A Brief History of Incense
Humans have been burning aromatic and fragrant woods and herbs for thousands of years. Incense continues to be widely used in religions around the world, from Hinduism to Greek and Russian Orthodox Christianity. Naturally scented wood is actually very rare, and it can take centuries to acquire its unique fragrance, which is why it is such a highly valued component of religious rituals.
Some cultures have even developed whole artforms centered around incense. The japanese practice of Kodo literally translates to “way of the fragrance.” It is the art of appreciating incense. During Kodo, practitioners “listen” to the incense, fully appreciating the atmosphere and quality of each different scent.
Benefits of Aromatherapy
What’s less known about incense, and fragrances in general, is that they have been used therapeutically for a very long time. In traditional Chinese medicine, incense has long been prescribed for its physiological and psychological benefits, with different scents nourishing both the body and spirit in different ways. Many testify to the calming and centering effect of high quality incense.
Kodo, the art of incense appreciation mentioned earlier, is said to have the following benefits:
- Sharpening the senses
- Purifying the mind and body
- Removing mental or spiritual pollutants
- Promoting alertness
- Healing feelings of loneliness
- Creating feelings of harmony (even in times of stress)
- Not being overwhelming, even if used in abundance
- Satisfying, even in small quantities
- Not decaying, even over centuries
- Doing no harm even if used every day
The two types of incense that I’ve noticed the most benefit from in my own life are the following:
Agarwood is reputed to be one of if not the most expensive woods in the entire world. It is a resinous and highly fragrant wood. The reason agarwood is so rare is because it is produced by the aquilaria tree only in response to fungal or bacterial attacks.
Part of the beauty of agarwood as a natural product is how much it can differ based on the wood’s many variables: the species, geographic location, branch, trunk and root origin, length of time since infection, and methods of harvesting and processing all have an effect on the aromatic qualities of agarwood. Products on the market tend to range widely in terms of quality.
Agarwood is imbued with strong yang energy. It’s fragrance is both intensely distinctive, and calming at the same time. In traditional Chinese medicine, agarwood strengthens the kidneys, back and knees, and was also thought to aid in treating cirrhosis of the liver and tumors.
Sandalwood incense is harvested from the santalum tree. Unlike other aromatic woods, wood from the santalum tree is famous for retaining its scent for decades. Sandalwood and sandalwood oil produce a distinctive fragrance that has been highly valued for centuries. Thus, like agarwood, sandalwood is one of the most expensive woods in the world. Sandalwood was, and continues to be one of the most used holy/religious elements in Hindu and Vedic societies.
It imparts a soft, warm, and gentle scent that is perfect for relaxation. Sandalwood’s scent has also been described as smooth, creamy, or milky. It is certainly more light and delicate in nature than agarwood. In traditional Chinese medicine, sandalwood helps regulate qi (energy flow through the body). It benefits digestion and the stomach, treats insomnia and anxiety, and helps skin ailments when its oil is applied topically.
Where can I find high quality incense?
Because these woods are so highly valued as parts of religious ceremony, the trees that produce them have been overharvested over a period of many hundreds of years. This makes quality incense both hard to find and very expensive. Many cheap incense on the market has very little of the actual wood in it, and is mostly composed of fillers or chemicals.
For high quality, handmade incense of the utmost purity, see the High End Incense section of the Hyperion Herbs store. The incense has no fillers or binders and is what I burn myself… perfect for relaxing, winding down before sleep, and centering yourself after a long day.