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.
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).
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.
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.
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