Sweet smoke swirls through an old library, mingling with the scent of pipe tobacco, worn leather, and soft paper decaying into velvet. In the forest beyond, censers are alight with glowing resins, their tendrils of smoke twisting through the trees to sanctify a dark ritual. The intoxicating power of incense shakes us free from the physical world, transports us to ethereal spaces, and returns us to sacred earth. Many a darkling has experienced this magic, but what is the source of its transformative power? Join me in the circle of smoke and fire, and discover the occult history of incense.
Incense smoke has long been associated with the propitiation of gods and the summoning of spirits. In ancient Mesopotamia, numerous deities rose in a hierarchical fashion, from domestic guardians at the bottom to cosmic gods at the very top. Entities such as Shamash, the lord of sun and law, and Mother Ishtar, goddess of fertility, love and war, swirled invisibly through the air, rested on mountaintops, and ascended into the ethereal night sky. They might also descend to earth in corporeal form to demand sex and wreak havoc. As poor Gilgamesh discovered late one evening, if Ishtar enters your house and commands you to surrender the “seed of your loins,” you had best comply.
In an effort to both honor and appease these capricious gods, Mesopotamian priests burnt offerings that included the right thigh of a sacred bull and resin incense such as galbanum and cinnamon. From the tops of ziggurats and lesser temples, the scent of sacrifices rose through the air on billowing smoke, calling the cosmic gods down from the heavens to feast. This is not a metaphor. Mesopotamian gods fed on these sacrifices and consumed smoke as food. Without offerings of sweet smoke, they might die.
“I offered incense in front of the mountain-ziggurat.
Seven and seven cult vessels I put in place
and into the fire… I poured
reeds, cedar, and myrtle.
The gods smelled the savor
the gods smelled the sweet savor,
and collected like flies over a sacrifice.”
(Tablet XI, Epic of Gilgamesh, a correlate of the Atrahasis and much earlier Eridu flood text from the third millennium, BCE.)
Smoke floats. Its ability to hang lithely in the air and ascend into the heavens makes it an ideal conduit for engaging with the divine. Smoke not only rises up, but also draws invisible entities down to earth. For this reason, Mesopotamian priests and physicians—almost always the same person—studied incense smoke patterns as a form of divination and prognosis. Incense was compounded into medicinal recipes and burnt as a means of cleansing the patient’s body. Just as sweet smoke might sanctify a temple and purify a home, so too might it cleanse a suffering body and restore it to health. In the case of death, incense was burnt not only to mask the smell of decay, but also to accompany the spirit of the deceased to the afterlife, a world of shadows called the “House of Dust.”
A Christian Conundrum
In ancient Rome—as in Egypt, Greece, Axum, and Etruria—incense remained a means of honoring the divine. Walk with me down the stony streets of Augustan Rome and smell the incense wafting from its myriad temples. Not only Jupiter and Mars are savoring burnt offerings, but also Isis and Osiris, Mithras, and Cybele—the great Anatolian Mother Goddess recast in various forms across time and space. Blood is spilled, incense burnt, and gods appeased.
The early Christian church emerged from this glorious temple culture and soon defined itself against it. Because the burning of incense was so deeply intertwined with the supplication of pagan gods and deified Roman emperors, the use of incense in Christian liturgy was debated by Church fathers. By the fifth century CE, however, incense had been incorporated into Roman Christian ritual—a practice shared with the churches of the Greek east. In the context of liturgy, sweetly scented smoke was no longer a physical sacrifice to pagan gods, but a metaphysical prayer ascending into a far distant heaven packed with saints and martyrs. In daily life, frankincense, myrrh and cassia continued to be burned for medicinal purposes, while perfumed incense was burned to freshen the home and freshly washed linens. Intention was everything.
In the medieval Church, incense was burnt in thuribles swung by thurifers. Sweet smoke rose through Gothic cathedrals, swirled through light that streamed through colored glass, and penetrated every stone and wooden pew. Its primary function was to sanctify space and prepare it for Christ’s descent into the Eucharist and into the people who would soon consume the holy bread. Nowhere was the purifying power of incense more evident than in the ritual of exorcism. Frankincense was burned and the smoke blown onto the afflicted, at once drawing Christ into the body and drawing the demon out. Despite loving the smell of sulfur, excrement, and the other ichthyic smells associated with the bowels, demons and Satan found incense smoke irresistible—much like other ancient spirits.
The medieval Church sought to banish demons. During the Renaissance, however, occult scholars drew demons out of the earth for use in spells designed to control the hidden forces of nature. Demons were fallen angels, after all, and had retained their essential intelligence. They were not all-powerful, but had been trapped in this physical realm for millennia. During that time, they had mastered their control over the four elements. Using newly recovered magical texts from the Greco-Arabic world, the Renaissance magus conjured demons with magic circles, sigils, and incense offerings.
Reverent Neoplatonists such as Marsilio Ficino and Francesco Diacceto performed their magic in rooms alive with incense made from “solar plants.” Necromancers, on the other hand, drew demons using foul-smelling incense of pitch, sulfur, or Asafoetida—also known as teufelsdreck, or “Devil’s turd.” A later occult grimoire, The Lesser Key of Solomon, correlates different classes of Goetic demons with incense offerings. Astaroth, for example, is a king of the earth and prefers to be summoned with frankincense. Messages were sometimes communicated through thurisumaria—divinatory readings of incense smoke. Fire and smoke retained their ancient power to draw down invisible entities, but the act was no longer one of fearful supplication—it was one of brazen power.
Today, the sweet smoke of incense continues to work its ancient magic. It envelops us in a glorious unseen world of spirits and demons, gods and goddesses. It sanctifies our bodies, soothes our spirits, and transforms our houses into places of fragrant wonder, much like Calypso’s cave in the Odyssey.
“A great fire was burning on the hearth, and from afar over the isle there was a fragrance of cleft cedar and juniper, as they burned; but she within was singing with a sweet voice as she went to and fro before the loom, weaving with a golden shuttle.” (Book X, lines 59-60)
Fire and sweet smoke call us back to an ancient world alive with wonder and in touch with deep magic. Burning incense reminds us that this green earth remains enchanted and that we are stardust after all—carbon and light as old as time. Tonight, in the gloaming, turn off the lights. Power down your devices. Light a candle and burn some incense. Watch its smoke swirl as the world beyond your window turns from blue to black. What will the smoke whisper to you in the silence? Intention is everything.