Incense is an Offering to Gods
Why do we make offerings to Gods?
Ritual incense, (Latin: incendere, to burn or kindle; Gr. thumiama, θυμίαμα) in the traditions of Hellenismos, is used purely as an offering to the Gods.  It is not proper (in ritual) to use incense as a means to create a mood or a tool to conjure some kind of magic. The correct attitude is that incense is an offering of generosity, gratitude, and worship. You are giving a gift of something fine and precious to the blessed Olympian Gods and the extended pantheon of deities.The use of incense as an offering to Gods is traditional. Incense has what is called evothia (Gr. εὐωδία), a sweet smell, pleasing to the Gods. Reference to incense can be found throughout ancient literature. Of particular note are the Orphic Hymns which suggest a type of incense for all the principle deities. You will find here frankincense, myrrh, storax, and others.
The two most commonly known substances in the Western world which are used for incense are frankincense and myrrh. Most people associate these two with the Christian Christmas, but in reality, frankincense, myrrh, storax, and many other plant materials have been used since antiquity in the worship of all the Gods and Heroes.
Historically in the West, incense is a mark of polytheistic devotion to the Gods. After the Roman Empire espoused Christianity, the use of incense was suppressed by law during the ensuing persecutions. In time, after the church felt confident that the ancient traditions had been thoroughly crippled, the practice of burning incense re-emerged and entered into Christian religion. Nonetheless, the idea that incense is somehow connected with pre-Christian worship persists to this day and there is good reason for it. Every time we offer a pinch of incense, we prove by our action that our convictions persevere and remain relevant.
This page is dedicated to natural incense materials, particularly resins and gums, which is not to say that other forms of incense are in some way unsuitable as an offering. No, it is only that the author of this article particularly appreciates the purity and loveliness of these naturally occurring substances.
In our contemporary world of artificiality, a world where the ingredients of most perfumes are concocted in the laboratory, aromatic natural substances are an expression of the primal beauty of Earth. Indeed, they evoke thoughts of exotic places and fascinating stories. To give but one example, the labdanum resin is collected from the rock-rose bush by shepherds who drive their goats into the cistus thickets. The amazingly fragrant resin exudes from hairs on the leaves and young stems of the rock-rose. The animals love to graze on these plants. When they have had their fill, their owners comb out the resin which has stuck to their beards and coats.  Such substances as this bring us into contact with natural found beauty of often stunning sensuality.
What are resins and gums? They are secretions of plants, generally encouraged by bruising them in some way. The two words, resin and gum, are often used as synonyms of one another, a manner of speaking we will adopt in this very article, but it is not really correct. Resins are not soluble in water, where gums are. Many natural incense materials have qualities of both, so they may be called gum-resins. Another term that you will find is oleo, which means oily or fatty. So we have oleo-resins or oleo-gum-resins.
Sometimes other parts of plants are used as incense, such as the bark, the wood, the flowers, or the leaves. It is said that in Hellas, before approximately 900 BC, the use of gums and resins in worship was unknown or rare, but fragrant woods and plant materials were used as incense. Therefore, such substances are 100% traditional. Even today in Greece in the Orphic community, native plant materials seem to be preferred (in particular, leaves of laurel). For Hellas they are more ancient.
An example of bark used for incense would be storax bark (not to be confused with ancient storax). An example of wood used as incense is sandalwood. Rose, lavender, chamomile, chrysanthemum, and jasmine flowers are used as incense. Laurel, oak, myrtle and sage are examples of leaves that can be used, as well as various needles of conifers such as pine and spruce. Many of these plants have associations with a particular God. For instance, laurel is particularly associated with Apollo, the oak and the olive are associated with Zeus, myrtle with Aphrodite and Apollo, ivy with Dionysos.
Using natural materials for incense
CAUTION: Every precaution should be taken to assure that you handle burning charcoal and hot incense burners with 100% safety. Lit charcoal briquettes can severely burn hands, children's fingers, pets, burn holes in carpets, even set fire to your home...if you are not careful.
Many people are reluctant to use these virgin substances. Perhaps you have had difficulty using them previously or maybe you find using stick incense or cones more predictable or familiar. In truth, it is very easy to offer natural incense.
You will need the following items: incense, charcoal, flame, and an incense burner. You will find sources for these items further down this page. The greatest difficulty that you will encounter is 2-fold: fully lighting the charcoal and keeping it lit. Most of the available briquettes are impregnated with salt-peter to make them self-igniting (with the help of a flame). The salt-peter of self-igniting charcoal is only modestly efficient; once the salt-peter is exhausted, the charcoal will often die out. Therefore, the first obstacle to conquer is to fully light the charcoal. Even after charcoal has been thoroughly lit, sometimes it will still die out before burning all the way through. This is primarily due to inadequate air-flow. The solution is to bring in air below the charcoal.
So, the first step is to acquire an incense burner. This author has found that incense burners that have the shape of a large bowl, where the briquette sits quite freely, the bottom dimple raising it above the level of the floor of the burner, seem to work the best. Before you do anything, simply try out the burner and see if you the charcoal stays lit. If you use it successfully several times without difficulty, you have purchased an incense burner that is fine "as is," but if the briquette dies out and there is an appreciable amount of unburned charcoal, consider my suggestion: drill many eighth-inch holes throughout the cup, the area where you will place the charcoal. If you are using a metal burner, you can remove any burrs by twisting a larger bit along the edges of the holes.I also suggest that you basically ignore the instructions that came with the charcoal in one respect: do not expect the self-lighting chemical to actually ignite the briquette. You will need a gas stove or a candle. Grasp the briquette with charcoal tongs or a pair of pliers and suspend it over the flame. (Better still, if possible, rest the charcoal on the stove-top burner-grate.) The salt-peter will sparkle and finally go out. Continue to hold it above the flame until the coal glows red, turning it over to fully the cup of the incense burner. This whole process of lighting the charcoal should take no longer than a minute, maybe two, if using self-lighting charcoal, much longer for pure charcoal briquettes. The holes that you have drilled in the cup below the charcoal will allow air to flow, such that the briquette should burn all the way through. If you are still having trouble, you must drill additional holes. The more holes, the better the charcoal will burn (of course, being careful not to destroy the burner!). Taking the time to drill these holes will save you much aggravation in the future and you will be able to make your offerings without being concerned about mundane practicalities.
If you view the charcoal as part of the offering, I suggest placing the cold briquette on the ground at the same place that you make libations. If you libate liquids such as wine or milk and honey, the ground must be turned periodically (about once weekly in the summer) so that air can enter the soil and prevent it from souring. The spent charcoal can also be dug into the libation soil and will have a good effect, reducing the souring of the earth. Every morning place the briquette from last evening's ritual on the libation soil and turn it under with a garden trowel. It takes less than a minute. In a couple months, the soil will become more fragrant. I would also recommend the addition of organic material to this special area where you make libations and place the spent charcoal briquettes. The organic material (powdered laurel leaves are superb) and the turning of the soul will create a very healthy soil and one with a pleasant fragrance.
If you view the charcoal as not actually part of the offering, but merely a vehicle, you could wrap it nicely in a paper towel and respectfully dispose of it.
Miscellaneous help with incense
If the resin incense that you are using consists of very large tears, it may be necessary to break these tears into smaller chunks or even powder them. They will burn through much better if powdered in any case. For most resins, it is a mistake to put them into a blender. The great majority of resins, frankincense, myrrh and benzoin included, are extremely sticky when broken up. For many of these, there is no elegant solution. The best method I have found is to use a mortar and pestle. Do not use a set made of wood, but use one made of stone, brass or glass.
Some resins, crystalline, but still rather sticky, will powder in a mortar and pestle, but then you may find that the powdered resin semi-solidifies in the storage jar and is difficult to remove for use. One such resin is Maydi frankincense. Maydi does not actually require powdering to burn easily, but it is sticky enough to make it difficult to work with. I crush it to a powder in the mortar and pestle and mix it with powdered olibanum, which is rather dry. Using this same principle, you can usually find a good solution to almost any resin.
After crushing resin, you will find that much of it is stuck to the tools. Most resins are not soluble in water or even alcohol. The best solution I have found, again, is to purchase a tin of acetone from the hardware store. Acetone will very easily remove any resin particles. It is an extremely useful cleaner to have in your home in any case. But keep in mind that acetone is highly flammable, so exercise caution.
Semi-soft resins and gums, such as elemi, galbanum, or labdanum, can be difficult to work with because they never fully harden, are tacky, and get stuck to your fingers.
One technique is to store them in foil or wax paper in the freezer. This will harden them making it easier to break off a piece.
Some of these semi-soft resins and gums combine well with other types of incense and you can take advantage of that. For instance, benzoin Sumatra (not Siam) tends to be quite dry and is easily powdered. You can roll a semi-soft resin in the benzoin powder to make little balls of incense for future use.
Another method: take a wooden toothpick and push it into labdanum or galbanum. Twist the toothpick around, almost as if you were gathering up spaghetti. When you have as much on the toothpick as you desire, start pulling it out while continuing to twist the toothpick. Now roll this in benzoin powder or similar. Rolling it in frankincense/olibanum powder works particularly well (available here: PennHerb, be sure you order "powdered"). Rolling labdanum in powdered rose petals or powdered sandalwood is a very lovely offering for female deities. Once you have coated the resin or gum with powdered incense, you can ease it off with another toothpick, or even cut off most of the toothpick if you like, what remains of the wood will burn away.
Clean-up: Resins and gums, in particular, tend to be very sticky. Their residue is not so easily removed. Acquire a tin of acetone to clean both the burner and also the mortar and pestle. You can obtain this at any hardware store. Acetone is extremely flammable, so exercise caution. Please take note that acetone melts most plastics.
You will also discover that in due time the smoke will leave a shiny, varnish-like coating on your walls (incense resins have been used as varnish for centuries), particularly close by the incense burner. This is an unavoidable by-product that you will need to endure if you desire to make fine incense offerings. Very careful use of acetone will remove the resin, but the acetone also removes wall-paint, usually not all at once, but after a number of applications. With acetone, particularly when the area is viewed from a distance, you can improve the darker areas around the incense burner. The reality is clear, however, that periodically you will need to re-paint the walls, but this takes some years to develop.
Using Incense in Ritual
In Hellenic religion we honor all the Gods, in particular the Olympian Gods. If you use the Orphic Hymns, there is an incense that is recommended for all the principle deities. However, if you make an incense offering for each God, it could become quite complicated. Therefore, I suggest that you prepare a libation as a general offering for the entire pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, and incense offerings as follows: Acquire some tiny recepticles to have the incense ready for the right time in the ritual. I use little saki-cups. For any given ritual I prepare one saki-cup with incense offerings for Hestia, Hera, and Zeus (a small pinch each). Another cup with offerings for the deity who rules the current Hellenic Zodiacal Calender and his or her Divine Consort. And I will have a third cup for the deity being honored on this particular day. There is no general rule, but you can easily go overboard and have endless offerings, eventually making ritual into a burden.
These are only suggestions and it should be remembered that in the Hellenic tradition we do not have a rule-book; you have freedom to use your own judgment.
Essays on various incense:
Benzoin - see Storax
The following types of incense are requested in the Orphic Hymns:
Frankincense (Gr. libanon, λίβανον) - 32 times (if you include Erinyes, the Furies, which adds storax also). Sometimes the text asks for manna (Gr. manna, μάννᾰ), livonomanna (Gr. livanomannan, λιβανομάνναν), or manna livanou (Gr. μάννα λιβάνου). The translator Apostolos Athanassakis translates all of these as forms of frankincense. Thomas Taylor, another translator, takes a more cautious approach and does not translate the term. The list below includes the manna listings. To gain a more thorough understanding of the issues surrounding the word "manna," visit this page: ΜΆΝΝᾸ.
Ares = (Taylor) Mercury
Artemis = (Taylor) Diana [manna]
Astrapaios Zeus = (Taylor) Jove, as the Author of Lightning [livanomanna]
Boreas = (Taylor) North Wind
Dawn- = (Taylor) Aurora [manna]
Erinyes [manna + storax]
Hephaistos = (Taylor) Vulcan [livanomanna]
Hygeia = (Taylor) Health [manna]
Liknites Dionysos [manna]
Notos = (Taylor) South Wind
Silenos, Satyros, and the Bacchai [manna]
Tyche = (Taylor) Fortune
Zephyros = (Taylor) West Wind
Aromatic Herbs (Gr. aromata, ἀρώματα) - 22 times (23 if you include To the Furies LXVIII)
Athena = (Taylor) Pallas
Dream = (Taylor) Divinity of Dreams
Eros = (Taylor) Cupid or Love
Eumenides = (Taylor) Furies LXIX
God of the Triennial Feasts = (Taylor) Trietericus
Hestia = (Taylor) Vesta
Horai = (Taylor) Seasons
Mother Antaia = (Taylor) Ceralian Mother
Okeanos = (Taylor) Ocean
Perikionios = (Taylor) Bacchus Pericionius
Physis = (Taylor) Nature
Storax (Gr. stupaka, στύρακα) - 12 times (13 if you include Erinyes, Furies LXVIII, which asks for both storax and frankincense)
Chthonic Hermes = (Taylor) Terrestrial Hermes
Dionysos = (Taylor) Bacchus
Eleusinian Demeter = (Taylor) Ceres
Hipta = (Taylor) Ippa
Zeus the Thunderbolt = (Taylor) Thundering Jove
Myrrh (Gr. smyrnan, σμύρναν) - 5 times
Leto = (Taylor) Latona
Poseidon = (Taylor) Neptune
Et Varia (Gr. poikila, ποικίλα) - twice. Thomas Taylor calls this "The Fumigation from Various Odours."
Mother of the Gods
Crocus (Gr. crokon, κρόκον) - once
To Ether [use saffron, Crocus sativus]
Firebrands (Gr. dalous, δαλούς) - once
Opium Poppy + incense (Gr. thumiama meta mækonos, θυμίαμα μετἁ μήκωνος; thumiama = incense, meta = with, mækonos = poppy) - once
Incense and any grain save beans and aromatic herbs (Gr. thumiama pan sperma plæn kuamon kai aromaton, θυμίαμα πᾶν σπέρμα πλἡν κυάμων καἱ ἀρωμάτων) - once
Incense - all other things save frankincense - a libation of milk, too (Gr. thumiama panta plæn libanou kai spende gala, θυμίαμα πάντα πλἡν λιβάνου και σπένδε γάλα) - once
God of the Annual Feasts = ('Taylor) Amphietus Bacchus
Storax with (powdered) frankincense (Gr. thumiama stupaka kai mannan, θυμίαμα στύρακα καἱ μάνναν) - once
To the Erinyes = (Taylor) To the Furies LXVIII (Taylor suggests aromatics as an offering; perhaps he had a different manuscript)
For aromatic herbs you can use a whole variety of substances. I use chamomile for Hestia, various flower-petals, and woods such as Storax calamitos (black styrax bark) and sandalwood. I have heard of people using nutmeg and cinnamon. No-one actually knows exactly what was meant by "aromatic herbs," therefore, the point is to find pleasant things that you may feel the deity likes or things that may remind you of that deity.
Firebrands is requested in the Orphic hymn To Night for use as an incense offering, as translated by Apostolos N. Athanassakis (The Orphic Hymns, 1977; The Society of Biblical Literature, p.7). Thomas Taylor uses the word "torches." (The Hymns of Orpheus, 1792, p. 115) The actual Greek is dalous (Gr. δαλούς), which would appear to be a form of dalos (Gr. δᾱλός, δ, [δαίω] ), represented by the English word firebrands. (L&S p. 368, left column). Firebrands is defined as a piece of burning wood or other material (The New Century Dictionary of the English Language, 1927, The Century Co./Collier, 1944 edition, p. 575, left column); therefore, perhaps sandalwood, aloes-wood, Storax calamitas (black styrax), or some other fragrant wood would be appropriate as an offering. The text calls for thumiama dalous. Thumiama, θυμίαμα, is a Greek word meaning incense (L&S p. 809, right column, as a sub-heading under θῡμιάζω); therefore, the connotation must be to burn the wood for its fragrance.
Incense of the Americas:
Being that we practice Hellenismos, a traditional offering such as frankincense is appropriate and obvious. However, in the Americas we have access to a number of magnificent native resins, wonderful gifts of nature that make excellent offerings. From Mexico and beyond there are the great copal resins. You will discover quite a variety, visually ranging from white, to translucent yellow, to black. And quite a range of different fragrance.
I would particularly like to make the case for the pinion resin from the Southwest. This pine resin is incredibly fragrant, amazingly so, like perfume, and very different the more ordinary pine incense one smells at Christmastime.
Lexicon entry: θῡμἰἀζω (ed. thumiasdo), = θῡμἰιἀω (ed. thumiiao), Gp.I 2.8.8. θῡμἰαἰνω (ed.thumiaiuo), = θῡμἰιἀω (ed. thumiiao), Gloss. θῡμἰᾱμα (ed. thumiama), Ion. θῡμἰηυα (ed. thumiayua),ατος, τὀ, incense (Greek-English Lexicon by H.G. Liddell and R. Scott, 1843; found in the 1996 edition on p.809)Dictionary entry: Incense, subs. P. and V. θῡμιαμᾰτα (ed. thumiamata), τἀ, V. ἐπῐθῡμιαμᾰτα (ed.epithumiamata), τἀ. Fill with incense, v. trans. V. θειοῦν (ed. theioun) (Eur., Hel. 866). Burn as incense: V. ἐκθῡμιᾶν (ed. ekthumian). Reeking with incense, adj.: V. θυοδὀκος (ed. thuodokos). (English-Greek Dictionary, compiled by S.C. Woodhouse, 1910; found in the 1987 Routledge & Kegan Paul edition on p.427)
Sources of Incense:
Soma Luna has the most complete selection of incense on the Internet, very impressive indeed. When available, they carry the wonderful hojary frankincense, the highest quality, as well as several lower grades. But they have everything you can imagine. http://www.somaluna.com/
Scents of Earth carries the fine Yemen frankincense, very similar to hojary, but a bit less expensive. They currently (2008) have the finest olibanum (Boswellia serrata) available. They have an impressive selection of other resins also. http://www.scents-of-earth.com/
Wood Finishing Enterprises is an unusual source for resins. They supply craftsmen with resin to make varnish for fine furniture and musical instruments. Many of their resins are of equal quality to any available, but at a much more affordable price. One must be careful, however. For instance, the elemi that they sell is not suitable as an offering. http://www.woodfinishingenterprises.com/varnish.html
Antique 968 is an Ebay seller located in Oman. He has access to the finest hojary frankincense at the best price, despite any shipping costs. Unfortunately, sometimes he has no product.
Madeuk, another Ebay seller from Oman, sells high quality hojary frankincense. http://search.ebay.com/_W0QQfgtpZ1QQfrppZ25QQsassZmadeukQQssPageNameZSTRKQ3aMEFSQ3aMESOI
Floracopeia sells a variety of resins, including several grades of frankincense. They notably sell Ogaden frankincense, Boswellia rivae, easy to find as an oil, but difficult to buy as raw resin. Floracopeia also sells the impossible-to-find Hasiki frankincense. http://www.floracopeia.com/index.php
PENNHERB sells many things, but of special interest, they sell powdered frankincense which is specifically called for in several Orphic Hymns and is also useful to help make other sticky resins more easily used (see above Semi-Soft Resins and Gums). It is not so easy to actually powder frankincense.http://www.pennherb.com/cgi-bin/herbstore.cgi/find?;Frankincense
The Labdanum-Creta Blogspot is a great place to learn about the wonderful resin Labdanum. You can purchase Cretan Labdanum through the website. They sell a high-quality product at a lower price. The shipping is reasonable and relatively quick: http://labdanum-shop.blogspot.com/
Sources of Charcoal:
Charcoal is easy to find at incense dealers. Buy a big box. They do not vary too much from one manufacturer to the next, from my experience, with some exceptions.
Sheehan Religious Articles sells the Char-lite Self-Lite Charcoal. This is standard salt-peter encrusted charcoal, but the advantage is the very large size of these briquettes. They are 1-3/4" in diameter. Therefore if you are making many offerings, these may be the ideal choice.
Unaltered natural charcoal is difficult to use for burning incense, but is an excellent choice for burnt offerings, as may be suitable for a larger gathering of people out-of-doors. Visit this page for sources: Burnt Offerings.
Belgian Natural Charcoal - The billow of sparks and smoke that erupts when you light charcoal briquettes is not actually the charcoal, but the "instant-light" additive that helps it to ignite (saltpeter usually). If you want to avoid breathing in the additive, you can try Belgian Natural Charcoal briquettes. This is another form of natural charcoal, except rather than the irregular-shaped branches as in the above-mentioned unaltered natural charcoal, this has been formed into traditional briquettes. This author uses and recommends Belgian Natural Charcoal briquettes. Very little smoke at all. They are hard to light and are more expensive. You need to hold the pieces over fire for a few minutes to get them going. This is a truly superior product. Even their instant-light type is superior, both types very dense and the burn time is long:
Koh-Doh Cup Charcoal - You can find briquettes made in Japan that do not have an additive. This is extremely clean-burning, high-quality charcoal, but the briquettes are very small, too small, in my opinion for incense burners. They measure approximately 5/8" across and the top is not indented as in other briquettes, making it difficult to place the incense squarely on the charcoal. I cannot recommend them for burning incense. They are appropriate for Koh-Doh cups, ceremonial Japanese diffusers using a mica plate. They could be experimented with for people who have problems with the regular method of burning incense. See this article: http://www.sensia.com/kohdoh.htm
 Plato's Symposium 202-203, translated by Benjamin Jowett, 1892; found in the 1937 Random House edition of The Dialogues of Plato, Vol. I, p.328.
 To clarify this statement, within a religious context, the correct use of incense would be an offering to Gods. When not used specifically for religious purposes, these substances are appropriate for medicine or various other applications including simply for enjoyment. In ancient times, incense would also be used to fumigate ritual space when blood sacrifice was performed, in order to mask unpleasant odors, a practical thing. But the idea I am trying to convey is that when we employ incense in ritual, it is not an empty artifice utilized merely for drama or for one's amusement; it is a gift to the Gods and therefore becomes sacred. This is not to say that we should somehow refrain from enjoying the fragrance, only to point out that this enjoyment is serendipitous and should not be the motive for using it in ritual. Outside of ritual, it is appropriate for more mundane uses."Incense is for the Gods, but praise to good men." (Pythagorean saying preserved by Stobaeus)
 Or they cut off the resin impregnated beards of the goats. There is another method of collecting labdanum using a tool called the ladanestirio. This is a rake-like instrument that has many leather straps at the further end. The farmer usually waits until the hottest time of the day and drags the ladanestirio through the bushes, gathering the resin. When a sufficient quantity is gathered on the straps, it is scraped off.
PLEASE NOTE: Throughout the pages of this website, you will find fascinating stories about our Gods. These narratives are known as mythology, the traditional stories of the Gods and Heroes. While these tales are great mystical vehicles containing transcendent truth, they are symbolic and should not be taken literally. A literal reading will frequently yield an erroneous result. The meaning of the myths is concealed in code. To understand them requires a key. For instance, when a God kills someone, this usually means a transformation of the soul to a higher level. Similarly, sexual union with a God is a transformation.
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