The smell of incense

I was outside just now, and I smelled church incense really strongly. I do live in quite a Catholic area - there are three grottoes to the Virgin Mary within a quarter of a mile of my house - but there didn’t appear to be any activity at any of them at the time.

Two questions therefore: what is the main constituent of the incense used in Catholic churches? Is there something else that might have been burning on a bonfire that could resemble the smell of incense?

Frankincense is the only constituent of Catholic incense, I believe, by prescription of the Vatican.

And it’s entirely possible that you just smelled someone burning incense to fragrance their apartment. Or cover up some…er…vaporous recreation…

At our church we use incense produced by the Benedictine monks of Prinknash Abbey, in Gloucestershire.

According to the Prinknash site, the main ingredient is Gum Olibanum (or frankincense) which is formed on the bark of various kinds of shrubs: not those of the pine family as in the case of Gum Thus (mock frankincense) but on species of the genus known as Boswellia which grow in the Middle East, chiefly in Somalia and Eritrea. This is the basic ingredient of incense. The secret of Prinknash Incense lies in knowing how to blend the essential oils and other gums so that a sweet odour is given off instead of an unpleasant smell of burning.

Our favourite blend is the rose-scented incense.

i am partial to nag champa. this is the scent you are more likey to smell in your local new age book shop.

Athonite-style incense has been growing in popularity in recent years among the non-Orthodox (it’s pretty much the standard Orthodox incense style). It’s made by taking frankincense and grinding it to a powder, and then mixing it with essential oils. The resulting paste is rolled into long thin cylinders, cut into small pellets, and allowed to cure for several weeks. The added scents can vary widely, from “traditional” scents such as ambergris, cassia, musk, and rose, to lighter and more modernish ones like jasmine, sage, lily, and orange blossom (which, incidentally, may be the best-smelling thing I have ever smelled).

I recently attended a Catholic funeral Mass, and observed the priest circle the casket with the censer. What is the religious significance of the smoke?

The religious significance is that the incense represents the prayers of the faithful ascending to God. Here is the translation of the traditional Latin prayer said at the incensation of the altar:

May this incense, blessed by Thee, ascend before Thee, O Lord, and may Thy mercy descend upon us. Let my prayer be directed, O Lord, as incense in thy sight, the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth: and a door round about my lips: that my heart may not incline to evil words: to make excuses in sins. May the Lord enkindle in us the fire of His love and the flame of everlasting charity. Amen.

The prayer at the funeral you attended would have been different, but the general significance would have been the same.

…Or it could have been the odor of sanctity. Mother Mary flitting about thine neighborhood…
Maybe you are saintly? (Thou that hath dealteth it smellteth it.)

What’s really interesting about this prayer is that in Japanese, if you wanted to be really, really pedantic you wouldn’t say “to smell incense” (o-kou wo kagu) but rather “to listen to incense” (o-kou wo kiku). This may sound strange but it comes from a Chinese expression whose etymology is rooted in the belief that one’s hopes and prayers rose to heaven with the incense smoke and were there heard by gods and buddhas.

That’s not a coincidence as when distant countries sought out the rare ingredients of incense, a lot of cultuare baggage ended up travelling along the trade routes.