!
Mexican Tarragon or Marigold (Tegetes lucida)
A euphoric incense herb widely used by the Mesoamerican cultures. It has a lovely anise like scent is used in incense, teas and smoking blends. Use in blends to promote visions and for guided meditation, it has a mild psychotopic effect and was used by the Aztecs as a sedative and to grant “closed-eye visuals.
The Huichol Indians from the Sierra Madre Mountains worked with this plant as a ritual incense, it has been used since pre-Hispanic times. The scent of the herb will take you back in time.
Orris Root (Iris florentina)
A classical incense ingredient to add sweet scent and act as fixative ot let blends hold their scent longer over time. The quintessential plant of the Moon and lovers magic. For a root the scent is very floral, much like violets. Use it in a powdered form. My first pick for Full Moon incense blends.
Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin ) The herb of the patchouli plant is classic incense scent and is potent aphrodisiac. Add for depth and a very earthy sweet note to make sensuous blends. Consider adding some essential oil to the herb to empower the scent. The name comes from India, patch ilia, which means green leaf. It gets better with age. Wonderful as a sachet to scent bedding, shawls and intimate apparel.
Rosemary - (Rosmarinus officinalis) This is a great all-purpose incense for purification, clearing, and sanctification, and it's got a history that goes back to ancient times for those purposes. It's especially nice as a purifying incense when mixed with juniper berries. Sniffing rosemary is good for increasing concentration and memory when studying. Combine it with lavender, roses, and mugwort to stuff a dream pillow. The helpful herb that is easy grow. The fresh stalks make wonderful wands to use for blessing and aspurging (To purify ritually by sprinkling with salt water)
Sweet Grass (Hierochloe odorata): A traditional blessings and smudging herb. Sacred to the divine feminine with a lovely vanilla scent , very good for earth offerings. This grass , also known as Seneca grass or holy grass, is braided and burned for blessing ceremonies. The braids smolder slowly and need to be re-lit often. It can also be cut into small bits and added to blends or burned on charcoal.
Vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanioides) A hardy Grass that produces very long roots that gather the scents of the earth. It is woody and deep, mixes beautifully with patchouli for the potent scent of green earth. It is easiest to find in an oil form, known as the “oil of Tranquility” . The roots are used in incense and also woven in to aromatic mats . Vetiver was used historically to scent water for ritual , very grounding and calming. Use in incense to help process grief and loss.
White sage (Artemisia apiana) – To bless our home our communities and our personal energy; White sage is a panacea of healing and clearing. It can be used in so many ways, only for smudging but as tea, in mist, and in our medicine bags. When ever healing is needing, Sage is our ally. The smell of fresh white sage is intensely therapeutic, and maintains it potency when dried for a long time. It will lose some scent over time, but compared to other herbs it is very long-lasting. Store sage bundles (as well as all types of incense) in an airtight container. (see above for using and rolling sage bundles)
“At Equinox we dance – and at Solstice,
we light wands of Sage that make
showers of sparks as we strike our wrists together”
- The Way of the Wild Sage, Micheal Rose
Of the Sage Council
Recommended Trees and Woods:
Cedar (Thuja plicata or Spruce/Cedar species )
The perfect base for all types blends, with that wonderful forest “deep green” scent. A few drops of any type of cedar oil mixed with the powdered wood and green bough tips makes a universal earth blessing incense.
There many kinds of cedar, it is a broad family of varying trees known for their strengthening aromatic foliage and wood. The best for incense are Red Cedar, Port Orford Cedar, Eastern Cedar, Arbor Vitae , Siskiyou Cedar and Incense Cedar. You can find powdered Arbor Vitae and Red Cedar from many suppliers and this makes them easy to use in blends. * Cedar boughs are often used in Smudge blends and bundles.
Cypress – (Cupressaceae family) Or “Thyia” in ancient Greece, the resin was thought to be burned at Delphi by the oracle priestesses and perhaps was the origin of the Thyrsos wand carried by the female followers of Dionnysos, the Greek god of ecstasy. It has a long and important history and is an incense of Queens and Priestesses . The cypress tree is also a symbol of Artemis and the moon.
Juniper (Juniperus or juniper species)
Aromatically potent with medicinal and spiritual properties, Juniper needles have long been used by Native Americans for smudging. The berries were used widely in the ancient world for holy incense, most notably in Egyptian Kyphi* Himalayan Juniper wood is used as a base in many Nepalese ,Tibetan and Ayurvedic healing incenses *
Palo Santo (Burserea Graveolens ): Literally translated as “Holy Wood,” is very healing and cleansing with a clear sweet clean scent. Sticks of the wood are lit and burned for purification; the powdered wood makes a great base for healing incense blends.
Excellent for shifting the energy in a room to be used for those who need a healing atmosphere. It is recommended to burn the incense in a space as a preparation for the scent is lingering.
I recommend buying this wood form Ecuador's Pacific coast ,which is ecologically and sustainably harvested. This product is produced without harming the living Palo Santo tree. They only process wood that has been found to have died naturally in the forest.
Every country in every part of the world has its botanical treasures, the greatest of which are so important to the society that they become pillars of the culture. Palo Santo is one such medicine. It's healing powers are so numerous that it has served as a panacea for areas of South America for centuries. Its use in sacred ritual is so important that it is an essential tool for Shamans and Priestesses. Its aroma is so uplifting that it stands among the greatest of the world's fragrant woods. Bestowing great blessings, it gives good fortune to all who use it. Over time, plant-teachers such as Palo Santo reach divine-like status in the hearts and minds of the people.
Pine – Hildegard von Bingen wrote this of the pine, "The pine tree is more warm than cold and contains many energies and powers. The tree is the symbol of strength."
The sawdust from Pine wood makes a pretty good incense base when combined with essential oils and resins.
In its rosin form it is often known as Colophony (Colophonium tot.) a translucent amber like material with a balsamic woody scent ,a powerful incense of the elements of Fire and Air.
Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta ) is one of the widest ranging pines in the Americas and the resin/sap known as “Mayan copal”, it is more sweet and pine like.
Sandalwood Agarwood (aka Aloeswood )– “Between heaven and earth”
These are the most precious of incense woods, very expensive and endangered.(FN)
I encourage incense lovers to explore and research the world of fine woods but proceed with caution; there are many pricey and false suppliers out there. That said , there is nothing so incredible , spiritually and sensually, as these fine woods when they are genuine.
Their scent “connects us with the ancients” and invokes the sacred temples of all ages. If you decide to experiment with these woods I recommend that you burn them gently on a heater, you do not want to waste a single wiff. Volumes could be written on the beauty, use and history of these rare jewels, I will leave it to you to discover their fragrant mysteries.
(FN) Please note that these woods are endangered, but you can find sustainable sources now, just be aware so future generations may be able to enjoy them . Culitvated Agarwood can be found from Vietnam and Sandalwood sustainably harvested and grown from Australia
The scent of the exotic, the far away, and the sensual. These seed pods run from green to black and all are aromatic delights. To use as incense grind in a spice or coffee grinder. Enhance the erotic and invigorates sexuality. Aphodesiac in nature and an offering to the Goddesses of Love. Serve incense and Cardamom tea with milk and honey to one you love.
Cinnamon – (Cinnamomum verum)
True Cinnamon, one of worlds most beloved spices. A very important ingredient in sacred incense and holy oil throughout time. Many types of amazing Cinnamon are available now, my favorite is from Saigon. The fragrant bark is warm and brings the abundance of the Sun. The Phoenix made its nest of cinnamon and precious resins, there to be re-born. Burn for creativity and inspiration . Cinnamon is used universally in fine incense to open the heart as well as the head. In Sappho's poetry cinnamon grew in Arabia, along side incense, myrrh, and labdanum, and was guarded by winged serpents.
Clove (Eugenia caryophyllata)
Clove is an important incense ingredient, not only is the scent warming and protective, it also helps incense to burn better. It said to bring prosperity and “ comforts the heart”, bring to mind hearth and home and things baking in the oven. Used in many Japanese incense blends. Clove adds body and depth to any incense.
Star Anise (Illicium verum)
These elegant star shape seed pods carry the scent of the Moon, of dreaming and clairvoyance. Aromatically very potent, their magical attributes are as beautiful as their scent. Used in many Japanese incense blends. To use as incense grind in spice or coffee grinder. Carry one in pocket or medicine bag for luck and Goddess blessings.
*Kyphi – Egyptian incense blend- Burned in the evening, Kyphi was believed to restore the sexuality and delight the body and mind. Most notably it was burned in temples of the ancient world as an offering to the gods.
This famous compound incense, was usually made of sixteen ingredients – “Most of the ingredients that are taken into this compound, in as much as they have aromatic properties, give forth a sweet emanation and a beneficent exhalation, by which the air is changed, and the body moved gently and softly by the current, acquires a temperament conducive to sleep; and the distress and strain of our daily cares, as if they were knots, these exhalations relax and loosen without the aid of wine”
– Ancient text
It is a long process to create and was considered the work of the priesthood. Now there are many good sources of information on its creation and the varying ingredients used. Kyphi has been a life long search for me and it is a big part of my work. Every year many months are dedicated to the making of our own version of Kyphi utilizing the ancient formulas that have been made available to us. I highly recommend getting involved the process of incense making. The making of Kyphi is a journey. Finding and preparing the ingredients, putting your love and devotion into its blending, waiting for it cure (sometimes six months) ,forming the small pellets, and finally burning it as an offering – A labor of love and a divine offering for the Goddess.
This is just a very brief overview of incense in the life and work of a priestess. Very few practices have such a timeless effect on ritual; and I hope that women will take the time to learn to use incense and fragrance in their own work, explore its beauty and power, discover the secrets that fire brings forth.
When I place a tear of resin upon a white coal and smoke gently rises, I feel connected to the heart of a ceremony that unites all cultures. The sweet scent opens us to a celebration of life that transcends beliefs in a universal language.
Further Reading and Sources:
Carl Neal has devoted his life to Pagan incense education and crafting:
Neal, Carl F. Incense: Crafting and Use of Magickal Scents. Woodbury, MN: Llewelyn, 2003.
Neal, Carl F. Incense Magick: Create Inspiring Aromatic Experiences for Your Craft. Woodbury, MN: Llewelyn, 2012.
For regional, historical, indigenous incense:
Fischer-Rizzi, Susanne. The Complete Incense Book. New York: Sterling Publishing, 1998.
Recommended sources for powdered wood, resins and botanicals used incense:
Essence of the Ages - http://www.essenceoftheages.com
Beth carries all types of incense from around the world, an important reliable source
Scents of Earth - http://www.scents-of-earth.com
A wide selection of incense materials and hard to find resins
Mermade Magickal Arts – http://www.mermadearts.com
We try to provide the very best in natural incense.
 In wildcrafting, plants are harvested from their natural or "wild" habitat. Wildcrafting supports sustainable harvesting, where only the fruit, flowers, or branches form the plant are taken.
 There are many wonderful techniques for burning incense, too many to mention here but there are great online sources, I recommend the non-profit website www.making-Incense.com. It covers a great variety of instructions on using and making your own incense. And please come visit me at Mermade Magickal Arts: www.mermadearts.com.