Incense in Ancient Civilizations

Incense in Ancient Civilizations Egypt

The use of incense was a very important part of ancient Egyptian religion. They believed that it dispelled demons and pleased the gods.

They used frankincense, myrrh and cypress along with scent unguents in their temples and rituals. This practice was passed on to Greece and Rome. From there, it spread to China and Japan.


The odor of frankincense—Boswellia carterii, fereana, or sacra—slows breathing and calms the spirit. Hence its use in ancient religious ceremonies. It is also believed to have the power to focus the mind and encourage spiritual awareness. Consequently, it was a major part of animal sacrifice for the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans and was an important ingredient in the holy anointing oil used to consecrate vessels and officiate at temples and synagogues.

Traders made significant profits off frankincense. This highly sought-after product was a big reason why the camel became domesticated and was used along the lucrative Incense Road starting in 1500 bc. The pharaoh Hatshepsut organized an expedition to the Land of Punt (modern Eritrea and Somalia) to seek out this fragrant resin and commissioned magnificent bas-relief temple carvings that record her voyage.

Today frankincense is still important as church incense—Eastern Orthodox and certain Catholic churches use a blend of ten-fifteenths frankincense, four-fifteenths benzoin, and one-fifteenth storax—and it is valued as an essential oil for perfumes, skin care products, and meditation. It also has medicinal properties that include the ability to stop bleeding and treat wounds.


The other of the Magi’s gifts was myrrh (Greek ; mishnaic Hebrew kumos). Like frankincense, myrrh has been a medicinal substance since ancient times.

It was a valuable ingredient in Egyptian incense, used for fumigants and ritual incense. It also was a valuable ingredient in cosmetics and perfumes. It was pressed from the incisions of the myrrh tree, Commiphora myrrha. In some cases, myrrh was steamed and refined to produce myrrh gum.

Myrrh was a major component of the incense blend kyphi burned by the Egyptians. This sacred incense included frankincense, myrrh, and mastic. The resulting incense was used to connect the mortal realm with the immortal gods, and it was often burned in conjunction with other fragrant substances as part of religious rituals. Ancient Egyptian texts mention myrrh as an effective treatment for a variety of illnesses, including gout, leprosy, and toothaches.


Cedar was prized throughout antiquity for its beauty, strength and aromatic fragrance. Its wood was used for building temples, palaces and ships.

The Phoenicians grew rich from the sale of cedar wood, and it helped them develop their historic international trading network. Today the image of a cedar tree is Lebanon’s national emblem.

The Prophet Ezekiel likened the mighty nation of Assyria to the magnificent Lebanon cedar. The prophet praised the cedar’s fragrance and resistance to insects, humidity and rot.

Rich suggests that the reverence for the cedar reflected the ancient view that natural world existed to be exploited by mankind. However, her evidence seems questionable. She draws her conclusions by assuming that St Augustine and Al-Ghazali were vehement Aristotelians, which may raise eyebrows. She also fails to address the obvious Occam’s Razor counterargument.


Cistus ladaniferus, commonly known as gum rock rose or labdanum, is a shrub that produces a fragrant resin. It is native to the Mediterranean, particularly Portugal, Spain and Italy, and also found in Greece, Libya and Morocco.

The botanical name “cistus” is derived from the Greek word kistos or kiste, which means basket or box (a reference to its encapsulated fruit), plus the Latin word ledanon or ladanum, meaning resinous exudate. The plant’s flowers emit a sticky, aromatic substance that is collected for perfumery.

The scented oleoresin from this plant contains alpha-pinene, the main constituent in Frankincense, and it also has high amounts of citronellol, which is found in citrus oils. Its soft, floral fragrance helps to calm the mind and soothe anxiety. Its use in ancient times may have had to do with its ability to promote feelings of peace and wellbeing. The flower’s five papery white petals are also said to represent the five wounds of Jesus Christ.