Incense has become a more and more popular decoration in households throughout the UK, US and beyond. But there is so much to learn about incense burning.
From knowing what the different scents mean to finding out where incense burning originated in the first place. Many may associate it with Asian flea markets or that ‘gap year’ experience. And, while these can be right, there are traditional incense techniques and modern types of incense around the market that can help us to understand why it is an important part of living in many cultures and how to make our own down-the-line.
Here at The Hobby Kraze, we love incense; in its traditional sense, we even have some sticks glowing in the office giving calming hints of sandalwood.
So, we thought we’d share the relaxation in this guide to the different incense smells.
- The Meaning of Incense Burning
- Understanding the Purpose of Incense
- Finding Where Rituals of Incense Burning Originate
- All the Special Types of Incense
- The Varied Methods for Incense Burning and How to Pick Incense
- The Different Incense Smells with their Roles and Meanings
- Knowing How to Begin Optimal Incense Burning
- Discovering How to Make Incense
There is a myth out there that burning incense is not healthy for the lungs. Yet, it couldn’t be farther from the truth. While having a constant back-burn of any smoke going through a non-ventilated room can do harm, incense is not made using any harmful substances (in a modern world) as the purpose of incense is to heal the mind and body.
However, if you do intend on looking at the various types of incense for incense burning, do make sure you’re in a well-ventilated room, as burned particles (to the same extent as dust) can become trapped in your lungs and cause a slight inflammatory response.
The Meaning of Incense Burning
Now that we’ve got all the safety aspects of incense burning ticked off the list, we can begin to fully understand the meaning behind incense burning and why we should all place a boat or backburner in the corner of the room for a calmer and more relaxed atmosphere.
Much in the way of Feng Shui in a room or engaging in the practices of yoga, the aims are to always cleanse and restore the mind and body (and the soul too, if that’s your mantra).
Incense derives from the Latin word ‘Incendere’, which simply means ‘to burn’. And, for any Harry Potter fans out there, it may spark memories of a fire spell called ‘Incendio’.
Knowing this, it’s understandable to see that incense involves gentle fire. With the various types of incense, incense burning can produce a back-burn smoke that seeps into the room from above or a rising smoke that fills the room from below.
In short, the purpose of incense is to produce a sweet, savoury or herbal smell to slowly flood a room with an air of silent calm.
Understanding the Purpose of Incense
In a modern world, with incense being an on-trend activity, the purpose of incense is simply of that mentioned above; to develop a light smoke that seeps through the floorboards and into the very essence of a room in order to mask the living smells with notes of petals, harmony and other natural materials. Some may even use incense as a strong and reliable method for clearing a room from the smells of embedded pet hair.
Yet, that hasn’t been – and still isn’t – always the case; incense has a rich history of cultures around the world making use of the slow-burning effects to communicate, cleanse, enrich and heal. Mostly, it has been carried across boarders as part of religious practices.
For example: in Buddhism, burning incense (via stick, loose ground, cone or otherwise) is a sign of respect and a tribute to the deities in order to aid in prayer or meditation. For this reason, it has been a core part of religious practice around the world for years. To this day, it is often used throughout the teachings of Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Paganism.
In each of these religious studies, knowing how to pick incense for incense burning is a key part to the belief. This is because they are often associated with cleansing the room, bringing forth deities, a prayer rising to the heavens to be heard, providing respect to ancestors, enjoying the souls of those around you and more.
However, aside from the historical relics of incense burning, there are reasons beyond religious sacrament that draws people to lighting these natural materials. There are many unrealised benefits to turning your house into the aromatic scene of a historic temple. Such as:
- It’s relaxing
- It can set an atmosphere
- It cleanses the room
- It aids in meeting meditation
- It reduces depression
- It can spark creativity
- It is safer than a naked flame candle
- It can increase focus
- It is often used in a medicinal capacity
- It grounds you to your ancestors
- It purifies the air
- It holds anti-inflammatory properties
Finding Where Rituals of Incense Burning Originate
As mentioned, incense has been a part of history for centuries, with individual accounts being discovered in ancient and modern cultures around the globe. Each of which holding their own direct meaning, the Religious cause, the types of incense, the different incense smells, the purpose of incense and so on.
In this sense, we didn’t think a simple timeline would bring justice to each of the cultural paths walked by the users of incense. So, we wanted to delve into five of the most relevant historical cultures that have set stunning notes of sweetness and spice alight by incense throughout the years.
The Egyptian History
Would it really be The Hobby Kraze if the team didn’t delve straight into a history lesson involving the incredible pioneering efforts of the Ancient Egyptians?
The Egyptians were the first known users of incense, with it being traced back in the hieroglyphs and archaeological findings to have been used by priests. These priests would ‘cleanse’ and ‘fumigate’ tombs and ceremonial locations in order to hinder demons.
As well as this, sources tell the tales of the richer Egyptians appeasing their gods by burning frankincense in the morning, igniting myrrh in the afternoon and setting alight kyphi in the evening. Each of these ties and the specific ingredients used are to appease a different god.
The Greek History
In Greece (and, in fact, throughout the Roman Empire) there was an aromatic sap extracted from evergreen trees in the area to produce the resin called mastic. This sweet-smelling incense was burned as part of a variety of rituals and worship methods.
In Greek history, the belief was that smoking incense indicated the presence of divinity. Whether it was an angel, or an ancestral spirit depended on the person praying and the location. After the incense was lit and the soft glowing smoke began to rise, it was seen as a symbol to confirm the message was being carried into the heavens to be heard by the gods.
The Arabian History
South Arabia, in all its glory houses colours and spices that intrigue the mind. Something carried throughout generations. Looking back into the time of Ancient South Arabia, it was still a glory for the rainbow of natural elements including that of incense. In fact, the popular ingredients of frankincense and myrrh have been used as biblical reference for when the Three Wise Men gifted the incense to the baby Jesus in his manger.
Throughout their time in history, many in the Arabian East would use ‘cuboid’ incense burners through an indirect heat source. While not necessarily used on a religious level, many Arabs would learn how to pick incense in order to burn an aromatic scent throughout their home and increase relaxation opportunities.
The Japanese History
In Japan, incense burning grew to popularity after the introduction of Buddhist rituals throughout the early 6th century. The Japanese would use various types of incense for different means.
For example, loose incense would be rolled into balls to ‘perfume’ items such as boxes, clothes and hair.
However, as time progressed, the 14th century would bring true value of the ‘way of incense’ whereby individuals began directly burning aromatic woods to fragrance a room. From this, the Japanese developed a party game called ‘Kumi-Koh’ whereby the aim was to identify the special woods being used for the incense burning process by smell, alone.
Today, these same games are held at ceremonies such as weddings. Yet, the conscience toward the wood has called for small grains of to be carved, pulverized and burned atop a flattened surface of inverted charcoal much akin to the Chinese methods of incense burning.
The Indian History
As the hub for global incense production, India deserves a place in the history books here at The Hobby Kraze. As for its use throughout history, India is the only culture to have seen the mental and physical medicinal benefits to incense burning on a holistic level. In fact, it was here that medicinal purposes were used by Hindu practitioners before the religion evolved into the Buddhist monks who carried the rituals of incense burning across the borders and into the Eastern-Asian regions.
The religious motivations behind incense burning throughout India revolved around creating a pleasant fragrance in a room, cleansing the air, providing medicinal care and disinfecting an area of insects.
All the Special Types of Incense
Not all incense is simply lit by a naked flame and left to burn. There are two main types of incense burning that have been developed and used around the world. While one may be more common or popular than the other, it doesn’t take-away from the beauty in tradition that is upheld by such practices.
The first type of incense burning is called ‘direct’ while the other is, aptly, ‘indirect’.
Direct incense is the most common form of incense burning and is typically the picture that comes to mind when you think about the action, too. It refers to the way heat burns the incense to create the sweet and calming aromas. Burning the different incense smells by lighting the incense (stick, cone or coil) and then extinguishing the flame to enable a slow burn is direct.
It, ultimately, describes the types of incense that requires the ignition of incense in order to release the relaxing and cleansing properties of incense.
Indirect, on the other hand, closely emulates historical practices while resembling similar wax-melting activities of today. Within indirect incense burning, the scents and fragrances are placed in a shatter-proof dish made of material such as ceramic and heated externally. For example: a ceramic incense boat may hold loose incense above a tealight candle in order to provide a continuous heat to the incense without burning it away.
With this, one of the biggest benefits to choosing an incense method that uses indirect heating is the fact that the incense can be used and re-used and re-used again. Often, they are heated until the fragrances can no longer be smelled.
The Varied Methods for Incense Burning and How to Pick Incense
Finding the right way to know how to pick incense and trust that is it the right type for you can be a part of a trial-and-error method. However, there are some tell-tale signs that could help you in your choosing. For example, shops in the UK often hose incense sticks and incense backflow cones as they are the most popular and can be easily stored.
Yet, there are other scenarios to be aware of that may influence your incense-buying decision. Such as a young child or an explorative pet. In these cases, it might be best to opt for the gentle aromas floating from a backflow incense cone situated on the top of a tall cabinet and out of the way of any sticky fingers or paws.
Luckily, there are a lot of different types of incense to choose from. Whether you’re looking for smoke rising or falling, or you want to find the incense that uses the traditional indirect burning methods, each provides a tailored experience with a narration from history and a hint of calming efforts. Still, it can be a very personal thing, incense burning, so It’s important to find the purpose of incense for you:
Stick incense is the most common form of incense as it arrives in a ready-made form, can be easily shipped, stored, hand-made and used. They often perch on a dedicated incense boat that holds the stick at a 45-degree angle to allow for optimum incense burning.
Yet, they aren’t as simple as they sound, there are actually 12 individual types of incense stick:
- Bamboo Core
Each of these types of incense stick will determine the length of the burn and the different incense smells that will drift through the air. For example, the types of incense stick featuring a bamboo core will often smell like the bamboo. The Dhoop stick, on the other hand, is a soft material that is made directly from the dried incense paste and used throughout India. With this, it often burns very quickly.
Cone incense is developed by moulding the incense mixture into the cone shape and kept with essential oils. They were developed in the 19th century by the Japanese and have since evolved into the ever popular and undeniably stunning backflow cones.
These cones don’t require a stick (A.K.A. a punk) on which to set the incense and can often last longer as there is simply more incense to burn through. The only difference between the two being a small and thin hollow
In recent times, the backflow incense cone has become a feature of many homes around the world due to the stunning ceramic backflow plates that are available. From looking as though the smoke is a waterfall falling onto leaves or looking as though the smoke is painting a picture of a lotus under the Buddha, they offer a more modern creative approach to the method.
The benefit for going for a coil incense burning experience is the fact that it just continues going.
The design of the coil (or, spiral) incense allows for a longer burn time as the length of the incense trail is elongated. With this, they are very useful for perfuming a large area such as a lobby or a reception area. As well as this, they are direct burners, much like the stick and the cone, where the incense is lit and then extinguished to leave a slow glow and release of aromatic smoke.
Sometimes, these types of incense can be lit on a flat ceramic surface, or they can be upheld on a stand in the middle of the coil to create a falling spiral effect.
As mentioned, wood incense derives from historical roots in Japan whereby the wood was burned for its natural aroma.
In modern days, there are many varied styles of wood burning incense; yet the popular choices are the Mediterranean and the Moroccan. Often, one is chosen to house raw woods (to keep a natural aroma within the left ashes) and another to house the resin woods.
However, the most care must be taken with these types of incense burner as they can lead to slow-burning coals remaining hidden in the ashes as a dangerous fire hazard.
Despite this, they provide fantastic centrepieces at get-togethers where all can participate in enjoying the cleansed air while perfuming clothes.
Another one from the history books; the Japanese tend to knead their incense into balls and leave to mature within earthenware jars for years. They often carry a sweet aroma that resembles a soft cream.
Kneaded incense balls are an example of indirect burning, while you can’t specifically light incense balls (especially after maturity), they can be placed on top of a ceramic plate that is heated through charcoal, a chip heater or a tealight underneath.
Pressed incense is one of the most satisfying and relaxing incense types to use; even the preparation period is seen as a relaxing activity.
In a modern day, they generally feature direct-heat incense, but they used to be heated through charcoal back in the day.
Now, a pressed incense burner uses a small pot filled with fine inverted charcoal powder pressed into a flat surface. Then, a pattern mould is placed on top of the charcoal and incense patted into the gaps. When the mould is removed, it leaves a beautiful ongoing pattern that slowly burns alike the coil incense burner.
Sometimes, burning isn’t even needed. Incense is naturally a very aromatic substance featuring herbs, spices, saps and petals that hold their own perfume.
With this, cultures around the world, especially in the Eastern Kingdoms, have adopted the form of sachet incense. Small bags hold powdered incense that can be placed with clothes, in handbags, in drawers, in pet hidey-holes, in cars and so on. All with the aim of ensuring positive smells and cleansed garments.
The Different Incense Smells with their Roles and Meanings
There are three types of incense ingredients that can be mixed together to create the different incense smells for relaxing incense burning that suits you. These are: the wood base, the resin base and the herb base.
There are no rules for what you can use or why, they simply categorise the types of scents, the textures and the fragrance combinations. However, you do have to note that resins can be a little more difficult to grind into a powder, so you may want to freeze for 15 minutes before heading to your pestle and mortar.
A favourite smell for The Hobby Kraze office is sandalwood, yet one of the most popular scents is called Nag Champa. This will be the synonymous smell hitting the olfactory senses whenever you walk through the doors and into the mystical scene of an independent store filled with auteur books, tie-dye shirts and home-made jewellery. Nag Champa is a mixture of sandalwood, spices, flowers and resins that emit a sweet scent.
Wood base examples:
Resin base examples:
- Dammar White
- Dragon’s Blood
- Herb Coals
Herb base examples:
- Cinnamon Chips
- Calamus root
- Iris Flowers
- Juniper Berries
- White Sage
Knowing How to Begin Optimal Incense Burning
Incense burning isn’t just a case of grabbing a stick, igniting a flame and letting nature do its thing. There are processes, safety precautions and choices to be made.
The first thing you need to do is ensure you’ve chosen an optimum space in your living area that is not going to be knocked and does not contain flammable material.
Next, you need to choose an incense stick holder (assuming you’re streamlining for the stick types of incense while you’re off searching how to pick incense). These incense holders are often made using marble, ceramic plating, jade, sealed wood, glass or brass. The reason being that these incense holders (sometimes called trays or boats) are resistant to heat.
Once you’ve chosen your incense, you then need to ensure you’re in a well-ventilated room so that none of the burned particles we mentioned earlier will find themselves in places they shouldn’t be.
Next, it’s time to light the incense stick. To do so, use a lit matchstick rather than a powered butane lighter. This ensures the incense won’t be prematurely burned and you’ll be making the most out of the purpose of incense. Once the tip is lit, you can gently extinguish the flame by simply blowing it out.
Afterwards, the tip should calmly glow as the incense burns and a fine smoke starts (and continues) to float around the room carrying the strong different incense smells and sweet aromas of relaxation and zen.
Discovering How to Make Incense
Making incense, while it may appear difficult, is actually a far easier process than at first glance. In fact, it is a much-enjoyed activity by many hobbyists out there (including the team here at the Hobby Kraze) as it makes for an intimate adventure with ritualistic relaxation. Not to mention the positive environment impact of home-made incense with postage and packaging becoming obsolete
To begin, you want to first think about the type of incense you want to burn and the smells that take you to a place of calm.
The tools and ingredients you’ll need include:
- A Jug
- Measuring spoons
- A Whisk
- A Pot
- Pestle and Mortar
- Thin Tray
- 1 Tsp Arabic Gum
- 60ml Hot Water
- Incense Punks
- 3 Incense Ingredients
The first thing you’ll need to do is to use the pestle and mortar to powder the Arabic gum if it isn’t already a fine powder. Then, measure out the water in the jug and begin slowly sprinkling the Arabic power gum into the water to stir and form a solution. This solution should be slightly thinner than the consistency of the hobbyist’s PVA glue.
Gently pour the Arabic gum solution in a line (around the length of the incense punk) onto the flat tray.
When you’re ready you can begin to make your loose incense. Take your three incense ingredients (we recommend always using a mixture of two types such as a wood base like pine and two herb bases like cinnamon and lemongrass), grind with the pestle and mortar to a fine powder and mix.
Get a small pot ready with sand and set aside as this will be used to hold your incense upright while it dries.
Pour the incense mixture in a line next to the Arabic gum ensuring it is just as long as the incense punk. Then, take your incense punk and roll into the Arabic gum mixture (make sure it’s not dripping off, a light coating will do) before rolling into the incense powder to cover the stick.
Finally, place the incense into the pre-prepared pot of sand and you’re good to go for the next incense stick. These will need to be left to dry for around 7 days before use. And, if you don’t intend to use them right away, store them on some kitchen towel in an air-tight container so they last as long as possible and don’t rub against each other!
And that draws us to the smoulder about incense burning. Here at The Hobby Kraze, we love to hear about your journey with new hobbies, passions and creative endeavours. So, share your thoughts on social media and let the team know which of the different incense smells takes your fancy or – even – if you decide to begin developing your own incense sticks to cleanse your atmosphere.
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