The historical use of incense in ancient Rome
In Roman polytheism the use of incense in ritual offerings is deeply entrenched. The Etruscans, who had a profound impact on Roman religion, are known to have used incense since at least as early as the 6th century BCE, while in nearby Greece Homer (circa 850 BCE) mentioned offerings of incense being made to Aphrodite at her temple in Cyprus. In keeping with the traditions instituted by Numa, an early Roman king renowned for his piety, the most traditional offerings were made of “flour, drink-offerings, and the least costly gifts” (Plutarch, The Life of Numa), thus spelt, bread, specially prepared sacrificial cakes (often sweetened with honey), wine, milk, flowers and local herbs. Of these latter ingredients early forms of incense would have been made, simply by placing them on burning charcoal, as was the usual practice for burning incense in the ancient world. By the imperial age Rome’s trading ties stretched far and wide and exotic goods from the east were added to the list of popular offerings (Ovid, Fasti, Jan 9), but by far the most popular of all was frankincense.
The acerra (incense box) was a key ritual item for ancient Romans and it is clear that frankincense, along with other kinds of imported incense, such as cinnamon, myrrh and nard, was used in abundance throughout the imperial age. In an earlier age the vegetarian philosopher Pythagoras, who emigrated to Italy in circa 532 BCE, recommended burning frankincense in honour of the Gods instead of performing animal sacrifice – due its costliness in Europe burning frankincense at this time would have been no less grand than animal sacrifice. By the imperial age, due to unprecedentedly sophisticated trade routes, the cost of frankincense had dropped substantially. At the height of its trade it is estimated that well over a million kilograms of frankincense was imported into the Roman empire from the Arabian peninsula every year. The discovery of frankincense in Roman era burials as far west as Britain is testimony to just how pervasive the use of frankincense was. Two thousand years ago, it seems that frankincense was to Arabs what oil has become in our own age – a major source of trade and wealth, due to the popularity of its use in religious rituals from Persia to Britain. Unfortunately, with the rise of Christianity and subsequent banning of Pagan rites in the late 4th century the use of frankincense declined substantially, for no longer could people make offerings of incense at their household and local shrines. Thus, despite the fact that incense was also used in Christian ritual, the trade and use of incense in Europe dwindled considerably.
Incense in contemporary Roman polytheism
When prayers are made to the Gods it is traditional for them to be accompanied by offerings, and oftentimes it is incense that is the perfect offering. The spiritual significance of incense in the Roman tradition is manifold, at its most fundamental level the intoxicating fragrance is an offering to the Gods, and just as the smoke and fragrance rises through the air to reach the Gods so to do our prayers. Contemporary Roman polytheist Carmelo Cannarella discusses this ably:
“Incense smoke rising into the sky is primarily an elevation, an act of transcendence, a moment of connection between the human and the Celestial Deities’ dimension: between Earth and Heaven … The spirals of smoke from incense are released into the air and fly to the sky. This flight of smoking represents the re-union with the Divine Dimension (both for the living beings and in funeral rites) and the flight itself symbolises the ‘freedom of movement’, the liberation from the material sphere, the transcendence of the world … [lases.blogspot.com]”
The science behind incense
Traditionally, incense is made with tree sap resins, such as frankincense and myrrh, as well as aromatic woods, bark, seeds, roots and flowers, such as cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, juniper, laurel, rosemary, sandalwood, thyme and turmeric. In our own age cheaper synthetic substitutes are increasingly used. The consequences of incense on physical health is therefore likely to be very varied, depending on the purity of what is burned. As for the smoke itself, a well publicised study by a Chinese tobacco company concluded that burning incense is more dangerous to human health than smoking cigarettes, but as the British National Health service notes:
“incense isn’t smoked and so is not drawn directly into the lungs in the way tobacco smoke is, so the effects on lung cells may be very different … the lead researcher worked for the tobacco company, which raises questions about the impartiality of the research … The suggestion that incense smoke might be more harmful than cigarette smoke needs to be treated with caution … The way we use incense and tobacco is different. Cigarette smoke is drawn directly into the lungs and held there before being exhaled. Incense smoke is burned into the environment and inhaled from the surrounding air. The amount of smoke that gets into the lungs will depend on how much incense is burned, for how long, and on the size and ventilation of the room [nhs.uk].”
Common sense dictates that ensuring one’s shrine room is well ventilated when burning incense is prudent; for anyone with known lung problems burning essential oils in an aromatherapy vaporiser may be a better option. Note that scented candles appear to have the same kinds of health issues, both negative and positive, as are associated with incense. The more synthetic the ingredients, and the less ventilated the room, the more adverse are the potential health implications – a 2009 study at the South Carolina State University recommended that paraffin based candles should be avoided in favour of soy (vegetable) based candles, for while the cheaper paraffin candles in the study released unhealthy chemicals into the air this was not the case for the vegetable-based candles. It is also known that there are a very small number of people who are sensitive to fragrance in general. Symptoms include headaches, nausea, lethargy and respiratory problems. For these people not only should incense, essential oils and scented candles be avoided, so too should mothballs, insecticide sprays, air fresheners, bleach, strong smelling cleaning agents, scented toiletries (perfume, after shave, deodorant, etc), petrol, strong smelling flowers and so on: Swain et al, Elimination Diet Handbook, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.
There are potentially health giving effects associated with incense. Scientific studies of frankincense and myrrh (the two most popular forms of incense in the Roman world) suggest that both substances have a wide range of healing effects. It seems that inhaling frankincense can have a psychoactive effect – specifically one that is calming and cheering, it has thus has been hypothesised that frankincense may alleviate anxiety and depression. Frankincense has also been cited as having a demonstrable ability to stop the spread of cancer cells (but further research is required) as well as anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic properties. Likewise, myrrh has been cited as a powerful antioxidant, potentially improving outcomes amongst cancer patients as well as an opioid like function, giving it mild pain-killing properties.
- Mclaughlin, R, Rome and the Distant East: Trade Routes to the Ancient Lands of Arabia, India and China, Continuum Books
- Ovid, Fasti, Penguin Classics
- Plutarch, The Life of Numa, penelope.uchicago.edu
- Rupke, J (ed), A Companion to Roman Religion, Wiley
- Sellar & Watt, Frankincense and Myrrh, Random House
- Swain, Soutter and Loblay, Elimination Diet Handbook, Allergy Unit, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.