When most people think of incense, they think of this:
And there’s nothing wrong with using incense cones or sticks. They’re convenient and easy to find. But there are some drawbacks to commercial incense products (and if you’ve ever gotten a headache from cheap, crappy incense, you already know that).
Unless you buy from a reputable company, it’s quite possible your commercial incense sticks or cones contain some nasty ingredients that you might not want going into your lungs — additives, synthetic chemicals, and other materials you’d be better off avoiding breathing.
Sticks and cones burn a long time, too, and if you’re using it indoors, that’s a lot of smoke. And any burning substance produces particulate matter and volatile compounds. The less you inhale those, the better.
And there are reasons you might want to level up your use of incense, particularly if you are using it for spiritual work and growth. Incense has been used for sacred and spiritual purposes for thousands of years by cultures around the world. So let’s take a step-by-step look at how you can dramatically expand your use of natural incense for aesthetic, psychological, spiritual, and magical purposes.
Stuff you will need:
- Loose incense (resin, flowers or other botanicals, wood chips, etc.)
- Fireproof container or safe commercial incense burner
- Clean sand (optional depending on your burner but adds safety)
- Quick-lighting charcoal disks
- Lighter (I prefer grill lighters)
- Metal tongs (optional but recommended)
- Mortar and pestle (optional, but nice)
You will need to procure a suitable, safe, and fireproof container in which to burn your incense. This can be virtually anything, from a fancy commercial incense burner to an old ashtray or coffee can. A cauldron-type device—like mine, shown below—is nice because the legs offer extra protection from the heat inside the container (and if you’re a witch, you probably already have one, right?).
Whatever container you choose, be sure to use it safely (and always have a fire extinguisher nearby, and never leave incense burning unattended).
If you use a large container or cauldron, be sure to fill it with a few inches of clean, sifted sand that is free of plant materials. The sand adds an extra layer of protection and absorbs the heat very effectively.
Get some quick-lighting charcoal disks (see above). You can buy them in bulk for cheap online. They’re infused with saltpeter to make them spark at the touch of a flame and burn easily.
The saltpeter does produce a mild odor that some people dislike (I don’t mind it), which fades after the coals are fully lit. If you don’t like the smell, you can get fancy Japanese incense charcoal that isn’t quick-lighting— it just takes longer and more work to get the coal hot. I prefer the convenience of the quick-lighting variety.
Metal tongs are nice if you want to be extra safe and avoid the chance of burning your fingers when lighting the charcoal.
Once you have your burner set up (safely, please, and away from anything flammable!), use your tongs to hold the charcoal disk and light the charcoal directly above your container/burner (to catch any stray sparks).
I like to use a grill lighter — again, just for extra safety, as the charcoal will begin to spark and crackle. If you’re using a normal sized lighter, be careful to avoid the sparks.
Carefully place the ignited disk into the container with the flat center facing up. Listen to the crackling and watch the pretty sparks!
Wait until the charcoal is completely covered in gray ash before adding your incense, otherwise your resin or other material will burn (resins should melt, not burn).
And now you add the magic!
There are so many choices when it comes to burning incense on charcoal — resins, wood, flowers, even kitchen spices like cinnamon and bay leaves have a long history of ritual usage.
Two of my absolute favorite resins have been used in spiritual traditions for millennia, and I call them my power duo: copal (Protium grandifolium, from Mexico and Central America) and venerable frankincense (Boswellia sacra).
These lovely nuggets pictured below are from Mermade Magickal Arts, my favorite incense retailer — copal negro from Peru (left) and superior mixed hougary frankincense from Oman (right). (I don’t get a kickback from Mermade, I just honestly love their products).
But the beauty of using charcoal for incense is the enormous variety of pure, natural materials you can burn on it. Above are rose buds and petals (left) and sandalwood chips, which smell like a heavenly Karnataka forest.
If you practice any sort of magical tradition, chances are there it has specific incense recommendations — many gods and spirits have associated fragrances that you can find in books or searching online.
If you’re just doing general magic, meditation, or spiritual work, I recommend copal or frankincense. Both are rich, evocative, and complex scents that help bring on a serene, meditative state, energetically cleanse and purify the space around you, and have been used for centuries in sacred ceremonies and worship.
I first smelled copal while watching some Mayan shamans doing healings in San Juan Chamula, a small village in Mexico, and have been enraptured by it in the decades since. Nothing transports me so quickly and deeply into elevated consciousness as the heady scent of rising copal smoke.
And a little bit goes a long way. Start with a very tiny bit of incense — a teeny pebble size. Drop it on top of the charcoal and watch the smoke rise. Resins, in particular, produce a lot of smoke from a minimum of material. Go slowly and remember—nothing ruins the mood of a ritual quicker than a bleating smoke alarm!
If you find yourself using a lot of resins, consider getting a mortar and pestle to grind up the chunks into powder for even better control of the smoke. Drop a pinch of powder on the burning coal for a quick, potent burst of scent.
Some other benefits of burning incense on charcoal:
- Unlike sticks and cones, you control the amount of smoke. This is especially great for rituals — just add a pinch of incense to the charcoal at appropriate times.
- You can use different incenses or combinations (like recreations of the famous Egyptian Kyphi blend; Mermade has an extraordinary version).
- You can experiment with various spices, herbs, and make your own blends. And there are some great books on magical incense crafting.
Some other tips:
- I like to “wash” myself with the rising smoke (a practice found in many cultures). Cup your hands and pull the smoke toward you, over your head, and down over your body. It’s powerfully energizing and cleansing and, in my experience, instantaneously shifts my consciousness. Or use a feather to wave the smoke over yourself or around your ritual space.
- If your burner has a handle, you can carry the smoke around your home (again, being aware of smoke alarms).
- If your practice involves consecration, you can use the rising smoke to consecrate objects. Some people “wash” their tarot decks this way, for example.
- Some magical traditions use the rising smoke to induce visions, or even believe the smoke forms itself into visible manifestation of invited spirits.
- You can enter an altered state and watch the smoke as a form of divination (capnomancy).
- Always try to source your incense from ethical suppliers and avoid cultural appropriation.
I hope this introduction to burning incense on charcoal has inspired you to elevate your practice. Science is beginning to catch up with ancient wisdom, as recent studies have shown frankincense, in particular, to have anti-inflammatory and antidepressant properties.
I’m putting together a video tutorial for using charcoal to burn incense as well — look for it soon on my YouTube channel.
Michael M. Hughes is a writer, speaker, and magical thinker. He is the author of Magic for the Resistance: Rituals and Spells for Change as well as numerous other works of fiction and nonfiction, and he speaks and teaches classes on magic, tarot, occultism, and more. He occasionally opines on RPGs and other deliciously nerdy pastimes, too.
His comprehensive tarot course, The Art and Magic of the Tarot: Foundations, is available here (and makes a great gift!). Upcoming classes include Tarot Magic, Going Pro with Tarot, Introduction to the I Ching, and other magical topics.
His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, CNN, The L.A. Times, Rolling Stone, Comedy Central, Wired, Elle, Vox, Cosmopolitan,and even the ultraconservative The American Spectator, which wrote: “He may play footsie with the devil, but at least the man has a sense of humor.”