Before we really dive into this article, I just want to start by saying that whenever you work with fire magic of any kind, please, please, please put your common sense crown on and be safe. Never leave open flames/fire unattended and always be cautious of where you place your items so nothing can be easily disturbed or knocked over. Please also be aware of purchasing charcoal tablets that are appropriate for incense burning methods as inhaling fumes from the wrong kind of charcoal tablets can be very dangerous. And now that we’ve gotten that friendly PSA out of the way, let’s get started!
I was so intimidated the first time I bought charcoal tablets and loose incense because I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and was simultaneously terrified of burning down the small New York City apartment I was living in at the time. (Hence, my opening words of fire caution.) I ended up trekking to my local neighborhood botanica and politely asked one of the women working there to show me how to properly light the charcoal tablets and use the incense I had in my possession. Amazingly enough, she agreed to it and very kindly showed me how to set up everything while also teaching me some of the ancient traditions behind using this method. Over the years I’ve applied the techniques she so generously enlightened me with and slowly morphed them into my own tradition of using charcoal tablets and loose incense to where I now feel confident enough to pass along this shared wisdom with you all since it’s a reoccurring and frequently asked question by many of you.
There are many different variations of using this method of burning sacred herbs, incense, and resins (FYI, I’ll use different variations of these terms throughout the article, but please note that I am referring to the same blend), so if this way doesn’t exactly follow the steps on how you do this in your own ritual, that’s OK! As long as you’re taking the necessary fire precautions, researching the herbs, incense, and resins you’re burning—and performing everything with the highest intention—then it’s all good.
Here's what tools you’ll need for this:
1-5 Incense Blends
Sand and/or Ash
First, start by preparing the area you plan on burning the heat safe dish holding your incense on. (Normally I set my cast iron cauldron on top of my altar, but I’m burning this batch in my kitchen to demonstrate how this is done.) Make sure that wherever you’re burning it on is fire safe and within a clear distance from pets, children, roommates, loved ones, or anyone else you share space with. One of the many perks of using this method is that the loose incense will burn for much longer than a traditional stick of incense will (roughly around 45 minutes to an hour), but please make sure that your space is well ventilated enough to support this length of burning time!
Begin by placing at least 2 inches of sand and/or ash at the bottom of your heatsafe dish. Do not overlook this step as it’s important to keep your charcoal tablet properly insulated.
Next, take your tongs and pick up your charcoal tablet with them, making sure they’re held in a sturdy position. (Some people skip the tongs and just use their fingers, but I only recommend doing this technique once you become more experienced with using this method.) Using your lighter, ignite one side of the charcoal tablet, then work the flame to the middle, ending on the opposite side. Your charcoal tablet will self-ignite the moment fire touches it, so it will begin making crackling, popping sounds—don’t freak out! This is totally normal. Just make sure you keep the tablet a safe distance away from your face, body, or anything else nearby.
Place the ignited charcoal tablet “bowl” side up (if your tablet is indented) directly in the middle of your sand and/or ash and wait at least five minutes for it to burn and turn a light grayish hue before placing any incense on top of it.
Once your charcoal tablet looks kind of like an eyeball, it’s ready for incense!
I’m using three different blends of House of Intuition incense here: Ire Aye (made with patchouli, palo santo, frankincense powder, and dragon’s blood), Shaman (made with palo santo, frankincense, and white copal), and Sahumerio (made with palo santo, eucalyptus, rosemary, alucena, myrrh, gum storax, and benzoin).
Feel free to just stick with one type of blend if you’re new at this, but mix it up and experiment with more blends as you become more familiar with this practice. However, I’d recommend capping it at a maximum of five different types of blends, otherwise it might get a little too stinky (not to mention extremely smoky) in your space. All you have to do is carefully pinch some and sprinkle it directly on top of your charcoal tablet (I like to use tongs for this as well) and the incense will begin to immediately start burning and producing smoke.
And voila: You’ve just successfully burned your sacred loose incense/resin blend using a charcoal tablet! Keep an eye on your burning incense and feel free to keep adding more once your last pinch of herbs has burned up entirely. Use your tongs to push away any burnt herbs if you want to begin burning another blend but never, ever touch an ignited charcoal tablet with your bare hands/fingers unless you keep them a safe distance away from the tablet to drop your incense/resins on top of it.
Other than producing a fantastic and long lasting aroma for your space, using this method with sacred herbs/incense/resins is the most effective way to cleanse and clear larger areas or altar items when doing ritual work. If you’re new to this, try holding your favorite deck (I’m using the Small Spells deck here) or a larger crystal and allow the sacred smoke to wash over and cleanse these items. This is great for “recharging” a deck before or after a reading, or as a way to cleanse a newly purchased crystal by removing any energy left behind on it from its previous owner/location.
Your charcoal tablet will eventually burn up entirely and reduce itself to ash (which I like to recycle by mixing it into my pre-existing blend of sand/ash at the bottom of my cauldron), but you may discard what remains after it’s completely finished burning and left to cool down if you desire.
Feel free to experiment with your own methods and let us know how you prefer to burn your sacred offering. Have a blessed (and safe) incense burning time!