Its midnight, a full moon sails tirelessly overhead in the clear starlit autumn sky. A light breeze whispers through Ash Trees surrounding the Sacred Stone Circle. Poplar leaves dance like a hundred silver jewels upon the branch and there is electricity in the air. Before me stands the rear stone of the burial mound, like a wall of granite and in between us stands a humble Stang carved from the same trees that surround this sacred space. At the foot of the World Tree stands a small fired clay dish, glowing dimly in the darkness. Apart from the occasional hoot of a distant owl, and the gentle rustle of leaves it is completely silent. All I can hear is the sound of my own slow steady breath. I pause, take a moment, focus and then untie a small leather pouch, pull it open and reach in with thumb and finger. With a whispered prayer I allow the contents to fall upon the glowing coals within the dish. A plume of smoke rises almost instantly, whipping around my feet and climbing the stang like the great serpent itself…and expading as it climbs until it fills each nostril. Frankincense…midnight Mass with my Grandmother, Dragons Blood…Oak Moss…the musty scent of Old Hornie. It excites me and continues climbing upwards until finally being carried up invisibly into the night sky. Another pinch of the sacred powder, another vast plume rises, I sway gently with the breeze and the heady aroma carries me upwards towards the pale moon spinning swirling becoming one with the air, the breeze..and all the wisdom carried upon it.
This piece of fiction written for the benefit of this blog exemplifies to me not only how simple ritual can be but also why I adore the use of Incense! The sensuality, the atmosphere and the magic carried on the sacred smoke has yet to be surpassed by anything (perhaps with the exception of its cousin….the great big Bonfire!).
I love working with herbs, I love anything which stimulates my senses and I love anything mildly dramatic which evokes a sense of occasion so its only natural that I should love grinding herbs and resins and launching them gayly unto smouldering coals and watching the wisps and plumes slither and rise into the heavens whilst stimulating my sense of smell at the same time. Nothing can evoke memories as quickly and effectively as a smell in my humble opinion, its one of the most potent and probably the most taken for granted sense we posses (after intuition!)
There are a number of forms of incense available these days from the good ol’ hippy Joss Stick, to self igniting Incense Cones, loose grain incense and pellets or just roots and barks on their own.
I make use of all of them as all of them serve a useful function. Joss sticks are great for sticking in the soil and they are portable and come in a vast array of fragrances. Cones are similar although tend to burn faster and release their fragrance quicker. I find cones (and sticks) useful on indoor shrines as they don’t smog out the house and I find lighting a whole charcoal disk for a small smelly offering somewhat wasteful. Sticks and Cones have drawbacks too however. Firstly its very hard to know whats in them, most stick and cone varieties are loaded with salt peter and sawdust bound with fragrance oils (I.e. there aint much natural there). This has been known to set off allergies in a lot of people and lets face it, what kind of offering is burning sawdust? There are some brands out there which are better, I love Nag Champa and I have found some incense sticks used in the buddhist monasteries (which I bought in China) which were superb and burnt very slowly. You can usually tell as they don’t produce dense thick white plumes of smoke and the fragrance tends to be more subtle, more delicate. But don’t be put off by that…like I said Cone and Stick incense has a valuable place in 21st Century Witchcraft. And don’t forget with a little reasearch and skill its entirely possible to make your own self igniting incense! (More on that in another blog!)
Another form of Incense I make use of is Pellet form. I only recently discovered this and if I’m 100% honest I have no idea how its made (yet!) but I discovered it on my recent trip to Walsingham Abbey. It seems this form is used extensively in churches so I use the variety I purchased (Called ‘Walsingham Rose’ which smells DIVINE!) exclusively as an offatory incense in workings involving Our Lady. This form seems to bubble and sizzle in a rather satisfying manner but you get a lot of smell for your penny and it lasts for ages!
Certain roots and barks are especially good burnt on their own, like Osha Root which has a very distinctive unforgettable smell. I was introduced to this stuff by an Old Shamanic Practitioner in Somerset and even now the smell brings back memories of his tiny little cottage. Again I use this as an offatory incense only and its a bit like Marmite…you will either love it or hate it. This particular root has other benefits to being burnt especially indoors, but ill save that for another time!
The final form of Incense is probably the favorite of most witches, genuine, home crafted, home ground granular loose incense. The best and most versatile of them all. With this incense the world really is you thurible and I can quite happily while away the hours in front of my herb cupboard and a glowing Charcoal disk.
It’s a daunting subject to new comers however so I would like to offer you some tips and things I have found work especially well, at least until confidence is gained
1.) Decide what you are making incense for, even if it’s just something that smells nice that’s still a purpose. Keep your goal clear and always in the forefront of your mind.
2.) Start simple. Some incense recipes are complex (like Egyptian Kyphi for example which can have up to 16 components). For a starter incense keep it to a maximum of 5 to start of with.
3.) Dont make life hard for yourself, we live in the 21st century. No one expects you to sweat and struggle, pounding endlessly over a pestle and mortar. Use whats available to you, but don’t be lazy, grinding incense by hand imbues the ingredients with power and energy.
4.) For starter blends, have a high proportion of resins (Frankincense, Dragon’s Blood, myrrh, Pine Resin etc). These act as carriers (a bit like some oils act as carrier oils in aromatherapy). They will help bind your other ingredients and stop them burning away too fast.
5.) Be patient. When your incense is blended, keep it in a jar in the dark for a while, shaking regularly which will allow the scents to mingle and mature. Plus regular handling and shaking gets more energy into the mix!
6.) Work with the natural rhythms, I like to start a new incense on the dark of the moon and leave it ‘Hibernating’ untill the moon is full and there’s no better excuse to burn a new incense for the first time.
7.) There are hundreds of sources of herbal info out there. Find one that’s easy for you to follow, open your herb cupboard and work with what you have. If you don’t have something go out and try to source it from your local environment. You can build your collection up over time of course.
8.) When you have decided what herbs and resins you want to use fire up a coal briquette and add your herbs one at a time. Start with the resins, if you like mix another ingredient, chuck it on the coal and see how that smells. Keep going like this and Voila!! One incense recipe.
9.) Not all incense will smell nice so don’t expect every incense too, banishing incense for example is generally made up of particularly unpleasant and stinky ingredients!
10.) You dont have to use herbs only…experiment with dried fruits and other natural ingredients like special soil, bone, ash from sacred fires, even blood!
11.) Finally…KEEP NOTES!!! (You will regret it if you don’t!)
So, to get you started here is a simple incense recipe I am happy to share. Its one I created a while ago….enjoy.
2 Parts Frankincense
2 Parts Juniper Berries
1 Part Pine Resin
1 Part Oak Bark
1 Part Yarrow
Liquid Oak Moss Resin
Grind all the dry ingredients together into a fine powder. Add the Oak Moss drop by drop until the incense starts to bind. Roll into pea sized pellets. Jar and leave for a month to mature. Burn to Honor Old Hornie!