Trail Magic: Creating an incense trail
Author: Incense Dragon
Everyone knows what incense is, don’t they? It’s the little sticks and cones you get at the grocery store that smell like Apple or Musk, right? Well, it hasn’t always been that way.
Incense is one of the oldest tools of magic and ritual but its lore, history and modern hobbyists are virtually unknown to much of the Pagan community. The incense “trail” represents an ancient incense burning technique that is highly applicable to modern magic practices and ritual. I should also mention it’s a great deal of fun.
An incense trail is simply a line of incense powder that is burned. A trail can be as simple as a line of powdered sandalwood on a rock. While this is not the preferred method, you can make it work with practice. This is likely the first form of incense trail, but ancient practice eventually elevated the incense trail to a critical role in society.
Before the availability of high quality, spring-powered clocks there were many different methods employed to keep track of time – especially at night. Among the many devices created were clocks powered by dripping or running water. Although some were fairly accurate, they were no good in freezing conditions or on a swaying ship. There were also candles used to mark the time, but environmental conditions could greatly affect their accuracy. The incense “clock” was another attempt to mark time.
In a bed of pure ash, a line can be pressed into the surface. That depression would then be carefully filled with a powdered incense mixture. When used for timekeeping, a special incense blend was used since its burning times were well known. Special markers were then inserted along this trail of incense. The markers could be used to signal a changing of guards, mealtimes or working hours, but their primary use was to mark times to pray.
Eventually incense clocks were developed that used incense sticks to give even more consistent timing. Incense alarm clocks were eventually created. These sometimes used bells hung from the incense stick with thread. When the stick burned to the thread it would break and the bell would clang to the floor.
This is an extremely condensed look at a fascinating topic. If you have more interest in the ancient use of incense clocks read Silvio Bedini’s book The Trail of Time. It is a rare look at this amazing lost art form.
The good news about all of this is you can start using incense trails yourself. You will need ash, incense powder (powdered sandalwood works great), a heat resistant dish or large incense censer and a match or lighter. It’s best to put your censer where it will be used before you begin to minimize movement.
What should you draw? Just think of the magical possibilities. Symbols are an important part of magic. You can draw symbols for deities, astrological signs, runes or geometric shapes. The possibilities are as limitless as your imagination. Think of the energy of the slowly burning shape as you raise power in your circle. Use trails to time rituals or to cleanse a space. Trails can elevate your incense from being a part of the magical background to a central part of any ritual.
You might have everything you need in your house except for the required amount of ash. You can harvest ash from some other activity if you wish. Never use ash from your charcoal grill or ashes containing synthetic “fire logs.” Ash from incense censers, campfires and fireplaces can be used but I don’t recommend them. If you use such recycled ash, be certain to sift it through a fine screen and then bake the ash in a warm oven for 20-30 minutes to remove as much scent as possible.
A better solution is to purchase ash specifically for incense use. Ash is an important part of Asian incense traditions (such as the Japanese Kodo ceremony). As a result, many shops that sell Asian incense sell pure ash as well. That’s the best possible source if you plan to make incense trails. The pure white ash is scentless and ready for use.
Simply fill your dish or censer with ash and lightly tamp the censer (you can tap the censer lightly a few times on a sturdy table, but pressing down on the ash with something solid works even better). This is to level the ash and make it a bit firmer. You can then make shallow impressions on the surface of the ash. For this, you can use simple stamps (complex designs don’t work very well) from your local craft store, cookie cutters (insert the cutter about 1/8 of an inch deep and move it very slightly from side to side) or simply draw in the ash with a skewer or toothpick. The edge of a paper card will work as well.
No matter what tool you choose, keep the impressions no more than 1/8 inch deep and try to move the excess ash to the sides of your impressions. Especially when using a toothpick or skewer, the ash might try to build up in front of your tool making it more difficult to draw. Push the ash side to side instead. Just try and create a smooth impression – you might need to trace the shape several times to clear the entire trail.
You are not limited in what you can draw. The important thing to keep in mind is that every one of the lines you draw needs to be connected to another line. You might think of it as a line of dominoes you want to topple. If they don’t touch, the chain will stop. It’s the same with incense. Unlike dominoes, burning incense travels in multiple directions. If you draw a circle of incense, when you light it the incense will burn both directions around the circle. Every junction of lines will be lighted at the same time. I have a pentagram stamp that I made that would originally burn in eight different places at once.
While you can use those burning characteristics to your advantage, in general you want only one point on the line of incense to burn. Otherwise plumes of smoke result. The simplest way to control this it to put “blocks” in place. Use your drawing tool to break the lines of incense with a barrier of ash. You can also place small pieces of metal (in a pinch, a penny will work) in the trail of incense. Once the burning incense reaches the metal, it will go out.
Once you have made an impression in the ash and established any ash blocks you might need, fill the impression with incense powder. This is the trickiest part, although it’s not as tough as it seems at first glance. I’ve experimented with a lot of techniques but have found one to be the easiest. I was actually inspired to it while watching Tibetan monks making a sand painting. They use long metal tubes, tapered at one end, which they fill with colored sand and then gently rub to release the sand from the narrow end. It gives them great control over where every grain of sand goes. I tried this with tubes and met with some success, but when I transitioned to paper cards I found the method I prefer.
Use a 3” X 5” paper card. Fold the card in half in line with the long edge. This gives you a 1 ½ X 5 card. Open the card partially and you have a large cavity you can fill with incense powder. Fill the card about 1/3 full with powder (as I said before, you can just use powdered sandalwood and get great results). Push some of the powder away from one end of the card, so that only a thin line is left at the edge of the card. You can then use that end of the card to fill your impression in the ash.
Put the end of the card just above the impression with the folded edge of the card down. That will make the card a large V-shape with the incense powder held in the center. I like to hold the card in my right hand with the two folded up edges touching the palm of my hand. I then extend the “drawing” end of the card slightly past the palm of my hand. With the end of the card just above the ash and the card at about a 25 degree angle, I tap the end of the card with my left hand. Each tap causes a small bit of incense powder to fall precisely where I want it to go. By gently tapping the card and moving it over every part of the impression in the ash, I can fill the impression to the exact depth I desire.
Once the impression is filled, you can tap or press its surface lightly to get perfect contact, but that’s an optional step. With practice you can fill the impression very well without the need to press it together. The trail looks better without pressing, since that process “blurs” the shape you draw in the ash.
After you’ve drawn an impression and filled it with powder, the incense trail is ready for use. Once the impression is filled, you should move your censer as little as possible. Each time you move it, you could displace the trail and make it harder to see or break the line. If the trail won’t be used immediately, consider covering the censer to keeping wind or drafts from disturbing it.
To light the trail, you can simply apply flame directly to the lighting point you’ve chosen. It’s usually best to light the trail at one end, but you can get a great effect from starting in the middle of the trail. You will need to hold the flame in place for at least 30 seconds to get it burning well. You might notice that where ash and flame meet, the ash becomes discolored. The same will happen as the incense trail burns past the ash. Once the flame is removed, the incense will continue to burn along the path you’ve set for it.
A more elegant way to light the trail is to use stick or cone incense. You can use the stick or cone as a fuse. Set the incense cone directly atop the lighting point on the trail. If using a stick, break off a small section and insert it into the starting point of the trail. If you use so-called “masala” incense sticks (the kind with a wooden rod in the center of the stick), make certain you break off a piece that is completely covered in incense material. The top two inches of stick is best. If you’re using a “joss stick” of incense, any two-inch section will be fine.
Put the cone or stick in place at the starting point (the trailhead, if you will) and light it as you normally would. As the stick or cone burns down to the incense trail, the trail will light. You can also light an incense stick and place it atop the powder parallel to the trail. Some traditions call for lighting an incense stick and then inserting the burning end into the powder.
Incorporating incense trails into your rituals, both large and small, is not only rewarding magically, it’s also a lot of fun. Like any skill, it requires practice to get the exact effect you desire but even first-time trail makers will find it easy and enjoyable. Bring an ancient form magic to your next circle and you won’t be disappointed.
Bedini, Silvio A. – The Trails of Time: Time measurement with incense in East Asia – Cambridge University Press, 1994
Neal, Carl F. – Incense: Crafting and Use of Magickal Scents – Llewellyn Worldwide, 2003