Incense: Just Blowing Smoke!!

Animesh Sinha

Incense use is multifaceted and, to a large degree, a potentially controversial topic. Incense is used in various religious settings ranging from the far Eastern Hindu temples to the Western Catholic churches and has often been depicted as a "mood setter". It is also used in households as a freshener or as a vehicle to add life or character to a setting. Thus, incense has been known to carry an aura that is both compelling and, at times, inexplicable. Understandably, incense use does not, therefore, pass uncontested. My own personal reservations and questions are as follows: Is incense simply just another generic smell? Could it be more? Maybe a calming agent or a stimulant? And if either, what physiological path does it take to alter our perception?


Initially, from self-observation, I was under the assumption incense was nothing more than a calming agent. (In addition, one should note, I meditate and undertake practices, such as yoga, which require a great deal of focus or unwavering alertness. Coupled with these practices it is also very common for me to light a stick of incense to establish a suitable mood.) I assumed incense was no more invigorating than a warm glass of milk. After all, just like milk, incense relaxes me and unclutters the worries of the day. However, when I presented sticks of incense to my classmates, almost everyone seemed stimulated. People claimed the mood was energetic and lively. Another Eastern student and I were the only ones who actually felt calmed by the scents. I started to question whether Easterners react peaceably simply out of convention. In other words, maybe our perception was shaped by our upbringing? Upon reflecting my lifestyle, this certainly presents itself as a possibility. In my home, for instance, my family and I utilize incense in our daily practices, and, also, the smell of incense seems to bring back many pleasant memories of my childhood and the recent past. My reaction, therefore, may have been somewhat persuaded by outside influences. Furthermore, I presumed the students who were not accustomed to the scents to be much more objective than myself. Thus, based on my personal unreliability and my class's Western objectivity, I hypothesized incense was indeed a stimulant.


So the question remains, if incense is in fact a stimulant, what proof is there? Sadly, much of smell research presents us with very little hard evidence. This as well holds true for the data and theories I will present. Hence, I cannot tangibly warrant incense an undeniable stimulant, but, I can, nevertheless, cite many semi-credible theories in support of incense's stimulatory power. In other words, everything I will present should be regarded simply as food for thought and nothing more.



Only a small number of ingredients are incorporated into the making of incense. Although the specific constituents vary according to the type of incense, there are still quite a few regularly used components. The most important components of incense production are its resins. These include such substances as myrrh, frankincense, galbanum, ladanum, and styrax. In particular, myrrh and frankincense are the most commonly used.


So how exactly is a resin collected? Primarily, one should note that myrrh and frankincense grow together in the same parts of Arabia and Africa, and although the trees are husbanded differently their precious products are collected in similar ways. First of all a knife incision is made in the bark during the middle of the summer (this is when the heat is at its most intense stage). The incision must be deep enough to penetrate the secondary cambium, where the secretary canals lie. The resin oozes out onto the outside of the bark in pearl-like blisters where it coagulates. Frankincense resin is yellow in color and myrrh resin is reddish-brown. These resins are collected in August, before the rains, by scraping the pearls from the trunks (Monod, 1979).

Another major component of incense is cassia and cinnamon which are both barks. The above woodcut shows the bark of cassia (Cinnamomum cassia) being stripped and transported to town. The main source of cassia in the sixteenth century was the many islands in the Straits of Molucca (Stoddart, 1990).



The earliest signs of incense use come from the ancient Chinese who burned various herbs and plant products such as cassia, cinnamon and sandalwood. The Hindus absorbed the cult of incense from the ancient Chinese and introduced frankincense, Sarsaparilla seeds and cyprus into the recipe. It was the early Hindus who introduced the first trading routes to the West and in particular to the incense lands of Arabia where only the cherished frankincense grew. Furthermore, the Egyptians held that the gods exuded a sweet odor and that safe passage to the after-life could be assured if the cadaver was provided with sufficient fragrance. Egyptians offered incense in a number of other ways as well. Sometimes it was burned on a small, cuboidal-shaped alter but more often it was offered in a hand-held censer. A censer was usually accompanied with a lid which was periodically lifted to release a cloud of smoke and thereupon an inviting aroma.

The above picture is a censer from the Coptic period in Egypt (AD 284-641). It is in the shape of a young boy's head and dates from about AD 400-500 (Stoddart, 1990).


From the Egyptians the Greeks also came into contact with incense. Specifically, the Greeks used incense in the cult of Aphrodite. It was believed that the goddess hid her nakedness with myrtle when she first made landfall. The fragrance of myrtle has even continued to play an important role in Greek incense ceremonies to the present day. From the Greeks the Romans learned of incense and, as is apparent, the rest is history!



In religion incense is used primarily with the psychical aspects of smell. It was thought that such perfumes would be agreeable to the gods or spirits, on the same principle as that by which foodstuffs which men like were offered to them.


In Egypt the burning of various kinds of incense was always an important rite, each ingredient of it having magical properties, and, as has been seen, its smoke was supposed to carry the words of prayer as well as the souls of the dead to heaven. The Greeks, on the other hand, simply felt the odours were pleasing to the gods. In Roman religion incense was one of the most important of the bloodless offerings, and without it no rite was regarded as complete.


Incense was unknown in early Buddhism, which was opposed to external ritual, but in the course of time its use, especially in northern Buddhism has become general. Also, in Islamic sects, incense is not commonly used, but it is regularly offered at the shrines of saints, and is permitted by the traditions as a perfume for a corpse. In addition, Christianity did not seem to take much interest in incense in its early church rituals. The fact that it was a Jewish custom may have tended to make Christians neglect it, but what had probably a more powerful effect was its use among pagans and the common practice during the ages of persecution in which Christians were to offer a few grains of incense to the gods or on the altar of the Emperor as a token of their renunciation of their faith (MacCulloch,1914) (Rahim, 1987). However, as Takagai points out Matthew 2:11 states:


At the site of the star they were overjoyed. Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and bowed to the ground in homage to him; then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.


Apparently, early Christians did not totally disregard incense in the practice of their religion.

As mentioned earlier, my personal practices are very Eastern, and, my beliefs are Hindu. I therefore went into great detail in trying to understand Hindu incense use. I was greatly supplemented in my knowledge by a personal interview with Dr. K. L. Sheshagiri Rao, Chief Editor of the Encyclopedia of Hinduism and Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia. According to Dr. Rao, there are five aspects to existence: earth, air, fire, water and space. Of these five entities incense represents the air aspect. Hindus feel that the integral nature of everything is divine and that feelings of duality or separateness are caused by ignorance. Similarly, incense use is integrally important in that it is a symbol representing space. In addition, Dr. Rao claims incense is supposed to have a calming effect on the mind. In particular, jasmine and sandalwood scents are supposed to bring out a peaceful mindset. He also claims that the scents should cultivate a balance of the outer and inner atmosphere, thus eliminating duality.





Does incense possess some intrinsic property that allows it to alter our minds? Or is it nothing more than some generic odor that is perceived by the brain and colored as a mood alterer simply by convention? As established by studies, good and bad smells relative to the individual, can affect mood (Ehrlichman, 1994). So what about incense? Is it necessarily the smell of incense that affects us or is it something more? Could it possibly take some sort of a physiological route to alter our minds? All these questions and more must be answered in order to come to an accurate conclusion.


As mentioned, there must be a route established through which the smoke takes its affects. One possible route is through the bloodstream in which the smoke may act somewhat like a narcotic. The smoke residues could possibly enter through the lungs, travel through the bloodstream, and then finally reach the brain. This route, although possible, seems unlikely. After all, the smell of incense generally produces an instantaneous reaction, and, traveling through the bloodstream seems too drawn-out a process to yield the spontaneity we are looking for. However, one should note, if incense is inhaled at high enough concentrations, the smoke can in fact produce an instantaneous reaction much like second-hand smoke or opiates. Therefore, incense traveling as a narcotic is a very plausible route and should not be disregarded as a possibility.


So what are our other alternatives? How about neural activity! In such a system the reaction could very nearly be instantaneous. But how exactly are smell signals from the nose transmitted to the brain? Well, to begin with, the initial detection of odors takes place at the posterior of the nose, in the small region known as the olfactory epithelium. Here, there are millions of neurons that provide a direct physical connection between the external world and the brain. From one end of each neuron, hairlike sensors called cilia extend outward and are in direct contact with the air. At the other end of the cell, a fiber known as an axon runs into the brain. When an animal inhales odorous molecules, the sensory neurons bind to specialized proteins, known as receptor proteins, that extend from the cilia. The binding of odors to these receptors initiates an electrical signal that travels along the axons to the olfactory bulb, which is located in the front of the brain, right behind the nose itself. The olfactory bulb serves as the first relay station for processing olfactory information in the brain; the bulb connects the nose with the olfactory cortex, which then projects to higher sensory centers in the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain that controls thoughts and behaviors (Axel, 1995).


There are a number of potential scenarios for arranging neurons and axons in the nose and brain. However, the most commonly accepted theory goes as follows: neurons carrying one type of receptor could be randomly positioned in the epithelium, but their axons would converge on discrete areas in the brain. In this case, exposure to a particular odor could result in defined patterns of activity in the brain (Axel, 1995). If in fact the signal does have a defined pattern of activity, the signal, caused by incense, may initiate a pattern of neuronal activity that induces a certain state of mind.

Please take note of the following diagram:

Here, all three molecules can elicit distinct responses, specific to their receptors, based on their structural incongruities. One should note, diagram (a) is an animal steroid, testosterone, and (b) a resin, alcohol - amyrin - of the type found in incense, and (c) a steroid found in myrrh. This is very interesting because (b) and (c), both found in incense, have steroid-like structures, similar to that found in testosterone (a). In addition, one should keep in mind, pheromones are also known to have steroid-like structures. This is important in that it leads us to a third possibility or route for incense-related alteration


So if it elicits a similar response as a pheromone what does that mean? Before we answer this let's get some background knowledge. Most mammals, including humans, possess a vomeronasal organ (VNO) that is physically separate from the main olfactory epithelium. The vomeronasal organ detects the pheromones that govern reproductive and social behaviors. Until recently, the VNO in humans was thought to be a vestigial organ, but, biopsy reports have shown the VNO to be a structurally intact organ. In addition, one should note, it has been difficult to identify human pheromones that elicit innate behavioral arrays since behavior in humans is far more likely to be tempered by learning and experience (Dulac & Axel, 1995). In other words, although a human VNO may pick up pheromonal signals, it is still unclear how significant the human VNO system is in modifying behavior.


Please remember some of the chemical components of incense have similar steroidal structures as many mammalian pheromones. Thus, incense could, in an indirect way, activate a pheromone-like pathway sending its signals to the VNO. The implications behind this are immeasurable. Could places of worship seem so appealing simply because people are being altered to think this? Could incense's chemical properties actually sexually arouse a person into believing in a divine existence?


There are quite a few experiments in support of incense's transforming power. Jellinek, for example, took ingredients from incense which best resembled human body odour. He then developed his study to inquire whether, since they have odours which resemble those of the human body, incense ingredients are able to enhance the erotic effect of light, floral eaux-de-Cologne. He then took a panel of experienced perfumers to test the erogenic properties of the various ingredients of incense. According to these perfumers, all but one property of incense enhanced the erogenic quality of the perfume. This study, though convincing, is limited because the results cannot be quantified scientifically (1965). Another experiment ran by Macht and Ting examined the effect of odour of incense ingredients on the time taken by the trained rats to circumnavigate a maze for a food pellet reward. They state in their findings:


The lack of depression after the use of incense is...surprising but agrees well with the statements of some Orientals that the inhalation of the fumes of certain specimens of incense are actually stimulating to the mental processes (Macht and Ting, 1921).


"Surprising" does not even began to describe this multifaceted concept called incense. Originally, I formulated a dichotomy, which questioned whether incense did or did not have the intrinsic ability to alter one's perceptions. And, if in fact it did, I came up with several hypotheses reflecting incense's mode of action. In summation, I believe there are three major possibilities through which incense can distort one's mental processes: 1) as a narcotic; 2) through neuronal patterns in the nose; and finally, 3) by mimicking pheromonal activity in the VNO. Although much of what was said is purely theory (e.g. VNO, erogenic properties, etc.), there is still room to question incense and its many faces. Also, one should understand, incense-related modification may not even be physiologically dependent. Therefore, one should not take these theories as the undeniable truth. For all I know I could just be "blowin' smoke."

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