04 September 2007

I, thurifer swing the Holy Smoke

may our prayers ascend to heaven like this sweet smoke

Mankind has used incense, in its earliest forms, since the dawn of human history. With the discovery of fire, our ancestors would have realised that most materials give off a unique and sometimes powerful aroma when burnt. The difference between the smell of a handful of Parsley and that of a Pine tree branch is greatly emphasised when each is burnt. Then as now, the air is quickly filled with intoxicating aromas simply by throwing some dried leaves, spices or twigs into a fire.

There is historic evidence in most cultures that our ancestors used incense burning for sacred and healing purposes. From ancient times people recognised that aromas produced by burning materials could heighten the senses, both sight and smell. When early man gathered around his fire, the smell of aromatic woods, herbs and leaves carried by heaven-wards spirals of smoke was a rare sensory pleasure. From this discovery it was no doubt a short step to dedicating fragrant products to the Gods, by adding them to a fire, which would also carry the good wishes and prayers of men upwards on the heat of the flames. Other benefits ascribed to the burning of incense included the purification of an area, to change a mood to facilitate meditation or religious practices and to cleanse and disinfect living spaces, especially after pollution caused by, for instance, death or illness.

Several thousands of years before the advent of christianity, the plants, herbs and spices that produced the best incense were traded as highly desirable commodities. For many years Frankincense from the Arabian peninsula was actually a more valuable currency than gold or silver. In almost every religion, aromatic oils, leaves and powders were considered a gift from the Gods, symbolic of divine grace. Frankincense was used in vast quantities by the ancient Egyptians, Persians and Assyrians, and via them, by the Romans, who would have learned of its use when coming into contact with eastern nations.

The significance of the belief that the three wise men brought Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh to the infant Jesus was both the princely nature of the gifts and their symbolic significance. Frankincense was a costly gift literally "fit for a king," while Bitter Myrrh referred to the bittersweet fate awaiting the messiah.

Incense has been employed in the worship of the vast majority of christian groups since antiquity, particularly in the Roman catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, but also in Anglican and Lutheran Churches.

Incense may be used in christian worship at the celebration of the eucharist, and at solemn celebrations of the Divine Office, in particular at Solemn Vespers.

A silver thurible

A thurible, a type of censer, is used to contain incense as it is burned. A server called a thurifer sometimes assisted by a "boat bearer", approach the person conducting the service with a thurible with burning charcoals.

A silver incense boat

Incense is taken from what is called a "boat", and usually blessed with a prayer. The thurible is then closed, and taken by the chain and swung towards what or who is being incensed.

Aside from being burnt, grains of blessed incense are placed in the easter candle and in the sepulchre of consecrated altars. Many formulations of incense are currently used, often with frankincense, myrrh, styrax, copal or other aromatics.

Swing Low Sweet Chariot

The smoke of burning incense is viewed by many of the Roman catholic and Eastern Orthodox faith as a sign of the prayer of the faithful.

The mammoth Botafumeiro thurible @ the cathedral Santiago de Compostela. It is the largest in the world. "Botafumeiro" means "smoke expeller"

This famous giant thurible is hanging from the ceiling at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in the autonomous community of Galicia located in the northwest region of Spain.

Suspended from the ceiling of the cathedral, the swinging of this 5 foot high silver vessel is quite a sight, possibly only surpassed by the spectacle of a lone man hurling himself at the swinging vessel to bring it to a stop.

One of the explanations for the great size of the Botafumeiro is that in the early days it was used to freshen the air in the cathedral after being visited by droves of travel-weary pilgrims.

The swinging Botafumeiro dispensing clouds of incense

Shovels are used to fill the Botafumeiro with about 40 kg of charcoal and incense. The thurible is tied to the rope with elaborate knots. The censer is pushed initially to start its motion. Eight red-robed tiraboleiros pull the ropes, producing increasingly large oscillations of the censer. The thurible's swings almost reach the ceiling of the transept. The incensory can reach speeds of 68 km/h as it dispenses thick clouds of incense.

Cute little mini-Botafumeiro

The censer or thurible played an important part in the ancient religious worship both of the Jews and Pagans. It is no wonder, then, that its employment in christian ceremonies goes back to the very earliest times. Its primitive form, however, was quite different from what it is now, being something like a vase with a perforated cover to emit the perfumed odours.

Later on chains were added for greater convenience in manipulation. These vessels in the Middle Ages were often made of gold and silver and enriched with numerous details of most elaborate ornamentation.

The mystical meanings ascribed to incense by the church hardly differs from those of our ancestors. By its burning, incense symbolizes the zeal of the faithful, its sweet fragrance echoes the "odor of sanctity" believed to be exuded by saints and martyrs, and its rising smoke symbolizes the ascent of prayers to heaven. Also, incense creates a cloud, which is another symbol for godliness.

From Ancient Rituals to Modern Day Holism, incense is the shit, YO.

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