Burning incense is considered one of the oldest ways to perfume a space or a person. In fact, the word perfume comes from the Latin expression per fumum ‘through smoke’, a method that originated as a sacred activity, reserved for worshipping spirits or performing magical rites. As we stated in this article, we are nowadays used to employing incense as a way to make a place smell pleasantly, really far from its original intention, but the ritual of incense burning is slowly regaining its well deserved throne as one of the most powerful spiritual and magical practices at hand.
The tools of incense burning
There are lots of tools to burn incense (tweezers, costly incense burners, thuribles, etc.), and almost none of them are actually necessary to carry out a successful ritual of perfuming through incense. In fact, we only need a surface to burn the mixture -which can easily be replaced by a piece of stone, a piece of hard wood, soil, or a metal or pottery pot, some coal (if it’s a loose incense), and incense itself. Everything can get as raw as desired.
Or it can get as complicated as we want to, either. Japan (where else), for instance, perfected the method of incense burning. The ceremony of Kōdō, which can be translated into “the way of fragrance”, implies an awful lot of tools -censer, ash, charcoals, feathers, sticks, mica plates among other things- and its transcendence and symbolism is unmatched in comparison to other cultures. In this refined and delicate ritual, a bamboo charcoal is burnt on a bed of white ash, a mica plate is placed on the charcoal, and the substance is burnt on the plate, and so, the smell is not contaminated by burning coal.
Certainly, things do not need to get so luxurious, and even though the Kōdō ceremony is a really pleasing and harmonious ritual that allows the practitioner a deep connection with incense and fragrance, tools do not determine the success of the endeavor; what really matters is nothing but our disposition and connection to incense and spirits.
Incense burning ritual
The ceremony of burning incense starts each time we feel a need for it: to attune with spirits, to connect with a specific deity, to invoke entities, ancestors, demons, etc. As we have said in other occasions, incense was primarily conceived as a sacred offering, a way to call upon things unseen. Of course, there are other methods: libation, prayer, song, dance, pain, and pleasure. Incense, however, is quite a complete sensitive experience as it appeals not only to of our most primary senses -the sense of smell- but also to sight, hearing, and touch.
Firstly, it would be advisable to make sure we are in a correct inner disposition to perform such rite. Of course, incense burning is usually lived as something introspective, calming, and soothing, but this doesn’t mean we are meant to start this process with an anxious and belligerent attitude (unless that is, in fact, the goal of the spiritual task). It would be adequate to perform a sort of cathartic experience before starting to burn anything: meditation, trance, dance, sexual activity, etc., so the spirit is purged
beforehand, and we can understand the signs that the incense will offer us. However, if the goal is that of warfare, hatred, and destruction, things should perhaps go the other way round. This will entirely depend on the practitioner. Just bear in mind that you are about to call upon spirits, you are to be recipient of the divine and unknown. Thus, the ritual doesn’t start when we place the incense on charcoal or we light up the stick, it starts right when we make that decision.
An incense burning ritual demands a vast amount of observation, making the experience something unique, deeply symbolic, even prophetic, and so, we cannot rush it anyway. Each gesture is full of meaning, an alchemical transmutation of matter, a sublimation of substance, making it worthy of spirit devotion. When we burn incense we deconstruct the matter so that this is acknowledged by spirits, and we must bear this in mind when creating a blend or choosing a method.
*Small tip: When dealing with loose incense, the charcoal must be allowed to ignite completely before placing the substance on it. Then we start pouring small amounts of incense on it (a teaspoon at a time), and allow it to burn completely.
Reading the signs of incense
If you have burnt incense before, you’ll have noticed that the fragrance changes as it burns, acquiring different nuances and shades. These stages of incense, similar to the notes in perfumery, unveil the mysteries and synergies of the substances used, and can be read as signs or omens that speak to us about the spirits, the substances involved, or about our intended task. If an initially pleasant mixture becomes bitter or pungent, perhaps it is a sign that spirits are trying to convey.
Likewise, the movements, color, texture and density of smoke -which in the end is responsible for directing our prayers, invocations, and our imprecations- can also be read as a sign from the Otherworld. Observing this is also part of the ritual, for no incense burning ceremony is the same. Finally, the way incense burns, its bubbling, boiling, gurgling, the sounds and sights you may witness are also indications that can be read as if it were prediction, omen, or response from the other side.
So, how does one read the signs? You could just pay attention to what your intuition tells you (gut response), write down the signs and your prediction, and check them out once some sensible period of time has passed, in order to create a kind of glossary of signs.
Thus, ‘Is there a correct way to burn incense?’ one may ask.
In the end, no matter how experienced we think we are, the ceremony of incense burning can always unfold in unexpected endings. Perhaps there is no one ‘correct’ way to burn incense, but there is one definitely incorrect way: when we pay no attention to what we do or why we do it.