From The Incense Bible

Kerry Hughes




From Chapter 1


What is Incense?


We have all seen incense sticks, and many of us have ideas of what incense use is or isn’t depending on our exposure to its popular use or various spiritual rituals. Many people who have been to a Roman Catholic church may have witnessed the swinging of censers down the aisle, filling the church with sweet-


Photo G.3


smelling resins. Others in the Western world may have a stigma connecting incense sticks and illegal drug use. This may be because “head shops” carry synthetically fragranced incense sticks that marijuana smokers and psychedelic aficionados like to use to cover up the smell of pot. Still others may have tried the incense sticks in the home for scenting the air, and found them to be too smoky, irritating to the eyes and nose, and nothing like the fragrant descriptions on the package, and thus decided never to light one again. However, incense sticks are not the same as pure, clean, raw incense. Raw incense is just that—raw plant parts that are usually dried and ready for use for

burning to release fragrant smoke. In addition, although good quality natural incense is available in stick or cone form, most of the incense we buy on the shelf is of very poor quality and made with synthetic fragrances. Vast differences exist between incense sticks that are made from natural oils and resins and ones that are made from synthetic oils and mixtures, as the vast majority are these days.


Incense is defined as a material that is burned to produce an odor, usually fragrant, and is also referred to as the perfume or fumigation itself that is produced from the burning of plant or other materials (Bedini, 1994).



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Photo 1.5


Incense comes in different forms. In its most simple unprocessed form, it is parts of plants that are dried and somehow combusted to produce a fragrant smoke. These plant parts may be pieces of bark, stem, root, leaves, or even resins (plant sap) (see Photos G.3, G.4, 1.5, 1.6). Some of these raw forms of incense can be combusted easily with a match, such as a leaf of dried sage. Others, such as frankincense resin, have to be placed on charcoal, a hot stone, or processed with a saltpeter

mixture to create a smoldering effect that causes the resin to release its scent.


The common forms of processed incense that we are familiar with are incense sticks and cones. If they were the real, natural product they would contain some mixture of raw incense (resins, stems, leaves, bark, etc.), sometimes with added pure essential oils. This then would be mixed together with a base wood material containing saltpeter (potassium nitrate) (not as natural), or a natural alternative for saltpeter, such as a careful mixture of resins and wood, and then dipped onto sticks (usually bamboo splints) or formed into cones.



Photo 1.6


The more common incense product on the market these days, however, contains synthetic oils, fragrances, and dyes that are really not the same as the pure natural products. Synthetic fragrances have taken over our surroundings and are added to myriad everyday products, including cleaning products (laundry and dishwashing detergents, wood polish, bleach), cosmetic and body care products (deodorants, nail polish remover, talcum powder, lotions, shampoo, perfume), and air fresheners (car fresheners, plug-in home fragrance, sprays, potpourris). We are so barraged by the scent of synthetic product fragrance that common scents (either synthetic or natural) sometimes trigger the thought of a commercial product. For example, many people who smell lemon rinds may think of wood polish immediately (Aftel, 2001). This has caused many of us displeasure from our sense of smell, and therefore many of us have unconsciously trained ourselves to avoid the simple pleasures of scent. The good news is that we can learn how to trust this sense again, and start at one of the most primitive types of fragrance. Incense use can teach us to be more sensual and spiritual people, and connect us to the divine or the divinity of nature—which is something we all need to stay healthy. The use of incense is a beautiful ritual that is used throughout cultures of  the world, and is something that can bring awareness, a feeling of wellness, and a connectedness to anyone who uses it.



From Chapter  6


Do you ever feel trapped in the concrete jungle that surrounds you, or in the confines of your own life? Have you learned to run faster and faster, and have forgotten to “take time out to smell the roses”? It’s an old saying with a wise meaning, and smelling the roses may just be a necessity of a healthy life. Using incense can help us to regain connection to the natural world, which many of us have deadened ourselves to, as many people done in many types of spirituality and religion throughout time and across the world. There are many different reasons to use incense, but somehow the specific reason that we may have in our conscious mind doesn’t really matter. Once you inhale the natural, sweet smell, you will feel why it is you want to use incense.


As the “way of incense” in the ancient Japanese culture was just as important as the tea ceremony, a list of the Ten Virtues of Incense was summarized by a Zen priest in the sixteenth century:

1.  It awakens your senses to a higher level.

2.  It purifies mind and body.

3.  It removes uncleanliness.

4.  It keeps one alert.

5.  It can be a companion in the midst of solitude.

6.  In the midst of busy affairs, it brings a moment of peace.

7.  When it is plentiful, one never tires of it.

8.  When there is little, still one is satisfied.

9.  Age does not change its efficacy.

10.Used every day, it does no harm. (Morita, 1992)

As you start sampling different kinds of incenses and blends you might consider keeping an incense journal to note how each incense affects or inspires you, and what kind of mood it evokes. You may follow the example of the Japanese, and start writing poetry that is inspired by the incense, and describe the seasons and elements of nature the incense releases.


You may also want to create an altar to house your incense and any of your sacred objects, and to act as a space to focus your daily meditation and/or prayer. An altar may be suited to your particular religion, or have objects on it that are important and sacred to you (see photo at top of page). It does not have to be in a room that is dedicated only to spiritual practice, although if you have this it is excellent for meditation, martial arts, etc. Your altar, rather, can be placed in the corner of your bedroom, living room, or any other room in your house that you have a special affinity for and find most suited for quiet contemplation. Find a place in your house that can act as a special focus place for your spirituality, faith, and/or quiet reflection. It can be a personal altar or a family altar. Things that are typically found on altars are images of deities, candles, incense, pictures of loved ones that you want watched over, flowers, or sacred herbs. You may want to smudge or purify the air in the room with sage, as is common in the Native American tradition.



Though few conversations have been initiated between religions about how incense may unite us, and how it may connect us to the earth in an even more


Photo 6.2


profound way, incense continues to be. It exists without much of our notice and it will continue to do so, whether or not we wake up to its presence.


However, should we care to take a new journey, and learn to see the world

 through the eyes of the divine, perhaps we can wake to not only the nature of incense, but to the true nature of ourselves. Why not light some incense, shut your eyes, and allow your sense of smell to magically transport you to memories of the past or paradises once lost. Let your sense of smell develop through the world of incense, so that you may now fully taste the richness of life. Let us deepen our meditation and

wake up to our living visions, where scents help us to live more content, relaxed, and stress-free lives. Let us awaken not only to the divinity in nature, but to truly knowing what it means to be more alive (see Photo 6.2).




Aftel, M. (2001). Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfume. New York: North

          Point Press.

Bedini, S.A. (1994). The Trail of Time: Time Measurement with Incense in

          East Asia. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Morita, K. (1992). The Book of Incense. Tokyo: Kodansha International.


Kerry Hughes, M.Sc., is an ethnobotanist that is committed to deepening the relationship between plants and people. She has done this though promoting botanical education, market development, plant commercialization, traditional arts & medicine, health writing and agricultural development for the natural products industries.  Kerry is the author of the unique forthcoming book called The Incense Bible, Haworth Press (Spring 2007) and the founder of, which focuses on raw, natural incense.  Kerry is also Co-Author of  The Health Professionals Guide to Dietary Supplements, Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins (September 2006), a peer-reviewed guide to herbs and nutritional supplements, Botanical Medicines: The Desk Reference for Major Herbal Supplements, Haworth Press (2002) an in-depth text-book on the medical aspects of many of our top supplements; and The Natural Dietary Supplement Pocket Reference, INPR. Kerry continues to be a Field Editor of Prepared Foods/Nutrasolutions Magazines, serves on the Journal Advisory Board for Current Topics in Nutraceutical Research, the Board of Directors for The Capoeira Arts Foundation and is a Scientific Advisor for She is also the project co-ordinator for Projeto Kirimurę (, a non-profit project focused on enriching the lives of young Brazilians through capoeira.


EthnoPharm, Kerry’s product development and consulting company, actively promotes benefit share and community supported relationships as a way to value traditional knowledge, promote biodiversity, and help enrich lives and provide income opportunities to rural people. Kerry focuses on the interface between the private and public sectors in the development of botanicals worldwide.  She has worked with natural product companies and agencies throughout the U.S. and in South America, Europe, Asia and Africa.  Kerry has recently worked for US-AID-sponsored projects to strengthen the natural product sectors of countries in Africa, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Peru, and Madagascar.




Photos by Kerry Hughes.



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Excerpt Copyright © 2007 The Haworth Press. All rights reserved.
Photos Copyright © 2007 Kerry Hughes. All rights reserved.