For most of us who grew up in the 1960s, it was an incredible formative time that we will never forget. For those who did not experience the decade themselves, but who study it, get inspiration from it, and continue to mine veins of thought and spirit that were first opened so many years ago, it was a wonderful time as well. The counter culture of hippies was born in the mid-60s, and continued to gain momentum until the mid-70s, by which time it had seemed fizzled. But the currents of time and popular culture preserved and transported certain accepted truths, belief systems, subcultures, world views, and philosophies from the 60s down through the years. So much so, that for many the 60s are still very much alive in many ways. One area is the New Age, holistic health movement that is essentially based on values and attitudes born in that magic decade, and one of the elements of that system of beliefs is aromatherapy. As with so many of these elements, aromatherapy – the belief that a scent can change human consciousness – had its birth in the 1960s with the boom in popularity of incense.
A little history:
When the counter culture first blossomed on the west coast in the mid-1960s, incense was a little-known oddity used in a few independent religious groups, by a few advanced individuals, and of course by the Catholic church. It was not a common thing to see for sale in any major department store or other commercial outlet, and it was not easy to find period. What brought it to its first stage of early notice was the large number of travelers to the east. Religions and philosophies from India, Japan, Tibet and China had all the rage in the new movement, and it was a rite of passage for many to make a journey to the east, bum around, and bring back some necessary items. One of these new necessities was incense made in these exotic lands.
Bringing it all back home:
As it became more well-known, incense started popping up for sale as an import in head shops and clothing stores in areas that had sizable hippie populations. It was prized for its scent, the pleasure given by the smoke when one was in an altered state, but above all for a property that it had been used for since time immemorial – to cover up other undesirable smells. These undesired odors had in times past been the odors of human beings in their unwashed, mass forms. This is one reason churches used the sweet-smelling resins that put out voluminous clouds of smoke – of course there were other reasons too. But in the 60s, those who had started smoking marijuana had a problem – the smoke from the weed was pungent and tell-tale, and it was something that one needed to be careful about. One way to take care of the problem was with the strong incense that was being imported from overseas. Soon little brass incense burners and incense cones were part of the necessary equipment in any self-respecting doper's abode. And in this way, incense acquired an undeserved and inaccurate image that it has never quite shaken.
What's that smell?
In the decade we call the 60s, which really measured into the early part of the 70s; you could walk into a head shop, imported clothing store, a comic book shop, and various combinations of these, and enjoy the rich, strongly sweet fragrance of incense. In the popular mind, it became associated with the use of illegal drugs, so much so that there are still those who are not quite sure that that smell is not illegal itself when they smell incense. Fortunately, as the 70s wore on, the use of incense started spreading into more mainstream homes and community spaces, so that it lost much of this stigma. It has instead become associated with the New Age movement and its several permutations. The growth of aromatherapy allowed the market for incense to grow, and soon you could find the product everywhere – even in popular candle and furniture stores.
Some of the favorite scents made available in that first decade of popularity were sandalwood, patchouli, jasmine, and lavender. These were the fragrances that were waved from shops, apartments, and porches where a group of counter culture followers were found – call them hippies, freaks, or adventurers. At first these were simple recipes, but in the process of expanding their lines, such makers of incense as Nag Champ and Gonesh brought out more and more blends and made them available in cones and as joss sticks.
What's it for?
As mentioned, one of the oldest uses of incense was as a cover-up for other smells. In churches and gathering places where pilgrims and travelers came together after long periods of no access to basic hygiene, it was a useful thing to be able to light up a brazier of odoriferous resins and drive away the odors. Other uses of incense were symbolic – the smoke rising to the heavens reminded believers of the soul's eventual ascent to its maker at death – and psychological and medicinal. Fragrances had long been noticed to have an effect on the human psyche, and this effect was heightened in the 60s by the use of certain psychotropic substances. All of these uses for incense were intensified and raised to a new level during the early years of its resurgence and use in the 60s.
What it's come to?
These days, incense has a large outgrown its connection to the drug culture of the 60s, although there are still some lower socioeconomic groups that hold that association in mind. Rather, it has become connected to the idea of holistic healing, of higher consciousness through the senses, and of sheer pleasure. The variety and quality of both imported incenses and those made in the US is truly incredible. Along with the growth of online life and communication technologies, there has come a growth in a subculture of incense aficionados who collect rare and expensive products from all over the world, and review those along with their less expensive examples for the many who love to read about them. The result of the efforts of a few travelers and members of the counter culture in the 60s to popularize these delights for the sense of smell has been that they are easy to find, are of higher quality, and that they have become divorced from most negative connotations.