1. Introduction
  2. A general note for beginning practitioners
  3. Greek and Latin terminology
  4. Historical overview
  5. The rise of frankincense
  6. Before frankincense
  7. On frankincense
  8. Alongside and instead of frankincense
  9. The ritual experts and astral magic

1 Introduction

Incense, in the literal sense of the Latin incēnsum, means ‘something that is burned’, but more specifically, a substance (or mixture of substances) that is burned to produce fragrant smoke. Usually, though not always, it is plant matter of some kind, such as resin or juice.

The purposes of burning incense vary, but the most common in ancient literature are worship (or ritual more generally) and medicine, as well as a significant blurred area between them (“magic”). Like perfumes, they were also used as luxury goods for their own sake. This page explores only the use of incenses in ritual, for the benefit of contemporary worshippers.

2 A general note for beginning practitioners

When it comes to incense – and offerings in general, but let us stay with incense – we as practitioners often ask each other, which substance is appropriate to this goddess?, does that god like this?, will such-and-such offend him? To which the first and foremost answer must be: it depends.

If you have not been born or inducted into a community with established norms, and if you have not yet made any relevant ritual commitments yourself, there is no universal orthopraxy (‘correct practice’) which can determine what is and is not appropriate for you to offer. However we define the gods, they do not have tastes in exactly the same way as us human beings, and if some authority tells us that they do, such expressions are used for our benefit.

Differently put, an offering must be appropriate to the deity and to us, and so, what may be the right incense in one connection would be wrong in another. I do not say this to intimidate you, since you are under no obligation to know all of these contextual factors. On the contrary, it means that, however strong the precedent for a certain prescription or prohibition is, what counts is your context.

Perhaps you are living with strict Evangelical parents – then you should rather set aside incense offerings entirely than risk your safety. Or you find that a given incense cannot be sourced ethically – then hold to your morals piously, rather than making a hollow, sanctimonious gesture. Allergies, asthma, dislike of certain smells, and so on – take all these things into account, and do not hold yourself to someone else’s standards.

3 Greek and Latin terminology

Incense is called thymíama in ancient Greek, which is derived from the same root thy– (‘smoke’) that is the basis of thysía, ‘sacrifice, burnt-offering’, and a range of similar words. Thysía paradigmatically refers to the sacrifice of an animal, in which the gods’ portion would be burned on an altar. Incense would usually be cast into the fire over the animal sacrifice, and at its simplest, a burnt-offering could consist of incense alone. Secondarily, thysía also refers to offerings in general. Thus, in a certain sense, burning incense is the simplest kind of offering.

In Latin, the Greek root thy-, specifically the word thyós (‘incense, burnt-offering’) was adopted as thūs or tūs, meaning ‘incense’ but especially ‘frankincense’, because frankincense was the incense (and thus the burnt-offering) par excellence.

But Latin naturally has a native word for ‘smoke’ too, namely fūmus, which derives from the same Proto-Indo-European root as thy– (namely *dʰuh₂-). From this Latin term derive the English words ‘fume’, ‘fumigate’, ‘fumigation’ and ‘suffumigation’. On SARTRIX, I use the latter two synonymously with ‘incense offering’, and ‘fumigate’ to mean ‘burn something as incense’ (or sometimes, ‘to worship someone with incense’).

There are more terms in Greek, Latin and English we could consider, to say nothing of other ancient languages (which I may address in future revisions to this page), but this much is enough for our purposes.

4 Historical overview

It emerges from the previous section that the principal incense offering in Greco-Roman worship was frankincense – this although it long had to be imported from South Arabia (or East Africa). While absent from Homer and Hesiod (8th/7th cents. BCE), it was in use among Greeks by the time Sappho wrote (ca. 600 BCE), [Xenophanes]. It was culturally important enough in Herodotus’ day (5th cent. BCE) that he spends some time discussing its production, which was shrouded in obscurity and legends.

The Athenian philosopher Plato (4th cent. BCE) only mentions it once, still treating it as a needless luxury in the Laws, where it is advised that “no one shall import frankincense or any of the foreign incenses of this kind for the gods” (Laws 847bc). But even Athenians of the generation before Plato regarded it as a fundamental part of worship: “sacrifice, […] libate, […] offer frankincense” (Aristophanes, Clouds 426). Specifically, it was offered monthly at the Noumenia (Aristophanes, Wasps 96; Scholia: “On the Numenia, custom had it to offer frankincense to one’s statues”).

Some centuries later, Diodorus Siculus (1st cent. BCE) takes it as a given that “the entire inhabited world” uses frankincense “for the worship (timaí) of the gods” (Library of History 5.41.4). Even reactionaries like Pliny the Elder had to begrudingly admit that it “may be bought for the sake of superstition, since we(!) worship with frankincense and costus”. Frankincense in fact encapsulates divine worship: “One must assign frankincense to the gods, and praise to good people” (John Stobaeus, Anthology 3.1.187). [Artemidorus]. As we will see, even when other incenses are mentioned, it is often by saying that they can be fumigated “in place of frankincense”. After the end of paganism, the Christian churches, which had castigated the pagans for the excess of their sacrifices, maintained the use of frankincense in their rites (except for some Protestant denominations in recent centuries).

odorum causa unguentorumque et deliciarum, si placet, etiam superstitionis gratia emantur, quoniam ture supplicamus et costo. salutem quidem sine istis posse constare, vel ob id probabimus, ut tanto magis sui delicias pudeat.

Conversely, in astral magic, a medieval tradition that flowed directly out of pagan worship, frankincense plays only a comparable role to other incenses. This is not a break in continuity, but only continuity with something else – not the predominant rites in which frankincense was so central, but more specialized forms of ritual expertise, in which different substances were assigned to different deities and purposes.

With that, we have introduced all the avenues the rest of this page will follow: frankincense itself; the fumigations in use before it became current; incenses used alongside or “in place of frankincense”; and the more sophisticated lore of ritual experts.

5 The rise of frankincense

Frankincense has often been characterized as “Oriental” in modern times, as if the whole “Orient” had acted in concert to produce and offer it from time immemorial. But on the contrary, it seems that the adoption of frankincense as a central element of worship occurred only marginally earlier in Mesopotamia than further west, perhaps in the aforementioned timeframe between Homer (8th cent. BCE) and Herodotus (5th cent. BCE).

This gives rise to a curious mismatch, because this same span of time also saw, on the one hand, the invention of the Greek alphabet, but on the other, a great reduction in the use of cuneiform in Mesopotamia, in favor of other forms of writing which have not survived the ravages of time. This means that there is very little Greek writing prior to the introduction of frankincense, and relatively little Mesopotamian writing after its introduction. Thus, if we look at the question purely based on their respective literatures, it appears that the use of frankincense is a central and “early” part of Greek religion, but a “late” and marginal one of Mesopotamian polytheism – the exact opposite of the racialized view that the substance is inherently “Oriental”.

But this second conclusion is not right either, because in absolute terms, of course, the “early” Greeks and the “late” Mesopotamians were contemporaries. The proper comparison of the earlier cuneiform sources is not to classical Greek, but to the so-called ‘Mycenean’ Greek written in Linear B (16th–12th cents. BCE), or the contemporaries of Homer at the latest. Neither Mesopotamians nor Greeks seem to have made much use of frankincense in the 2nd millennium BCE; both groups began to do so over the course of the 1st millennium BCE. This is one of many reasons to think of Greece and Mesopotamia as belonging to a larger cultural sphere with a shared history, rather than separate histories that must somehow be contrasted. As far as I can see, the fumigations described in the Hebrew Bible also fit into a broad narrative of this kind (I may explore this further in the future).

[…] Egypt. Dionysius Periegeta (plus scholia)
Herodotus 1.183; Hellenistic period; Aramaic and Arabic sources

6 Before frankincense

Mesopotamia and Homer
Odyssey 5.60+scholia; Pliny on ‚thyon‘, and the opening of book 13
(?) Iliad 15.153, Odyssey 5.281 + scholia (fig?)

Hesiod’s Works and Days 338
Od. 15.256-264 / Od. 15.260-1 and Il.6.270
cf. Anthiphon 1.18

… ἢ ὅτι πρὸ τῆς τοῦ λιβανωτοῦ εὑρέσεως ἀλφίτοις πρὸς τὸ θυμιᾶν ἐκέχρηντο … (similarly in Eustathius)



Sabina: Cyranides; Pliny NH 24.102; (Pseudo-Apuleius LXXXVI?)
Propertius: et crepat ad veteres herba Sabina focos (> verbenis?)
(Ovid, Fasti 1.343f, Fasti 4.741f, Culex 404)
> before

Pseudo-Apuleius on rosemary (link); Dioscorides on libanôti-
(Servius: verbenasque)
Alii rorem marinum, quo utebantur antiqui, antequam tus inveniebatur

7 On frankincense

We have seen that some (like Plato and Pliny) saw a luxury in frankincense, albeit not, perhaps, an unnecessary one. Certainly, the substance was expensive, and merchants had to guard it zealously (Pliny, […]). Part of what it made it so valuable, however, was that very small amounts of it sufficed for an offering, whereas a sacrificial animal, naturally, had to be slain wholly or not at all. Thus, “the price of incense in antiquity” is an ambiguous thing, and we cannot equate (frank)incense offerings with lavishness (as does Graf in arguing that the offerings of the Orphic Hymns are not “inexpensive dabbling” but must be meant for larger-scale rites; see Fritz Graf, “Serious Singing: The Orphic Hymns as Religious Texts”, in: Kernos 22 [2009], p. 170).

On the contrary, although some ancient writers make it clear that not everyone could afford frankincense (see first quote from Pliny in the following section), we also find it characterized precisely as a frugal offering in other sources. In one literary description, for instance, “someone (offered) a ram, another a goat or a boar, a poor man a round cake (pópanon), and someone poorer still, lumps of frankincense; but no one (could afford to sacrifice) a bull” (Alciphron, Letters 2.33.1).

A passage from the Athenian comic poet Antiphanes is especially explicit on this point:

tais euteleiais oi qeoi xairousi gar (Porphyry, On Abstinence 2)

proper philosophical attitude: Dio Chrysostom, Oration 13.35; Artemidorus 4.2.88

libanos / libanôtos
Cyranides 1.11
Theophrastus, Historia 9.4.5
Geoponica 11.15

Iamblichus, Porphyry, Philostratus, Athenaeus

Lucian, Asinus 12
Eustathius: Πῶς δὲ στρεπτοὶ οἱ θεοί
Eustathius: qeeion
„: equse … equmiasen


Anonymi Paradoxographi, De transformationibus
Philostratus, Vita Apollonii 1.31

8 Alongside and instead of frankincense

Pliny offers a good general rule: “countryfolk, and many (whole) peoples, make offerings of milk (instead of wine) to the gods, and those who do not have frankincense offer salted flour (mola salsa), for it is never futile to worship the gods in the manner one can” (Pliny, Natural History

Pausanias: pelanoi

Scholia on Aristophanes: sch pac.1158c.1 vet λέγουσιν ἔνιοι καὶ τὰ ἄλφιτα καὶ τὸν λιβανωτὸν ἀρώματα, ὡς παρ‘ Εὐπόλιδι καὶ εὐθὺ τῶν ἀρωμάτων ἀντὶ τοῦ “ἀλφίτων”. ἐκτείνεται δὲ διὰ τὴν συναλοιφήν. V

quando nulla conficiuntur sine mola salsa
te prodigiali Iovi aut mola salsa hodie aut ture comprecatam oportuit
salsae fruges
immolari dicitur hostia, cum mola salsa in caput adiecta est;

Sch. Plut.: προθύματα δὲ ἤτοι τὰς ὀλύρας, παρὰ τὸ προθύεσθαι τῶν ἱερείων ἢ κριθὰς ἢ λιβανωτόν.

Julian, Letters: καὶ μὴν ὅτι θεοῖς τὸ σῦκον ἀνάκειται καὶ θυσίας ἐστὶν ἁπάσης ἐπιβώμιον καὶ ὅτι παντὸς λιβανωτοῦ κρεῖττον ἐς θυμιάματος σκευασίαν ἐστίν, οὐκ ἐμὸς ἴδιος οὗτος ὁ λόγος, ἀλλ‘ ὅστις τὴν χρείαν αὐτοῦ ἔμαθεν οἶδεν ὡς ἀνδρὸς σοφοῦ καὶ ἱεροφάντου λόγος ἐστί.

Galen, De succedaneis ‚anti libanou‘? Orphica Lithica Kerygmata 40, Damigeron ‚lithos antarakhatês‘. Dioscorides 1.22.1

Aristotle explaining knissa etc.
Achilles Tatius 2.15.2

9 The ritual experts and astral magic

Egyptian, PGM, etc.
Cyranides 2.1; 2.40.22; also 3.1 which I shall translate separately; 3.51.20; 4.1; 4.13; 4.26; 4.55
Pseudo-Hippocrates (Stones) 32
Damigeron XI (!!!), XVI, XXX
Galen: pros farmakeias
kinnamômos: PGM only

Incenses in the Orphic Hymns

10 Kyphi

Kyphi (Egyptian kꜣp-t) is a complex blend of ingredients used for incense by ancient Egyptian priests, and subsequently by Greco-Roman physicians. A number of different recipes survive in Greek:
[Kyphi of Archigenes.
Kyphi of Damocrates
Galen, On Antidotes (vol. 14, p. 117- … Ἐπεὶ οὖν κύφεως ἐμνημόνευσεν ὁ Δαμοκράτης
Kyphi of Dioscorides.
Kyphi of Nicolaus Myrepsus.
Kyphi of Paulus.
Kyphi of Plutarch.
Replacing Kyphi: ἀντὶ κύφεως, ἰσχὰς κεκαυμένη.]

[More recipes from Egyptian and Aramaic sources to be added in the future.]

recent innovation at Babylon > Greeks > Greco-Romans

substance was imported in great volumes from southern Arabia, although smaller quantities were subsequently also produced nearer the Mediterranean, especially in Syria.


Empedocles vs. Porphyry, as it were

Herodotus 2.40, 2.86, 3.107

Frankincense: Herodotus, Theophrastus, Strabo, Pliny
Pliny on myrrh and cinnamomum

Porphyry, Empedocles, Pliny, alphit-, etc.

Egypt? Judaism?

incense to drive away daemons?

Clear evidence that the propriety of incense offerings is malleable lies in the fact that different periods saw different substances fumigated as incense.

we are told, people used to burn rosemary before frankincense began to be imported from Arabia (Pseudo-Apuleius, Herbary ).

Pliny says that at the time of the Trojan War, cedar (or ‘juniper’, lat. cedrus) and thyine (citrum) wood were used. This is surely accurate information, since it lines up with the practices attested in cuneiform ritual texts, where cedar and juniper wood are among the commonest fumigations. Frankincense only begins to appear in late cuneiform texts, around the time that Greek began to be written down. Thus, the ‘right’ offering for the gods depended on the economic circumstances of their worshippers, and so it clearly also does in our time.

use of censers etc.

Separate page on Perfumes

[shift(?) from generic incenses to specific ones]


frankincense & co.



-note the terms for frankincense and rosemary (Pliny: libanotis odorem turis)

-Galen, Lexeis botanwn!

-(?) Nicander Alexipharmaca 107 + scholia (libanoio)

-what parts of the plants are used? Unhealthy?

-Apuleius: diebus festis ture et mero et aliquando victima… Mercuriolum

-descriptions of libanôtis (’smells of libanou‘)


-root (riza) of libanôtis

-Aelius Dionysius/Photius: kedron

-Kitrion in Etym. Magn. & Pseudo-Zonaras

-Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras 36

-Achilles Tatius, 2.15.2

-Aratus: quthrion

-non-sacrificial use


13. uiuum cespitem. Aut terra uirens aut cespes ad sacrificium.

14. uerbenas pueri ponite. Herbas sacras, ut (Verg. ecl 8, 65): Verbenasque adole pingues et mascula tura, et (Terent. Andr. IIII 3, 11): Ex ara sume hinc uerbenas tibi. Bene autem uerbenas, cespitem et tus Veneri promittit quae sanguine non placatur, ut Verg. (Aen. I 335): Haud equidem tali me dignor honore; et item (I 416. 417): Centumque Sabeo // Ture calent arae sertisque recentibus halant. tvra. Sacrificia.

15. bimi cum patera meri. Veteris uini.

16. hostia. Idest facto [Veneri] sacrificio mansuescet. mactata veniet lenior hostia. Hoc est: lenior Glycera Veneri ueniet, quam proteruam dixerat.

5. docte sermonis u. l. Superiori hoc sensui adnectendum est, ut hie ordo sit: M<a>ecenas, docte sermonis utriusque linguae, idest Graecae et Latinae. Ordo est: Maecenas, docte sermonis utriusque linguae, miraris, quid caelebs agam Martiis Kalendis, quid uelint flores et acerra plena turis et carbo positus in uiuo cespite. vtrivsqve lingvae. Idest Graecae et Latinae.

9. nam qu<a>e. Victima iam dis deuota. Ordo est: nam deuota uictima, quae pascitur niuali Algido inter quercus et ilices, aut crescit in Albanis herbis, tinguet secures pontificum ceruice. nivali. Frigido.

12. Idest magnae uictimae potentibus conueniunt.

13. te nihil attinet. Distare dicit inter publica et priuata sacrificia et aliud pontificibus conuenire, qui ad immolandum dis hostias magnas inquirunt, aliud uelut priuatum debere praeparari, hoc est aut myrtum aut rorem marinum.

14. Ordo est: te coronantem paruos deos marino rore et fragili myrto, nihil attinet temptare illos multa caede bidentium. Bidentes autem proprie dicuntur oues duos annos habentes, sic uocatae ab eminentioribus dentibus, qui circa duos annos nascuntur.

Of all offerings, the most fundamental are incenses, also called aromatics or simply spices. Pagans could would burn these for their gods after animal sacrifice had been outlawed, and medieval Muslims, Jews and Christians continued to make such “suffumigations”, as they were called, in the context of both licit natural magic and illicit sorcery (as well as orthodox rites within their respective religions).

I divide the sources into three loose categories:

  • Incenses for all Gods: overtly polytheistic texts describing either generic incenses or those for specific gods.
  • Planetary incenses: both from pagan texts and from later works of astral magic.
  • Kyphi: various recipes for the incense offered by Egyptian priests.

laurel leaves, henbane seeds (Hyoscyamus niger), myrrh, and olibanum.

Apuleius (tr by Walsh 1999) worshiped „with incense and unmixed wine“ (Defense Part V) the little gods he carried among his books. These entheogenic incenses and „unmixed wines“ (meaning spiked with any number of psychoactive plants and undiluted with water) had many common ingredients such as myrrh and frankincense, opium and ivies. He sees the goddess in her splendor with the aid of the „fertile fragrance of Arabia“ (Apuleius 1999). Apuleius‘ blending of high magic with more primitive, perhaps more dangerous, witchcraft is discussed below.

8. improbaturum h<a>uuec iouem. [Hoc est] uindicaturum. Humanae enim uictimae Ioui acceptae esse non poterant, quia a iuuamine hominum Iouis dictus est.

6. uoueram . Modo reddit, cur faciat hoc. voveram dvlces. Illo die se uouisse dicit, quo est periculo arboris ereptus. et albvm. Superis aptior erat alba uictima; nam diis infernalibus semper nigra offerri debent.

53. te decem tauri. Ad honorem enim maiorem numinum pertinet siue potentum personarum, si magnis uictimis immoletur, ut (Verg. georg. II 146. 147): Et maxima taurus // Victima.

33. Antiquorum consuetudo talis fuit, ut sublata prima mensa poneretur secunda atque in ea positis pomis infusoque uino libaretur diis.