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
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.