Odoriferous plants of various origins and species growing in various parts of the ancient Near East became important elements in the religious, political, and economic life of the region beginning in the third and second millennia BCE and increased in importance in the first millennium BCE. The sap, wood, bark, roots, and fruit of the plants were used both as incense and as ingredients in perfume and medicine. Trees and shrubs growing in East Africa and South Arabia, such as Boswellia papyrifera and Boswellia sacra, yielded frankincense; Commiphora myrra yielded myrrh. Both of these incense substances were already important trade commodities from the region called Punt in southern Egypt and from South Arabia to cultures in the Fertile Crescent in the second millennium BCE (cf. the reliefs at Deir el-Baḥari in Egypt representing Queen Hatshepsut's expedition to Punt, and Tell el-Amarna letter 269, 1. 16). Other incense-producing trees grew in what are today Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. They include Astragalus gummifera, which yields gum tragacanth; Cistus laurifolius, which yields ladanum; Commiphora balsamodendron and gileadensis, which yield the balm used in various medicinal ointments; Liquidambar orientalis, which yields storax; Pistacia lentiscus, which yields mastic; and, finally, Pinus brutia, which yields an oleoresin, used by the Sumerians for medical purposes.

Although the use of incense is considered a symbolic expression of a mythic reality in the ancient Near East, there are hardly any traces of etiological myths explaining the origin or beginning of the use of specific incense materials. This is surprising in a world permeated by mythology because myth legitimizes the use of specific materials for specific purposes. The only complete myth of origin of a specific incense material is found in Ovid's Metamorphoses (10:298–518). It deals with the origin of myrrh and legitimizes its use in connection with death and funerals. The Hebrew Bible testifies to various uses of incense, but has no myth of origin; it only informs us that God likes the smell of offerings, including or excluding incense (cf. Gn. 8:21; Lv. 1:9, 2:2). The gods of ancient Assyria-Babylonia also appreciated the fragrance of incense offerings (cf. the Gilgamesh epic, 11:158). Even in Egypt, where so much incense was burned, there is no myth of origin, although there is the Egyptian word for incense, snṯr, “that which makes divine.” In the linguistic metaphors and images connected with incense there are hybrid expressions of exalted feelings that allow for the use of mythological images in connection with incense. For instance, incense is called the Eye of Horus, although it does not play any major role in the myths connected with Horus and Osiris. The term is, therefore, a symbolic expression at best. In the pyramid texts, which describe the funeral and the worship of the dead ruler, it is said of the dead king about to become a god that his “sweat is the sweat of Horus,” his “odor is the odor of Horus,” referring to the incense fumigation in the cult of the dead king. Incense makes divinity.

Incense and the Human Body.

Although there is no myth of origin for the use of incense in the ancient Near East, it can still be maintained that its use is legitimized by myth—by the gods—simply because its use is supposed to be appreciated by the gods. This appreciation has far-reaching consequences for the way it is used. It seems that the earliest use of incense is connected with death, funerals, and the worship of the dead. In Egypt the pyramid texts relate the funeral of the dead king. The mythic idea of the ceremonies associated with the funeral and the cult of the dead king is to make him a god who lives forever. It is for that purpose the incense is being burned. Incense enables the king to obtain the stated purpose because it possesses divine qualities: it purifies from putrefaction and evil odor, it protects against evil, and it bestows upon the king the odor of the divine world, from where incense mythically derives. Incense furthermore facilitates the physical transference of the king to heaven: the smoke forms a staircase from earth to heaven. Incense is able to make the dead live again because death in the ancient Near East was never considered a natural necessity but, rather, a mythic accident.

Incense material was also used in embalming the dead body. It was thought to preserve it and keep it alive. Incense has the same function in the cult of the dead. In the tombs statues representing the dead were erected in inaccessible rooms that the Arabs call serdab, “basement.” These rooms have one or two small openings in one of the walls through which the cult of the dead person could take place. The serdab statues were fumigated with incense to assure that the dead stay alive. The same belief can be found behind the Phoenician sarcophagus inscription from Byblos that tells its reader that the dead person lies in myrrh and bdellium.

In the Bible there is only slight evidence of the use of incense at funerals: for example, Joseph's body may have been prepared according to Egyptian standards (Gn. 50:26). 2 Chronicles 16:14 describes the funeral of King Asa. His bier is said to be filled with all kinds of spices prepared by the perfumer's art. Incense may have been among those spices, but Israel did not share the same profound belief in the divinity of afterlife as the Egyptians. Thus, the Israelites used less incense at funerals and in the cult of the dead. The same is true for Assyria-Babylonia; like Israel, it had a more somber view of life after death.

The belief that incense ultimately derives from the gods is also responsible for its use as medicine. Medicinal use is amply testified in Egyptian and Assyro-Babylonian medical texts and in the Bible. Jeremiah 8:22 seems to indicate that ṣŏrî (“storax”?) could be used to cure diseases and wounds. It is also a mythic idea that incense used as a perfume is able to make an individual divinely beautiful. Perfume is thought to transfer a person to another, more elevated sphere of life (cf. the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut, who perfumes herself in myrrh oil or stacte, a sweet spice used in preparing incense; cf. Sg. 5:5).


INCENSE. Chalcolithic incense burner, c. 3500 BCE. (Courtesy Pictorial Archive)

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Incense in Divine Worship and in Trade.

The use of incense in divine worship was widespread throughout the ancient Near East in pre-Christian times. At Medinet Habu, the temple of Rameses III, the priest fumigated the statue of Amun to pave the way for the god who, in the morning, would enter his image. Fumigation with incense meant purification and offering in a single act, an offering intended to attract and soothe the deity at one and the same time. Ashurbanipal gave an excellent reason for using incense in divine worship: he maintained in a prayer that the “gods inhale incense.” The Hebrew Bible relates that there were daily incense offerings in the Temple in Jerusalem in front of the Holy of Holies. This so-called tāmîd ritual was enacted to purify the room, to attract and please the deity, and to protect the priests in the Temple area.

The ritual use of incense required altars and such incense tools as censers, shovels, and containers, which, in variant forms, have been unearthed at various locations and identified in reliefs and paintings. Among them is the incense burner in the shape of an arm and hand, which is especially characteristic in the reliefs and paintings of Egyptian culture. The horned incense altar belongs to the Canaanites and Hebrews (cf. Ex. 30:2), as examples excavated at Megiddo from the tenth-ninth centuries BCE testify. The small South Arabian cubic burner inscribed with the names of incense materials is well known from many sites in South Arabia. One was recently found at Baraqish, in Yemen, in a fourth-century BCE context. The same type of burner has also appeared at Beersheba, Lachish, and elsewhere in Israel in eighth-fifth-century BCE contexts. Incense shovels have been found at Tel Dan in Israel (eighth century BCE) and may be the same type of utensil as the tool described in Levitcus 16 as used by the high priest on Yom Kippur in the Temple in Jerusalem. The incense shovel is later depicted in synagogue art. It appears, for example, in the mosaic floor of the synagogue of Severus at Hammath Tiberias (250–300 CE), where it seems to depict a symbol of Jewish worship in the Jerusalem Temple. Numerous ceramic incense shovels of this kind have also been found in the excavations at Sephoris in Israel. [See Dan; Hammath Tiberias; Sepphoris.]

The use of incense created vivid trade relations between South Arabia and the Fertile Crescent (cf. the potsherds with South Arabian inscriptions found in Jerusalem from the seventh to sixth centuries BCE), between Egypt and Syria-Lebanon (cf. Gn. 37:25 and many Egyptian literary sources), and between Egypt and Punt. That trade, which included many other commodities, created vast riches and therefore had political consequences: as early as the beginning of the first millennium BCE, the Neo-Assyrians and Babylonians expanded toward the south and west to capture the incense trade. This same trade, in a later period, with the Ptolemies in Egypt and their dominions (cf. the Zenon papyri), became one of the foundations of the kingdoms of Petra and Palmyra. [See Petra; Palmyra.]

The New Testament relates that Jesus was buried with myrrh and aloe used as ointments (cf. Jn. 19:38–42). In ancient Greece and Rome, fumigations at funerals and in divine worship were common. It seems that the non-Jewish Christians continued the habit of fumigating at funerals but, wanting to distance their liturgy from pagan cults, were reluctant to use incense in divine worship in the first three centuries of the common era. During the fourth century, however, the literary and archaeological evidence suggests that a change took place. In the Syrian church, the Testament of St. Ephraim recommends the use of incense in worship. The Western church also begins to use incense in the fourth century, and Christian censers begin to appear in strata from that time. The idea behind the use of incense in the Christian church is to honor God, to exorcise evil, and to symbolize prayer (cf. Ps. 141:2).


INCENSE. Iron Age II stone incense spoon, c. 800 BCE. (Courtesy Pictorial Archive)

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The Jews abandoned the use of incense with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Only in the Havdalah ceremony, which marks the end of the holy Sabbath and the beginning of the profane week, do the Jews continue the use of fragrant spices. A benediction was and still is uttered over the box containing the spices, a symbolic act that utilizes the fragrance of the aromatic plants as a device to comfort the Jewish soul saddened by the end of the Sabbath.

[See also Burial Techniques; Grave Goods; Medicine.]


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  • Atchley, Edward G. C. F. A History of the Use of Incense in Divine Worship. London, 1909.
  • Hepper, F. Nigel. “Trees and Shrubs Yielding Gums and Resins in the Ancient Near East.” Bulletin on Sumerian Agriculture 3 (1987): 107–114.
  • Martimort, A.-G., ed. Handbuch der Liturgiewissenschaft, vol. 1, pp. 179–180. Freiburg, 1963.
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  • Nielsen, Kjeld. Incense in Ancient Israel. Supplements to Vetus Testamentum, vol. 38. Leiden, 1986.
  • Zwickel, Wolfgang. Räucherkult und Räuchergeräte. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis, 97. Göttingen, 1990.

Kjeld Nielsen