about with a lighted stick of incense in one hand, and holding out with the other an incense-holder (literally, “incense chariot”), into which the coins of the pious are thrown. Large “incense trees” resembling our Christmas trees, formed of incense-sticks and pastils and osselets, and alight all over, are borne by the Shiah Mussulmans in the solennial procession of the Mohurrum, in commemoration of the martyrdom of the sons of Ali. The worship of the tulsi plant, or holy basil (Ocymum sanctum, Don), by the Hindus is popularly explained by its consecration to Vishnu and Krishna. It grows on the four-horned altar before the house, or in a pot placed in one of the front windows, and is worshipped every morning by all the female members of every Hindu household. It is possible that its adoration has survived from the times when the Hindus buried their dead in their houses, beneath the family hearth. When they came into a hot climate the fire of the sacrifices and domestic cookery was removed out of the house; but the dead were probably still for a while buried in or near it, and the tulsi was planted over their graves, at once for the salubrious fragrance it diffuses and to represent the burning of incense on the altar of the family Lar. The rich land round about the holy city of Pandharpur, sacred to Vithoba the national Mahratta form of (Krishna)-Vishnu, is wholly restricted to the cultivation of the tulsi plant.
As to the θύεα mentioned in Homer (Il. ix. 499, and elsewhere) and in Hesiod (Works and Days, 338), there is some uncertainty whether they were incense offerings at all, and if so, whether they were ever offered alone, and not always in conjunction with animal sacrifices. That the domestic use, however, of the fragrant wood θύον (the Arbor vitae or Cailitris quadrivalvis of botanists, the source of the resin sandarach) was known in the Homeric age, is shown by the case of Calypso (Od. v. 60), and the very similarity of the word θύον to θύος may be taken as almost conclusively proving that by that time the same wood was also employed for religious purposes. It is not probable that the sweet-smelling gums and resins of the countries of the Indian Ocean began to be introduced into Greece before the 8th or 7th century b.c., and doubtless λίβανος or λιβανωτός first became an article of extensive commerce only after the Mediterranean trade with the East had been opened up by the Egyptian king Psammetichus (c. 664–610 b.c.). The new Oriental word is frequently employed by Herodotus; and there are abundant references to the use of the thing among the writers of the golden age of Attic literature (see, for example, Aristophanes, Plut. 1114; Frogs, 871, 888; Clouds, 426; Wasps, 96, 861). Frankincense, however, though the most common, never became the only kind of incense offered to the gods among the Greeks. Thus the Orphic hymns are careful to specify, in connexion with the several deities celebrated, a great variety of substances appropriate to the service of each; in the case of many of these the selection seems to have been determined not at all by their fragrance but by some occult considerations which it is now difficult to divine.
Among the Romans the use of religious fumigations long preceded the introduction of foreign substances for the purpose (see, for example, Ovid, Fast. i. 337 seq., “Et non exiguo laurus adusta sono”). Latterly the use of frankincense (“mascula thura,” Virg. Ecl. viii. 65) became very prevalent, not only in religious ceremonials, but also on various state occasions, such as in triumphs (Ovid, Trist, iv. 2, 4), and also in connexion with certain occurrences of domestic life. In private it was daily offered by the devout to the Lar familiaris (Plaut. Aulul. prol. 23); and in public sacrifices it was not only sprinkled on the head of the victim by the pontifex before its slaughter, and afterwards mingled with its blood, but was also thrown upon the flames over which it was roasted.
No perfectly satisfactory traces can be found of the use of incense in the ritual of the Christian Church during the first four centuries. It obviously was not contemplated by the author of the epistle to the Hebrews; its use was foreign to the synagogue services on which, and not on those of the temple, the worship of the primitive Christians is well known to have been originally modelled; and its associations with heathen solemnities, and with the evil repute of those who were known as “thurificati,” would still further militate against its employment. Various authors of the ante-Nicene period have expressed themselves as distinctly unfavourable to its religious, though not of course to its domestic, use. Thus Tertullian, while (De Cor. Mil. 10) ready to acknowledge its utility in counteracting unpleasant smells (“si me odor alicujus loci offenderit, Arabiae aliquid incendo”), is careful to say that he scorns to offer it as an accompaniment to his heartfelt prayers (Apol. 30; cf. 42). Athenagoras also (Legat. 13) gives distinct expression to his sense of the needlessness of any such ritual (“the Creator and Father of the universe does not require blood, nor smoke, nor even the sweet smell of flowers and incense”); and Arnobius (Adv. Gent. vii. 26) seeks to justify the Christian neglect of it by the fact, for which he vouches, that among the Romans themselves incense was unknown in the time of Numa, while the Etruscans had always continued to be strangers to it. Cyril of Jerusalem, Augustine and the Apostolic Constitutions make no reference to any such feature either in the public or private worship of the Christians of that time. The earliest mention, it would seem, occurs in the Apostolic Canons (can. 3), where the θυμίαμα is spoken of as one of the requisites of the eucharistic service. It is easy to perceive how it should inevitably have come in along with the whole circle of ideas involved in such words as “temple,” “altar,” “priest,” which about this time came to be so generally applied in ecclesiastical connexions. Evagrius (vi. 21) mentions the gift of a θυμιατήριον by the contemporary Chosroes of Persia to the church of Jerusalem; and all the Oriental liturgies of this period provide special prayers for the thurification of the eucharistic elements. The oldest Ordo Romanus, which perhaps takes us back to within a century of Gregory the Great, enjoins that in pontifical masses a sub-deacon, with a golden censer, shall go before the bishop as he leaves the secretarium for the choir, and two, with censers, before the deacon gospeller as he proceeds with the gospel to the ambo. And less than two centuries afterwards we read an order in one of the capitularies of Hincmar of Reims, to the effect that every priest ought to be provided with a censer and incense. That in this portion of their ritual, however, the Christians of that period were not universally conscious of its direct descent from Mosaic institutions may be inferred perhaps from the “benediction of the incense” used in the days of Charlemagne, which runs as follows: “May the Lord bless this incense to the extinction of every noxious smell, and kindle it to the odour of its sweetness.” Even Thomas Aquinas (p. iii. qu. 83, art. 5) gives prominence to this idea.
The character and order of these historical notices of incense would certainly, were there nothing else to be considered, justify the conclusion hitherto generally adopted, that its use was wholly unknown in the worship of the Christian Church before the 5th century. On the other hand, we know that in the first Christian services held in the catacombs under the city of Rome, incense was burnt as a sanitary fumigation at least. Tertullian also distinctly alludes to the use of aromatics in Christian burial: “the Sabaeans will testify that more of their merchandise, and that more costly, is lavished on the burial of Christians, than in burning incense to the gods.” And the whole argument from analogy is in favour of the presumption of the ceremonial use of incense by the Christians from the first. It is natural that little should be said of so obvious a practice until the fuller development of ritual in a later age. The slighting references to it by the Christian fathers are no more an argument against its existence in the primitive church than the similar denunciations by the Jewish prophets of burnt-offerings and sacrifices are any proof that there were no such rites as the offering of incense, and of the blood of bulls and fat of rams, in the worship of the temple at Jerusalem. There could be no real offence to
Christians in the burning of incense. Malachi (i. 11) had already
- This guarded statement still holds good. Compare Duchesne, Christian Worship (Eng. trans., 1904), ch. ii., “The Mass in the East,” v. “The Books of the Latin Rite,” and xii. “The Dedication of Churches.”