Last week I was a guest on West Coast Fog Radio in Los Angeles. WCF is a weekly show on luxuriamusic.com hosted by longtime pal Erik Bluhm. He plays 1960s to 80s California-centric sounds. Erik and I discussed incense at length on the show, while listening to New Age cassettes and some Grateful Dead rarities. It was a lot of fun. Below is a link to the Podcast of the show.
The term "Paleo" here is a reference to incense ingredients that predate recorded history. Burning incense is an ancient practice that puts us in touch with memory, both personal and ancestral.
What is Amber scent? Sweet. Syrupy. Floral but earthy. Some say an aphrodisiac. It is a classic fragrance!
There are two types of Amber I will look at in this post:
- Commercially available Indian Amber Resin
- True Fossilized Amber Tree Resin
The product commercially sold as Amber today comes from India. It is a soft sugary compound or masala of various aromatic components- attars, oils, tree resins, gums and powders. Used traditionally, A small piece placed in a rosewood or sandalwood box can release fragrance for a very long time. It is sometimes burned on top of charcoal. Because there is no ingredients list when it comes to commercially available amber, we can't be sure that it is a purely natural product, though some claim to be organic. Nonetheless. amber is an enchanting scent. So what makes it smell like that?
Here's a list of common ingredients found it Indian Amber that contribute to it's distinctive scent.
- liquid benzoin resin
- liquid styrax resin
- Galbanum resin
- flower attars such as jasmine or champa
- herbs such as patchouli
- binders such as beeswax or ghee
Some excellent varieties of Amber can be purchased on these sites:
Indian Amber does not usually work well as an incense ingredient for cones, sticks, or dhoop because it contains wax (usually beeswax) or ghee- clarified butter. Most commercially available Incense that is labeled "Amber" fragrance is scented with a synthetic fragrance oil and is not a natural product. But solid amber has natural origins.
True Fossilized Amber Resin. This is tree sap that has been buried in the earth for long amounts of time, and is fossilized. It is said to have a fragrance when ground up and burned but from my sources, it is not a remarkable fragrance. it is available from online dealers for this purpose.
Historically, true fossilized resin has a long history of use in magic, ritual, and the crafting of ritual objects. It is associated with the Sun.
I love this little story from the Somaluna.com website:
"The Greek name for this amber was elektron, "formed by the sun", and it was connected to the sun god Helios, one of whose titles was Elector or the Awakener. According to the myth, when Helios' son Phaëton was killed, his mourning sisters became poplars, and their tears became the origin of elektron, amber. The ancients also noted that if they rubbed the amber for long enough, they could even get an electric spark to jump. Our word electricity comes from their word for Amber."
Tree resins only reveal their true aroma profile when burned. They are often the secret ingredient in many incense blends, lending a level of complexity unequaled by artificial fragrances.
- Frankincense - This tree resin is known to have many chemical components, some unique only to it's species. It is so complex that it's fragrance can not be duplicated in a lab. It's timeless fragrance can be described as clean, piney, and lemony. Some of the ancient species of Frankincense are extinct at this point, but today the finest product comes from Oman.
- Dragons Blood - In Sumatra, the berries of the Daemonorops Draco tree exude a red resinous sap that drips to the floor of the forest. It is wild harvested by locals and formed into fist sized balls for trade. The fragrance is sensual, earthy, and sweet. It blends well with Patchouli, Thyme, or Red Sandalwood. Dragons Blood is one of the key ingredients in the Zouz Bacchus Blend.
- Copal - Native to the Americas, Copal is a clean smelling, fast burning resin that comes in varieties of white, gold and black. It blends well with most incense ingredients especially Cedar, Juniper, or Palo Santo. It is considered sacred in many native cultures.
- Guggul - This relative of Myrrh from the Indian Bdellium Tree is especially sweet, sensual and clean smelling. In it's natural form it is very soft and gooey. It blends well with Sandalwood, Aloeswood, Calmus, Orris Root or Benzoin. It is widely used in ayurvedic medicine.
- Sal - Another tree resin from India with complex notes of Spice, Musk, and evergreen terpenoids. It is said that Buddha died between two sacred Sal trees. It mixes well with Juniper, Pine, Spruce and Cedar.
Burning incense is an ancient practice that puts us in touch with memory, both personal and ancestral. The term "Paleo" here is a reference to incense ingredients that predate recorded history - they are natural, unprocessed materials that early man valued for their aromatic and esoteric properties.
Here's a list of five prehistoric incense ingredients:
Benzoin - a sweet soft fragrance that comes from the dried sap of the Asian tree Styrax Benzoin or Styrax Tonkinesis. A pleasing fragrance associated with stimulating creativity and soothing the senses. It is a common ingredient in many popular incense blends today. In India it is associated with the deities Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.
- Juniper - Ancient shamanic cultures have revered Juniper as a sacred plant. The wood, branches and berries are all useful incense ingredients and have been discovered in prehistoric firepits around the world. I think of Juniper as the top Paleo incense ingredient. It's purpose has remained unchanged- used in cleansing and healing, the rejuvenating fragrance connects us to ancient times.
- Spruce - The sap, wood and needles of this stone age evergreen were used long before the discovery of Frankincense, as both an incense ingredient and an aid to health. In later times it was used as a substitute for frankincense because of it's citrusy aroma. Old herbal books mention a technique of intensifying the aroma by placing Spruce resin in an anthill for a specific amount of time. Supposedly, the acid secreted by the ants produced an alchemical transformation in the resin. I'd love to get some of that!
- Frankincense - The dried resin of the evergreen tree Boswellia family is a historically prized incense ingredient. It's origins in the Arabian Peninsula and subsequent trade routes have lasted over a millennium. It has always been associated with heavenly or spiritual energies and is also used to purify space.
- Cedar - Varieties of this aromatic evergreen species are found throughout the world. In the Native American traditions, cedar is widely associated with aiding visions and helping the body and mind in times of stress. It's use as an incense ingredient is widespread in the cultures of the Himalayas, The Mediterranean, and ancient Egypt. Cedar is one of the key ingredients in the Zouz Copalo Blend.