Burning Incense in Berlin: on the Power of Herbs and Stay-At-Home Exorcists

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I noted that some of the stores in the Berlin neighbourhood where I reside took to burning incense ‘for protection,’ as the vendors claimed. At around the same time, an increasing number of stalls in our local open-air market started selling incense and other herbal fumigants. Neighbours and friends recommended to gargle solutions or use nasal sprays that contained essential oils to protect from the coronavirus or took to burning incense or scent diffusers. And one of the adult learning courses offered by our municipality in the second half of 2020 (“Räuchern mit Kräutern und Harzen,” Fumigation with Resins and Herbs) was advertised with the claim that the essential oils released in the act of fumigation not only pleased our noses, but also purified and protected from “sickening germs”. Interested in the olfactory element in different cultures of hygiene in pandemic times, I decided to participate.

Different types of incense on display in a stall at the open-air market on Maybachufer, Berlin December 2020 (Foto: C. Liebelt)

Fumigation and the burning of incense, mostly herbs and resins, are ancient ritual practices that precede the use of personal fragrants. In fact, the notion of ‘perfume’ originates from the Italian parfumare – to perfuse with smoke or smoke through. Incense has a long history as a demonifuge and is an important part of multi-sensorial religious practice world-wide. In many contexts, particular fumigants create a smell of holiness or are considered sacred in themselves, as is the case with camphor in Hinduism (McHugh 2014) or frankincense in Orthodox Christianity. Moreover, incense is commonly considered therapeutic and has long been used for healing, for example in traditional Chinese medicine (Habkirk and Chang 2017). Indeed, many of the resins, herbs and essential oils used for fumigation actually do have antiseptic properties of which its users are usually well aware of. From a medical materialist position, the use of incense is regarded as ‘a superstitious kind of disinfectant’ (Kenna 2005: 6), a survival from pre-Pasteurian miasma theory, the belief that epidemics and diseases are caused by ‘bad airs’ and malodour (cf. Corbin 1986). However, in the Euro-American imaginary, fumigants also carry important symbolic meanings. In Christian and Jewish liturgical traditions, the act of fumigation constitutes a sacrificial offering and evokes spiritual transformation more generally; the ascending smoke symbolises the immortal soul or breath of life, a link between the material and the immaterial, between heaven and earth. As Margaret Kenna (2005: 15,11) points out in her research on Greek Orthodox olfactory practices, the smoke of incense is ‘a medium of inter-connectedness with the transcendent world,’ forming an important part in church services giving the believer ‘a glimpse of what heaven is like’. Incense may also be used to mark territory as sacred, such as in Buddhist or Daoist pilgrimage (Habkirk and Chang 2017).

Burning incense at a Chinese Buddhist pilgrimage site on Mount Wutan. (Foto: David Wilmot, via Wikimedia Commons)

The municipal course mentioned above took place shortly before Germany’s second Corona lockdown in mid-November 2020, in the private suburban home of the course leader, a retired female landscape gardener and herbal expert. Due to the pandemic regulations, the course was limited to eight persons, all of whom were middle-aged to elderly women. Some were already into burning incense while others were simply curious or in search of distraction from dire everyday routines as stay-at-home moms or pensioners. In the introductory round, two elderly ladies talked about the use of frankincense during church services, which reminded them of their childhood; others recounted how they had lately rediscovered incense sticks, which they had last used in their teens. One participant, a palliative caretaker in her mid-fifties, talked about a transformative experience of consuming and buying white sage from “an Indian” in a US American nature reserve that she visited during a journey that she undertook after she lost her first husband. The course leader agreed that “Indians” knew how to use the power of herbs and possessed knowledge that “we” had long lost.

Over the course of three hours, we burned incense with the help of different techniques. We learned about the effects of burning a multitude of herbs, resins and even mushrooms and with the smoke wavering above our heads shared memories triggered by their scents. The course leader told us about spiritual creatures that resided in her garden and encouraged us to use fumigation to purify not only our homes, but also our bodies, for example after using public transport. She was convinced that fumigation could be of great therapeutic help during the COVID-19 pandemic, not only due to its meditative and relaxing aspects, but also to purify and drive away ‘bad energies’. ‘We shouldn’t rely on vaccinations exclusively,’ she stated and gave as an example angelica, a medicinical plant which had been of great use in Cholera epidemics already. She offered us small pieces of the sweetly scented root to chew on and herbal infusion to drink. Finally, we learned that she also burned incense in special house purification rituals to exorcise demons, occasionally performed for an exclusive clientele. These rituals were in great demand these days, she told us. Returning home from fieldwork that day, I could not help but wonder why it took me almost two decades of professional practice before engaging in fieldwork ‘at home’. It turned out that the place where I resided was utterly surprising and actually quite exotic.

Accessories used for burning incense during a municipal training course, Berlin November 2020 (Foto: C. Liebelt)

A few weeks later, I met one of the course participants again, the palliative caretaker, to learn more about her interest in burning incense. Burning incense helped her to regain control whenever she sensed that something was wrong, she said. Since we last met, she had been infected with COVID-19 and was yet to recover from anosmia, a temporary loss of smell caused by the coronavirus. The last time she had burnt incense, she remembered, was during the winter solstice, in a ritual that was commonly celebrated among the female herbal community that she had grown part of in the past few months. Thus, the burning of incense had recently given rise to a digital community of ritual practice across distance as our former course leader was now offering Zoom meetings to connect with her former course participants. Sitting in front of their computers in their respective homes, in these meetings the women burned incense together yet apart, in search of sociality, comfort or healing.

References

Corbin, A. 1986. The Foul and the Fragrant: Odour and the French Social Imagination. Leamington Spa, Hamburg, New York: Berg.

Habkirk, Scott and Hsun Chang. 2017. “Scents, Community and Incense in Traditional Chinese Religion,” Material Religion, 13 (2): 156-174.

Kenna, Margaret E. 2005. “Why does incense smell religious?: The anthropology of smell meets Greek Orthodoxy,” Journal of Mediterranean Studies, 15 (1): 1–20.

McHugh, James. 2014. “From precious to polluting: tracing the history of camphor in hinduism,” Material Religion, 10 (1): 30-53, DOI: 10.2752/175183414X13909887177501

The smell of Covid-19: notes from Berlin during the lockdown

Shortly before the beginning of the Coronavirus lockdowns, I embarked on a new project on the social and cultural configurations of smell. While originally, I planned to focus on perfuming and deodorising in relation to cultural notions of beauty, what came to the fore in both my everyday life and the scholarly literature that I read, was the smell of hygiene –subsequently giving rise to a new research focus and the name of this blog. In this post, I would like to assemble a few research notes and observations on smell in coronatimes and my changing smellscape, living in Berlin during the Covid-19 lockdown. Does the pandemic smell, and how? What are the olfactorial shifts that I noted? In writing about these things, I also grapple with another question, perhaps the most difficult of all, namely, how to write about and record smell and odours?

Smell is ephemeral and cannot be recorded like sound or vision. Moreover, the language we have to describe smell is rather poor. Reading on the role of smell and odours in medical history and history more generally, as I currently do, I cannot help but think that over the past century or two our capability to detect and articulate odours has become even poorer. Not least, I’m certainly not ‘a nose’ (un nez in French), as they say in the French perfumery industry studied by Bruno Latour for an article published in 2004. That is, like most of us, I’ve never been systematically trained and educated in detecting, articulating or creating odours and scents respectively.

One of the first things that come to my mind when thinking about the relation between smell and Covid-19 is the relation between smell and the virus itself. Thus, a loss or a changed sense of smell is one of the effects of the coronavirus, as noted by the World Health Organisation. Rather late, on May 18, the British NHS officially added the loss or changed sense of smell to its list of coronavirus symptoms. Here, the loss of smell is described as ‘unpleasant,’ though usually ‘not serious;’ nevertheless, the experiences of those suffering from this loss, called anosmia, speak of a serious irritation. The olfactorial power of the virus, however, is twofold: what is less widely known is that the virus also produces a particular kind of smell. While this smell is undetectable for humans, even ‘the noses’ described by Latour, in the past few weeks, dogs trained by researchers at the University of Helsinki have succeeded in sniffing out Covid-19 patients by distinguishing between different urine samples.

Blossoming cherry tree along the canal in Treptow donated from Japan in 1990 (photo: C. Liebelt)

Moreover, there are changes in the urban smellscape that are related to the Covid-19 shutdown rather than the virus itself. No longer taking the subway to the university or squeezing into the bus to take my daughter to school in the mornings, my personal everyday smellscape has certainly changed quite dramatically in the past few months. Staying at home most days and keeping physical distance while shopping, I’m hardly ever confronted with the bodily smells of others from close up. Moreover, in the first few weeks, with traffic in the neighbourhood coming almost to a standstill, there was an incredible improvement in the air quality that could not only be heard, but also smelled. Thus, I wonder whether the dramatic change in the urban soundscape during the shutdown –chirping birds, rather than traffic– contributed to a general intensification of attentiveness and sensorial experiences such as the olfactorial, reported by many of my interlocutors and experienced myself?

The period of shutdowns also coincided with the arrival of spring in Berlin and during April and May, intensive musky and floral scents were carried through the air. Not far from where I live, the 45 cherry trees planted in 1990 along the former border between East and West Berlin by a Japanese TV channel as part of the so-called Sakura Campaign to mark the reunification of Germany started blossoming and I walked there almost daily to indulge in this visual and olfactorial spectacle.

Unbranded hand sanitizer in a restaurant in Berlin-Charlottenburg in mid-May (photo: C. Liebelt)

A novel smell that came to dominate the smellscape of our apartment building and indeed, of many public and commercial buildings, is the smell of cleaning and sanitizing agents. In mid-March, in the beginning of the lockdown in Berlin, one of our neighbours used an extensive amount of sanitizing agent to disinfect the staircase and door knobs. Its acid smell continued to waft in the building for days. In the weeks that followed, I heard and smelled a lot of cleaning going on in our neighbours’ apartments. Similar to what has been reported for the epidemics of the 19th and 20th century (as described, for example, in Corbin’s masterful The Foul and the Fragrant) in confronting the pandemic, many of our neighbours obviously resorted to purifying and deodorizing their private spaces.

Newly discovered imported tobacco-scented Eau de Cologne from our Turkish corner shop (photo: C. Liebelt)

Now was the time to take stock of the hand sanitizers that we had at home: there was one in the car, an antiseptic in the bathroom, a couple of Sagrotan® cloths in the medicine cabinet.. To my taste, they all smelled rather horrid. I wondered, will their olfactorial attack on my nose affect my ability to smell? While ‘medical’ disinfectants were sold out almost everywhere, they nevertheless became ubiquitous, especially in their acrid olfactorial presence. Friends, who had rarely ever used hand sanitizers before, now carried them along in their handbags and increasingly used them. Many Turkish friends used traditional Eau de Cologne, rediscovered in Turkey as hand sanitizer due to its high alcohol content. Even my partner acquired a tobacco-scented Eau de Cologne, the classical kolonya used during his teenage years in Istanbul, from our Turkish corner shop. Another friend, whom I met for occasional walks around the block, used lemon-scented spectacle cloths to sanitise her hands. After mid-May, cafés and restaurants, offices, museums, libraries and even swimming pools and sport and fitness clubs reopened, given their so-called ‘hygiene plans’ had been approved by the municipality. Hand sanitizers for employees and customers/ visitors formed an important part of these. Again, I noted that many Turkish-owned cafés and restaurants use scented kolonya instead of ‘medical’ hand sanitizers, creating a different olfactorial atmosphere altogether.

Hand sanitizer offered at the entrance of the municipal library in Berlin-Neukölln; the sign reads ‘Please disinfect your hands’ (photo: C. Liebelt)

Now that we enter month four of the Covid-19 lockdown in Berlin, things are slowly returning to a fragile and different kind of normal everyday life. Cars and buses are back in the streets and with them, traffic emissions and exhaust smell. However, the smell of cleaning and sanitizing agents, I suppose, will stay with us for quite another while.