Incense and oils are made from aromatic raw natural materials that can bring about a calming, sensual, alluring, and spiritual affect when the scent enters the olfactory channels or is daubed on the body. Indeed, the smell of highly fragrant incense and oil in the nostrils can induce an elevated mind and spirit. This entry traces the history of incense to Kernet and, in particular, to religious practices there.

Historical Background

Various fragrant herbs, flowers, fruits, gums, plants, resins, roots, seeds, and trees can be cut up, ground, dried, and soaked to become powder, stick, cone, and oil products. The use of fragrances from nature may have dated back to prehistory, and the attractive scents may have been discovered serendipitously during the burning of uniquely attractive scented wood, when people encountered exceptionally pleasant-scented dehydrated plants and roots or found alluring scented live flowers.
The people of Kernet (ancient Egypt) were masterful in the art of creating aromatic scents for sensual, sacred, and spiritual purposes. As far back as 6,000 years ago or more, during the predynastic Badari period in Kernet (approximately 4500–3200 BC), natural fragrance incense burning and body oil anointing traditions were developed and refined into an art and used during spiritual practices in homes, temples, and pyramids.
During the most sacred ceremonies and spiritual rituals, barks, bushes, dried flowers, gums, herbs, resins, roots, and trees were burnt on the altars in temples as religious services were conducted. This was also commonly done at the time of burial. The generous gifts of beautifully scented incenses and oils for the transitioned souls were a symbolic expression of love and aspiration to assist them on their travels to the next realm of existence. Archeologists found ebony chests, anhydrite urns, and alabaster unguent jars with residue of incenses, oils, and sweet herbal-scented medicine in the burial chambers for the transitioned pharaohs and queens.

Use in Worship

The people of Kernet believed that the gods loved incense and oil fragrances because the noses of the gods and people were flattered and uplifted by those sweet-scented offerings. In fact, the people of Kernet believed that incenses and oils were intimately connected with the gods and that fragrances were the breath of eternal life, which came out of the eye of the Sun God, Ra.
There are chamber wall paintings, temple-embossed gold engravings, and granite tablet records illustrating Pharaoh Ramses III (12th dynasty, reigned 1186–1155 BC) bestowing incense to Ptah; Pharaoh Ramses II (19th dynasty, reigned 1279–1213 BC) burning incense to honor Amun's shrine lifted by priest during a procession; Pharaoh Tutankhanmun (18th dynasty, reigned 1333–12224 BC) pouring enchanting scented oil on the Queen's hand; Queen Ankhesenamun massaging King Tutankhamun's arm with floral scented oil; Pharaoh Thutmose IV (18th dynasty, reigned, 1401–1391 BC) burning incense to appease and attract the gods; Pharaoh Empress Hatshepsut (18th dynasty, reigned 1479–1458 BC) monitoring the shipment delivery of frankincense and myrrh; and the import of Boswellia Carterii, Boswellia Frereana Commiphora Myrrha trees to Punt from South Arabia, Somalia, and Ethiopia.
Frankincense, myrrh, almond, and cedar were the most desired and valued fragrance incenses and oils in Kemet, as well as India and Mesopotamia. Frankincense and myrrh were just as valuable as gold in that era and hundreds of years following. It was recorded in the Bible that infant Jesus was given frankincense, myrrh, and gold by three wise men as an offering to appease, bless, and respect his coming in this realm of existence. An extensive frankincense and myrrh trade route was established from India to Kemet, which was just as prominent as the highly valued ancient gold, salt, silk, and spice routes.
The priests in Kemet used incense to assist in elevating the spiritual belief to create a positive effect on the psyche of the ill and a demon-haunted person. In a similar fashion, priests in Kemet employed strong incense to induce trances, temple sleeps, oracles, and divination visions during ceremonies.
The nonroyal people of Kemet used the sweet aroma of incenses and oils to burn on altars in their homes and adorn the body. Many of the natural incenses and oils currently available to bless and purify the home with beautiful fragrances and adorn the bodies with sweet scents for emotional and spiritual elevation are similar to those used during the zenith times of Kemet. Throughout Africa, the use of incense and oils during religious ceremonies is widely attested. The belief in the spiritual nature of incense and oil is indeed widespread, and has become an intricate part of African religion.
The art of making highly fragrant appealing incenses and oils emerged throughout various locations in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas, and other locations of the world. Currently, in the United States and other Western countries, the art of creating beautifully scented fragrance incenses and oils is associated with the “New Age” and are positioned in the marketplace as aromatherapy.



  • oil
  • dynasties
  • temples
  • burns
  • spirituals
  • gods
  • gums


Related Entries

Further Reading

  • Fischer-Rizza, S. (1998). The Complete Incense Book. New York: Sterling.
  • Fletcher, J. (1998). Oils and Perfumes of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press.
  • Loughan, J., and Bull, R. (2001). Aromatherapy Anointing Oils: Spiritual Blessings, Ceremonies, and Affirmations. New York: Frog Books.
  • Manniche, L. (2006). An Ancient Egyptian Herbal. London: British Museum Press.
  • Manniche, L., and Forman, W. (1999). Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Worwood, V. A. (1999). The Fragrant Heavens: The Spiritual Dimension of Fragrance and Aromatherapy. Novato, CA: New World Library.