It was Samhain, and my altar was set, black candles glowing. I had cast the circle, and I was settling into the rhythm of the ritual, when I sprinkled some of my special Samhain incense on a charcoal block. To my surprise, instead of smoldering, the incense ignited. I watched, unsure of what to do, as the flame rose up in my censer. Then the smoke alarm in my apartment went off. I quickly put out the flame, and closed the circle. The loud piercing sound of the alarm drew the attention of my three cats, which all were scampering about saucer-eyed, mewing loudly. To make matters worse, the smoke alarm in my apartment is connected to a central alarm system at my manager's apartment, so it operates electronically; I couldn't even take out the batteries to stop the noise. I also live in an area where the people are very nice, very helpful, and very conservative. I was afraid if I opened a window, nearby trick-or-treaters would come to see if everything was all right. I imagined the scene; the kids would run home to tell their mothers that they looked in my window and saw a strange woman dressed in black who was standing before an altar decorated with black candles, waving a very large knife, frantically trying to fan her smoke alarm with a piece of paper, while three cats went insane around her feet. An even more frightening thought entered my mind: what if someone called the fire department? At least, I thought, I was not sky-clad.
Every year, I make the same incense for Samhain with herbs and resins that smell earthy and mystical. But this year, I had decided to make one small change, a change that proved disastrous. I had found a source that sold ground hematite, and I thought it would be ritually appropriate to include it in the incense. What I didn't realize is that hematite is flammable. It is associated with the element of fire for good reason (Cunningham, Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem & Metal Magic).
Making granular incense doesn't have to result in such dramatic rituals as the one described above. In fact, making the incense puts me more in tune with the magick. Before the ritual begins, I plan the ingredients, grind them and empower them. I get into the ritual mindset as I do all of these preparations. This makes the rituals more powerful, more potent. Below are a few tips that will enable the crafter to create homemade incense without requiring a fire extinguisher.
There are three main types of ingredients used in the making of granular incense: resins, floral waxes, and woods. Resins are the pitch that come from trees and other plants. They are most often sold in solid, chunk form, though some can be liquid and runny. Floral waxes are not described in most books as possible incense ingredients, but they work just like resins, and they smell wonderful. When essential oils are made, the floral wax is the material that is left over after the process. Woods are also excellent incense ingredients. Since they are dry, they are good compliments to the usually sticky resins and waxes. However, not all woods can be used for incense; some woods are aromatic, others merely smell like burning wood.
Other ingredients that can be used include flowers, leaves, and essential oils. Be careful when using flowers, because many flowers smell terrible when burned. Jasmine, for example, has a heavenly scent, but when burned, it evokes images of forest fires. Good aromatic flowers that can be used include patchouli, rose petals, and lavender. Many leaves also smell too much like burning underbrush when burned, but there are a few good ones, including bay, sage, and dittany of Crete. Many people also use essential oils in incense. I don't, because I prefer to use floral waxes; they are cheaper, and work like resins in incense mixtures. However, any essential oil is fine to use in mixtures.
When I first started making my own granular incense, I neglected one very important rule: always use at least one resin or wax in each recipe (Cunningham, The Complete Book of Incense, Oils and Brews, p.41). No matter how ritually appropriate the ingredients of a recipe are, it will not work well if a crafter cannot breathe because of excess smoke. It is also difficult to read runes through a thick cloud of burning plant material. Below is a list that includes some good aromatics that work well in incense mixtures.
Scent and Comments
- Aloeswood wood: buttery and sweet. Aloeswood is hard to find, expensive, and rare, but it is a truly wonderful ingredient.
- Bay leaf: spicy. Strangely, though dried bay leaves are very brittle, they are sometimes hard to grind. I find it works best to break them into small pieces in the palm of my hand and then grind them in an herb grinder.
- Cedarwood wood or needles: clean and airy. Cedar is usually available in chips, though it is sometimes possible to find needles. It is an extremely difficult wood to grind.
- Cinnamon bark: fiery. Cinnamon doesn't smell the same when burned as it does naturally—it is much harsher. A little goes a long way.
- Copal resin: sweet and earthy. Copal comes in many different grades, from light to dark. The highest grade available is golden in color. All kinds of copal come from Mexico.
- Dittany of Crete leaf: earthy and spicy. This is a hard to find herb, but it is wonderful for Samhain incenses.
- Dragon's Blood resin: smooth, slightly sweet. Dragon's blood is often sold in large bricks. The bricks are hard to break up, but once broken, this resin crumbles easily. It is drier than most other resins.
- Frankincense resin: lemony and clean. The best available grade is Hougari frankincense; it is very light colored with dark undertones, almost chalky in places. Most grades of frankincense are lemony yellow in appearance.
- Jasmine flowers or wax: sweet floral. Jasmine flowers don't smell very good when burned, but the wax is one of my favorite incense ingredients.
- Juniper berries: woody and fruity. Juniper berries are usually sold whole, and they should be ground before use.
- Lavender flowers or wax: spicy floral. Lavender flowers and wax both work well for incense mixtures. The flowers don't smell harsh, as many flowers do, when burned.
- Lemon peel: fresh and lemony. Lemon peel is a wonderful ingredient, especially in lunar incenses, and it is very easy to find.
- Mastic resin: light and clean, but earthy. This is my favorite incense ingredient. I sometimes use it alone, because I love its hard-to-describe aroma. But I have found that Mastic tends to absorb the aromas of other materials, when used in mixtures. It is, therefore, an excellent fixative.
- Myrrh resin: unusual, bittersweet. The best myrrh comes from Yemen, and is dark brown in color. Myrrh is a resin that is very difficult to grind, so it is best to get it in powdered form, if possible.
- Orange peel: roasted and fruity. Like lemon peel, orange peel is easy to find. It tends to be very difficult to grind, though.
- Orris root: woody and floral. Orris root is very difficult to grind. Many shops sell root pieces, and they are so hard that they are like little white stones. It is best to get this herb in powdered form.
- Patchouli flower or leaf: earthy and floral. Patchouli should look brown, because it is fermented before being dried. This brings out its wonderful earthy scent.
- Rose flowers or wax: sweet floral. Rose petals are harsher than wax when burned, but they still work well in incense mixtures.
- Rosemary needles: spicy, clean. Rosemary is one of the few herbs that can be burned alone, without a resin.
- Sage leaf: spicy, earthy. Sage is wonderful as an incense, and like rosemary, it can be burned alone. There are three kinds of sage: grey, white, and clary. Clary sage is usually found in essential oil form. It smells different than the other sages; less earthy, more"clean." White sage is often used in smudging; its leaves are very long, so they are well-suited to this purpose. Grey sage is the familiar cooking spice.
- Sandalwood wood: rich and buttery. There are two varieties of sandalwood, red and white. The red has little to no scent, and only works as a catalyst for other scents. The white has one of the most wonderful aromas I have ever experienced.
- Star Anise seed: licorice-like. These large seedpods must be thoroughly ground before use.
- Willow wood: lightly spicy. Willow, like most of the woods, is very difficult to grind. Make sure to get the wood, because some places sell leaves, which don't work as well for incenses.
Grinding, Mixing, and Empowering
Incense ingredients should be ground prior to use. Whole pieces of all but the resins tend to smolder harshly. Many of the resins and woods are extremely difficult to grind. A mortar and pestle just doesn't work for frankincense. I once tried to grind frankincense for a ritual, and let's just say, the energies I was emitting (and the words I was saying) were not exactly spiritual in nature. I have found it works much better to use an electric grinder. I use a small food processor; it works wonderfully, because the parts can go right into the dishwasher. Grinders should be used for incense only; get a separate one for grinding food items. No matter how many times I wash my food processor, it still has some frankincense stuck to its sides, and frankincense doesn't go well with salad vegetables. Even with a grinder, it is difficult to powder some ingredients. Sandalwood, for example, will not grind; I only buy it in powdered form.
The next step is mixing the ingredients. It is better to grind the ingredients first, and then measure them. It is difficult to determine how much dragon's blood to use, for example, because the resin comes in large chunks that are difficult to measure. Measuring ground substances is more exact. The crafter should also keep an incense-making journal to record proportions and make notes about successes and failures.
The last, and most important step is the empowering of the mixture. I like to extend this step through the entire process, because as I am working with the herbs, I am putting my own energy into them. When I empower mixtures, I visualize the magickal goal for which I am making the incense. If I am making the incense for a ritual, I visualize the perfect ritual as I work.
It is important to use caution when making incense. Some incense ingredients can be hazardous to use. The crafter would be wise to research each ingredient before buying it. Euphorbium gum, for example, is a substance that is used in many old recipes, but it is extremely harsh; it irritates the nose, skin, and throat, and can cause severe headaches. Camphor is a wonderful moon-related resin, but it is also harsh when burned, and it can cause sores to form in the throat and nose if used improperly. Some incense recipes also use poisonous substances. It is important to know what each ingredient does and how poisonous it is. For example, one substance that is used in some recipes is wolfsbane. Wolfsbane is so deadly that it can be absorbed though the skin and kill a person in minutes.
Even substances that seem benign can be dangerous. Seeds, if left whole, can pop when they are heated, for example, and can start a fire or cause burns. Any incense, when burned in a censor, is dangerous to animals. Often animals are drawn to magickal workings. Once my cat wandered into my circle and, before I could stop her, stuck her nose on my hot censer. She was okay, it was only a mild burn, but I can only imagine what would have happened if she had swished her tail into the censer.
Other substances just smell bad. Asafoetida is a resin that I will not allow in my door. It is often used for banishing, and I am sure it is useful for that purpose; it works too well, because it will surely banish the spell caster, as well as any negative influences, from the room. Valerian has such a strong, unpleasant odor that I have never dared to use it as an incense ingredient. Many herbs smell very different when burned, and often, herbs smell harsher. I simply can't imagine valerian smelling harsher, so I substitute other ingredients whenever I see valerian in an incense recipe. It is important to remember that the most vital magickal ingredient is the person casting the spell or doing the ritual. If the spell caster is uncomfortable and distracted, either from thick acrid smoke or from putrid smelling substances, then the magick will not be as effective. It is far better to use ingredients that put the caster in a spiritual frame of mind.
Cunningham, Scott. The Complete Book of Incense, Oils and Brews. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1994, 1989.
Cunningham, Scott. Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem & Metal Magic. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1991, 1988.