The Origins of Incense
My fools for senses,
It is with an Overview on the incense burning in the Temple of Jerusalem that we opened this website a year past and thus we deemed it beautiful to commence this year anew by writing about the most emblematic material of our works, the source of all perfumes : incense. For talking about incense means going back to the very roots of perfumery itself, it implies entering its etymology and experience a voyage through time to reconnect with the origins of humanity, to its intimate deeps, to its spiritual experience lived throughout the world and ages by the means of the most hallowed and liturgical tradition of incense burning. Together, my dear friends, let us go back tonight to the very origins of incense.
Ere we speak more of it, we should take a closer look at the word « incense » itself which means aught and naught in our days. « Incense » comes from the Latin « incendere » meaning « to set ablaze » from which we built the word « incandescent ». The word incense thus designates anything that burns on a charcoal, be it resins –olibanum, myrrh, benzoin &c.- spices –nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon- or plants –rose, lotus, camphor, jasmine.
However, « incense » refers mostly to the resin exsuded by any tree from the Boswellia genus which is called olibanum the most renown being the Boswellia Sacra, endemic to the Sultanate of Oman, known till lands afar for its suave taste and its breath of mint and eucalyptus. Aside from this there are other subspecies : the Boswellia Serrata, native to India ; the Boswellia Papyrifera found in Central to East Africa boasting a unique aroma of bitter lemon ; the Boswellia Frereana or Maydi, the King of Frankincense and its trail of toffeed flowers and fruits used by the Coptic Church of Ethiopia ; the balsamic Boswellia Rivae or even the most rare Boswellia Socotrana, from the isle of Socotra.
Such olibanum is the one mentioned one-and-twenty times in the Bible most notably in the recipe for the Qetoret –the incense burnt in the Temple- or even in the Song of Solomon wherein is written : « Until the (…) shadows flee, I will get me to the mountain of myrrh and to the hill of frankincense ». It is the same olibanum of which is made reference when Isaiah says « Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
The reader might ask what link there might be between our olibanum and the burning coal of Isaiah and that is where etymology comes to our succour.
For the word « olibanum » comes from the Hebrew « lebonah » itself derived from the root « laban » referring to anything white and pure and this is where the plot thickens : purity. Olibanum is the white and luminous smoke enshrouding the faithful just as the pillar of clouds wreathed the Hebrews thus coming to be a symbol of God’s protective might but it is also the white, the immaculate, the unsullied smoke by which the sinner is purified. Such was the meaning of the burning coal which glowed in the Altar of Perfumes, itself standing in the Holy of Holies before a Seraphim –the highest order of angels in the judeo-christian tradition- removed it to place it on Isaiah’s lips.
Isaiah had earlier said that the house was « filled with smoke », the smoke here manifesting the chekina, the « Real Presence of God » in our physical world.
The incense smoke is the place where the divine appears, where divinity and humanity meet as they did on the Mount Sinai centuries before or as they would centuries further on the Mount Thabor during the episode of the transfiguration. The smoke does not create anything but it brings about to our senses an invisible reality, shielding the prophet and the faithful away from the world to let them enter God’s intimacy.
Incense gives shape to the transfiguration, the divinisation of the human being and he whom is incensed is thus reminded of his hallowed origin and calling, of his « royal priesthood ». Let us not be mistaken by thinking such conception of incense was unique to the judeo-christians for it originated, without much surprise, in Egypt.
There, along the sweltering banks of the Nile river, Egyptians would gather fragrant resins and plants of all sorts believing they were exsuded by the Gods themselves. One must read the Coffin Texts to believe it, where Râ says : « I have created the Gods from my sweat and the Men from the tears of my Eye » or elsewhere in the Ritual of Amon : « the incense of the god which has issued from his flesh, the sweat of the god which has fallen to the ground, which he has given to all the gods . . . . It is the Horus eye. If it lives, the people live, thy flesh lives, the members are vigorous ». It was believed at the time that the finest of myrrhs sprang from the Eye of Râ whilst lesser qualities welled up in Thoth or Osiris’ eyes.
Incense was the perfect offering for nothing is more perfect and worthy of a god than a god itself. The burning of incense aimed at vivifying the idols, breathing a god’s sweet scent into his statue to bring it back to life. Divinised so, the smoke would configure the priest to his god and through it they both shared the same supernatural nature.
Such power to divinise human beings went as deep as the tombs for the tears of incense were of great resemblance to those Isis wept to ressuscitate Osiris and as smoke would vivify the priest as much as the idol, incense took upon an ever more important role in funeral rites – it was then hoped it would breathe in the life of Osiris himself into the dead body resurrecting them as well. One of the Pyramid Texts says : « The incense is set on the fire, the incense shines. Your scent comes to me, incense ; my scent comes to you, incense. I exist with you, gods ; you exist with me, gods. I live with you, gods ; you live with me, gods. »
The structure of the text is almost as eloquent as the wording itself in stating the resurrectional power hidden within incense pellets and incense tears. « I breathe the air which comes out of your nose, the north wind which comes forth from your mother. You glorify my spirit, you make the Osiris my soul divine ». They would hope in such days that the dead body, through incense, be configured to Osiris himself, the one whom had risen from the dead, and so resurrect of his life.
Etymology yet again comes to our aid and confirms this for the word « senetcher » which we translate to « incense » literally means « to make divine ».
Perfume is no mere accessory but it is essential, it bears the essence of the person offering it. It is the place of the transfiguration, the divinisation of the human being which happen by the fume, through the fume, behind and beyond the fume, in the secret of the lightful pillar of clouds. Through the fumes is the man made god, through the fumes is the mortal made immortal, through the fume still are the dead brought back to life and through them life can spring and go back to that which she hewn.
There is no perfume without incense for incense is the very source of perfume. Olibanum as the protective and cleansing might of a benevolent God, myrrh as his life-giving essence, red as the Sun-God Râ, labdanum as Osiris’ beard symbolising the mystic barge leading the dead to life immortal.
Experiencing incense is experience such voyage out of time. It means entering this mysterious pillar of clouds where unfathomably our selves are created anew, it means tasting, smelling the reality of eternity and enter a place out of space, a moment out of time.
It means experiencing this new life breathed into us as we breathe it into others, this life given to us as we give it to others.
It means entering the deep truth of life that is a gift, a gift that is love, a love that we receive all the more we give it. It means entering this perfect communication which helps our self grow the more we let it diminish and thus taste the supreme paradox of love : that it is complete at last in death.
Tears of my eyes,
The spring of life.