How to Make Incense for Magickal and Spiritual Intents
by Miriam Harline
Smell is the sense most hot-wired into our animal past. According to Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses,we smell by means of olfactory bulbs at our nostrils’ upper tips that, when triggered directly, signal the limbic system — a brain region inherited from our mammalian ancestors, a player in lust and creativity. Smell is also our most permanent sense. Research says scents go straight into long-term memory, later to be retriggered with all the emotion of the time that laid the memories down. As Ackerman writes, “A smell can be overwhelmingly nostalgic be-cause it triggers powerful images and emotions before we have time to edit them.”
Smell thus proves one of our bodies’ best gifts to the magician, ritualist and spiritual seeker. To speak to the emotions, to the animal spirit, to the part of us that believes in and works magick, use scent. Burn incense.
If ease is a priority, you can buy your magickal incenses. I’d recommend Wortcunning and Nu Essence brands. You can find Wortcunning incenses, by local incense master Leon Reed, at Travelers (501 E. Pine in Seattle) or directly through Wortcunning (P. O. Box 9785, Seattle, WA 98109). Wortcunning incense is one of the reasons I moved to Seattle. On a visit here, I picked up some Pan incense, which when I ran out of self-igniting charcoal in mid-Missouri I burned on the stove: great before going out dancing. I figured any place with incense so magickal had to be worth returning to.
However, if you want incense imbued with your specific magickal or spiritual purpose and your energy, make it from scratch. Once you have supplies, it needn’t take a long time, maybe an hour per scent. It’s fun. And there’s something special about burning a mixture that smells heavenly (or noxious, as the intention may be) and saying, “Hey, I made that.”
Following I’ve set down wisdom from my teachers and my forays into the craft and recommended books to take you further. But, as with cooking, you learn incense making by doing. Find a recipe you like, study it till you understand how it works, then improvise based on your tastes and ingredients. As with any practice, trust your instincts. If you want to reproduce the exact incense in a seventeenth century grimoire or Egyptian papyrus, you’ll follow that recipe to the letter (if you can find the ingredients). Otherwise, experiment. Play.
I describe here how to make loose incense, to be burned on self-igniting charcoal briquettes. You can buy such charcoal most any place that sells incense herbs. You can also make stick and cone incenses, which the books I recommend describe. Stick and cone incenses look more impressive for presents and are easier to burn. But they’re more complicated to make, and the different forms don’t make your intentions’ results more sure.
To make incense, you’ll first gather some ingredients and tools:
- Herbs and oils
- Eyedropper (preferably several)
- Base oil
- Mortar and pestle (preferably two)
- Coffee grinder (optional)
- Ziplock baggies, in gallon and sandwich size
- Small bottles or tins (optional)
- Small spoon or spoons (optional)
- Astrological calendar
- Book or books of recipes
If you want to make just one incense, get just the herbs and oils you need. However, if you plan to make incense as an ongoing hobby, round up some basic incense makings. Some elementary herbs and resins, arranged by how often I use them:
- Pine resin
- Orris root
- Rose petals
- Lemongrass Some of the above list will look pretty familiar. Rosemary? Nutmeg? Got it, in the spice cabinet. If you want to start cheap, you can make many incenses from common kitchen spices.Of the nonspices listed above, orris root (iris root) deserves special mention. It’s a good idea to add one part orris root as a preservative and fixative to most incense recipes, especially those that don’t include resins. (Resins are gums formed by solidifying plant juices, for example frankincense, myrrh and amber.) Get your orris root preground if you don’t feel like spending an afternoon worrying a tuber.
In general, you’ll want to get woods and tough roots in powdered form. For anything grindable, however, get leaves or chunks, and grind the ingredient when you need it. That way, it will stay fresher.
For oils, I tend to buy those specific to the recipe I’m doing. After making a few incenses, you’ll have a large library. These are the ones I use most:
Use essential oils, rather than perfume oils. An essential oil will generally announce itself on the bottle. And watch out for patchouli oil. It’s intense; a few drops will do.
You can locate herbs and oils at pagan and herbal supply shops. To buy herbs, I tend to go to Travelers or Tenzing Momo (93 Pike Street in Seattle). You can order from Tenzing Momo by phone, at (206) 623-9837. I wouldn’t recommend a phone order for a novice incense maker, though; you’ll want to see what you’re buying. Many herbs and resins are very light, ounces not pounds. Some are very expensive, though most are not. The fresher you get something the better – beware a very dusty herb bottle.
Herbs originate in gardens and the wild, of course, and if you have access, jump at the chance to harvest when the herb’s ready. Don’t wildcraft too much; take no more than a quarter of what you find, and never take more than you can use. Pagans will want to ask the plant’s permission before clipping; a gift in exchange, such as water, returns energy to the herb.
There is such a thing as too fresh, though. If you just cut your herb, you can’t use it today. I’ve tried quick-drying herbs at 200 degrees in the oven, and it doesn’t work. Ideally, you should harvest herbs on a dry day at the peak of their maturity, when active ingredients have reached the highest concentration – an herbal will tell you when. Hang the plants upside down in a dry, airy place between 70 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit; they should take about a week to dry. Don’t store them still damp; they’ll mold. Store herbs in air-tight containers, ideally glass or pottery. This process should occur beforeyou try making incense.
When working with oils, an eye-dropper proves useful. If you don’t employ one, at some point I guarantee you’ll screw up an incense recipe by, say, pouring in a half-ounce of patchouli. Get several to avoid cleaning droppers between oils. Look for eyedroppers at your local drugstore. In addition to scent oils, you’ll add a base oil to incense to activate some of the esters (scent chemicals) in dried herbs, to make the incense mixture hang together better and to help preserve it. I tend to use safflower oil because it has a very light scent, but I’ve been told it goes rancid more quickly than others. People I trust have recommended jojoba oil and sesame oil. The strong scent of sesame oil disappears as the mixture dries.
To grind your herbs and resins, you’ll want at least one mortar and pestle. It’s a good idea to get two and powder herbs in one, resins in another – this because resins tend to stick and stain and may never come out of a coarse mortar and pestle. Mortars and pestles can be found at kitchen supply stores. If you do a lot of grinding, you’ll want a coffee grinder. Buy one secondhand, and devote it to incense only — you don’t want mugwort-flavored coffee.
Ziplock baggies are good for incense mixing and for temporary and less pretty incense storage. More pretty incense storage is the domain of cute, colored, cork-topped glass bottles and cunning little tins. The Soap Box used to carry such bottles, and I’ve seen them at kitchen supply stores. You can also store incense in film canisters or pill containers, anything airtight. Small spoons prove helpful when doling out incense samples to burn, something you’ll do a lot while concocting scents.
An astrological calendar aids in making incense just as it does in any magickal or ritual activity, to align with the energies of the universe. The subject of associations is endless and personal, and I’ll only touch on it here. In general, create incenses under a waxing or full moon for intentions involving growth and waxing energy, under a waning moon for intentions involving shrinking or ending. If you’re making an incense for Aphrodite or to draw love, Venus should probably be favorably aspected; to get a job, Jupiter should probably be favorably aspected. You get the idea.
You’ll want recipe books. I list some recipes at the end of the article; chances are none of them will suit your exact magickal or spiritual purpose. The books I rely on are Scott Cunningham’s The Complete Book of Incense, Oils and Brews and Wylundt’s Book of Incense. The latter includes many recipes based on kitchen spices, if you can’t afford much in the way of supplies. Both also explain how to make stick and cone incenses.
Suppose you have a recipe you like, for an intention you’re interested in. It calls for peppermint, bay, frankincense and gum bdellium. The first three the herb shop has. On the last one, the cashier shakes her head. “Never heard of it.” You try pronouncing it again — same effect. Even if an herb, gum or oil is theoretically obtainable, you may run into a situation when you want the incense now and can’t find the odd ingredient.
Don’t give up. Substitute.
You can substitute in several ways. First, if the recipe calls for the herb or resin and you can only find the oil, use the oil, or vice versa. For example, oak moss itself is hard to find, but you can locate oak moss oil fairly easily.
If you can’t track something down in solid or liquid form, The Complete Book of Incense, Oils and Brews has a lovely table suggesting one-for-one substitutions for many ingredients. You can also substitute according to intention or elemental or planetary rulership. Both The Complete Book and Wylundt’s list ingredients aligned to different intentions, elements and planets. For example, “love” has a list of suggested ingredients, as do “water” and “Venus.” Many Wicca and Magick 101 books offer similar tables of correspondence. If you poke through the tables, you’ll find a substitute for your herb or oil, often a whole list to choose from. In a pinch, as Cunningham writes, rosemary can safely be substituted for any other herb, rose for any flower and frankincense or copal for any gum resin.
Substitutions are essential for many obscure and poisonous ingredients recommended by old magickal tomes. In case you need to be told, do not use aconite (wolfsbane), belladonna, hemlock, henbane, mistletoe, nightshade or other poisonous substances in your incense! It’s not worth the hassle. Some substances are sufficiently toxic that merely handling them is dangerous. You can replace any poisonous herb in incense with tobacco, as Cunningham suggests.
Likewise, be careful with ingredients that cause smoke that’s very foul-smelling or liable to produce an allergic reaction, such as asafoetida, mace, pepper and rue. Some incenses are best burned outdoors.
Ingredients, tools, moon phase and aspects all lined up, it’s time to start. I generally lay out everything on a clean, smooth surface, then put up a circle and call the elements, deities and fey to witness. You can be as formal or informal as you like about your working, but stating and concentrat-ing on your intention as you assemble ingredients will help imbue the incense with that intention.
Now dig out your gallon Ziplock baggie. This will be your mixing bowl.
Reread your recipe. Incense recipes are often listed in terms of “parts.” What constitutes a part is your decision. I often use for a part as much as I can hold in the palm of my hand. You can also use a teaspoon or a half-cup or any other measure as a part, as long as you keep the part measure consistent through the recipe. If your incense recipe is listed in terms of weight (ounces, grams), however, use weight measurements throughout – don’t mix parts, which are measure-ments by volume, with measurements by weight, or the result will make no sense. Whatever the form of measurement, measure any ingredient that requires grinding in its final, powdered state.
I often find I have a limited quantity of one ingredient. In this case, I usually grind that first and let the resulting measurement dictate how much incense to make. For example, if the recipe calls for two parts lavender, and I only have two teaspoons of it, my part will be one teaspoon.
Another factor in pulverization order is your tools. If you have two mortars, you can grind herbs and gums separately. If not, start with herbs as they’ll stick up the mortar less.
If your ingredients and tools are sufficient to the task, grind herbs and resins in order of smell. Incense, like perfume, is considered to have top, middle and base notes. Top notes are the lightest and generally what you smell first. Floral scents are often top notes, for example neroli (orange flowers). Base notes are the bottom of the spectrum, the strongest, darkest scents. Animal odors, such as musk, and heavy woods, such as patchouli, usually form base notes. Some strong herbs, such as lavender, are also bases. Vanilla and rose are examples of middle notes — strong, but not as overpowering as patchouli. Use less of the base and middle notes when creating an incense, more of the top notes, to create a balance. In the absence of other concerns, start creating your incense with the base note. This rule especially applies if you’re creating or revising a recipe.
To get to know each ingredient, burn a small ground sample. Your own associations and emotions for each scent are important. For me, benzoin smells fey; eucalyptus is cool and sensual. Everyone senses subtly different affinities. If you find your nose burning out, sniff coffee beans to clear your sense of smell.
Grinding takes a while. Have faith. Some herbs are surprisingly tough to work with — lemongrass, for example, grinds away to nothing, so you’ll be working a long time. Bay doesn’t pulverize well; use scissors to cut it as fine as possible. Your final powder grains need not be infinitesimally small; however, the smaller you grind, the more thoroughly your ingredients can mix to create the unique smell of the final incense.
As you finish each ingredient, add it to the gallon Ziplock baggie, close it and shake thoroughly.
Once you have all the dry ingredients in, add scent oils. If you’re adding an oil where the recipe calls for an herb, or vice versa, keep in mind that an oil comes across much more strongly than the matching herb. A few drops of most oils will suffice, unless you’re making mountains of incense. Again, with your oils, start with the base note and use little, then move on to the middle and top. Mix your oils with the dry ingredients thoroughly, rubbing out dark spots and balls.
Herbs, resins and scent oils mixed, burn the result. What do you think?
You’re wrinkling your nose. That’s okay — you can fix it.
Suppose your incense smells like just one of your ingredients — cinnamon and nothing else. There’s a couple of ways of dealing with this. You can add a little more of everything else. Or you can decide which of the other ingredients would help balance the strong scent. Cinnamon’s a middle to base note — another middle to base note would balance it, for example lavender, assuming your recipe includes lavender. Oil is the easiest way to add balance because it’s so strong.
Sometimes incense will come out smelling like next to nothing. Too much balance! Here, you’ll want to emphasize one or two ingredients, whichever seem most appropriate. For example, if I were creating a moon incense with oil of jasmine that came out smelling bland, I might tap in a few more drops of oil, as jasmine is an ingredient that I like and that feels very moon to me.
Once you’ve got your incense smelling as you want it, it’s time to add the base oil. Add it in small amounts – you don’t want the incense wet. Add till you get a sticky or tacky feel, till the powder sticks a little to your hand.
The base oil gives your incense a longer life, but it makes the mixture produce a heavy, burnt-smelling smoke in the short term. If you must burn the incense right away, leave out the base oil. After you add the oil, incense takes a week to ten days to set, and it’s not till after that period that you’ll be rid of excess smokiness. Check your incense while it’s setting – if the smoke continues heavy, you can leave the container open to let the in-cense breathe a bit.
When I’m done adding base oil to an incense, I raise energy and consecrate the incense to the purpose for which I devised it. This step is essential if yours is to be a magickal incense.
Now, sit back! You’ve made incense. Be proud of yourself. You have a new ritual tool that will heighten your every working. And you’ve brought some scents into the world.
Special thanks to Sylvana SilverWitch and her incense classes, from which I learned much of the preceding.
Full Moon incense
2 parts frankincense 2 parts myrrh 2 parts sandalwood 1/ 2 part rose petals Jasmine oil
The smell is powdery and sweet, very moony and watery.
4 parts sandalwood 2 parts peppermint 2 parts myrrh Cypress oil
As you might guess, the sandalwood is very forward in this recipe. Wortcunning also makes a stellar Hecate incense based on information in ancient magickal texts. However, that incense strikes me as better burned outdoors. Use the preceding to gently honor Her in your hermetically sealed ritual room.
1 part cinnamon 1 part frankincense 1 part lavender
This is not my own recipe; I’m afraid I forget where I got it. But it’s great! Use it also for spells of communication, travel protection and the like — anything ruled by Hermes.
2 parts frankincense 2 parts sandalwood 1 part pine resin 1/ 2 part bay 1/ 2 part cinnamon 1/ 2 part coriander 1/ 2 part meadowsweet 1/ 2 part oregano 1/ 2 part rosemary A few drops rose oil Slightly less oak moss oil Very little patchouli oil (start with one drop)
Meditation and divination incense
2 parts benzoin 2 parts lavender 2 parts myrrh 2 parts sandalwood 1 part orange peel 1/ 2 part mugwort
Equal amounts eucalyptus, patchouli oils This mixture is very floaty and psychically oriented. If you have trouble grounding, ground before you burn. The sandalwood and eucalyptus come to the fore.