Found in many religions dating back to antiquity, incense is an ancient ritual tool that draws on the aromatic powers of herbs, spices, oils, resins, and tree barks to create a sacred atmosphere and a state of mind conducive to communing with the spirit world. Representing the element of Air (and in some traditions, the element of Fire), incense is considered to be a core component of Wiccan ritual, and is also often used as an adjunct to magic.
Ritual traditions and incense magic
The most traditional way to use incense in ritual is to place a loose blend of dried herbs and/or resin granules in a censer. The censer may be hung from chains, like those used in the Catholic church, and carried around the circle as it is cast, and/or set to one side of the Wiccan altar to burn throughout the ritual proceedings. Alternatively, some Wiccans like to use a small cauldron as their censer, which harkens back to prior centuries.
Because loose incense can be somewhat labor intensive—requiring charcoal and a heat-proof dish of some sort—many people opt to use incense sticks or cones, which still require holders but involve less preparation and a somewhat lower risk of fire. If you’re just starting out, this simpler approach may be the way to go, but do yourself a favor and try loose incense at some point in your practice—its enhancement of ritual energy is really quite delightful!
In addition to burning during formal Wiccan ritual, incense is also used as an offering, and may be placed before images of deities in a permanent shrine. It is also often burned during spellwork, as the scented smoke can facilitate an ideal state of mind—both focused and relaxed—for working successful magic. Furthermore, most herbs, spices, barks, and roots have specific magical qualities, which can be matched with the purpose of the spellwork.
Some people also like to use the smoke from the incense as a sort of scrying tool, watching for images of the deities being invoked in ritual or other pictorial messages that might come through. Depending on the specific ingredients of the incense, the smoke may also be used to purify ritual tools and other magical items.
Which incense is best for you?
Many different kinds of incense are becoming increasingly widely available, not just in New Age shops but in many other places as well, including some grocery stores! Some brands burn more cleanly than others, however. Always read the label on any incense you’re considering purchasing and watch out for any synthetic fragrances. Give the box a good sniff before purchasing—even though the smell of the smoke will be somewhat different from the smell of the incense itself, you can bet that if you don’t like the scent of the package, you won’t like what’s inside!
Exploring new types of incense can be a delightful way to keep your practice dynamic long after you have the ritual “basics” established. Eventually, you may even wish to make your own incense using your favorite ingredients! But if you’re highly sensitive to smoke of any kind, don’t worry. You can use essential oils on candles or in a diffuser to create a similar aromatic effect without triggering allergies, asthma, or other health issues. Whatever you choose, however, it’s generally agreed that some form of aromatic enhancement is optimal for ritual and magical work. After all, few things have more impact on our energetic state than our sense of smell!