Wiccan Rede * Spring 1986 by Merlin Sythove

For the past few years I have been involved in the making of incense and in this article I would like to have a closer look at this little understood but fascinating subject. Incense has been used since time immemorial. The use of fragrant substances probably originated from the custom to burn special woods on the offertory fires.

The Egyptians were already famous for their incenses and they developed the art of mixing. One of their most famous incenses is Kyphi, which was used to say farewell to the sun god Ra at the end of his daily journey across the heavens. The Kyphi recipe has been lost unfortunately, if it was ever known that is, because the art of making incenses was a religious and very secret practice. At the moment several recipes exist for Kyphi and Plutarch’s is probably the oldest. He mentions amongst other ingredients honey, wine, raisins, myrrh, resin, frankincense, asphaltus and various herbs.

The Greek didn’t know the use of incense until about 800 b.c.e., although they did use cedar wood and citrus wood on their fires. These woods were also burned inside the house for their pleasing fragrance. It is only after the rise of the cult of Aphrodite that we find the use of incense as a more common practice.

Up to the seventh century b.c.e. the Jews did not use incense either, but once introduced the practice was received with enthusiasm.

Frankincense, which still is one of the most important ingredients in incense, is called L(e)bonah in Hebrew, which means ‘sweet resin’.
The early Christians abhorred the use of incense as a Jewish and heathen practice, except for purification rituals. But the Liber Pontifical shows us an inventory of a church, built by Constantine in Rome and incense burners are mentioned in this list. The use of incense as a more common Christian practice must have started about the 4th century c.e.

In the Middle Ages we find, apart from the use of incense in the church, the use of herbs and flowers in the home. Different herbs and flowers were strewn on the floor and this created a pleasant atmosphere, which was supposed to combat the disadvantages of earth floors, mould, damp and bad sanitary conditions. When one walked on the herbs, the scents were released. Camomile, sage, thyme, lavender, hyssop and many other plants were used for this purpose. The larger households, the nobility had special servants who were entrusted with keeping the atmosphere of the house pleasant. The peasant could enlist the help of travelling perfumers for this purpose.

It is from this era that we find the first writings dealing with a completely different use of incense: to enhance magical operations. All plants, resins and oils have their own astrological correspondences and by carefully selecting various ingredients and taking the planetary hours into consideration, one could compose an incense which had a very special effect on man. Old grimoires often list hundreds of plants and these tables were used for incense, medicine and perfumery alike. It was possible to create an incense which carried the influence of the sun, for example. And apart from the herbs, resins and oils the use of animal and purely ‘magical’ ingredients was widespread. The 16th century brings us a new use of fragrant consections: the potpourri. This is a mixture of different herbs and flowers, in a small jar, which have off its scent in the linen cupboard or the bedroom. Potpourri is a French word, meaning ‘rotting pot’. The rose was one of the major ingredients in the potpourri, being one of the few flowers which does not lose its scent after drying. The Egyptians knew the potpourri as well and several urns have been excausted which contents have not lost their fragrance in all those centuries.
At this point in history herbs are also used to freshen up one’s clothes and breath. They did not clean one, but at least the smell was gone… Cinnamon was very popular to chew on and freshen up one’s breath.
During times when epidemical diseases ravaged the country people held a small bunch of herbs and flowers before their face. Seemingly one did not have to smell the scent of death and decay, although recently it was discovered that it served a more practical purpose as well. It is well known that many diseases have their own peculiar ‘scent’ and physicians used to be able to recognise many of these diseases by this scent as well. Recent research using the etheric oils of flowers and plants has shown that many viruses cannot survive exposure to these fragrances. Bacillus of yellow fever, typhoid fever, tuberculosis and many others will die.
Cinnamon is one of the best scents to accomplish this, as are thyme, lavender and clove. The use of this bunch of flowers was not such a bad idea after all…

From the Victorian era we still know of the language of flowers. This was a rather extensive system of meanings which were attached to many flowers and especially lovers used this to give their beloved a message. Some meaning still live on in our time; the connection between the rose and love is well known.
Another curious use of flowers is a flower clock: a flowerbed with twelve sections of different flowers, which opened at different times of the day and gave off their fragrance.

Today we are probably far more conscious of scents than our ancestors were, at least if the turnover of the large perfume manufacturers can be our guideline. But the old art of making fragrant mixes had never been lost and whether it is potpourris, perfume, oils, bath salts, after shave, soap or incense; all over the world there are people who are involved in this fascinating art. Today, especially in the making of magical incenses, more and more attention is paid to the therapeutic value of scents and aromas. Bach’s ‘Flower Remedies’ are but one example.

Most people know incense today either as church incense, or as the sticks and cones of Indian incense. Most magical incenses are similar to the church incenses in this respect that they have to be burned on charcoal.
For our magical purposes we cannot allow ‘foreign’ ingredients, such as the wood and ‘glue’ which are necessary to make a stick-incense, to spoil our carefully selected mixture of magical ingredients.

What is it that fascinates people about scents in general and about incense as well? Is it the intangibility of scents? The fact that scents evoke particular feelings without us realising where these feelings originate from?
Scents do have definite evocative powers, as we all know by experience. Sometimes we smell something and immediately it brings us back to some long forgotten childhood memories, memories we didn’t know we had anymore. Particular periods of our life are equally ‘marked’ by particular scents. Who doesn’t know the feeling which accompanies coming home after a long holiday and the scent of one’s own house? Or a particular favourable perfume? The opposite is true as well: it is quite possible to dislike someone intensely at first sight and only later to realise that this dislike was primarily due to some perfume or aftershave that the person was wearing at the time!
Our sense of smell is, in this age of science, still relatively new territory: very little research has been done to date to find out more about the function of our nose and the particular peculiarities which this sensory organ has. Some things are known, however, and I would like to mention some interesting facts.

Even though the sensory organ with which we can detect scents is far less accurate than that of many animals, we do use our noses constantly, mostly without being aware of it and we definitely depend on our nose as well! Somebody who can’t smell is just as handicapped as someone who is deaf or blind, although at first sight one wouldn’t say so. We use our nose to detect a fire or a leak in a gas pipe, obviously, and to prepare ourselves for the coming meal. But our capabilities extend beyond this.
Experiments have confirmed that people can discriminate between the clothes of their partner and strange clothes by their scent only – a surprising feat! Apparently without realising it we ‘know’ the particular scent of our partner and can recognise this. This is not due to a lingering trace of perfume only, because people have a definite and distinctive body odour. Today we are led to believe that body odour is ‘out’ and needs masking by perfume or some other product in order for us to be acceptable. Still, I would prefer someone’s ‘natural’ perfume, the scent a person has who is clean and healthy, to some of the commercial perfumes which are available today anytime!

Another experiment has shown that the body odour of people is at least partly determined by genetic influences, in the sense that blondes and brunettes have different types of body odour for example. This finding has led psychologists to the conclusion that our choice of partner may be far more dependent on the unconscious perception of body odour than we have thought up to now!

Our sense of smell has only recently been under investigation in scientific circles and much of the research at the moment concentrates on simple unknowns, such as our threshold, i.e. how many scent particles per cubic meter can we still detect; as well as simple experiments to find out how many different scents the average person can discriminate.
Although most of us would be able to correctly identify a warm boiled potato by smell, only a very few are able to distinguish some of the –literally- hundreds of different scents which are combined to give the ‘potato fragrance’.

Where does all this lead us when we are discussing incense? In spite of all our knowledge about scents, their harmonising, or disharmonising, their chemical formulas; all the knowledge about popular scents and old fashioned ones, we still know extremely little about the effects of particular fragrances upon people. Perfume can only be sold because of a particular association, such as ‘Freedom’, or ‘Attraction’ and not of its intrinsic value. The message is that when we start making incense, or oil, our own nose and that of our friends and our own sense of harmony and good taste, can be the only judge of the end product.

The creation of a new scent is very difficult, however, and the main reason for that is that we are working with rather crude materials.
Scents, as they occur in nature, are usually composed of dozens or hundreds of different chemical substances and only a handful dominate.
It is quite possible to create a chemical copy of the major ingredient, but when we start to compare the artificial scent to its original, we usually find that the artificial one smells a lot harsher, stronger and more jarring than the natural one, which usually gives off a more mellow, balanced fragrance. Nature still surpasses our own abilities in this field by far and the best we can do is use the natural fragrances which are pleasing to us.

In some cases however, cost of the refusal to use animal produce, forces us to use artificial essences. Ambergris, a product of the Sperm Whale, for example, can cost as much as two hundred dollars an ounce.
The real rose oil, Otto of Rose, is similarly prohibitive. Many other essential oils are quite cheap though, only few dollars an ounce and the more common ones are not even available as artificial oils, because their make up has not been discovered yet.

In our discussion of incense we are concerned with more than just the scent of the end product. Incense works simultaneously on all levels, the physical, the etheric, the emotional and spiritual levels and this greatly complicates the creation of an incense.
Before we go further, let us have a quick look at these four planes and the influence that scents have on them.

The physical level obviously includes effects of scents (or rather effects of the chemical substance) such as intoxication, wakefulness, coughing, a burning throat, etcetera. Eucalyptus, for example, has been used for clearing the nasal passageways for centuries, as have menthol and mint. Camomile, when used as a steam bath, has a similar effect. Other physical effects include bacteriological effects such as were mentioned above, or the deadening effect of clove oil on a painful tooth.
This happens to be one of the easiest fields to do research upon, but millions of questions are still unanswered. One of the major questions concerns the heating of the incense ingredients and the possible creation or re-combination of materials into other components which have physical effects. A complete blank exists here, although some personal experience is available. One of the few substances which has been researched thoroughly in this sense is … tobacco!

The etheric plane, or the plane of life forces, is slowly becoming a field of study for the alternative sciences. Especially the Bach Flower Remedies, Aromatherapy and Homeopathy are trying to influence this plane.
The essence of working with the etheric plane is that one is working with the energies which form the ‘blueprint’ of the human body. The idea is that disease is created on the etheric plane and if it is not checked will eventually lead to disorganisation in the physical body. The therapies mentioned here all try to give the etheric body enough incentive to mobilise its own defensive forces and combat the illness. In the case of the Bach Flower Remedies the dis-ease is usually emotional, feeling down or depressed for example; whilst Homeopathy is more concerned with diseases which have already broken down the physical defences. Aromatherapy can cover both possibilities. In all three therapies however the principle is the same: minute quantities are given, either as a scent of internally in water, which will ‘prod’ our own defensive systems into activity and thus combat the illness.
Many people, lead by today’s science ask how this can possibly work.
Many theories have been put forward and all are hard to test – mainly because one is working with a non-physical energy. The theory which I personally like best and which is quite helpful when one is discussing incense, is one which Scott Cunningham has formulated in his book ‘Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs’. He states that plants, herbs, flowers, but also other substances, all have their own type of inherent power. Nature can be seen as crystallised or materialised energy. If we free this energy, by burning the plant, or heating it so that its scent becomes detectable, or by dissolving it in water (Bach) we can use this energy. The energy, originally neutral, has become ‘coloured’ by the fact that a particular being (plant) has used it to grow and flourish and this makes it possible for us to create particular results by carefully electing our plants and herbs and flowers.

The emotional level, or the astral plane, is the third plane influenced by incense. A scent can influence our emotions very effectively, bypassing many ‘intellectual’ barriers and thus work directly upon the unconscious. A scent can heal us far quicker, or speed up healing, because it evokes the proper emotional response. In a similar way scents can unlock part of our inner life and help us expand our capabilities and lead us to becoming a more balanced and whole person. The perfume industry knows this, but is (as are we) still prodding in the dark, because there are no hard and fast rules which apply to everybody. A scent which works with one person may work against another.

The fourth plane is the spiritual plane. Incense works particularly well here, wince all the energy which is caught in the material substance is released in a short time by the burning process. Apart from some information in old grimoires and one’s own personal experience not much is known however about the effects of specific plants or resins on this plane – we have to content ourselves with the usual magical information such as ‘burning this herb will bring your lost lover back to you’ and start experimenting!

One last word on the effectiveness of incenses. Some people believe that burning the incense is all there is to it to make it work and Cunningham’s definition states as much. On the other hand someone who has had some experience with magic will realise that the energies are quite easy to influence and personally I think that incense can only be an aid to a particular ritual – setting the atmosphere, supporting the ritual – but on its own is not sufficient to create results. Especially not when used by someone who is very sceptical!

In spite of all the difficulties and the problem of creating a perfume or incense which is ‘commercial’ (i.e. many people will like it and find it effective) there are no objections at all to having a go yourself. Just let your nose guide you and take heed of a few simple rules of thumb.

Incense is made up out of five groups of possible ingredients. These five groups are:

  • Resins
  • Plant material, herbs etc.
  • Essential (flower) oils
  • Various ingredients
  • Magic.

Not every incense incorporates all five groups. Let us have a closer look at these groups and their use in incense.

The first and most important group contains the resins. Resins are the dried sap of trees and plants. Some resins are dry and hard, others remain sticky and fluid. The resin of a plant can be considered the life (blood) of a plant and the resins contribute most of the scent of an incense. Most people know the resin which flows from a wounded pine tree and this will eventually harden. It can be collected and burned as an incense and it smells quite pleasing too!
Frankincense, or Olibanum, is the most well known incense resin. Even to the extent that the word incense often means just the resin. Other much used incense resins are benzoin, myrrh, pine, opopanax, dragons blood (indeed a resin!), styrax, peru balsam, mastix and many others.
A good starter kit would include frankincense and myrrh, which are both available at the apothecary, since they are used in medicine; and home-collected pine. The commercial pine resin can be bought from paint manufacturers, but is refined and therefore (as explained earlier on) the home-collected resin is as far as scent is concerned preferable.
Benzoin is a resin to include if available, since its vanilla-like sweetness makes it an excellent addition to many incenses.
Of all the other resins available one could buy an ounce or so from a good occult supplier, but most of them would not be used. There is one exception: Elimi. This extremely sticky white resin is very sweet and a nice addition to some venusian-type incenses. Be warned: it is hard to handle! A solution would be to use the essential oil made of elimi (called elimin) which is a fluid and can easily be used.

The second group of ingredients contains herbs and plants. This can (and does) include virtually every plant under the sun: roots, seeds, leaves, bark, wood, fruit and flowers. In principle there are few rules in using a plant in incense, but we may keep the following in mind. We may want to include plants because of their association with a particular planet or deity. A Yule incense could for instance include oak bark, holly berries, mistletoe leaves and a balanced addition of clove and orange oil, with a base of olibanum, pine and some benzoin. Beware however: most plants smell burnt, some intensely so, when used, and it is quite tricky to include a plant without this burnt smell to become obvious.
On the other hand, some plants are quite fragrant when burnt, e.g. agrimony and are cheaper to use than the essential oils. Try, try, try and let your nose decide for you. An unwanted scent CAN be masked, but this is not easy and may take a lot of experimenting!

When we have decided upon our choice of plants and resins, according to their correspondences, it is time to consider the balance between the two ingredients. Church incenses are for 99% resin; some occult and craft incenses are for 100% herbs. Personally I found that when 70% of the WEIGHT of the incense is resin, we are at a borderline between the two extremes. Since resins are quite dense and heavy, 70% resin looks like virtually no resin at all in the end product.
A starter kit would include as many of the odiferous herbs as possible, including kitchen herbs and spices such as cinnamon, clove, coriander, but also rosebuds, camomile, damiana (a sweet smelling love herb); fruits such as orange and lemon peel, juniper berries and elderberries and some medicinal herbs.

The third group of ingredients covers essential oils. Essential oils are the distilled ‘fragrances’ of many plants and flowers. Some are oily, some watery, but all are extremely strong and should never be used undiluted as perfume, because their concentration may cause rashes on the skin. In incense these oils are used as an addition and a few drops per ounce of incense should be sufficient. Essential oils can be bought in herb shops, which usually carry clove, cinnamon, orange, lavender, rosemary, vanilla, etcetera. The floral ones can be bought from a good occult supplier.

Essential oils can be included in an incense for many reasons. First, the plant may smell too burnt, or (as is the case with many flowers) may not smell at all. Only the rose and lavender keep their scent after drying, so if you want to include Jasmin you are forced to use the essence. Alternatively, the oil may be the only option, as is the case with many animal products such as musk, civet, castoreum, ambergris etc. The essential oil should be used to complement an otherwise good mix of ingredients. Improving a bad mix should not be attempted – it will be a disappointment.
A starter kit could include favourites such as rose, lavender, jasmine and bergamot; musk and patchouli and many others. Keep in mind that there is no objection to using artificial essences (and one may be forced to use these), but they tend to be harsher and stronger than the natural oils. Although a perfume could be used in an incense and might enhance a personalised incense, it usually turns out to be very expensive. Apart from this, no perfume is ‘pure’, not even the Indian ones that say rose or musk and if value is put on using pure ingredients (because of the correspondences for example) these should not be used. No reason not to try it – it may save you the expense of buying something or lead you to your all-time favourite!

The fourth group of ingredients covers various substances which have been used in incenses in the past.
Well known is sulphur (not recommended unless you intend the incense to be for the benefit of the spirits and will excuse yourself!); camphor (careful); menthol; but also various precious stones, mother of pearl, coral, metals, sea salt, amber and many purely ‘magical’ ingredients. Many so-called ingredients, such as the famous eye of newt and toe of frog, can be traced back to being ordinary plants. A good witches herbal can give you the common names for adders tongue and dragons blood ìs the common name for a red resin used in the past as dye. On its own this is a fascinating field to study!
A starter kit would not include any of these, since they are either not safe (sulphur) or don’t contribute to the scent.

The fifth group concerns ‘magic’. This covers selecting your ingredients according to their correspondences; observing planetary hours or at least the correct day for making the incense and possibly blessing or charging it afterwards.
The elements, which I scribbled next to the list of five groups, could be a guide in a blessing ritual. Mixing your incense in a concentrated and meditative state usually adds the charge to the incense and a high quality can be attained.
What should we do when we want to start experimenting with incense?
Various possibilities exist. We can start by mixing according to existing recipes. We can start from scratch –buy ingredients and experiment. Or we can try to enhance an existing (church) incense we like, by adding extra resins or herbs or oils.
Again there are few rules – the main one being one’s own nose and sense of harmony – but the few that exist can help in making experimenting an enjoyable adventure.
First, learn to trust your nose. Close your eyes and sniff carefully. After five minutes, have some fresh air and come back into the room to have a second impression. Our nose becomes insensitive to any scent after some time and this may help to detect overtones, but is usually only a hindrance. It is helpful if you already know what ‘incense’ should smell like: close to church incense? Or more like fragrant wood smoke? If the first, start by testing resins; if the second, start with herbs. Try minute amounts on a piece of charcoal and increase the dosage until a clear idea of the scent is formed. It is helpful to write your impressions down immediately, because our memory for scents is not very well trained!

Resins can be tested in all sorts of different mixes. Frankincense gives a slightly sweet, open and clear atmosphere. Benzoin adds sweetness and warmth, a close feeling. Myrrh adds a bittersweet note and brings one back to earth. Pine also give an open feeling, but is less sweet than frankincense. A first incense could include one resin; possibly a second to ‘bend’ the resin scent towards the desired endproduct (i.e. sweeter, colder); and one or two herbs with the proper correspondences and a fragrance which harmonizes with the chosen resin. A few drops of an essential oil may complete the mix.
An example should make this clear. Let’s try our hand at a love incense. Take frankincense as a base. Add half the amount in benzoin, for sweetness and venus. Add some rose petals, for love, and possibly damiana as an aphrodisiac. Try some different mixes to create a more churchy or more woody scent. Lastly, we may want to include an oil. We could choose rose oil, to enhance the rose fragrance. Jasmin is another possibility, for ‘pure’ intoxicating love. Or we could choose musk, for sexual love. Be careful not to spoil the mix by putting too much oil in!
Rose and musk combine quite well (to give a profane example, many toilet fresheners are based on rose, since the rose harmonises the toilet smells instead of covering them up).
Rose and jasmine combine too, but on a different level and should be mixed carefully. A personalised love incense could also include your favourite ‘sexy’ perfume, but again be careful not to spoil the overall balance.
Once the incense is mixed, and this applies especially when it has oils in it, it should be stored in an airtight, preferably dark, container.
After some weeks you should notice that the scents have combined into a mellower, more balanced and whole endproduct. An incense can be considered ‘good’ when (apart from the fact that you like it) the fragrance gives a ‘solid’ impression – harmonious, mellow and without detectable ingredients. As long as you can still clearly recognise resin, herbs and oils in the scent the ingredients are obviously not working together.

I hope this article, apart from all the interesting titbits about our sense of smell, has conveyed a better idea of incense and the months of work that usually go into the creation of a ‘commercial’ incense. Also, that doing a few experiments with incense and creating your own is not all that difficult and can be a nice adventure!

A small P.S. for the practical: when mixing an incense, grind all the ingredients to create an even mixture. Use a porcelain mortar and pestle and glass or plastic tools. Avoid metal and wood since this will absorb oils etc. Clean tools by liberally covering with washing up liquid and letting this sit for a few hours. If this doesn’t work, most resins can be cleaned away with either turpentine or spiritus.
Cleaning can be totally avoided by using disposable plastic tableware!
Not very magical I’m afraid, but it may save some swearing later on!

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