Thinking about the senses in Orthodox worship, and having displayed some of my collection of bread seals, I turned to the olfactory sense, and began to organize my collection of censers and thuribles, and my collection of incense (including ingredients for making incense).
The incense collection includes the ordinary (as, for example, olibanum, mastic, and frankincense) and the (now) extremely rare. The latter is represented by “Dragon’s Blood”: Dragon’s blood is a bright red resin that is obtained from different species of a number of distinct plant genera: Croton, Dracaena, Daemonorops, Calamus rotang and Pterocarpus. The red resin was used in ancient times as varnish, medicine, incense, and dye. It was obtained from the Canary Islands and the island of Socotra. With the development of synthetic dyes and varnish, the commercial need for Dragon’s Blood (for example, for staining violins) has essentially disappeared.
Susan Ashbrook Harvey “Scenting Salvation. Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination” University of California Press, Berkeley, 2006 421pp is a fascinating study of incense, oils and perfumes in early Christianity.
“This book explores the role of bodily, sensory experience in early Christianity (first – seventh centuries AD) by focusing on the importance of smell in ancient Mediterranean culture. Following its legalization in the fourth century Roman Empire, Christianity cultivated a dramatically flourishing devotional piety, in which the bodily senses were utilized as crucial instruments of human-divine interaction. Rich olfactory practices developed as part of this shift, with lavish uses of incense, holy oils, and other sacred scents.
At the same time, Christians showed profound interest in what smells could mean. How could the experience of smell be construed in revelatory terms? What specifically could it convey? How and what could be known through smell? Scenting Salvation argues that ancient Christians used olfactory experience for purposes of a distinctive religious epistemology: formulating knowledge of the divine in order to yield, in turn, a particular human identity.
Using a wide array of Pagan, Jewish, and Christian sources, Susan Ashbrook Harvey examines the ancient understanding of smell through religious rituals, liturgical practices, mystagogical commentaries, literary imagery, homiletic conventions; scientific, medical, and cosmological models; ascetic disciplines, theological discourse, and eschatological expectations. In the process, she argues for a richer appreciation of ancient notions of embodiment, and of the roles the body might serve in religion.”
“Susan Ashbrook Harvey has surely produced the definitive analysis of the role of scent in Early Christian ritual and theological discourse. This is a welcome new trajectory in the study of religion and the body.” – Patricia Cox Miller, author of “The Cultural Turn in Late Ancient Studies: Gender, Asceticism, and Historiography”
The standard work on incense in the Christian tradition is: E.G.C.F. Atchley “A History of the Use of Incense in Divine Worship” London, Alcuin Club, 1909
The Jewish origins of the Christian use of incense are important; see: Kjeld Nielsen “Incense in Ancient Israel” E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1986, and Paul Heger “The Development of the Incense Cult in Israel” New York, Walter de Gruyter, 1997.
The more general Middle Eastern context is considered in: Violet MacDermot “The Cult of the Seer in the Ancient Middle East” London, Wellcome Institute of the History of Medicine, 1971