Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh
Prayer and praising, all men raising
Worship Him, God most high
(from) We Three Kings, J. H. Hopkins Jr.
Incense is any one of a number of substances burned for the fragrant vapours that they give off. Almost all incenses are plant derived - although a few like ambegris and musk are derived from animals instead. The use of incense seems to have begun in eastern Asia in the late stone age and spread from there, although arguably the most significant movement of incense was the Arabian Frankincense trade, which appears in antiquity and is still going strong. Any given incense may be a single substance, or a more or less complicated blend of several.
The burning of incense is a significant part of many religious and magical rituals1, but can also be used for medicinal purposes (such as in aromatherapy) or simply to cover up foul smells2. Incense may serve to purify a ritual space, or to assist in creating a trance state - it may even serve merely to drive away annoying insects that might otherwise disturb proceedings, especially if materials like citronella are blended into the mix. Less wholesomely, incense may also be used to cover up the smell of illicit drug use or, even worse, used to disguise the smell of airborne drugs or poisons - drugged incense was a particular favourite of 1930s pulp novelists.
Incense may also provide a cultural cue - in Arab culture, the burning of incense at the end of a meal or party is traditionally a cue for the guests to leave and go home3.
Incense, depending on its type, is either burned directly or vapourised on a hot surface - in either case a censer of an appropriate design may be used, but a brazier can also be used for direct burning, or the incense can be made up into candles or burnable cones or sticks.
Where incense is burned, it may be used indiscriminately or specific incenses may be used for specific purposes - the Egyptian priests (for example) burned frankincense before their gods at morning, myrrh at noon and kyphi at dusk. In Hebrew culture, however, myrrh was associated with embalming and frankincense was preferred for most temple uses. Modern Westerners appear to burn incense solely on the basis of which scent they prefer.
As well as being burned, incense often ended up being used in medicines and other such compounds (and, we would assume, potions in a fantasy setting) … some incense materials do actually appear to have medicinal qualities, but the "expensive equals effective" meme is just as likely to have been at work historically. Some also serve additional duties as spices or are used in embalming.
Typically incense was a low volume, high value trade good, transported over vast distances and therefore an appropriate form of treasure.
Game and Story Use
- As above, as treasure, magical components or medical supplies.
- The usual adventure hooks of scouting trade routes, tracking down rare materials or finding new sources.
- Also, the use of incense to disguise airborne poisons.
- Incense might turn out to be an effective weapon against gaseous creatures.