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Usage in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Israel

Incense burning is associated with religious fervor. Unlike other acts of piety this one is very engaging for it involves the olfactory nerves, the active point of contact between the human brain and the outside world. For thousands of years man has learned to use aromatic gums, resins, plant oils and spices to create that one of a kind experience with incense burning. Archaeological finds point to the seriousness of ancient people’s approach towards their deity and it incense burning is the key to open that door towards heaven.

Yet aside from spiritual applications, incense finds its way into the homes of ancient Egypt and ancient Israel because the people of that time learned how to use the sweet smelling concoction for aesthetic reasons also. This study will look into substances that can be labeled as incense. The study will be focused on the utilitarian value of incense in ancient Egypt and in ancient Israel. The former will be examined more closely using archaeological and historical sources while the latter will be studied not only using sources from academia but also from the Bible.

Incense Before proceeding it is imperative to first find out what is the meaning of the word incense. There is no one who can pin down the exact meaning of the term but generally it is supposed to mean a substance that taken from aromatic gums and spices that could be utilized either through burning. The following is taken from a study of ancient Egyptian use of perfume and other substances that are used to emit pleasant smell, either to honor their gods or as a tool to mask bad odors:

The word incense has a basic meaning similar to perfume (per fumen) – the aroma given off with the smoke of any odiferous substance when burn: oleo-resins, gum resins, wood barks, and flower, fruits and seeds. Incense comes from late Latin incensum, thing burnt. Perfume has been extended to anything sweet-smelling but incense became restricted through the years to frankincense (Boswellia speices), though later other gums were added form a characteristic note (see Butler, p. 16). It can now be said that incense is a substance that is burned to produce a distinct smell pleasant enough to provide good ambience and good enough to be used in temple ceremonies.

The substance is basically frankincense and myrrh as will be shown later. Then priests modified this basic mixture and added in other gum resins and aromatic substances to produce something that is needed for a particular use. Now what is all the fuss regarding incense? Is this simply part of the superstitious practices by ancient cultures? Of course ancient people had no means to find out why they desperately crave for aromatic gum-resins and the like. Here’s a scientific explanation to why they would go to all that trouble in getting the precious substance:

When fragrance molecules attach to the sensitive ending of the olfactory nerves (the only direct contact that our neurons have with the outside world) they are immediately transmitted by the olfactory bulb as electric nerve impulses to the limbic system. The result is an emotional reaction that we may perceive as liking or disliking (Kinkele, p. 11). Kinkele’s explanation makes perfect sense and could be best understood by looking at it from the point of view of human adaptation. Man has to develop natural equipment that will forewarn him of danger.

The skin tells him if the surface is too hot for handling, the ears gives him a heads-up if danger is coming, the tongue tells him that something is wrong with the food. Now the nose and the olfactory nerves in it also function in tandem with other organs. Foul smell coming from feces, decomposing dead bodies, rotten fruits and spoiled food warns people that something is amiss and that they should steer clear from the source of such bad odor. As explained by Kinkele the brain does not only tell the person not to handle and to stay away from stinking objects but the emotions of the person is affected as well.

Now, it is easy to understand that pleasant smell causes the same strong emotional reaction but instead of being pushed away, the person is being pulled closer and closer to the source of the aromatic substance that makes him feeling good inside. Kinkele asserts that the interaction between aroma wafting in the immediate surroundings can alter mood and behavior due to the following reasons: The limbic system is the headquarters of our emotional world. This is where all the information accumulated through the emotional conditioning of a lifetime is stored.

[…] Reflex-like structures have developed, responding more quickly than the mental custodians in the cerebrum. This give an emotional reaction a certain advantage over the more slowly generated ideas we create about ourselves and the world around us (p. 11). The phenomenon of body reacting faster than the mind is easily observable in day to day experience. A person accidentally touching a hot stove will not spend a few seconds analyzing what had just happened. There is a part of the brain that immediately commands the hands and the fingers to pull away before the person even realizes what has happened.

And of course after the hand was jerked away from danger, it is the only time that brain will begin processing what had just happened. Now, imagine the same phenomenon working to override conscious body reactions not in response to danger but in response to a perceived good. Then it can be argued that certain stimulus in the environment is working to influence how the mind and body should behave in a certain circumstance. If the brain and body finds it hard to relax then pleasant smells that have known qualities to trigger such an emotional response can be used to suggest relaxation.

On the other hand, ancient perfumers may be privy to a body of knowledge concerning the proper conditioning of the mind and body in order to perform religious rituals. By releasing the odor of certain gum-resins, the priests – probably the first perfumers in the ancient world – would help facilitate the transaction between the earthly and the spiritual realms. But as will be shown later, incense is not only used for religious purposes only but also in the aesthetics aspects of living in ancient lands.

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