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Hindus, the Egyptians have maintained to the present day; and, although they have changed their religion, the use of incense among them continues to be as familiar and formal as ever. The kohl or black powder with which the modern, like the ancient, Egyptian ladies paint their languishing eyelids, is nothing but the smeeth of charred frankincense, or other odoriferous resin brought with frankincense, and phials of water, from the well of Zem-zem, by the pilgrims returning from Mecca. They also melt frankincense as a depilatory, and smear their hands with a paste into the composition of which frankincense enters, for the purpose of communicating to them an attractive perfume. Herodotus (iv. 75) describes a similar artifice as practised by the women of Scythia (compare also Judith x. 3, 4). In cold weather the Egyptians warm their rooms by placing in them a brazier, “chafing-dish,” or “standing-dish,” filled with charcoal, whereon incense is burnt; and in hot weather they refresh them by occasionally swinging a hand censer by a chain through them—frankincense, benzoin and aloe wood being chiefly used for the purpose.[1]

In the authorized version of the Bible, the word “incense” translates two wholly distinct Hebrew words. In various passages in the latter portion of Isaiah (xl.-lxvi.), in Jeremiah and in Chronicles, it represents the Hebrew lebōnah, more usually rendered “frankincense”; elsewhere the original word is ketoreth (Ex. xxx. 8, 9; Lev. x. 1; Num. vii. 14, &c.), a derivative of the verb kitter (Pi.) or hiktir (Hiph.), which verb is used, not only in Ex. xxx. 7, but also in Lev. i. 9, iii. 11, ix. 13, and many other passages, to denote the process by which the “savour of satisfaction” in any burnt-offering, whether of flesh or of incense, is produced. Sometimes in the authorized version (as in 1 Kings iii. 3; 1 Sam. ii. 28) it is made to mean explicitly the burning of incense with only doubtful propriety. The expression “incense (ketoreth) of rains” in Ps. lxvi. 15 and the allusion in Ps. cxli. 2 ought both to be understood, most probably, of ordinary burnt-offerings.[2] The “incense” (ketoreth), or “incense of sweet scents” (ketoreth sammim), called, in Ex. xxx. 35, “a confection after the art of the apothecary,” or rather “a perfume after the art of the perfumer,” which was to be regarded as most holy, and the imitation of which was prohibited under the severest penalties, was compounded of four “sweet scents” (sammim),[3] namely stacte (nataph), onycha (sheheleth), galbanum (helbenah) and “pure” or “fine” frankincense (lebōnah zaccah), pounded together in equal proportions, with (perhaps) an admixture of salt (memullah).[4] It was then to be “put before the testimony” in the “tent of meeting.” It was burnt on the altar of incense by the priest every morning when the lamps were trimmed in the Holy Place, and every evening when they were lighted or “set up” (Ex. xxx. 7, 8). A handful of it was also burnt once a year in the Holy of Holies by the high priest on a pan of burning coals taken from the altar of burnt-offering (Lev. xvi. 12, 13). Pure frankincense (lebōnah) formed part of the meat-offering (Lev. ii. 16, vi. 15), and was also presented along with the shew bread (Lev. xxiv. 7) every Sabbath day (probably on two golden saucers; see Jos. Ant. iii. 10, 7). The religious significance of the use of incense, or at least of its use in the Holy of Holies, is distinctly set forth in Lev. xvi. 12, 13.

The Jews were also in the habit of using odoriferous substances in connexion with the funeral obsequies of distinguished persons (see 2 Chron. xvi. 14, xxi. 19; Jer. xxxiv. 5). In Amos vi. 10 “he that burneth him” probably means “he that burns perfumes in his honour.” References to the domestic use of incense occur in Cant. iii. 6; Prov. xxvii. 9; cf. vii. 17.

The “marbles” of Nineveh furnish frequent examples of the offering of incense to the sun-god and his consort (2 Kings xxiii. 5). The kings of Assyria united in themselves the royal and priestly offices, and on the monuments they erected they are generally represented as offering incense and pouring out wine to the Tree of Life. They probably carried the incense in the sacred bag so frequently seen in their hands and in those also of the common priests. According to Herodotus (i. 183), frankincense to the amount of 1000 talents’ weight was offered every year, during the feast of Bel, on the great altar of his temple in Babylon.

The monuments of Persepolis and the coins of the Sassanians show that the religious use of incense was as common in ancient Persia as in Babylonia and Assyria. Five times a day the priests of the Persians (Zoroastrians) burnt incense on their sacred fire altars. In the Avesta (Vendidad, Fargard xix. 24, 40), the incense they used is named vohu gaono. It has been identified with benzoin, but was probably frankincense. Herodotus (iii. 97) states that the Arabs brought every year to Darius as tribute 1000 talents of frankincense. The Parsees still preserve in western India the pure tradition of the ritual of incense as followed by their race from probably the most ancient times.

The Ramayana and Mahabharata afford evidence of the employment of incense by the Hindus, in the worship of the gods and the burning of the dead, from the remotest antiquity. Its use was obviously continued by the Buddhists during the prevalence of their religion in India, for it is still used by them in Nepal, Tibet, Ceylon, Burma, China and Japan. These countries all received Buddhism from India, and a large proportion of the porcelain and earthenware articles imported from China and Japan into Europe consists of innumerable forms of censers. The Jains all over India burn sticks of incense before their Jina. The commonest incense in ancient India was probably frankincense. The Indian frankincense tree, Boswellia thurifera, Colebrooke (which certainly includes B. glabra, Roxburgh), is a doubtful native of India. It is found chiefly where the Buddhist religion prevailed in ancient times, in Bihar and along the foot of the Himalayas and in western India, where it particularly flourishes in the neighbourhood of the Buddhist caves at Ajanta. It is quite possible therefore that, in the course of their widely extended commerce during the one thousand years of their ascendancy, the Buddhists imported the true frankincense trees from Africa and Arabia into India, and that the accepted Indian species are merely varieties of them. Now, however, the incense in commonest use in India is benzoin. But the consumption of all manner of odoriferous resins, gum resins, roots, woods, dried leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds in India, in social as well as religious observances, is enormous. The grateful perfumed powder abir or randa is composed either of rice, flour, mango bark or deodar wood, camphor and aniseed, or of sandalwood or wood aloes, and zerumbet, zedoary, rose flowers, camphor and civet. The incense sticks and pastils known all over India under the names of ud-buti (“benzoin-light”) or aggar-ki-buti (“wood aloes light”) are composed of benzoin, wood aloes, sandalwood, rock lichen, patchouli, rose-malloes, talispat (the leaf of Flacourtia Cataphracta of Roxburgh), mastic and sugar-candy or gum. The abir and aggir butis made at the Mahommedan city of Bijapur in the Mahratta country are celebrated all over western India. The Indian Mussulmans indeed were rapidly degenerating into a mere sect of Hindus before the Wahabi revival, and the more recent political propaganda in support of the false caliphate of the sultans of Turkey; and we therefore find the religious use of incense among them more general than among the Mahommedans of any other country. They use it at the ceremonies of circumcision, bismillah (teaching the child “the name of God”), virginity and marriage. At marriage they burn benzoin with nim seeds (Melia Azadirachta, Roxburgh) to keep off evil spirits, and prepare the bride-cakes by putting a quantity of benzoin between layers of wheaten dough, closed all round, and frying them in clarified butter. For days the bride is fed on little else. In their funeral ceremonies, the moment the spirit has fled incense is burnt before the corpse

until it is carried out to be buried. The begging fakirs also go

  1. See Lane, Mod. Egyptians, pp. 34, 41, 139, 187, 438 (ed. 1860).
  2. See Wellhausen, Gesch. Israels, i. 70 sqq., who from philological and other data infers the late date of the introduction of incense into the Jewish ritual.
  3. According to Philo (Opera, i. 504, ed. Mangey), they symbolized respectively water, earth, air and fire.
  4. Other accounts of its composition, drawn from Rabbinical sources, will be found in various works on Jewish antiquities; see, for example, Reland, Antiq. Sacr. vet. Hebr. pp. 39-41 (1712).