If I’ve learned one thing about the way the general public feels about incense, is that it was something hippies used since the 6os to cover up their dope smell. What most are unaware of is what old and venerable traditions are connected to the love of scent, particularly in its spiritual and aesthetic connections, that incense is almost like any other sphere of interest, 90% of it is not worth looking at and the other 10% has a depth that takes quite a bit of research to suss out. Most incense you’ll find by walking into your local new age store or head shop is cheap and often synthetic, creating blends that smell like bad perfume rather than the natural smells of resins and herbs.
Incense appreciation happens to be way up there on my list of hobbies, I almost think of it as the “smell” equivalent to the “hear” of music, but it’s also used by hermetic groups in rituals. The principle behind this is similar to the idea, of going about your business and all of a sudden coming across a smell that reminds you of a time 10 years ago and brings back memories. It can be very associational.
I’d have to go back to a bit for an example. In the 90s I discovered a line of charcoal-burning incense by a company called Mermade Magickal Arts. Unfortunately the company seems to have gone out of business, but in its prime it provided the most powerful and affecting incenses I’d ever used. At the time I was playing music with a band and when I first got samples of their blends, one of them was called Shamanic Dreams or something. One of the most richest and powerful blends, it apparently even contained an herb or two that were quasi-hallucinogenic, and what I remember most was that I smelled this incense the rest of the night even after leaving the studio and getting out into open air. Unfortunately, the last time I ordered Mermade blends, I didn’t feel the same sort of resonance and noticed that the offending herbs were removed, probably due to some sort of intervention. The resulting blends just weren’t the same.
Anyway, I plan on writing a series of articles about the subject, including the differences between loose and stick incense, the various ingredients that go in, and talk about some personal favorites as well. And with that, I’ll introduce you to a few old and perennial favorites.
Probably the first incense that indicated how much better quality could be found would be Mystic Temple’s line of (mostly) Indian incenses. This is an extraordinarily strong line with some of the best durbar/champa incenses on the planet. My favorites:
Transcendence – A champa/durbar that seems to have a nice touch of musk to it, it’s one of the most gorgeous smells I’ve ever experienced, in fact I occasionally run across women who use a similar perfume, so I wonder if this is actually an approximation of that. Whatever it is, it’s clearly not synthetic and I generally recognize it by its pink stick.
White Frankincense – A relatively new brand, this is actually an Omani incense and is closest to what I think of as Golden Frankincense or Frankincense Champa in that it’s durbarish with an incredible, sunny smell. If cornered, this might be my favorite incense of all time, but I adore frankincense, at least the high quality stuff. It’s a thick, dark stick and shouldn’t be confused with Mystic Temple’s Frankincense Champa, which appears to be what they used to call Amber Champa.
Vanilla Amber Champa – one of the most long-lasting incenses on the planet, this incredible odor lingers long after burning it, an almost dry vanilla/amber scent that almost always draws a comment from friends if I’m burning it. Often a little on the expensive side, it’s well worth it. Perhaps the Rare Essence Collection’s Vanilla Amber is better by a hair, but they’re both different enough to be worth having stock on hand.
Golden Champa – This is Mystic Temple’s variant on the classic “red and gold” Sai Flora incense, except MT’s variant has always struck me as the freshest. It’s a very earthy smell, in fact I’ve seen several people comment that it reminds them, of all things, manure, but I suspect it wouldn’t be a best seller if that was true (I’m hardly selling it here I bet) as this is one of the most amazing, complex brands on the market. It’s also about the biggest stick you’ll find and 100g of this will have about half the number of sticks for any comparable blend.
More next installment…