My Thoughts on Incense

Incense and spiritual rituals go together like calculators and math. There is some math that you can do without a calculator. You can even be really stubborn and insist on doing as much as you can without one – but at some point, it’s no longer practical if even possible.

This is how I feel about incense. I am trying to be stubborn and figure out all manner of ritual and offering techniques that don’t require it, but try as i might, I keep running into a “need” for that noxious health hazard.

Incense has a long, continuos history of use in almost every religion across the globe, but does that mean it’s necessary? I tend to validate my beliefs and practices by taking note of trends which transcend time, culture, and geographic space. If the collective human mind finds merit to it, there must be something there.

However, some cultures break away from parts of the collective as new information becomes available to them. Smoking (tobacco or anything else) used to be the thing to do (for ritual, meditation, or just because). It still is a thing today, obviously, and that’s all fine and well – but health conscious people no longer partake.

The most common place to find incense is in New-Age stores, where a large portion of customers are vegan and/or keep their mind and body healthy through yoga and meditation, the latter of which frequently involves the use of incense. Sure, they can keep their windows open, or not use it every day, etc. – but why is it necessary at all? There are other, more healthy, methods of aromatherapy available if scent-induced calm is its only purpose.

When it comes to religious ritual, it’s not only about the aroma. It’s also about a sacrifice to the gods. Technically, the smoke itself is the sacrifice, but to me, I feel like I am making a sacrifice of my health by inhaling some of it. Even if I only burn it as long as absolutely necessary for the ritual – I have to wonder, do the gods really want me to inhale all this crap for the sake of sacrifice? I really don’t think so. There are plenty of other offerings that the gods accept (especially in liquid form). I’ve heard  that smoke makes offerings more accessible to the deities, which might make sense, but then does this mean that other offerings are pointless?

So far, I’ve reasoned out using incense for meditation or sacrifice. That leaves purification. Incense, including sage and herb bundles for smudging, is used to purify a space. I find this slightly ironic. I’m purifying the space by suffocating my pets? If I have to open the windows in order to purify my house after “purifying” with something else, then I don’t see the point. However, in the case of banishing negative energies, one might reason that the noxious fumes are just as noxious to the bad things as they are to me – so of course they are going to get the heck out of the way. In that sense, incense might as well be likened to pesticides. Sure, it kills the bugs – but it slowly kills us too.

Before you write me off as a complete killjoy – I don’t hate incense. I’m trying to reduce my exposure to it, but I absolutely love the smell of nag champa. It reminds me of my grandmother’s house. I keep boxes of it in my closet so that the smell gets on some of my stuff. Sometimes, I’ll burn it unattended (I know, bad bad…) so that I can return to the left over aroma without having to experience the smoke. It’s not entirely a matter of health, though. Yes, I am health conscious – but I like a cupcake as much as the next person. We are all going to die and no one lives such a perfect life to keep themselves as healthy as possible to the end. Some people abstain from pleasures, but this too is unhealthy.

Health aside, incense smoke causes me physical discomfort – especially to my eyes. It’s terrible. I can’t enjoy being around it, healthy or not, unless I am outdoors. My last ritual I did outdoors and I used incense, it was lovely. I even had the smell of it in my hair all day. But I can’t always do my rituals outdoors.

I recently purchased some core-less pure incense sticks – supposedly they cut down on the irritants. If I can tolerate them, I may try to use them occasionally for some of my offerings – but I still don’t understand why I should have to. As far as making offerings to the fire for my ADF rituals – rather than use a censer and charcoal – an oil burner seems sufficient. Oil or potpourri is transformed by the fire of a candle, so it should be a suitable substitute. Consecrating the sacred center is where I’m still on the fence. All the ADF ritual guides suggest incense in addition to asperging. I don’t see why I can’t just do the asperging. Or why I can’t use fire – pick up one of the candles and circle it around the area.

In the end, it’s really up to me, though it’s hard to break a tradition and feel like I’m still doing it “right.” It’s also hard to force myself into tradition against my better judgement.

If I can find an incense that doesn’t irritate my eyes too much, I will use it from time to time as one of the guilty pleasures I allow into my life, but I won’t do it because I have to or because I think the gods require it of me.

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Posted on July 30, 2015, in Paganism, Whatever (Musings, Rants, Daily Life) and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. I used to use incense a lot, but since I got a couple of gerbils as pets (called Thor and Loki!) I have stopped entirely because it is dangerous for their lungs. Honestly, I don’t see it as “necessary” for ritual, just because it’s traditional. In terms of ADF rites, all you *need* is a bowl of water, a cande and some sort of tree representation. Anything else is additional, it can be cool to create an atmosphere but it isn’t vital to the process and it doesn’t make your ritual less effective for not having it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry I didn’t reply sooner. It was like 3am over here when I read your comment and I needed to go to bed :p But yeah, I know ADF says all you *need* is the water and fire – apparently even the tree is optional for short devotionals. But I am unclear as to how much can be omitted in order to count as a high day ritual. I will likely celebrate my required 4 ADF high days with my grove, but in case I don’t – I want to make sure I get proper credit. I’m planning to ask some people in the grove when I meet them for Lughnasadh/Lammas.

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      • Do you have a copy of Michael J. Dangler’s “Dedicant Path through the Wheel of the Year” book? It’s been a really helpful guide to me so far. From what I gather (and hope), to count as an ADF High Day ritual it needs to follow the “Core Order of Ritual” but otherwise can be kept really simple.

        Dangler’s book has a really straightforward ritual outline in it that uses minimal “props” and you can also find Core Order rituals from the short-lived (but officially ADF) “Solitary Druid Fellowship” archived by the Druid Network at: http://druidnetwork.org/what-is-druidry/rites-and-rituals/solitary-druid-fellowship/.

        You’re lucky to have a grove to celebrate with! I think the entire ADF presence in the UK is about 3 people spread out over the country.

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      • Indeed I do have Dangler’s book. That’s why I’ve been labeling my DP entries with week numbers (even though my “weeks” are not always 7 days :p ) But the link with the ritual examples looks helpful. In the Wheel of the Year book, Dangler says that the First Oath ritual is a full Core Order Ritual, but the recreation of the cosmos parts is the “Land, Sky and Sea” text by Ceisiwr Serith rather than an ADF specific sacred center (fire, well ,tree) which I thought was absolutely required – although a note on the COoR guidelines specifies that the fire must be included, implying that the other two can are optional (and can thus be replaced with other traditional triad elements). But on the ADF website the recreation cosmos is linked with opening the gates, in which case the fire well and tree are specifically mentioned as gates to which offerings are made. No offerings to the gates were required in the Firsth Oath ritual and neither did I have to consecrate the sacred center when recreating it, so I’d tentatively like to believe that these are optional. And yes, I am happy to have found a grove here (perks of living in a metro area – I’ve never been able to find groups of any sort to do anything with in the places I usually end up). But I would totally trade my Grove access to be able to live in the UK!

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      • Ah, that all makes sense, thanks! I think those bits are optional, I generally don’t do offerings to the gates in my own rituals so hopefully that’s all ok.

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  2. Incense is not necessary at all, imo.
    Prior to the distillation of essential oils, burning herbs and woods and resins and glopped together plant material with raisins, honey, wine, animal fat, etc. was just the only means of scenting an area, besides strewing some dried herbs on the floor and things of that nature. Naturally, fire and the subsequent smoke, being such an ancient thing, got tied into rituals and woo the world over. In the days before modern sanitation and hygiene, people did recognize the healing and purifying power of smoke and burning certain plant materials for health and insect-repelling, in addition to the mystical aspects of clearing an area.
    There are certainly many modern alternatives, such as natural wax candles which don’t smoke much, and as you probably already know are a popular ritual item and offering. If you know your sensitivities, it doesn’t take much browsing to find good-quality aromatherapy candles (with no fragrance oils) for altar use. You can even try finding (or making!) some wax tarts to be put in a burner, for no smoke at all. But I don’t know if that qualifies as a “fire” offering.
    Then there is essential oil diffusion, whether through a USB thingy in your computer, a fancy electronic nebulizer or a simple oil burner powered by a tealight (which you mentioned already). There is just such a multitude of places to buy oils and oil blends to find something for your liking (and the gods’ liking). Again, just avoid artificial fragrances.
    Who says you need fragrance at all though? You could go simple with a beeswax candle (which has a sweet natural honey fragrance) or an oil lamp with olive oil, if you just want the symbolism and energy of light/flame. Or even a battery-powered candle or some light-up object. (as you know, some gods are fond of novelties)
    Whether you need light, flame, scent or smoke is between you and the gods, and all you have to do is talk to Them and offer alternatives and substitutions. They’re not going to want you or your pets to suffer just because some piety posse says to do it.
    If a ritual or prayer suggests a candle/incense, just work around it. It’s my understanding that you should be encouraged to tailor rituals for your own needs. I’m not familiar with ADF rituals though and whether they allow customizations, but it seems you’ve already been doing your research on alternatives. Is this something you have to do every day? What about those outdoor fireplace things (on those occasions when you can do stuff outdoors)? I bet it’d be fun to toss some frankincense or dragon’s blood on a wood fire once in a while. (let me tell ya, frankincense smokes badly … though I read you can line an oil burner with foil and put the resin in that and it doesn’t smoke as much, I have yet to try it though)

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    • I think a lot of my inner battle is about fighting tradition. Doing things according to tradition adds to the ambience and the feeling that I am a part of something bigger, which connects me to the whole world and enhances the ritual experience. Not an entirely logical concern, but it is my issue nonetheless. I prefer that any substitutes I make be as similar to traditional methods as possible. I did consider those oil diffusers that have to be plugged in – but the whole modern appliance thing distracts from my preferred ambience. I might try sometime anyway and see how I feel about it after. In the mean time, I’m fairly satisfied with the decision to go with an oil burner. I know it’s not as useful for aromatherapy as other diffusers, but that’s not what I want it for. I like that the burner still requires a flame. I also like the idea of using an aromatherapy candle or wax tart as an offering. As I get more experienced and comfortable with my practice, I will probably feel more confidant going rogue more often, but for now, I want to stay with tradition while I get my bearings.

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      • I understand. I went through that with my AllAboutEgypt phase, where everything HAD to have a Kemetic connection. Now that I’m studying Loki/Northern Tradition/Vanatru/European folklore, I’m trying to learn more about those traditions too, to give that traditional ambience feel. But honestly I finally had to learn that the gods like things from around the world (think about how long trade has existed), and modern stuff too (because They’re not stuck in the past with the lore and even folklore itself evolves), and it’s okay when finances or health or other concerns have to give way to changes.
        And an oil burner using a candle is probably the closest modern equivalent to the oil lamps and incense burners of the past.
        Also, I had another thought, however I don’t know how prevalent the use of salt is in Druidic tradition. But around the world, past and present, various cultures have used natron and sea salt for purification (like in bathing); I imagine you could make a purifying spray mist from salt or salt brine as well, though I’m not sure if that tips too much into “water energies” and may not be what you’re looking for.

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      • I am not concerned with elemental energies. The big argument for fire/smoke is that its supposed to be more accessible to the gods. I don’t understand this argument, though, when the same traditions that use it also make other types of offerings. The other big thing, of course, it purification, in which case the saltwater would be ok, except that I wouldn’t want to have to worry about cleaning up reside from it. All in All, the biggest point/question I was making was why is incense so popular among otherwise obsessively health conscious people? It just seems so ironic and I figured it must be because of an inherent desire to keep to tradition.

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      • *nod nod* I apologizing for missing the main point. Admittedly I tend to read too fast. I think, because smoke rises up “towards the heavens,” that is why people think of it as taking “up” offerings to the gods, if I’m understanding your question. There could be other meanings also, such as “feeding the fire” or “sacrificial burning” depending on the lore/deity involved. And I sure as hell agree that there are plenty of other offerings to make/do/buy, and can be just as ancient and traditional. Incense is just old, you can find it in pretty much any culture around the world. Maybe some folks think that burning incense is more ancient that burning wax, but you find plenty of mention of candles in witchcraft, so go figure. Personally I find incense sticks less of a hassle to clean up than candles, the cats don’t tend to bother them, and once it’s gone it’s gone, you’re not left with more candle to be burned later, which I always feel guilty for not burning down all the way. Granted there’s not a flame to stare at, but makes it less likely for some kind of fire accident, and heck I admit to liking to watch the smoke. I’m only just starting to learn how to burn wood and resins in a burner and frankly that’s kind of a hassle too compared to a stick. But lighting a piece of palo santo wood is rather nice and easy, I don’t even use charcoal for that, but there is a flame, so don’t walk away! At least with incense I can leave the room (not the house of course) instead of nervously watching out for a candle, worrying that I’ll forget to blow it out before sleeping or leaving the house.
        Anyway, I bet it’s just that people don’t consider the smoke, whether from a paraffin candle or incense, and it’s potential hazards in a confined space. Wouldn’t you say most ritual traditions come down to us from a temple or outdoor setting? And it’s kind of a novelty or exotic thing to most non-pagan/non-Catholics … cigarettes are “bad” but incense smoke is “oh cool, all ancient and shit.” ;p

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  3. My husband just got some samples of Japanese incense sticks to test because I have a lot of breathing problems with high smoke incense. There’s one that I like a lot that is fairly smokeless and has a light scent, it burns really fast. In general I don’t think that you absolutely have to have incense – what you absolutely have to have are methods that you are comfortable with. Sitting on my altar I keep a reed oil defuser, it has a pleasant scent that picks up every time the wind blows to remind me that it’s there. I am not an ADF student, it along with a feather represents air for me.

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    • I was seriously considering a reed diffuser for a while, but I didn’t actually know how they work (I’ve never had one). When I found out that the reeds have to be soaked for an hour before use, I was discouraged. I can leave it on my altar – but then it’s not as useful for in-ritual active offering. I suppose a symbolic flipping of a reed could suffice. I might try that in the future if my other substitutes don’t pan out.

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  4. You made some good points here. It’s something I have had to come to terms with myself as a shamanic practitioner too. I ditched the incense because it inflamed my lungs. After a sage smudging it’s the same issue. I feel the space has been cleared, but then my health has been a little damaged by the inhalation. So now I just do without these things.

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    • I feel better knowing that I am not the only one with these concerns. I did end up finding some core-less incense that doesn’t irritate me as much (though I’m sure it’s still not very healthy) and I plan to use it sparingly.

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  5. Thought you might find this interesting for ideas about alternatives top remade incense: http://sarahannelawless.com/2014/10/03/bioregional-herbalism-guide-to-pacific-northwest-incense/

    Right now, as I mentioned on another of your posts, I’m using Shoyeido incense and resins exclusively, however what Sarah Anne discusses in this post is very much where I want to go. Btw, I meant to mention in that earlier post, have you tried things like dried lavender flowers, dried tree needles/fronds (like cedar), or sweet grass? You can use all of those on charcoal rounds or you can just directly light the dried needles and blow them out and let them smoke. (All of which you may know already, so just an FYI in case you don’t. :))

    As a side note, I was particularly intrigued to find out that Sweet grass is culturally appropriate for someone working with certain Eurasian pantheons. I’d always only ever seen it connected with particular indigenous American cultures, so I was excited to find out that it grows in Europe also.

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    • Looks like Im going to have to give charcoal rounds a try. Im still skeptical though – of watched many a youtube video of people using those rounds and they look pretty gnarly and smoky. I have used white sage bundles a few times, haven’t thought about lighting any other herbs without charcoal though. Im pretty happy with the vanilla cordless incense I found, though the brand uses fragrance oils 😮 but I am too attacked to warm, sweet, heavy smells over “fresh” or “floral” smells. Things can grow on me though.

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  6. I rarely burn incense these days, due to smoke sensitivities, but I still keep a box of Nag Champa, because if I’m going to burn incense, I want to have my favorite one 🙂
    I also keep a few coals that I can drop herbs and/or resins on, and a smudge stick, although I rarely use them inside.

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