Sunday, October 16, 2011

Tools: The Censer

Simply put, a censer is a holder for burning incense. For many it is a tool associated with air, or not given much thought because the actual incense becomes the main focus.

For me, it's a rather special tool - an altar unto itself, able to represent all four elements, as well as a place to make offerings and open the way to the Unseen World. Starting with the bowl itself, my censer is cauldron shaped, linking it with water. It is filled with finely ground grain, linking it with earth. In it burns a charcoal round, fire. On it incense smolders, creating smoke - air. Through the fire offerings are given to the Spirits, Ancestors, or Gods - our words carried to Them on the scented smoke.

It takes time to prepare the censer for ritual use, going through the steps helps one to enter into a ritual mindset. It begins with selecting what to fill the censer with. You should fill it with something to help keep the censer itself from becoming too hot. Again, I use a ground grain... usually corn, as it's a local grain connecting it to this land - but other grains are sometimes used, barley for Artemis, as an example. However, there are other options to choose from. Some use sand (which you can also find in a variety of colors), dirt, salt, rice, or ash. Grains will burn a bit under the charcoal, but this can be a nice scent, and will be gone by the time the charcoal is ready for the incense.

Which brings us to the next step, lighting the charcoal. Using a pair of metal tweezers or tongs (metal chopsticks can also be used, for those with the skill to use them), hold the charcoal over an open flame. A taper candle or lighter works well - matches usually don't stay lit long enough. Set the charcoal into the censer. Don't push it down into the filling, there needs to be some oxygen flow around the sides for proper burn. (There is a way to use ash to cover the charcoal, leaving a little vent to heat a small metal plate of incense instead of directly burning it. Look up Japanese incense ceremony techniques for more information on other ways to burn the charcoal.)

Always be sure to use incense charcoal and not BBQ bricks! They are made differently, and it is important to use the correct charcoal. It's also best to do this outside, or in a well ventilated room. We want to smell the scent of the incense, a little bit of smoke coming from the incense is pleasant to look at -- but too much smoke isn't good for us, and can even take us out of the right frame of mind for ritual.

Next you must wait for the charcoal to be glowing red all across it, and covered with a fine layer of ash. Fanning or gently blowing on the charcoal can aid this process. Then the charcoal is ready for the incense. Add just a pinch or two at a time, so you don't end up with too much smoke, or smothering the charcoal which would put it out. You may want a little metal spoon to add the incense, and to scrape ash off the charcoal when too much has built up. When incense is burned as part or a larger ritual, adding the incense can become a little ritual within ritual.

The charcoal will usually burn for about an hour, perhaps a bit less. If you need to put it out before then, push it down into the filling to smother it. (This doesn't work so well with ash.) Or pour water into the censer if you do not want to use the filling again. Remove any unburned charcoal, scoop out any ash  - or just mix it in. The filling can be reused several times, of if it is grain it can be left as an offering after the ritual/working. Always be sure the charcoal is out, and there's nothing burning or hot when you're at the clean up stage.

If you like cone incense (and honestly, I prefer it for inside use - and so does my fiance, who is a bit sensitive to smoke/scents) a smaller bowl can be used, but the same effect had. Small cauldron or cup for water, earth filling, the fire which burns the cone, and the smoke which rises into the air. Cones are nice for shorter rituals (say, daily morning prayers), as they don't burn as long as the charcoal.

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