New Worlds: Incense

[Note: As Book View Cafe works on migrating to a better host, this week’s New Worlds Patreon essay is running here.]


It only does so much good to make our bodies smell better if everything around us reeks. So from perfume we turn to incense — and also potpourri, pomanders, scented candles, and everything else you can use to cover up less-than-pleasant aromas in the world around you.

Many of the things one can say about perfume apply here, too. Incense was historically often expensive, because the components were rare or had to be traded across long distances; the kadō art form in Japan and its associated party games exemplify the way its creation and appreciation could be elite activities. You can divide the scents into the same categories as with perfumes and blend them in the same way — though there’s less of a tendency toward gendering in scents for a room than for the body.

But it isn’t always just a simple matter of making your surroundings more fragrant. During the many centuries when the “miasma theory” of disease held sway, people believed that foul airs literally carried sickness. If that was true, then sweetening the air was simple good sense. A pomander, a container for scented material often worn dangling from a neck chain or belt, was portable protection. Incense, scented candles, perfumed hand fans, herbs strewn in with the straw covering the floor, and other such things protected an area instead.

A special case of this is the famous and distinctive plague doctor costume. Its beaked mask might not make for a reassuring bedside manner, but stuffed with lavender, camphor, mint, or a variety of other strong-smelling materials, it was supposed to ward the doctor against infection. Which, in a way, it may have helped to do, though not through scent: the mere presence of the mask may have somewhat reduced the chance of airborne germs entering the body.

Scented materials can serve other practical functions as well. We use cedar and camphor today to repel moths, citronella to repel mosquitos. In historical East Asia they sometimes measured time with incense clocks. Some of these operated like candle clocks, burning down at a known rate and even releasing weights to clang and mark the time; others changed scent to announce the beginning of a new hour, which must have produced some interesting effects at the changeover. One particularly intriguing design involved laying powdered incense in the engraved lines of a seal and letting that burn, like a line of gunpowder. (Except less explosive.)

But not all the uses of incense were pragmatic. Last week I quoted Edward H. Schafer’s The Golden Peaches of Samarkand, which referenced the “unmistakable effluvia” of scented materials — their ability to emit their properties invisibly, to hang in the air even when there’s no other sign of their presence. Because of this quality, there’s a long and worldwide tradition of ascribing spiritual qualities to scents.

You see a hint of this in miasma theory, when you consider that evil spiritual forces were often thought to be the sources of disease. But it also shows up in positive form, sometimes to counteract those same spirits; in Schafer’s entry on gum guggul and benzoin (called “Arsacid aromatic” in Tang China), he memorably notes that they believed it “quells evil demons within the body, and that if the genitals of a woman haunted by an incubus are fumigated with it, it will quit her forever.” On a more dignified front, smudging is the general term covering a variety of Indigenous American traditions of burning sage, cedar, or various other herbs as a form of purification or blessing.

Incense might serve as a focus for someone meditating, much in the same way as a lamp’s flame or a mandala — with the added benefit, perhaps, that when the incense burns down, you know it’s time to stop meditating. And more generally, the tendency of smoke to rise means we naturally think of it as a vehicle for communicating with the gods, because we often think of the gods as residing in the heavens above us.

This extends to more than just naturally fragrant items. In pre-colonial Mesoamerica, high-ranking individuals would shed their own blood onto bark paper, then burn the paper along with incense and other offerings. Such actions leverage the power of sacrifice, which was seen as feeding the gods, but there’s more going on than just that. Mesoamerican art has an artistic motif called the Vision Serpent, often seen arising from the bloodletting bowl with the smoke. The intangible, ephemeral presence of smoke and scent was seen as forging a connection between the mortal world and that of the divine.

To some extent the practice of using perfume and incense as offerings, or anointing sacred objects with them, probably arises from the sheer fact of their value: using them was automatically an expensive proposition, and therefore pleasing to the gods. (Sacrifice again, in less obvious form.) There’s a reason why the tale of the Three Wise Men says they offered the infant Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh, instead of lead, pine needles, and slate.

But there’s more to it than sheer monetary worth. Judaism had a long-standing tradition of using frankincense and myrrh in the First and Second Temple, so offering those to Jesus carries symbolic implications that would have been crystal-clear to the Jews of the time. Other materials hold a similar importance in religions around the world: spikenard, camphor, copal, galbanum, onycha (whose precise identity has been lost), and more. They’re used in rituals, to the point where they develop specialized equipment like the thurible for spreading the scent. You might not even be able to properly conduct your ceremony without the appropriate incense, any more than you can hold Communion without something to represent the body and blood of Christ.

That means the loss of a trade route, or the banning of a particular incense by an invading power, can have devastating effects on a religious community. Which smells a lot like plot potential to me . . . or alternatively, a writer could run with the spiritual powers of scented materials, for the banishment of evil spirits, communication with the divine, or some other effect. I believe incense clocks tended to be just simple spirals or other linear forms, so that the powder would burn at a predictable and steady rate — but you can easily imagine carving one in a mystically significant shape, with the powder flaring into branches like dominoes to imbue the figure with its power.

And maybe that power even banishes the miasmas that cause disease! But discussion of how to take discredited historical concepts and treat them as literally real in the world of your story will have to wait for a future essay.

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