Ever since humans figured out how to use fire to our advantage, we’ve become increasingly savvy at burning a wide variety of things for a wide array of reasons. Among these early discoveries still widely practiced is the burning of fragrant woods, herbs and other botanicals not for heat or food, but to stimulate the senses. In other words, incense.
“The word incense is latin for ‘to burn’,” says Brennan Moore, the Toronto-based founder of the Brennan Michael fragrance brand who created Tokyo Smoke’s line of custom incense. “Some of the first incense was made in ancient Egypt from tree gum resins,” he says, noting that the lavender he blended with sandalwood for the Relief fragrance has been used for centuries for its calming effects.
The story of incense is in many ways the story of human civilization itself. “I offered incense in front of the mountain-ziggurat,” wrote the author of The Epic of Gilgamesh around 2000 BCE. “Seven and seven cult vessels I put in place and into the fire I poured reeds, cedar, and myrtle. The gods smelled the savour; the gods smelled the sweet savour, and collected like flies over a sacrifice.” As depicted in this, the oldest written story in any language, the earliest recorded use of incense can be traced back to Babylonia and Mesopotamia, where trade routes and spiritualism flourished side by side. Here, incense was used to get the attention of the gods, drawing them in with smoke and pleasing smells. Likewise, ancient Greeks and Romans burned frankincense and myrrh in their temples to accompany (and perhaps mask the smell of) their offerings of burnt flesh. Incense was also found among the jars of wine, oil and food in Egyptian king Tutankhamen’s tomb. Indigenous people in what would become Canada and the U.S., meanwhile, developed distinct incense rituals around burning “the four sacred medicines”: Sage, sweetgrass, cedar and tobacco. As incense spread across Europe and Asia, it became a component of religious practice nearly everywhere it landed, from the Ashrams of India to the temples of Japan to the grand cathedrals of Italy and France. With complex notes of tobacco, cedar and exotic spices, Brennan Moore’s Go and Relax incense scents for Tokyo Smoke recall some of these ancient aromas.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition (incense is mentioned in both the Talmud and the Bible) smoke was used to venerate and sanctify. The swirling plumes represented the mysteries of the spirit world, while the exotic aromas suggested the sweetness and complexity of the divine. “Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar,” says the book of Revelations. “And he was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand.”
Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, the very act of turning the tangible into the ephemeral — wood becoming fire becoming smoke that disappears like magic into the air — is as evocative of the invisible world now as it was thousands of years ago.
Along with rock music, flower power, and (naturally) smoking cannabis, the 1960s ushered in a widespread interest in all things eastern — incense included. As trendy as the teachings of Buddhism, Hinduism and other eastern religions were for a time, it was the exotic aromas of patchouli and nag champa (along with yoga and the Kama Sutra) that embedded themselves in modern Western culture. As inseparable from hippiedom as tie-dye and Volkswagen buses, incense became beloved for its quasi-religious associations as for its ability to mask the smell of doobs in dorm rooms. Psychedelic rock band Strawberry Alarm Clock immortalized the central role of incense in this trippy scene, name-dropping the stuff in the ever-so-groovy chorus of their 1967 hit, “Incense and Peppermints.”
Things don’t tend to persist in culture without good reason, and as enticing as the smell of burning aromatics, as mesmerizing as the curling plumes of smoke are, modern science suggests that incense’s medicinal properties are as much responsible for its longevity as anything else. According to a study co-authored by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, frankincense derived from the Boswellia tree was found to lower anxiety and reduce symptoms of depression in mice. “Apparently, most present day worshipers assume that incense burning has only a symbolic meaning,” stated one of the study’s co-authors. Regardless of whether or not the gods, if they do exist, appreciate the gesture, the burning of things like lavender, sage and frankincense has remained a part of human society for long enough to suggest it offers more than merely smoke and symbolism.
Story by Jeremy Freed