Start Making Scents

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.

Getting Started

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:

  • Sandalwood
  • Myrrh
  • Frankincense
  • Benzoin
  • Pine resin
  • Orris root
  • Lavender
  • Rose petals
  • Cedar
  • Cinnamon
  • Copal
  • Rosemary
  • Mace
  • Nutmeg
  • Bay
  • 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:

    • Patchouli
    • Jasmine
    • Cypress
    • Eucalyptus
    • Peppermint
    • Rose

    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.

    Substitutions

    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.

    Making Incense

    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.

    Sample Recipes

    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.

    Hecate incense

    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.

    Hermes incense

    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.

    Lammas incense

    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.

Advertisements