Most of man’s customs and habits have had their origin in his physiological and psychological nature. This is especially true in regard to that which either gratified man or which he experienced as unpleasant. Man’s sentient experiences were the fundamental guide in his primitive state. Though we can well presume that primitive man had no concept of the nature of good and its opposite, yet those sensations that were pleasing to his senses were the preferred state, and those contrary, he avoided. Man came to select his foods by their succulence and sweetness; and that which pleased his sense of smell was likewise categorized as having a special agreement.
With the advance of polytheism and anthropomorphism, humanlike qualities were attributed to the gods that man conceived. Therefore, the gods likewise desired those substances and materials which gratified man, and were thought to be irritated by that which man found offensive. It was then incumbent upon man to placate the gods if he wished them to be propitious in their relations with him.
Special foods, herbs, barks and plants having an agreeable odour were offered to the gods in sacrificial rites. Such a practice was the beginning of magic and primitive religion. If certain areas were consecrated to the worship of the gods, such as the natural elements, the sky, earth, and stars, which were apotheosised as supernatural beings, fragrant flowers were strewn upon the ground or placed on altars. This, it was thought, made the gods conducive to the appeal of the worshippers.
The earliest of these odoriferous substances used in this manner were frankincense and certain gum resins extracted from trees and plants.
Aside from its practical uses as a mean of dispelling offensive odours or for religious rite, incense perpetuates a mystical and esoteric symbolism. To the mystical adherent, the symbolism becomes an objective form of his subjective idealism and sentiment. The burning, the scent, the smoke have no import in themselves; they simply portray the spirit of the thoughts and emotions of the user.
The glow of the fire symbolically depicts the zeal and devotion of the adherent to his cause. The fragrance, the agreeable scent, is symbolic of the harmony of transcendent pleasure. Finally, the smoke represents the ascension of the consciousness, the projection of the finite nature of man to the infinity of the Cosmic.
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