The symbolism of incense derives from the combinations of those of smoke, perfume and of the imperishable resins from which it is made. The trees which provide them have sometimes been taken as symbols of Christ. It is the duty of incense to carry prayer heavenwards, and in this sense it is a symbol of the priestly office. This is the reason why one of the Three Wise Men brought incense to the Christ-child. Burning incense is universal and everywhere carries the same symbolic property, associating human beings with the godhead, the finite with the infinite and the mortal with the immortal.
Hence to rise in a cloud of smoke has more often a positive rather than a negative significance. In this context, there is little difference between the smoke of a funeral pyre, of Maya copal, of Christian incense or of the tobacco of the North American Indians. The significance of the North American Indian calumet is only comprehensible in terms of a symbol which, with some trifling exceptions, seems to speak a universal language. Whether it was the pipe of peace or the pipe of war, the calumet ratified covenants or treaties through the presence of the godhead, invited to preside over the celebrations by the cloud of smoke ascending skywards. As countless Ancient Chinese rituals bear witness, smoke - from rushes or reeds - was used in the same way as an agent of purification. Although the smoke of the funeral pyre was supposed to carry the dead person’s soul upwards, alchemists had no need of one, claiming that it was possible to see the soul in the shape of a smoky vapour leaving the body in its death agony. Celtic tradition contains the same symbolic notion.
In Hindu ritual, incense (dhupa) is related to the element of Air and is supposed to stand for ‘the perception of consciousness’ which is ‘omnipresent’.
Although the smoke of incense is used as an artificial stimulant in certain Yoga practices, in Buddhist meditation the burning of joss-sticks is used to mark the passage of time.
In Central America the symbolism of incense derives from that of blood, sap, semen and rain. Like clouds, the smoke of incense is an emanation of the divine spirit, ‘smoke’ and ‘cloud’ being related words in the languages of Central America. Hence the sending up of clouds of smoke (sympathetic magic) in rain-making rituals. In the Popol-Vuh, the culture-heroine, an Underworld deity, extracted sticky, red sap from the copal and gave it to mankind as her own blood (myth of the origin of copal). From that day to this the Maya-Quiche have used copal in all religious rituals to drive off evil spirits. The Chilam Balam Chumayel states that ‘incense is a heavenly resin, its scent drawn up to the midst of Heaven.’ Thus the use of incense derives from fertility-rites linked to the lunar cycle. The relationship between ‘copal’ and ‘Moon’ is, furthermore, expressed in their common root uh in the Chorti language. As representations of the rain-gods, the hierophants would set alternately upon the holy table slabs of copal and sacred pitchers full of ‘virgin water’. Even nowadays, priests still go in procession to tap the sap of the copal and burn incense at midnight on the last day of the dry season, to speed the coming of the first rains.