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The History of Incense

A history of the discovery and use of incense from ancient civilizations to modern times. Including its religious uses and the current trends toward using it for pleasure and relaxation.

Since the dawn of civilization mankind has used incense for numerous reasons among them medical and spiritual practices. With the discovery of fire, the use of incense naturally followed. In fact, the word incense comes from the Latin verb incendere, which means “to burn”.

It has been used in prayer, to worship the gods, purify the air, mask unpleasant smells, to increase focus during meditation, and to create inner harmony. Burning frankincense can help to forge a link with religious traditions with which you identify. Some people seeking a connection with ancient civilizations feel the bond grow stronger when they use the same incenses that were also used thousands of years ago, and this seems to make the crossing of the boundaries from the present to the past easier. Because incense has played such an important part in peoples lives and continues to do so, it may be interesting and perhaps even a little useful to learn a few things about its history.

The Ancient World

Although it is virtually impossible to trace the history of incense back to an exact date or moment in time, it can be safely assumed that its use dated back even further than the earliest recorded instances of it being consumed by man. The origin of incense came about probably accidentally through the burning of fragrant woods such as cedar, pine and cypress, and aromatic resins, roots, berries and other natural materials. Somewhere along the way in the development of civilization, ancient man discovered how to capture these natural essences in a convenient form they could transport and use when and where they wished.

There is historic evidence that the burning of incense was practiced throughout the ancient world. Countries such as Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Arabia, Egypt, India, Greece, and Rome all used incense extensively. As early as 3000 B.C. the Egyptians were already importing large quantities of myrrh. This was used in the embalming of their dead, as an antiseptic medicine, and to burn on their altars as a sacrifice to the gods. They also believed it purified the worshippers. In certain Egyptian temples there are carved the ingredients for incense: Frankincense, Spikenard, Mastic, Henna, Rose, Cinnamon and others.

Until the creation of incense, spices, gums and other fragrant plants were used usually for religious or burial purposes. In fact, carved pots filled with preserved spices which still gave off a faint odor when opened 3,000 years later were found in King Tutankamen’s tomb along with vast amounts of perfumes, oils and incense.

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