Department of Classics and Archaeology

Sensing Divinity: Incense, Religion and the Ancient Sensorium

Project summary

This project, which is based on an Anglo-French conference held at the British School at Rome and École française de Rome on 23-24 June 2017, explores the history of a medium that has occupied a pivotal role in Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman and Judeo-Christian religious tradition: incense. 


According to Margaret E. Kenna in her provocative 2005 article ‘Why does incense smell religious?’, this aromatic substance became a diagnostic feature of Greek orthodoxy during the Byzantine period, but it is clear that incense was also extensively used in the rituals of earlier polytheistic societies to honour the gods. Fragrant smoke drifting up towards the heavens emblematized the communication that was established between the mortal and the immortal realms, which in turn contributed to the sensory landscape of the sanctuary.

This project is currently being prepared as an edited volume, and sets out to compare approaches across a range of disciplines in order to examine the role and significance of incense in ancient religion. By adopting a cross-disciplinary and comparative approach, we hope to move beyond a universalist approach to religious aromatics and reach a more sophisticated understanding of the religious function of incense in the Mediterranean world: we hope to identify continuities in both the practice and interpretation of incense, as well as to identify specific features within individual historical contexts and traditions.


Bradley, M., Grand-Clément, A., Rendu-Loisel, A.-C., Vincent, A. (eds) (forthcoming, 2019) Sensing Divinity: Incense, Religion and the Ancient Sensorium (publisher TBC)




Department of Classics and Archaeology

University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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