Smoke carries our energy, prayers, and petitions upwards to the Gods and the sweet scents are most pleasing to them.
"But we will certainly do whatsoever thing goeth forth out of our own mouth, to burn incense unto the Queen of Heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto Her, as we have done, we, and our fathers, our kings, and our princes, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem: for then had we plenty..."
Like most who have been raised Catholic, the smell of frankincense brings back memories of heavy white clouds of incense rolling through somber Church services, sitting on hard backed wooden pews and trying not to fidget under mother's watchful eye as the priest intones his prayers whilst splashing holy water about. When I left the church after my second year in college, I greatly missed the peace and the sanctity of ritual. I craved that moment when you felt outside of yourself, in connection with something so much greater. The scent of incense always brought it crashing back to me. Cheap incense is burned in copious amounts throughout the dorms, flats, and dingy apartments across our campuses. Kids experiment with new spiritual traditions and various mind altering chemicals. Buddha statues, puffing dragon burners, Ganesh t-shirts... all part of the scene. The scent of genuine incense always transported me beyond either kitschy college experimentation or the droll worldly authority of the church. Flickering candles, sanctified water, and perfumed air... I was trained to be a Witch before I even knew what it meant to be of the Craft.
Although I do have a few longtime favorite incense stick brands, I much prefer to work with raw natural resins. I go out of my searching for organic fair trade resin incense, having several varieties from different regions in my collection. Some are so expensive and precious that I might only burn a bit once a year. I've learned how to make traditional Egyptian Kapet, or Kyphi as the Greeks called it. These heavily scented resin pellets take many days to manufacture, adding one ingredient a day. I also make several types of herbed incense blends, combining granular resin, aromatic woods, dried spices, flowers, and essential oils for specific purposes.
Resins incense is obtained from barks, saps, roots or woods in their natural form. Resins will not burn on their own. They require charcoal and a heat resistant burner. Some plants need to properly dry before being burned. You can also add drops of essential oils to granular resin, wood, or dried herbs before burning to layer scent and energy.
Burners made of soapstone or clay readily disperse heat. Metal versions in brass, copper, or iron are fine too but be very careful about handling them as they hold the heat. Although many Witches prefer to use little black iron cauldron, I generally use a Mayan style clay bowl with a short thin leg under it that I can easily handle and move about the room with.
There are many brands of charcoal tablets but I like swift-lite. These can be ordered online or found locally in Christian stores, metaphysical shops, smoke shops, hookah cafes, and middle eastern grocers. Usually I will break a tablet in half or even quarters. Again a little goes a long way.
Fill the burner with a bed of sand, rice, or rock to absorb the heat. I've made lovely colored censor sands using aquarium ingredients, marbles, & crystals.
Place the burner on a protective surface that is nonflammable and heat resistant. Marble coasters, flat rocks, or porcelain tiles will protect the tabletop surface from the heat. If burring stick or cone incense go ahead and place lit incense on or in the rocks. If burning resin incense, light the charcoal and once the spark has traversed the entire charcoal and the briquette is glowing hot (you can tell by blowing on it a little), it's time for the resin to be placed on the charcoal. You can also put a layer of table salt over the charcoal to reduce the heat, slowing the burning process to produce a heavier fragrance. Start by burning a very small amount of resin at a time as this type of incense can smoke more heavily than powdered herbs or stick incense. A little will go a long way. Then add more as desired. For beginners, I recommend starting the process outdoors, or on the stove top under the exhaust fan to control the amount of incense fragrance and smoke being released.
At no time should you touch the charcoal briquette once lit. It is very hot and will burn you. If you need to move the charcoal once lit, us tongs, or a metal spoon or fork. Be cautious when touching or moving the soapstone container during or after the charcoal has been burning on it. Be aware of how hot the bottom of the burner is getting so that it does not damage the surface it is on. If the bottom is hot, you need to add more non-flammable material such as rice, rocks or sand. Or put a thicker barrier between the bottom of the burner and your surface.
I suggest beginning with frankincense. It is readily available, has a range of prices, and burns easily. You can then begin to sample myrrh, benzoin, dragons blood, copal, and any number of other types of resin. Consider what you have in your own environment. Pine sap and green juniper cones are very fragrant. Learn the associations, the energies, and the history of different resins. Far from being simply a 'dressing' on a ritual, the resin can lead to deeper understanding within any working. They come from living plants and are a gift to us.