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So, after my last foray into history, I opted for something a little lighter this time around. Enter Carl F. Neal’s Incense Magick: Create Inspiring Aromatic Experiences for Your Craft, which I found pleasantly surprising.
Incense Magick presents using incense as a completely viable magickal practice unto itself. Even without candles, gemstones, oils, or any other tools many practitioners have in their arsenal, it’s possible to create a full, effective ritual with incense and the information presented here alone.
I also found the information about traditional incense use worldwide to be really interesting. Much of it consisted of things I already knew, and the bulk of his research seems centered squarely on Japanese incense practices, but I have to give credit where credit’s due for pointing out that most cultures had some cultural or religious element related to incense burning.
Neal also goes into poaching, CITES, the impact incense making has on species like Indian sandalwood and agarwood, and the dilemma in choosing whether or not to use an endangered species:
“There are two drawbacks to avoiding the use of these materials: The first is that you deny yourself and others from enjoying these amazing aromatics. I admit, this is a bit self-serving, but it needs to be included in your thinking. The second reason is less obvious. The money spent buying these aromatics from legal, legitimate sources helps to support the efforts to conserve and protect these resources.”
To some readers, that much may seem obvious. Considering the number of books I’ve seen that don’t make any mention of using endangered or threatened species, it’s refreshing to see it discussed here. What’s even better is that Neal doesn’t leave it up to the reader to do all of the homework when it comes to finding ethically-sourced material: He talks about The Rainforest Project and their agarwood conservation efforts. He also discusses using Australian sandalwood as a viable alternative to Indian sandalwood.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the book is the fact that Neal doesn’t place a lot of stock in lists of magickal associations. He heavily favors taking the time to develop personal associations with herbs:
“Herbs, woods, resins, and other botanicals are individuals, just as you and I are. They might tell secrets to you that they will not tell to me. They may have uses that only a few individuals can comprehend or properly utilize. Never depend solely on someone else’s view of the proper use of a botanical. Their opinions are a starting place but never an ending. Many of such traditional associations grow from the use of botanicals for hundreds or thousands of years, so traditional uses are certainly not without merit. Many different practitioners have found a common experience that has become a part of our common lore. Still, that doe not mean you can’t find a new use for the same botanical or that it can’t impart special knowledge to just you. It is even quite possible that your use of the botanical will not work for others, it might be for you alone.”
He even points out a means of doing this through “listening” to incense, which is still more information I feel other incense resources lack.
Of course, virtually no book on witchcraft is perfect, and I do have a few quibbles with this one. The biggest one is the use of the term “smudging” as a catchall term for fumigating. Smudging is a practice that’s more than just lighting some sage in a bowl. I always cringe inwardly when I see the term misused.
My next gripe, albeit a minor one, is how often he namedropped Shoyeido– at times, I wondered if he was being compensated per mention. I can understand wanting to include them in his book, since he’s a fan of their product and ingredient philosophy, but I think a smoother, less “pluggy” place to do it would’ve been at the end.
Lastly, Neal seems to fall into the school of thought that incense should be pleasant-smelling. I have to disagree with him on this point. As both garlic and asafoetida have told me, sometimes incense isn’t for you.
Would I recommend Incense Magick to a new practitioner? Definitely, albeit with a caveat about the author’s use of the term “smudging” and the recommendation that the reader further research traditional uses of incense around the world rather than relying on Neal’s information alone.