Incense and alternatives

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A regular issue for people who have scent or smoke allergies (or who live with or do ritual with people who do) is what to do about incense in ritual. This article talks about alternatives and options.

  • What are your actual limitations and why?
  • What is the incense used for in your ritual? Given that, what options make sense for your needs?

What are the actual limitations?

There are a number of different reasons incense might be a problem for someone, so knowing what the precise issue is can help figure out the best alternatives. Some common reasons include:

Prohibited:

This is common in dorms and some rental homes. Sometimes that’s because of fire hazard concerns, sometimes it’s because incense can mask the use of drugs that are illegal in that space. Sometimes it’s because it may affect other residents significantly due to the ventilation and public spaces of the building.

Materials or type of incense:

Some people react strongly to things that aren’t directly about the incense. For example, I have problems with incense made from cheap materials, and especially artificial fragrance oils. I do not have a problem (in a well-ventilated room and with moderate amounts) with incense made from high quality materials and natural oils,

Some people do much better with incense without a wooden core (cone or the Japanese stick incense that is just pressed powdered ingredients). Some people do better with a censer and resins.

Ingredients:

Many people are allergic to some herbs or other materials, but not necessarily all of them. If this is the major concern you have with incense, you may want to experiment cautiously with different ingredients.

For example, if you have ragweed allergies, you may also react badly to chamomile – they’re related species – but you might not react to lavender. I’ve circled with people who are very reactive to lavender and rose and patchouli, but we found other scents that worked for all of us.

A number of people find that they react to artificial scents but not to more natural ones (or at least, there’s a range of natural scents they can use), so if you’ve only tried artificial scents, it may be worth trying others.

Smoke:

If smoke is a problem in general, you might want to look at alternatives such as essential oil warmers or diffusers, or perfume you apply to your skin or can put on a cotton ball or small swatch of cloth. These won’t necessarily work well in ritual if you want to move the scent around, but can work for other uses.

Scent:

Some people are just allergic to scents, or scent is a migraine trigger or other health problem. If this is the case for you or someone you’re working with, you’ll want to look at other alternatives than incense, oils, or scent of any kind.

Environment or amount:

The amount of incense you or someone else can tolerate may vary depending on the space. One stick of incense in a large, well-ventilated room is very different than a bunch of sticks over a couple of hours in a small stuffy space. One reason I like stick incense is that it’s easy to light it, use a small amount, and then stub it out when you’re done with it, rather than having to wait until it burns away, like you do with either cone incense or censers.

What are you using incense for?

There are a lot of different reasons that you (or a group) might use incense in ritual, and knowing the reasons that apply will help you make the best choices about alternatives.

Specific practices:

One part of my specific tradition’s practices involves the use of stick incense for one part of our circle casting (there’s another part where incense is preferable but could be more easily altered, too.) that there isn’t a good alternative to.

So, for practice in my tradition’s method, if someone had an issue with incense, I’d want to explore whether there were other options that might work for them (different ingredients, scents, makers.) before I looked at not using incense at all (because that would be a more complicated conversation with other members of the tradition.)

Scent to help create atmosphere or associations

Using an oil infuser can work well for this, if essential oils or natural perfumes are tolerable and incense smoke isn’t. The little wax warmers can work well, too. If having it in the air is a problem, a few drops of the relevant scent on your wrist (if it washes off quickly) or on a small piece of cloth in a container you can close when it’s not in use can also work.

Herbal associations:

If your focus is mostly the association with a particular magical concept or goal, then it’s usually possible to build in a different form of that herb or association. For example, if you would normally be burning a particular incense for prosperity, you could use dried herbs in a small cloth bag or pillow, as part of a floor wash, bath, or spray, or something similar.

Representation of air

Common alternate representations for air include feathers and feathers. Some people also use items like bells, chimes, or a fancy pen. These may work well instead of incense.

(One nice trick with ribbons – and this can work well for elemental altars – is to get cheap ribbon, the kind that comes on slim rolls. Get four or five colours for each element – so shades of pastel blue and pink and purple/pale yellows/pale gray/maybe white depending on your associations – and combine 3-6 strands of each colour, tied in a knot at one end. These can be hung near altars, waved around, put on an altar, etc. in a variety of uses, but they pack up small and don’t take a lot of management once they’re made.)

One place these options don’t always work is if your blessing method includes combining water and salt (saltwater), and air and fire (incense). You could consider carrying a candle and using a fan to waft smoke from the candle around the room.

Intention and atmosphere:

There are lots of other methods of creating an atmosphere that speaks to your senses, and many of them are useful in ritual. Since scent is a powerful one for our memories and bodies (a lot of groups use the same incense or similar ones as a trigger of ‘now we are in ritual mindset’ so just avoiding it can be less than useful here), you can try things like making a cup of tea before you begin, having a specific food that you can link with scent memories, etc. instead.

If you need to avoid things with scent or smoke, then stepping up on other aspects may be worth doing – things like altar cloths, decorations that change for the ritual (even something as simple as some inexpensive flowers, silk flower decorations, or ribbons can do a lot without being a lot to maintain).

Lighting can help a lot – right after Christmas is a great time to get decorative lights on sale, and plugging in a strand of those in your ritual space rather than using overhead lights goes a long way to saying “this is a ritual, not whatever else I normally do here.”

Some material in this article came from an online forum discussion.

Last edited: January 1, 2017

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