ARL Archive · Know Your Words

Clearing the Air on “Incense”

Incense artI recognized the pungent, peppery smell as soon as I walked into church: incense. I used to hate the smell of that stuff, but somewhere along the line I learned to like it. (I supposed a lifetime of going to church will do that.) What prompted this change in olfactory acceptance is a mystery, as is the relationship between the words incense and incense. Think about it: How could a word the Basic Catholic Dictionary defines as “a grainy substance made from the resins of various plants that give off an aromatic odor when burned; used in divine worship as a symbol of the ascent of prayer to God,” also mean “to make very angry; to fill with wrath; enrage” (Websters). Isn’t anger is one of the seven deadly sins?

To get to the answer this burning question, I crossed the threshold into another realm — the Anachronist Reference Library — where I scoured the sacred texts therein for answers.

The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories says, and the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins agrees, that (the substance) incense “comes from Old French encens, which comes from ecclesiastical Latin, incensum, ‘something burnt,’ the neuter past participle of incendere meaning ‘set fire to.’ It then goes on to say that the other incense (i.e., to make very angry) is associated, in the general sense, with the notion of ‘inflaming or exciting someone with a strong feeling.’ This word comes from Old French incenser, which is also from Latin incendere, ‘set fire to.’

There you have it: both words, on literal one figurative, can be traced back to the same Latin root, meaning to set aflame. Easy peasy, right?

Okay, but let’s return to what I wrote about the symbolic nature of incense (the kind you burn during religious ceremonies), because the history of its use is more interesting than you might think.

Since incense, or rather the smoke that results from burning it, has a “symbolic” role, I consulted The Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols to see what it had to say about it. The text agreed that “the rising smoke symbolizes prayers rising to heaven,” but it goes on to say that the strong aroma of incense also helped “to drive away evil spirits.” (Good thing I learned to like it….)

The Davis Dictionary of the Bible adds another wrinkle, noting that, in the days of the Old Testament, the fragrance from burning incense may have had a more practical purpose.

Where so many animal sacrifices were offered … both [in] the tabernacle and the temple, the smell of blood must have polluted the atmosphere, and the burning of incense exerted a good sanitary influence.

Incense art 2The Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (CBTEL), takes this idea of deodorizing the air a step further — but not before noting that, initially, the use of incense was frowned upon in Christianity, as it was associated with paganism. However, when pushed underground, it seems the early Christians suddenly found a use for this aromatic concoction.

It appears likely that the use of incense was first begun in order to purify the air of unwholesome chambers, caverns, etc., in which the Christians were compelled to worship, just as candles were employed necessarily, even by day, in subterranean places.

So when did incense start to be used during Christian worship in a less practical, more symbolic and spiritual way? The CBTEL estimates the 6th century.

The first clear proof of the use of incense at the communion occurs in the time of Gregory the Great, in the latter part of the 6th century. After that period, it became common in the Latin Church.

This blog post has ended. Go in peace.

Advertisements