Over 2,000 years ago incense was used in religious worship and procession. At that time the Middle Eastern Incense Route crisscrossed the Mediterranean Sea, passing from southern Arabia where frankincense originated.
In many religions incense is used to offer prayers to deities. It is also a common element in ceremonies to honor ancestors and gods in both Buddhism and Taoism.
Incense has been linked to ritual, spirituality and perfume appreciation all over the world. Ganjin, the famous Buddhist priest who introduced Buddhist precepts to Japan brought a thriving incense culture from Tang dynasty China with him.
During the Ashikaga era in the 14th century, samurai perfumed their helmets and armor to achieve an aura of invincibility in battle. By the Muromachi era in the 15th and 16th centuries, incense appreciation (koh-do, or Xiang Dao) had emerged as a sophisticated art of formality, etiquette, and fragrances among upper class Japanese society.
The ancient Egyptians were a people who valued beauty, and perfume, in the sense of personal grooming and for spiritual purposes. They used aromatic blends to perfume themselves, and their hair and clothing.
The Egyptians were among the first to use a mix of different resinous scents, including frankincense and myrrh, to create a scented mixture called Kyphi that was used as a sacrificial offering to their gods. They also incorporated it in their mummification process.
Kyphi was made by kneading expensive resins from different places with honey, spices and roots, and then drying them in the sun. The result was a paste that had an intense fragrance.
The Babylonians, whose legacies included lawgiving, mathematics and sciences, also helped establish a new way to communicate with the gods. Sweet smelling smoke allowed them to send prayers and requests, and to demonstrate their piety to the gods.
The ancients used a mix of ten-fifteenths frankincense and four-fifteenths myrrh to produce incense, which was burned in a thurible during religious ritual. In a similar way, early Christians used incense to symbolize the gifts given by the magi to Jesus: gold, frankincense and myrrh. They also employed the substance to counteract disagreeable odors, drive away demons and manifest or gratify the presence of the gods.
For the Greeks, incense was both ritual and sensual. They associated it with purification, immortality, and access to the divine. They used it to fumigate the bodies of their dead, to mark an entrance to a temple, or to perfume themselves and their garments in preparation for a meeting with the gods.
Among the most desirable incense was frankincense, an aromatic resin from trees of the Boswellia genus. This fragrant substance is mentioned 140 times in the Bible and was included along with gold and myrrh in the gifts of the magi to Jesus.
The Romans adopted incense as part of their polytheistic religion. Incense was burned during worship and funerals, as well as in private homes and public spaces.
This bronze censer (thymiaterion) was made in Paros, Greece, circa 460-450 BCE. It displays ibex and snakes, potent apotropaic symbols of fertility and virility in the ancient world.
In the Muromachi period of Japan in the 15th and 16th centuries, sophisticated etiquette developed around the appreciation of incense. Woodblock prints of incense burners and utensils appeared on kimono, and complex incense-comparing games connected with poetry or literary classics were created.
Between the 7th century BC and 2nd century AD a route of land and sea routes called the Incense Trade Route or Incense Road carried frankincense from the Mediterranean via Egypt, Northeast Africa and Arabia to India. This was primarily a trade in frankincense, but also included spices and other items.
Traders often told legends about the trees from which they harvested their resin, such as that the tree was protected by large snakes and a mythical phoenix. This added to the exotic nature of the frankincense.
Japanese court nobles began to use takimono in the Heian period (8th to 12th centuries). They experimented with different blends of incense for personal fragrance, or to impregnate their clothes and rooms.
Fragrances sourced from the Arabian Peninsula were in high demand throughout antiquity. This was particularly true for incense made from Boswellia trees, native to South Arabia and Somaliland (the Land of Punt).
In ancient Egyptian ritual it was used during fumigations and mortuary rites and it later spread to the Babylonians and into Greece and Rome.
The use of incense grew into a refined art with rituals, etiquette and codes of behavior. The practice became so popular in Japan that it gave rise to the Koh-do tea ceremony and a culture with strict adherence to etiquette and formality.