Incense burner

censer

Materials: brass, enamel paint
Dimensions: 14.5 centimeters high
Place acquired: charity shop, London
Place of manufacture: Greece

Smoke is visible, and rises into the sky. Materials burn with a characteristic smell. Smells are culturally evocative, and highly memorable. If we join these facts together we get what seems to be the reason for the very widespread use of incense in human rituals. Most religious practice, stretching right back to the beginning of recorded history, and you can imagine much further back still, have made use of fire, smoke and smell. It is a spiritual metaphor, an aid to worship, but also perhaps it is a powerful psychological marker of sacred space.

Take this little brass egg-shaped censer. It is from the Greek Orthodox Christian tradition of incense burning. This one is designed for domestic use and has a hinged lid. Inside the bowl solid ignited material can be placed – charcoal infused with fragrant oils, or chunks of resin or frankincense – and when closed the scented smoke escapes through the holes at the top. If you search Greek Orthodox websites for information on the use of incense in worship, the main explanation tends to centre around the idea of visual metaphor. The smoke is seen to rise up to heaven, just as we wish our prayers to do. Or in some versions the smoke is the very vehicle that carries the prayers to God. In other religious traditions incense is explained differently, as a method of purification, a sacrificial tribute to deities, or even as the magical synthesis of the four elements earth, water, fire and air.

What is not mentioned in religious sources is what we might call the neuro-psychological aspect of odour. Smell is powerfully memorable and evocative for us. A whiff of camphorated oil, for instance, transports me straight back to my bedroom as a child, my mother rubbing it on my chest to clear my cold-stuffed nose. The smell of camphor has become ‘fixed’ for me as a marker for childhood illness and for maternal care. We all have countless smell associations that we have built up throughout our lives. The religious use of incense clearly works like this too. Religions don’t just burn any old smell. Invariably there is a rigid recipe, sometimes written down in scriptures, that is used for ceremony and for nothing else. The smell of burning incense becomes fixed for the believer. Just as with the other senses – the sights and sounds of worship – the smell becomes part of the sensory threshold that marks out the time and the place for sacred activity. 

It also, of course, masks the smell of many bodies gathered in a confined space, which may be yet another practical reason for using incense in places of  worship.