Mike’s Prattle


Incense on the Tree of Life

Posted by Mike on March 29, 2012

This page in Lyam Thomas Christopher’s book Kabbalah, Magic and the Great Work of Self-Transformation and this one from a thelemic perspective both give correspondence lists on the tree of life for perfumes and incenses. In Christopher’s book, these correspondences are used imaginatively as part of an exercise (which is described in the same link). This article assumes you’re familiar with basic kabbalah, if not I’d recommend Dion Fortune’s The Mystical Qabalah as a good starter.

There isn’t much explanation given in the use of these scents, which is a shame because there are absolutely vast differences in quality for many of these ingredients, not to mention there are a few that are either in or starting to move towards endangered status. So I thought I might suggest some scents to start with not only to be able to build more accurate images of these scents that connect more fully with each sephirah but to suggest similar incenses that can be used in any ritual situation.

For Malkuth we have patchouli. Patchouli is almost always inexpensive but like all the ingredients here it can vary in quality from the heady reek of the guy standing next to you at a Dead show to something much sweeter and evergreen. Its correspondence to earthiness is more or less assured no matter what quality you use and while the sweeter Himalayan patchouli is probably the most pleasant scentwise, you’re going to get the most palpable earthiness from a stick like Shroff Channabasappa’s Patchouli. This quality seems to come out the most when the material is at its herbiest – sticks with patchouli oil don’t tend to communicate this as well.

Yesod’s correspondance is jasmine and really never did a more perfect scent match up with the lunar qualities of this sephirah. But like most floral aromas, jasmine can vary vastly in quality and in some cases the finest jasmine oils actually seem to drift away from their lunar qualities into something more refined. A good yesodic jasmine should have an almost wavering, mirage-like quality to it. Most standard Indian masala lines have decent jasmines, for example Triloka comes to mind. There are also some very fine quality high end jasmine or jasmine blend incenses, for example Kyukyodo’s Azusa or the high end jasmines in the since deleted Shoyeido Floral World line, but that almost reflective quality seems to have been refined out of these. The jasmine quality in Nu Essence’s Moon is nearly perfect as an example of what the oil should smell like, but the incense is a bit too much of a blend to enforce the correspondence. I’d recommend sticking with the Triloka stick or perhaps one of the Pure Incense versions.

Hod often shares lavender as a correspondence with the air element. Most lower end lavender oils should be extremely familiar as it’s in an ingredient common in household air fresheners. However the cheaper oils will never stop reminding you they’re oils and the mental activity one might associate with Hod is best brought out when a lavender scent is a little more herby. One good example might be Ancient Forest’s Lavender Dream, a reminder nicely reinforced by the company’s octagram based logo. I hesitate to recommend a few of the Mother’s nag champa blends since I would think the sweetness might cancel out the herbiness, but if the classic lavender oil bothers you, then something like Ganesh or Purusha Nag Champa might work.

Netzach is where it gets a lot tougher. Rose essential oil is almost prohibitively expensive so the lion’s share of rose incenses are approximations, floral blends or often geranium-heavy. A really good example of a blend would be Pure Incense’s Connoisseur Rose, but perhaps a good suggestion would be to search out a bakhoor such as Duggat-al Oud Ma Wardh Taifi. It’s important to get as close to the real thing with rose, as its scent is part and parcel of its symbolic value and the best bakhoors often get extra dimension from the rose via the use of aloeswood (an ingredient that varies enough to have its own correspondences). Also, like I mentioned with jasmine, if you can locate one of the top line Shoyeido Floral World sets, the rose is about as high definition as you might find outside of a rose otto. Of utter importance, the rose scent must be beautiful and moving – there are lots of really bad rose incenses on the market so beware.

Frankincense leads the list of gifts given to the newborn Jesus by the magi, and fits nicely on Tiphareth. However I would say the lion’s share of cheap frankincense doesn’t reflect the solar qualities that it should, the qualities that tend to come out when the frankincense is high quality and very lemon-citrus. You can maximize this quality by using high grade hougary Frankincense. Or if you need to use sticks, there are a couple excellent Japanese frankincense sticks that exhibit the solar qualities missing in most sticks, Tennendo’s Frankincense and Minorien’s. The latter comes close to Catholic church blends, while the former is less of a blend with something of a melon note. While recent news suggests a frankincense shortage on the horizon, there still seems to be plenty of quality resin available, at least for now. Olibanum is also a good alternative, although even its highest quality doesn’t really match hougary and tends to the orangey rather than lemony.

I’d guess dragon’s blood ended up associated with Geburah due to the color, but it’s never struck me as particularly Martian in scent. Dragon’s blood tends to vary very little as a resin and certainly Fred Soll’s stick would fit the bill nicely (particularly as you’re mostly going to find this scent in cheaper charcoal lines). However, I think tobacco or pepper might fit the sephirah a bit better in terms of hotness, but as neither are particularly pleasant to use, it’s difficult to think of a good substitute. Part of the difficulty is a lot of hot ingredients are also spicy and tend to fall under Tiphareth (like cinnamon and clove). But perhaps part of getting this right is understanding that Geburah isn’t necessarily pleasant and perhaps neither should the incense be.

Cedar is a highly inexpensive ingredient and like many it varies from the smell of your pencil to something a lot more stately. Given we’re dealing with Chesed here I think it’s essential to make sure your cedar is of the highest quality. Cheap cedarwood is used as filler in Tibetan incenses and isn’t likely to do much more than irritate your sinuses. However, Triloka and Pure Incense do cedarwood masalas and Indian sticks tend to a sweeter Himalayan cedarwood oil that should bring out the regal correspondance to Chesed quite nicely. A Japanese alternative is Nihon Senko Seizo’s Momiji Koh, which isn’t as sweet but is still quite stately.

Myrrh can be a very difficult resin to deal with as it might have the widest range in quality out of all these ingredients ranging from etheral to downright unpleasant. Most of what you will buy will be in the bottom half, and myrrh also has a way of coming out very understated in sticks. If you’ve never tried a good myrrh then you’re largely missing out on its Binah connections which tend to really sing when the resin is high quality and sublime. Yemeni myrrh is the finest quality and unfortunately it’s very difficult to recommend a stick form that’s even remotely in the same tier. Frankincense will tend to give all it has right up front, but myrrh is far more subconscious and strange and to this day I don’t think I’ve nearly exhausted all of the subscents that spiral off of good myrrh. Be sure you’ve tried it before imagining the scent.

Musk is even more difficult to pin down, out of all of these scents this will likely have the greatest diversion in source, quality and scent. Real musk, which is largely outlawed due its source being that of a dead musk deer, can largely be only found in countries like Japan where ecological laws are lax and even then it’s usually in a form that needs to be diluted to work as a scent. There is a gigantic difference between an herbal musk you’d find in any incense shop and a high end deer musk used in an expensive Japanese aloeswood (a really good example of this is Kyukyodo’s expensive Musashino which has one of the strongest hits of real musk you might ever witness). Tibetan incenses (the ones actually from Tibet itself rather than stylistically) also have high quantities of musk but in these scents they come off more animalistic and less perfume.  The occult correspondence lists are old enough to be referring to the real thing and in terms of correspondance the musk I mention in Musashino is definitely a bit closer to Chokmah due to its almost sweet, crystalline like qualities, but such a scent isn’t likely to be affordable (on the other hand a low ender like Benizakura is also musk heavy). Fred Soll used to make an excellent and affordable (and environmentally friendly) Egyptian Musk but it appears to be a deleted item. It’s difficult to know what to recommend in this case when your choices are either an expensive Japanese incense using animal ingredients or a bad one, but I would suggest that the less animalistic, sweltery and funky your musk is, the more it’s likely to correspond to Chokmah.

At the top of the tree we have Sandalwood. While Sandalwood doesn’t vary a lot in scent, it does vary a lot in quality and the huge difference between the powder in a cheap incense and a slice of wood from an old tree are profound. At its best sandalwood will even convert those that are usually turned off by it, as the better woods increase in crystalline resinous quality and a sense of age and quality like you’d find in a good aged wine or scotch. Good sandalwood is also quite rare but still reachable, Daihatsu provide amazing and robust chips for sale, and if you want similar quality in a stick you can go for Baieido’s Byakudan Kobunboku or if you really want to blow your mind the Byakudan Kokoh. We’re reaching for the top of the tree here and your job will much easier if you’re not associating sandalwood with butter, vanilla and other subnotes found in cheaper sticks.

I’ll be posting a link to this article in Olfactory Rescue Service as despite the occult ideas in this article, it should suffice fairly well as an introduction to different scents. Another reason I wanted to write this is I’d like to talk about aloeswood next time which to many incense lovers is the pinnacle of the incense experience. However I don’t think aloeswood fits anywhere comfortable on the Tree of Life because it varies vastly in scent and quality.


8 Responses to “Incense on the Tree of Life”

  1. […] written a long article on my other blog based on incense use in the Western esoteric tradition. It might also be of use to […]

  2. Julia said

    This was a very interesting article! I can’t wait to try Byakydan someday. For now, I like Dhuni Sandalwood but I know it must be on a different plane from the Byakudan.
    I’m always in search of a good jasmine incense, so I will try your recommendations. I would also like to suggest Mermade Magickal Arts’ incense cones in the Mermaid scent. Very, very lunar and watery and it captures a really gorgeous, mysterious jasmine scent.
    I also think maybe Dhuni’s Moksha scent could work for rose… Though it might have too much citrus. I was burning it yesterday and it evoked a beautiful, fresh rose for me.

  3. sold me on the sandalwood. I just got an electric burner from Mermade Magickal Arts and have been having fun with it. Thanks (as always) for taking the time to post reviews and suggestions. I don’t comment often, but read plenty (it comes right to my inbox so I probably don’t even count as a page hit- sorry for that- you are read)

  4. Suecae said

    It’s interesting to see writing’s on this subject from someone knowledgable.

  5. greggking said

    In case you want to try out the fantastic Kyukyodo Musashino and can’t find the hidden link at Japanese Incense, (or aren’t as lucky as some to live close by, you lucky dog Ross!), $13.50 a stick for a Kyara stick laced with Musk isn’t bad at this link and money well spent for a fairly long burning stick that can be broken in half. http://www.japanincense.com/ky-0007.html

  6. Marian said

    What a fantastic article, Mike! I’m very familiar with the essential oils of these scents but having your list of incenses that highlight these different fragrances is extremely useful. There are times I feel as though I can pick out individual notes in a mixed stick and other times I’m totally at a loss. Having these sticks would be a good investment- not only in order to enjoy them, but also for my education 🙂

    • Mike said

      Thanks Marian. One of the things I wanted to accomplish was the fact that when you’re dealing with correspondence lists that are as old as the late 19th or early 20th century, you’re dealing with very different ingredients than what the original writers used. And ingredients found in your average herb or new age shop often don’t remotely smell like what they’re supposed to and in some cases wouldn’t actually be the correct correspondence. One of these days I may come up with my own, maybe all from various aloeswoods. 🙂

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