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Incense is a product of aromatic plant matter, often with an oil or resin as a base. In the Orthodox Christian practice, incense is an important liturgical implement which is often considered distinctive to the Faith as well.

Incense is burned in a gold censer and ignited by burning charcoal. Customarily, the censer is suspended by chains and swung; however, a hand censer can be used when necessary. The censer is employed only by the priest and/or deacon to venerate all four sides of the altar, the Holy Gifts, the clergy, the congregation, icons, and the church structure itself.

History and practice

Ancient World

The use of incense dates back to ancient times but the origin is uncertain. It may have originated in Sumerian and Babylonian cultures, where the gum, resins of aromatic trees, were imported from the Arabian and Somali coasts to be used in religious ceremonies. Its use was common in the pagan worship rituals of the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Assyrians, and Babylonians.[1] In the Roman period there were cases of Christians being martyred for refusing to offer incense to idols.[1]

Temple of Jerusalem

Incense was used as a perfumed offering on the altar of incense in the time of the Tabernacle and in the First and Second Temple periods, being an important component of priestly liturgy in the Temple in Jerusalem. The incense offered in the Temple is described in the Book of Exodus as a mixture of stacte, onycha, galbanum and frankincense.

  • "And the Lord said to Moyses: Take for yourself spices - oil of myrrh, onycha, galbanum that is sweet and translucent frankincense, each shall be in equal proportion. And they will make it incense, perfumed work of a perfumer, mixed, pure, holy work. And you shall beat some of it small and place it before the witnesses in the tent of witness, there where I shall be known to you. It shall be a holy of holies for you. Incense according to this mixture you shall not make for yourselves. It is to you something made holy to the Lord. Whoever makes such as this, so as to be scented with it, shall perish from his people." Exodus 30:34-38 (Septuagint).[2]

Thus in accordance with Old Testament tradition, incense is used in every Church service. It is burned as an offering to God even as it was in the days of the First and Second Jewish temples.

Christian Worship

From an indication in Revelation 8:3-5 incense was used in sub-Apostolic Christian worship, however there is no clear evidence of its Christian use until about the year 500.[3] Censers may at first have been fixed, with the introduction of portable censers originating later. The incensing of the altar, church, and congregation, is first recorded in the 9th century.[3]

Emperor Justinian bestowed 36 golden censers with precious gems to the Cathedral Church of the Holy Wisdom, and according to the testimony of Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (908-959), Byzantine Emperors entering the Church offered incense at specific censers.[1]

The faithful will often burn incense using a hand censer in the home during Morning and Evening Prayers, and it is common for the head of the household to bless the Holy Icons and all of the members of the household with a hand censer.

Theological significance

Incense represents prayers of the saints lifting up into the heavens before God. This is evident from the blessing verse of the celebrant of the censer before incensing begins:

  • "We offer to Thee, Christ our God, this incense as a spiritual fragrance; receive it, we pray, to Thy heavenly altar and send down to us, in return, the grace of Thy Holy Spirit."[3]

And elsewhere:

  • Psalm 140:2 - "Let my prayer be set forth before You as incense, The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice."[4]

Incense is also described as being used in heavenly worship, offering the faithful a foretaste of what is to come.

  • Revelation 5:8 - "Now when He has taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints."[5]
  • Revelation 8:4 - "And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel's hand."[6]

Composition of the Holy Incense

Biblical and Judaic Usage

The recipe for making the holy incense, given in Exodus 30:34-38, names four components. The same quantity of each was to be taken and, mixed with salt,[note 1] made into a confection.[7] These were: stacte, onycha, galbanum, and pure frankincense (the resin of the olibanum-tree, being one of the various species of Boswellia indigenous to Arabia Felix).

In later tradition[note 2] seven others spices were added to these, namely: myrrh, cassia, nard, saffron, kostus, cinnamon, and aromatic-bark.[7]

Josephus speaks of thirteen ingredients, agreeing with the fact that in other sources the following two herbs are mentioned:[7] Jordan amber, and a secret unknown ingredient - known in Hebrew as ma'aleh ashan, literally "that which causes smoke to rise" - which has a quality which enabled the smoke to rise up to heaven in a straight column.[note 3]

Modern Usage

Normally, the resin of the Boswellia sacra plant (frankincense) is used as a base for incense manufacturing; however, resin from fir trees has also been used. The resin is often infused with a floral oil, producing a fragrant scent when burned.

In the Athonite tradition, incense is often sprinkled liberally with clay dust to prevent granules from clumping.

See also


  1. Only the salt of Sodom ("melaḥ Sedomit") could be used.
  2. Given by Maimonides, "Yad," Kele ha-Miḳdash, ii. 1-5.
  3. In our own time, some have speculated that this may be the plant Leptadenia pyrotechnica, which contains nitric acid.
    • Rabbi Chaim Richman & The Temple Institute. INCENSE. The Temple Institute.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 (Greek) Christodoulos (Paraskevaides) of Athens. "Ἡ Προσφορά τοῦ Θυμιάματος." Εγκύκλιοι. ECCLESIA: ΔΙΑΔΙΚΤΥΑΚΟΣ ΟΙΚΟΣ ΕΚΚΛΗΣΙΑΣ ΤΗΣ ΕΛΛΑΔΟΣ. 11/10/2001.
  2. A New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS). Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (Eds.). Oxford University Press, 2007. ISBN 9780195289756
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Rev. Nicon D. Patrinacos. "Incense (Greek: θυμίαμα)." In: A Dictionary of Greek Orthodoxy - Λεξικον Ελληνικης Ορθοδοξιας. Light & Life Publishing, Minnesota, 1984. p. 205.
  4. Psalm 140:2. The Orthodox Study Bible (SAAS). St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology, 2008. p.773.
  5. Revelation 5:8. The Orthodox Study Bible (NKJV). Thomas Nelson Inc., 1982. p.1722.
  6. Revelation 8:4. The Orthodox Study Bible (NKJV). Thomas Nelson Inc., 1982. p.1726.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Immanuel Benzinger, Judah David Eisenstein. INCENSE. Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906.

External links


Online Catalogs


  • (Greek)
Christodoulos (Paraskevaides) of Athens. "Ἡ Προσφορά τοῦ Θυμιάματος." Εγκύκλιοι. ECCLESIA: ΔΙΑΔΙΚΤΥΑΚΟΣ ΟΙΚΟΣ ΕΚΚΛΗΣΙΑΣ ΤΗΣ ΕΛΛΑΔΟΣ. 11/10/2001.
  • (Greek)
Λιβάνι. Βικιπαίδεια.
  • Immanuel Benzinger, Judah David Eisenstein. INCENSE. Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906.
  • Joseph Jacobs, Immanuel Löw. NARD. Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906.
  • Rabbi Chaim Richman & The Temple Institute. INCENSE. The Temple Institute.