AskDefine | Define incense

Dictionary Definition



1 a substance that produces a fragrant odor when burned
2 the pleasing scent produced when incense is burned; "incense filled the room"


1 perfume especially with a censer [syn: cense, thurify]
2 make furious [syn: infuriate, exasperate]

User Contributed Dictionary



  • ĭn'sĕns, /ˈɪnsɛns/, /"InsEns/


incense (uncountable)
  1. A perfume often used in the rites of various religions.



  • ĭnsĕns', /ɪnˈsɛns/, /In"sEns/


  1. To anger or infuriate.
    I think it would incense him to learn the truth.


anger, infuriate

Extensive Definition

Incense is composed of aromatic biotic materials. It releases fragrant smoke when burned. The term incense refers to the substance itself, rather than to the odor that it produces.
Many religious ceremonies and spiritual purificatory rites employ incense, a practice that persists to this day. Incense is also used in medicine and for its aesthetic value. The forms taken by incense have changed with advances in technology, differences in the underlying culture, and diversity in the reasons for burning it.

History of incense

Composition of incense

Throughout history, a wide variety of materials have been used in making incense. Historically there has been a preference for using locally available ingredients. For example: sage and cedar were used by the indigenous peoples of North America. This was a preference and ancient trading in incense materials from one area to another comprised a major part of commerce along the Silk Road and other trade routes, one notably called The Frankincense Trail.
The same could be said for the techniques used to make incense. Local knowledge and tools were extremely influential on the style, but methods were also influenced by migrations of foreigners, among them clergy and physicians who were both familiar with incense arts. In Japan a similar censer called a is used by several Buddhist sects. The egōro is usually made of brass with a long ) and no chain. Instead of charcoal, makkō powder is poured into a depression made in a bed of ash. The makkō is lit and the incense mixture is burned on top. This method is known as Sonae-kō (Religous Burning).
The best known incense materials of this type, at least in the West, are frankincense and myrrh, likely due to their numerous mentions in the Christian Bible. In fact, the word for "frankincense" in many European languages also alludes to any form of incense.
  • Whole: The incense material is burned directly in its raw unprocessed form on top of coal embers.
  • Powdered or granulated: The incense material is broken down into finer bits. This incense burns quickly and provides a short period of intense smells.
  • Paste: The powdered or granulated incense material is mixed with a sticky and incombustible binder, such as dried fruit, honey, or a soft resin and then formed to balls or small cakes. These may then be allowed to mature in a controlled environment where the fragrances can commingle and unite. Much Arabian incense, also called Bukhoor or Bakhoor, is of this type, and Japan has a history of kneaded incense, called nerikō or awasekō, using this method.
  • Recombined: Within the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition raw frankincense is ground into a fine powder and then mixed with various sweet smelling essential oils. Floral fragrances are the most common (rose being among the most popular), but citrus such as lemon is not uncommon. The incense mixture is then rolled out into a slab approximately ¼” thick and allowed to dry for a week or so, until the slab is quite firm. It is then cut into small pieces resembling in many ways, the original raw frankincense. For use, one or two pieces at a time are placed on a hot coal inside a censer which is swung by the priest in order to venerate the altar, the icons, the clergy and the congregation during church services. To the Orthodox, incense represents the prayers of the faithful rising to heaven.

Direct burning

Direct burning incense also called combustible incense, , generally requires little preparation prior to its use. When lit directly by a flame (hence the appellation) and then fanned out, the glowing ember on the incense will continue to smolder and burn away the rest of the incense without continued application of heat or flame from an outside source. This class of incense is made from a moldable substrate of fragrant finely ground (or liquid) incense materials and odorless binder. The composition must be adjusted to provide fragrance in the proper concentration and to ensure even burning. The following types of direct burning incense are commonly encountered, though the material itself can take virtually any form, according to expediency or whimsy:
  • Coil: Shaped into a coil, the incense is able to burn for an extended period; from hours to days.
  • Cone: Incense in this form burns relatively fast. Cone incense containing mugwort are used in Traditional Chinese medicine for moxibustion treatment.
  • Cored stick: This form of stick incense has a supporting core of bamboo. Higher quality varieties of this form have fragrant sandalwood cores. The core is coated by a thick layer of incense material that burns away with the core. This type of incense is commonly produced by the Indians and the Chinese. When used for worship in Chinese folk religion, cored incensed sticks are sometimes known as Joss sticks.
  • Solid stick: This stick incense has no supporting core and is completely made of incense material. Easily broken into pieces, it allows one to determine the specific amount of incense they wish to burn. This is the most commonly produced form of incense in Japan and Tibet.
  • Dipped or Hand-dipped: This form simply dips Incense Blanks in any kind of essential or fragrance oil. It was made popular in American Flea markets by vendors who wanted their own style.
Direct burning incense of these forms is either extruded, pressed into forms, or coated onto a supporting material.
With extruded or pressed incense using water soluable binders like makko (抹香・末香).
Incense made from materials such as citronella can repel mosquitoes and other aggravating, distracting or pestilential insects. This use has been deployed in concert with religious uses by Zen Buddhists who claim that the incense that is part of their meditative practice is designed to keep bothersome insects from distracting the practitioner.
Incense is also used often by people who smoke indoors, and do not want the scent to linger.

Aesthetic use of incense

Incense can be, like art for the eyes, music for the ears, or fine cuisine for the palate, an indulgence for the sense of smell. Many people burn incense to appreciate its smell, without assigning any other specific significance to it, in the same way that the forgoing items can be produced or consumed solely for the contemplation or enjoyment of the refined sensory experience. This use is perhaps best exemplified in the , where (frequently costly) raw incense materials such as agarwood are appreciated in a formalised setting. Also, it is considered by some to be an aphrodisiac.

Religious use of incense

Use of incense in religion is prevalent in many cultures and may have their roots in the practical and aesthetic uses considering that many religions with not much else in common all use incense. One common motif is of incense as a form of sacrificial offering to a deity.

Incense and health

Research into the effects of incense burning and health are unclear at this time.
Research carried out in Taiwan in 2001 linked the burning of incense sticks to the slow accumulation of potential carcinogens in a poorly ventilated environment by measuring the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (including benzopyrene) within Buddhist temples. The study found gaseous aliphatic aldehydes, which are carcinogenic and mutagenic, in incense smoke.
A survey of risk factors for lung cancer, also conducted in Taiwan, noted an inverse association between incense burning and adenocarcinoma of the lung, though the finding was not deemed significant.
In contrast, a study by several Asian Cancer Research Centers showed: "No association was found between exposure to incense burning and respiratory symptoms like chronic cough, chronic sputum, chronic bronchitis, runny nose, wheezing, asthma, allergic rhinitis, or pneumonia among the three populations studied: i.e. primary school children, their non-smoking mothers, or a group of older non-smoking female controls. Incense burning did not affect lung cancer risk among non-smokers, but it significantly reduced risk among smokers, even after adjusting for lifetime smoking amount." However, the researchers qualified the findings by noting that incense burning in the studied population was associated with certain low-cancer-risk dietary habits, and concluded that "diet can be a significant confounder of epidemiological studies on air pollution and respiratory health."
Boswellia incense has been shown to cause antidepressive behavior in mice.


  • Silvio A. Bedini. (1994). "The Trail of Time : Time Measurement with Incense in East Asia". Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-37482-0
incense in Catalan: Encens
incense in Czech: Kadidlo
incense in German: Räucherwerk
incense in Spanish: Incienso
incense in Esperanto: Incenso
incense in French: Encens
incense in Indonesian: Dupa
incense in Italian: Incenso
incense in Hebrew: קטורת
incense in Lithuanian: Smilkalai
incense in Dutch: Wierook
incense in Japanese: 線香
incense in Norwegian: Røkelse
incense in Occitan (post 1500): Encés
incense in Polish: Kadzidło
incense in Portuguese: Incenso
incense in Russian: Фимиам
incense in Slovenian: Kadilo
incense in Finnish: Suitsuke
incense in Swedish: Rökelse
incense in Tamil: ஊதுபத்தி
incense in Vietnamese: Hương (tế lễ)
incense in Chinese: 香

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

adulation, agalloch, agape, aggravate, agitate, aloeswood, annoy, aroma, aromatize, arouse, asperges, aspersion, auricular confession, awake, awaken, balminess, bar mitzvah, bas mitzvah, blandishment, blandness, blarney, blow the coals, blow up, bouquet, bristle, bunkum, burnt offering, butter, cajolement, cajolery, calambac, call forth, call up, celebration, cense, chafe, circumcision, collection, compliment, confession, confirmation, drink offering, embalm, embitter, enkindle, enrage, ex voto offering, exasperate, excite, eyewash, fair words, fan, fan the fire, fan the flame, fawning, feed the fire, ferment, fire, flame, flattery, foment, fragrance, fragrancy, frankincense, frenzy, fret, fruitiness, fulsomeness, fumigate, glibness, grease, heat, heat up, heave offering, hecatomb, high celebration, holocaust, honeyed phrases, honeyed words, huff, human sacrifice, immolation, impassion, incite, infanticide, inflame, infuriate, instigate, invocation, invocation of saints, ire, irritate, joss stick, key up, kindle, kiss of peace, lather up, lesser litany, libation, light the fuse, light up, lignaloes, linaloa, litany, love feast, lustration, mactation, mad, madden, miff, move, muskiness, nettle, nosegay, oblation, odor, odorize, offering, offertory, oil, oiliness, olibanum, overexcite, palaver, pastille, pax, peace offering, peeve, perfume, piacular offering, pique, praise, pretty lies, processional, provoke, put up to, rally, rankle, reciting the rosary, redolence, rile, roil, rouse, ruffle, sacramental offering, sacrifice, sandalwood, scapegoat, scent, self-immolation, self-sacrifice, set astir, set fire to, set on, set on fire, set up, sic on, smoothness, smugness, soap, soft soap, soft words, spice, spiciness, steam up, stir, stir the blood, stir the embers, stir the feelings, stir up, suaveness, suavity, summon up, suttee, sutteeism, sweet nothings, sweet savor, sweet smell, sweet talk, sweet words, sycophancy, telling of beads, thank offering, the confessional, the confessionary, thurify, tickle, turn on, umbrage, unctuousness, vex, votive offering, wake, wake up, waken, warm, warm the blood, wheedling, whet, whip up, whole offering, work into, work up
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