Sacred Smoke Signals

Article excerpt

QUESTION When and why was incense introduced into church services?

THE use of incense predates the formal Christian church service. It was originally employed for medicinal purposes, an antidote to lassitude (lack of energy) caused by the heat. Traditionally incense was derived from the tree Boswellia sacra and the plant Boswellia papyrifera, which both produce frankincense.

It was widely used in pagan ritual as a sacrifice e.g. Virgil's Aeneid has 'his son Pallas was with him, and with him were all the leading young men, and his impoverished senate offering incense, and the warm blood smoked on the altars'.

Herodotus mentions its use by Assyrian and Babylonian priests, while on Egyptian monumental tablets, kings are seen swinging censers.

Incense is widely used in Jewish ceremony, in that traditionally the Levite tribe were proscribed care of the ceremony, Chronicles 9.29: 'others were assigned to take care of the other articles of the sanctuary, as well as the flour and wine, and the oil, incense and spices.'

Precisely when incense was introduced into the religious services of the Church is unclear, but the early Christian theologian Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, of the late 5th and early 6th century, was the first to describe its use.

In his De Ecclesiastica Hierarchia, which examines the various orders and liturgy of the Church, he describes clearly how 'the priest stands still at the altar. He enters the nave of the church only to bring sacred objects like incense, bread and wine, and holy oil into the realm of multiplicity, the spatially extended nave.'

The smoke of burning incense is interpreted by the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Christian churches as a symbol of the prayer of the faithful rising to Heaven. This symbolism is seen in Psalm 141 (140), verse 2: 'Let my prayer be directed as incense in thy sight: the lifting up of my hands, as evening sacrifice.'

However, many have also noted its very practical benefit of masking the smell of the unwashed congregation.

Mrs P. Whittaker, Newcastle upon Tyne.

QUESTION I've often heard of the Seven Sages of ancient Greece who each made a significant saying. Who were they and what were their sayings?

THE Seven Sages of Greece was Compiled by James Black the title given to seven ancient Greek philosophers, statesmen and law-givers who lived between 620 and 550 BC. They are remembered in the rhyme:

'First Solon, who made the Athenian laws; While Chilo, in Sparta, was famed for his saws; In Myletus did Thales astronomy teach; Bias used in Priene his morals to preach; Cleobulus of Lindus was handsome and wise; Mitylene 'gainst thraldom saw Pittacus rise; Periander is said to have gained, through his court, The title that Myson, the Chenian, ought.'

(It's Plato who says Periander was unworthy of the title Tyrant of Corinth and should give place to Myson.)

Each sage is associated with a pithy saying or apothegm. Solon, the statesman, lawmaker and poet of Athens, remembered for his efforts to legislate against political, economic and moral decline, said: 'Know thyself.' Chilo, the ephor (elder official) on Sparta, is remembered for his wise council, enlightened foreign policy and reams of poetry.

He originated many aphorisms including such phrases as 'Honour old age', 'Do not speak evil of the dead', 'Do not make too much haste on one's road', 'Nothing in excess' and, most famously, 'Consider the end'.

Thales, the astronomer of Miletus, predicted the eclipse of the sun which interrupted the war between the Lydians and Medes and famously said: 'Who hateth suretyship is sure.'

Bias of Priene was renowned for his goodness and clemency and is said to have written an influential political poem on the best means of making Ionia prosperous. He said: 'Most men are bad'.

Cleobulus of Lindos, distinguished for his strength and handsome appearance as well as the wisdom of his sayings, the acuteness of his riddles and the beauty of his lyric poetry, advised 'Avoid extremes'. …