As I’ve mentioned before, the most powerfully evocative of the human senses is the sense of smell. The olfactory centers are in the most primitive parts of the brain, and they can summon vivid memories in an instant, simply from a remembered scent.
For thousands of years, people have burned incense and aromatic herbs such as sage, yerba santa and sweet grass to alter the mood and atmosphere around them. They have daubed themselves with perfumes and oils, brought bouquets of aromatic flowers into their homes and temples, and scattered flowers over their dead. Indeed, we have evidence of flowers in burials of Neanderthals from 60,000 years ago; whether this was because they were pretty or because they smelled sweet is a matter of conjecture.
These practices are documented throughout the world. The ancient Egyptians, the Chinese, and early Native Americans all prized their olfactory treasures.
And there is good reason to do so. Pleasant scent can fill us with a comforting sense of ease and relaxation. Frankincense is a known antidepressant, and I would bet that other resinous incenses such as myrrh, dragon’s blood, and Russian Orthodox temple incense are as well. I use them in my rituals and they create an instant mood of sacredness.
One common practice with burning herbs or incense is smudging: wafting smoke over a person with a fan or feather, typically as they enter the ritual space. Some think of this as “purifying”, but I’m with Shauna Aura Knight and don’t believe in purification, myself: everything in the Universe is as pure as it needs to be. So I see smudging as something we do to help participants to enter the Ritual State, to help their minds understand that Oh, things are different now.
I probably have two dozen kinds of incense, and each creates a different mood. Likewise essential oils; I only have a few of these, but they are extraordinarily evocative. Cedar oil, for example, which I associate with the wood of a coffin, I have used as an anointment in Hallows rituals.
In the case of personal scents, in my opinion less is more: a faint note of something can be enticing and delicious, while a reek of scent is off-putting.
Scent may also be used very subtly, as when a sprig of rosemary is dipped in water and used for asperging, which is similar to smudging except sprinkling water instead of wafting smoke.
In any case, we must be considerate of those with allergies and sensitivities, which seem to be on the rise. People who are allergic to scent products can have powerful and dangerous reactions to them, so if you’re going to use incense or scented oils in a ritual, be sure to notify participants of your plan in advance so they can let you know if this will be a problem.
In most cases, you’ll have better luck with flowers: Sterling Silver roses or Stargazer Lilies or hyacinth can fill a room with their marvelous scents, for example; carnations or petunias are more subtle but lovely as well.
Experiment with scents! You’ll be amazed at what they add to the felt sense of your rituals.