The censer: a ‘utensil’ of worship under the eye of Horus

Panel from the Osiris temple: Horus presents royal regalia to a worshipping pharaoh.

The scent of the Gods! It should smell divine. It’s known enough that this ceremony is also used in other religions, like Christians, Jews, and Muslims. But of course, the odours are different!? The Frankincense (Weihrauch) is by Christians and Jews, to make their ceremony well-smelled, in Islam, rose water is the common utensil. And the Egyptians? What was their magical aroma?

With heartfelt thanks, let’s enjoy this brilliant description of the “Divine Aroma” of the Egyptian Gods & Goddesses by Marie Grillot. via;

Arm censer – gilded wood discovered in 1893 in Medinet Dimaï
Cairo Museum – JE 30700

In the worship of gods and divinities, the fumigation of incense is, along with the libation of water, one of the most important rituals of the Pharaonic liturgy. Its high function was to “restore life by incense supposed to be an emission from the body of Osiris”. This scene is often reproduced on the walls of temples or tombs, most often performed by a sem priest or by Pharaoh himself.

The perfume of resinous secretions is placed in a censer to allow them to burn, be consumed and thus to spread their fragrant and purifying benefits.

Sethi I offering a casserole of incense to a deity in his temple of Abydos
temple de sethi Ier – abydos

This “utensil” of worship can take the form of a cup, a simple pot or a casserole dish. It was in the Middle Kingdom that censers in the shape of an arm appeared. This form continues to be used in the New Kingdom and until the Greco-Roman era. The censer of this type has the shape and size of a human arm ending in a hand. The length of censers kept in museums is around 50 cm when they are full. ; the largest up to 60 cm. This length corresponds to the Egyptian cubit of 52.5 cm.

Jean-François Champollion used to call this “utensil” of worship “amschir”.

Arm censer – gilded wood discovered in 1893 in Medinet Dimaï
Cairo Museum – JE 30700

This censer was recorded in the Journal des Entrées of the Cairo Museum under the reference JE 30700. It was found in the Fayoum at Medinet Dimai in 1893 and dates from the Ptolemaic period when the Greco-Roman city was called Soknopaiou Nesos. Its Greek name means “the island of the Crocodile-god”, and within its enclosure was a temple dedicated “to Soknopaios, who was a form of the crocodile god Sobek”.

Detail of the censer with arms – gilded wood discovered in 1893 in Medinet Dimaï
Cairo Museum – JE 30700

While most are bronze, this one is made of gilded wood. It measures 55 cm, and one of its ends represents a falcon’s head, treated in a very realistic way. The eyes, of a dark blue, being particularly well worked. In the middle of the handle is an oval, cartridge-shaped box, which presumably had a lid. It was intended to “store” a small supply of the precious substance. “The papyrus flower begins just after the reserve and is followed by a well-sculpted hand in the round.” The represented hand is the right one. It is flat, palm open, and fingers extended. The nails are carefully sculpted.

Detail of the censer with arms – gilded wood discovered in 1893 in Medinet Dimaï
Cairo Museum – JE 30700

In the centre of the palm is a dish, relatively high, wider at the top than at the bottom, in which incense burned during religious ceremonies or cults rendered to Pharaoh. From this receptacle then escaped, in a halo of smoke, the purifying and perfuming vapours released by the aromatic resins.

Ramses III offering incense on the walls of his million-year-old temple in Medinet Habu
Arm censer – gilded wood – discovered in 1893 in Medinet Dimaï
Cairo Museum – JE 30700

In the “Visitor’s Guide to the Cairo Museum, 1915, Gaston Maspero presents it as follows:” At the top of the cage, on the upper plaque, lies a gilded wooden censer (n ° 4220) consisting of a head handle of a falcon which ends in an elongated hand carrying a vase: It is discovered in Diméh, and it dates from the Ptolemaic period. But it is identical in shape to the censers, which can be seen on monuments from the Pharaonic period “.

“The priests offered Re (Ra) three kinds of incense every day, one at his rising, one at midday, and one at bedtime.” The atmosphere of the temples was then filled with vapours and smells quite conducive to entering into communion with the divine.

Sethi I. holding the censer – scene from the temple of Abydos

Frankincense, a rare product in Egypt, was mainly dedicated to the worship of divinities and the pharaoh, but it was also used as a household or a simple perfume (incense cones) and to repel dangerous animals such as snakes or scorpions.

It could be olibanum, terebinth, myrrh, or styrax … but the most sought after, the most prized, was kyphi, produced by a mixture of 10 to 50 substances. “Ideally, it consisted of 16 ingredients which included, among others, old wine, honey, seeded raisins, terebinth resin, asphalt, myrrh, mastic, two species of juniper and cardamom.” (Jean-Pierre Corteggiani, Ancient Egypt and its gods).

Incense was considered a divine fragrance, assimilated to the Eye of Horus. Adorned with this incredible power to allow “humans” to enter into close communion with the gods. The recognition given to him was such that hymns were even dedicated to him!

Marie Grillot


“Orientalia”, Vol. 78, No. 3
Ancient Egypt and its gods, Jean-Pierre Corteggiani, 2007
“Treasures of Ancient Egypt at the Cairo Museum”, National Geographic
Visitor’s Guide to the Cairo Museum, Gaston Maspero, 1915

“Fayoum excavations: Report on the excavations of Médinet-mâ’di and Médinet-Ghoran”, Pierre Jouguet

Recueil des Inscriptions Grecques du Fayoum , Compendium of Greek Inscriptions of Fayum, Volume 1

Descriptive notice of the Egyptian Monuments of the Charles X Museum, 1827, Jean-François Champollion

10 thoughts on “The censer: a ‘utensil’ of worship under the eye of Horus

  1. That was another rich dive into Egyptian treasure! Thank you for sharing this article Aladin, the photos are amazing. Those arm censers are beautiful, exquisite aren’t they and what a joy it was to see them on those ancient walls. Love and light, Deborah.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. elainemansfield

    The Egyptian images are always beautiful and well preserved. I was drawn to the Catholic Church in high school by the ritual and the incense and music–but I couldn’t get more involved because the priests found my questions irritating. I needed something different, but my meditation teacher always burned incense and so do the Buddhists. We need the scent of the holy. Thank you for this piece, Aladin. So interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

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