Incense Magick: Art & Ritual of Incense

Incense fanatic Carl Neal walks you through the joys, wonders, and science of making and using natural incense. From making your first basic cone to creation and use of elaborate incense rituals, Incense Magick is your guide to the sometimes secretive world of incense and incense making. Every article explores different facets of incense, incense making, ingredients, rituals, tools, or techniques.

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Foundations of Incense: Sage

In the Paganisphere, there is perhaps no more widely used incense than sage.  When I vend at Pagan events, sage bundles are usually the first thing that sells out.  But there is a lot more to “sage” than might meet the eye.

First, we should define “sage”.  Most of us use common names to refer to plants, although this can be confusing.  “Sage” is definitely one of those instances.  In the Pagan world, people generally mean “white sage” (salvia apiana) when they say sage.  Other forms of sage are also used in incense making.  “Culinary” or “garden” sage (salvia officinalis) comes in many different varieties and is a wonderful ingredient in incense.  Pineapple sage is my personal favorite. In fact, the whole issue of common names comes up again when we talk about “desert sage” because there are several different plants called by that name.  and Salvia eremostachya is known as “desert sage”, as is artemisia tridentate.  Although not a true sage it still imparts a very similar scent.  This is one of the reasons that plant aficionados like to use Latin names for plants to ensure everyone is on the same page.  The fact that there are four totally different plants that we often refer to as “sage” is a good illustration of why.


The good news for incense makers, and Pagans, is that all of those plants make wonderful incense.  They have similar, although not identical, energetic properties.  That also makes them easy to combine with one another or to substitute one for another.  Although white sage is most often used as a “bundle” (leafy stems are tied tightly with string and then dried before burning) for purification and cleansing, the broad leaves of white sage will powder easily once dried and make an excellent addition to incense sticks and cones as well.  In fact, making cones or sticks with white sage makes the process of using the plant for cleansing a lot easier.

While herb bundles of all kinds have well-established uses in ritual, they are tricky to work with.  They often go out when you want them to smolder and have a terrible tendency to separate into a lot of tiny burning particles when waved around.  This is not only messy but also a potential fire hazard, so take care when burning herb bundles of any sort indoors or in dry outdoor conditions.  The most typical approach centers on using a white sage bundle held in an abalone shell while it smolders.  The next most prevalent approach seems to be burning small amounts of white sage on charcoal.  This does offer better control than bundles, but still offers some challenges, especially if you need to transport the incense while it is burning.

When you make self-combusting incense with sage (of any sort), especially as a masala-style incense stick, you gain a lot more control over the incense.  The burning is far more consistent and the fire hazards are much lower.  Even an incense cone in a censer can give you greater control over where the smoke goes and how much is produced when compared with a bundle.  A cone in a swinging censer (thurible) offers the mobility of a bundle with the neatness of a censer.  I’ve even owned a censer on a long wooden handle to making “smudging” people and objects easier yet.

Sage is a strong scent that needs to be used with caution.  Any form of sage can overwhelm a more subtle scent like lavender.  It often works well when used in conjunction with another strong ingredient like cinnamon or dragon’s blood.  Sage is tougher and more difficult to powder than most leafy plants, so be patient when working with whole leaves.

Well I can’t talk about all of these sages without giving you a recipe!  I really love this one from the 2nd Edition of Incense : Crafting & Use of Magickal Scents (p. 143), although I have changed the base wood in this version.

3 Sages

4 ½ tsp powdered alder wood (base)

½ tsp garden sage (aromatic)

½ tsp desert sage (aromatic)

½ tsp white sage (aromatic)

1/8 tsp gum tragacanth (binder)


Mix all of the ingredients in a bowl until one uniform color.  Then add up to:

2 ¼ tsp white wine

Mix completely and knead by hand.  Then you can roll sticks, cones, cylinders, or whatever form you prefer.

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  Carl Neal has walked a Pagan path for 30 years. He is a self-avowed incense fanatic and has published 2 books through Llewellyn Worldwide on the topic. For many years (and even occasionally these days) he was a vendor of altar tools and supplies which led him to write The Magick Toolbox for Red Wheel/Weiser  


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