Fragrance reaches us in ways that elude sight and sound, imbued with meaning and unveiling inner truths about people, places and objects. The concept of aroma's "intrinsic 'essences'" has had a profound impact and importance upon religious practice throughout human history. Fragrance has shaped the spiritual experience and meaning of religious ritual. In religious traditions, diverse and disparate, the perfumes of flowers, resins, oils, and incense can heal, purify, protect and aid communion with the divine. Regardless of culture, smell has forged a relationship between the human and holy, communing the earthly to the metaphysical.Christian olfactory cosmology has itself rested on much more ancient Mediterranean tradition. The Pheonix bird built its own funeral pier from cinnamon, cassia, balsam, frankincense, and myrrh. The regeneration from its ashes is reflected in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Ambrose of Milan, fourth-century ecclesiast, used the analogy of extracting floral fragrance to represent the story of Christ's life and death: a flower's scent can only be extracted by its complete destruction. The ancient Egyptians believed heavenly scents sprung from the bones of deities, while the ancient Greeks believed scents to envelop and emanate from individual gods. Further East, the Buddha is represented by the scent of sandalwood, where logs of this revered tree are burnt in temples, creating a setting for the liberation of consciousness. The Arabs mixed musk with the mortar between bricks so their mosques might exhale a divine and everlasting scent.
Burning fragrant materials is synonymous with sacrifice. Incense is the superlative offering, burning completely, leaving no usable product. Aromatic gums and resins can be burned readily, allowing sacrifice to become part of the everyday life of the devout. Of the Egyptians, Plutarch wrote admiringly about their liturgy of offering incense to the sun as the day past: at sunrise, resin was burned; at noon myrrh was offered, and at sunset a concoction of sixteen spices. The Aztecs used incense as part of religious and nonreligious rites alike, including trials, as well as to invoke the gods' protection.
The incense altars of Judeo-Christian traditions have been described by contemporaneous witnesses as being intensely fragrant in themselves, sometimes hewn from honey and iris scented Acacia wood. To the ancient Hebrews, the aromas of "stacte and nataph", likely balsam and myrrh, were "chief of all spices".The temple of Solomon burnt the Ketoret, holy incense made from oleoresins such as mastic, Indian orris and frankincense. Early Christians carefully chose bouquets of 'spiced cane' or ginger grass, cassia, myrrh, cinnamon, and olive extract to make Chrism, anointed oil. Holy incense could include ground operculum, the 'trap-door' on sea snail shell, which was prepared by soaking in white wine. One incense recipe called for equal parts onycha, galbanum, frankincense, and salt.
Predating its role as a cosmetic, fragrance has been used as a vehicle to the realm of spirit. It is no surprise since smell is the most elusive of the senses; aromas are of substance and of air, they are here and yet not. In this way, fragrance symbolises the evanescence of mortal existence and alludes to the opportunity of eternity.