Incense means any substance which are burned in order to produce fragrant fumes. This is often used in occult or religious rituals, and sometimes even in mundane ones. Today incense is often used simply for it's good smell. The most usual ingredients of incense mixtures are several resins, herbs and wood chips. Volatile or fatty oils can be added in small quantities.
Some substances emit poisonous fumes when burned. Every practitioner should research the substances he/she uses and decide whether they are worth the possible risk. Generally, direct inhalation of the fumes should be avoided to protect the lungs. Most incense preparation will emit very strong scents that still linger in a room after ventilating it. Many traditional occult incense receipts contain intoxicating or simply poisonous ingredients. Never use receipts without knowing what the ingredients actually are and do. Man-made scents should be avoided because some can be poisonous when burned. Needless to say, take appropriate precautions when handling open fire or glowing charcoal. But when these points are heeded, the use of incense is a save thing and can enrich rituals greatly.
Basically, there are two kinds of incense:
- Incense that can be burned as is
- incense that needs to be burned on charcoal or an incense sieve
Self-igniting incense doesn't mean that it's literally self-igniting, but it can be burned without the help of other combustible material. In order to burn it, it is simply lighted with a match, left burning for a few seconds, then it is blown out so that it will keep glowing. Powdery incense should be rolled into cigarette paper before igniting it. Such incense must contain a sufficient amount of wood chips and some potassium nitrate to facilitate burning. It is a science in it's own right to compose well-burning self-igniting incense.
This sort of incense is readily available as sticks, cones or powder. Commercially available products often contain man-made fragrances that may be harmful to the health. So it is important to buy from a reputable company. But to the magickian, it may be more satisfactory to prepare one's own incense anyway.
Such incense develops less heat than glowing charcoal, so it can be burned in simple censers. Holders for incense sticks needn't be fire-resistant at all, because the low end of the incense stick won't get hot while it burns.
Burning normal incense
The second sort consists of raw resins, wood chips and herbs, more or less finely grounded. They can be used one substance at a time or in mixtures. Such mixtures can also contain volatile oils or fatty oils. While resigns and most sorts of woods give pleasant fumes when used alone, most herbs must be combined with sufficient amounts of resigns in order to avoid a smell like burning grass. But still the composition of normal incense is far easier that that of self-igniting incense.
Usually it is "burned" by letting it smoulder on glowing charcoal. Natural charcoal is hard to ignite and takes a while till it glows red, so usually commercially available self-igniting charcoal is used. This is made from a mix of charcoal powder and potassium nitrate, pressed into a convenient form. This coal is ignited carefully at one end, then the flames will travel through it quickly and leave it glowing red. It is advisable to do this near an open window because the potassium nitrate smells quite funny. Then the incense can be put on it.
For this a censer must be used. Censers that are supposed to stand on a table are best made of stone or ceramics and shouldn't be too small. They must be filled with sand in order to insulate the charcoal properly, because it gets very, very hot. Censers made from metal can also be used, if they are not too small and well filled with sand. But be aware that metal will lead the heat outside more quickly, and avoid silver which is getting hot really fast. A new censer should be tested carefully to determine whether it will keep cool enough during extended use. Thuribles, that is, censers that hang from chains and can be swung, are nice for rituals that involve some action, Those are usually made from brass or some other metal.
Like with all magickal equipment, the form of the censer is a up to the individual, as long as it is save.
Some magicians and witches don't want to use charcoal containing potassium nitrate because this is associated with fiery energy and certain planetary attributions and they don't want every incense charged with such energy. Some also have worries that potassium nitrate fumes might be unhealthy, which are not unfounded. In this case the use of natural charcoal, an incense sieve or more unorthodox methods are options.
An incense sieve is a modern method to burn incense. It is simply a fine sieve that is placed in a holder over a candle. The incense is simply laid on the sieve, or on a piece of aluminium foil on the sieve. The flame of the candle should be so near that the incense starts to smolder, but doesn't burn. The best temperature may vary for different incense receipts. Many herbs and seeds smell better on such a sieve, because the heat can be adjusted so that they don't burn immediately, Most resign incense smells the same or better on charcoal. Many like this method for home use because a candle seems easier to handle than glowing charcoal and is cleaner. Such sieves can be bought together with nice holders, similar to aromatherapy lamps, but it is also possible to use a metal tea sieve and place it onto any holder made from non-flammable material, an put a candle under it.
Another modern method is smoldering the incense on a light bulb. If you want to do that on a regular basis get a lamp that allows regulating the light, because you can adjust the heat that way. It's a great thing to do in hotel rooms and the like, or in any situation where fire is infeasible but electric light is present. Generally, incense can be burned on anything that gets hot. Be creative if need be.
While the paragraphs before described in detail what incense is and how it is used (in a technical sense) nothing has been said about its use in magick. As said before, incense has been used for religious and magickal purposes for a long time, most probably its use is as old as mankind. Almost every culture knows it, especially the ones we may consider "primitive". Medieval magick made extensive use of it. Like for most things, the medieval mages had complicated tables of astrological and elemental correspondences for every possible incense ingredient, and an incense had to be prepared from exactly the right ingredients for a purpose, at the right hour of the day, under the right sign of the zodiac....
Of course, most modern magicians see no point in bothering with such stuff, or at least not on a regular basis. Among wiccans symbolical use of incense and herbs seems to be widespread, but in much simplified form. And while the complicated medieval systems do have value under certain circumstances, they are not practical for everyday use. But any tool can be used creatively. I write about the things i have done and found valuable, but i'm sure others can add more.
Often incense is simply used to create atmosphere in a ritual, without giving too much thought about it. That is a good use for it, but it is a pity because you can get much more out of it. For maximum effect, all the points below should be considered when using incense.
The most basic thing about incense is that it smells. That can go from nice, hypnotic perfume to pungent stench, depending on the recipe used. Smell is a very important sense, although it is sometimes neglected in magickal practice. In fact smell is the one sense that is best at triggering half-forgotten, old memories, and has the most direct connection to emotions in that way.
This can be actively used in magick. Try to burn the same incense every time you do a certain ritual. Most probably you will soon find that the smell alone will put you in the right state of mind for that working, may be even under circumstances that would otherwise prevent effective work. Of course the same conditioning process works for more mundane activities, which can be kind of magickal too, if it helps in difficult situations. The dangerous thing about this is that you might find it difficult to do that working without incense after a while. If that seems undesirable, practice both with and without incense.
Smells can be used for many purposes other magical weapons (in the widest sense of the word) are used. For example, as sigils, as focus for energy, as an offering to a god/goddess.
The effect that known smells tend to trigger memories can be used effectively if one wants to explore certain memories in a magickal working. You were raised christian? Explore your reactions to typical church incense. See if you can still get your favourite brand of incense sticks from your teenage years.
Symbology does (or at least should) have a place in modern magick. It goes so well with the way the human minds works, but that needs to be discussed elsewhere. But symbols are mainly of use because they work on the human mind, and not because of some inherent powers, as the medieval magicians believed. Also, it's effect on our feelings and thoughts is not inherent to the symbol, but stems from the experiences and knowledge of the person using it. That leads to the modern advice on all symbology: keep it simple and personal. Books and traditional attributions may have some value, especially if they stem from one's own culture and folklore, or if they are studied in depth and this way filled with meaning. But if in doubt, one should go with one's own associations rather than with prefabricated meanings.
The things said in the last chapter should make clear that smells can be powerful symbols, aside from any symbolical meaning of the plant the incense was made from.
The used symbolical meaning can be derived from the plant, the smell, and should take into account any physiological action of the fumes produced. It might not generally be a bright idea to use lavender as a symbol for fiery energy, because the fumes tend to make you feel peaceful or even sleepy. Also, smoldering chilli pepper (which smells/stinks quite nasty) may be a bad love symbol.
Another good thing is that creating your own incense receipt, preparing the incense, and may be even consecrating it for a purpose can be a ritual in itself. It can be part of acts such as creating a smell sigil. It can produce incense for magickal emergencies. Or anything you want it to be.
It is well-known that certain chemicals from plants go into the fumes when the plants are smoldered or even burnt, Some of these substances have physical consequences when these fumes are inhaled, even in very small amounts. In medieval times, many substances were used for incense that are considered drugs today. The use of drugs for magickal purposes is still a valid technique, often called chemognosis, but that should be discussed elsewhere. I never used them and ask every one who wants to to be very, very cautious. But there are lots of relatively save substances that still have certain effects.
Lavender (and some other herbs) may sedate you to a point that will make vivid visualizations impossible, but it is great for grounding/calming down. Gum mastic and some brands of Frankincense contain enough THC (yes, the active substance in pot) to make open eyed visual hallucinations easy (together with appropriate trance techniques). But please don't ever smoke them, that's really harmful to the lungs, and don't eat stuff that was sold for incense use. These are only examples.
Educate yourself about how the incense ingredients work on you, both from books and by experience. Then use this knowledge wisely. It helps a lot if you work with these properties, not against them.
Uses of the smoke itself
Most incenses produce copious amounts of smoke. It will ascent to the ceiling straight or in bizarre forms. Try staring at it while in trance.This is as good as any trigger for visual hallucinations. Try to meet the energies that special incense is supposed to carry. Use the smoke like you would use a crystal ball.
You also can hold a paper above the smoke for a while, and interpret the picture that forms on it. But that requires thick smoke, so use a receipt with lots of resin.
magical cleansing means the purging of things, places or even persons from bad influences, both those that come from outside sources and those that are inherent to the object or living being that is the target of the action. Almost all cultures, religions and magickal traditions have procedures specially dedicated to that purpose. In most traditions these involve incense.
Maybe one of the most widespread uses of incense is for cleansing purposes. In Europe it is custom to cleanse a room with incense where someone has just died. Usually this is done by a priest, but in rural areas where people are strong on traditions it may be done by those present at the deathbed if no priest is available. Incense is also used in great ammounts during traditional funerals. Unfortunately, this has led to a strong association of death and incense for many.
In the alpine regions of Germany, Austria and maybe Switzerland another cleansing custom has survived until recently. The house is cleansed with incense during the days between christmas and 6th of January. It was believed that during this time, the influence of the christian god was weak and the old Gods came back as raving demon-like fiends, the Wild hunt. The incense was meant to keep them out of the house. But there were also customs in reverie of those beings, which got mixed up with the christian celebration of the three holy Kings, and Santa Claus.
In medieval times, incense made of certain herbs was considered effective for preventing the spreading of contagious diseases. Today it is known that this belief was not completely unfounded. Like many volatile oils, the smoke of some resigns can kill bacteria. And while this certainly can't prevent plagues like the black death, it can be a help in the cold season, to reduce the incidence of air-born upper respiratory tract infections.
The strong smell of incense can sure clean the air to a certain degree. May be that was it's original purpose at funerals in the time before the invention of refrigerators. Catholic customs demand it that at least three days pass between death and funeral, in order to give people opportunities to say good bye. This may have caused an odor problem, especially during summer.
It has been theoreticized that this is not the only reason, especially immediately after death. It is true that people can unconsciously smell fear and similar bad emotions. The smoke will wipe these smells away, and make people feel much better.
-  Aromagicks: The Magical Application of Aromatics by Ray Sherwin
- Marianne und Patrick Caland, Weihrauch und Räucherwerk, ISBN 3-89385-099-6 (german)