I was fascinated as a child by the Catholic stories of saints who were so holy that they exuded a strong fragrance. Sometimes the fragrance intensified upon their deaths and this was taken as a special incontrovertible sign of sainthood. In the Middle Ages when this happened people would marvel and demand sainthood by acclamation. Most often the fragrance was described as the strong smell of fresh roses, clinging to everything the holy person had touched or worn. This phenomenon exists mostly in southern Italy, especially in Naples, where there are still reliquaries and sanctuaries that honor these saints. People used (and still use) reliquaries, often infused with the strong scent of incense, and anything that had touched a holy person to heal sickness and misfortune. However, all cultures everywhere, from before prehistoric times, used fragrance spiritually in the form of incense. European culture and the Middle East, Northern Africa and India treasured Frankincense, from the Boswellia plant. Boswellia is also used in aryurvedic and herbal treatments for autoimmune problems like rheumatoid arthritis and allergies. The lore for frankincense is long and rich. There are a number of kinds and grades, some from Africa and some from Yemen and certain regions near the mountains where the dew collects in deep fog over the bushes of boswellia. The most fragrant and highest quality from the Middle East is not available to anyone outside Muslim countries, all of it is used by the rulers and for spiritual practices. The Japanese use a precious wood, aloeswood, in incense ceremonies, contests and games. Kodo practice burns the incense on a mica surface; some is not really even burned, but heated to release the fragrance of the wood. This method of meditative appreciation of nature and beauty can take a lifetime to master properly and is a forum for connoisseurship like tea or flower arranging.
It is not difficult to make your own incense; it is a matter of obtaining pure herbs, spices and resinous woods and the proper utensils. The emotional and mental qualities reflecting certain substances have all been catalogued long ago; the Western traditions have their own ideas and local ingredients, different from the East, especially the Japanese. Because incense is now so identified with certain religious traditions in the West, we have mostly abandoned its use in daily life, but we can, as we often have, borrow from the traditions of the Far East to reclaim this aspect of enjoyment of fragrance and connection to nature through perfume.
Above, a melon shaped incense burner from Japan.