No wonder the altar boys look spaced out…

(And before I go any further, yes, I know that girls outnumber boys as servers in most American Catholic Churches — I just couldn’t get a title with the same ring…)

I just came across a recent story on, Incense is psychoactive: Scientists identify the biology behind the ceremony, that confirms something I have long suspected. As a veteran Catholic altar boy who has spent more than my fair share of hours inhaling incense, I knew the stuff made me loopy. I even once watched a friend of mine take a slow, sideways dive with a half twist off a kneeler into the front row of church after he got a little over-enthusiastic swinging the incense boat around and checked out of conscious-ville for a few minutes. Turns out that incensole acetate, a Boswellia resin constituent that can be isolated from frankincense, lowers anxiety and acts as an anti-depressant in mice (unless those mice are forced to kneel for long periods of time in heavy cassock and surplus, or chant in Latin).

The danger of this sort of data is that someone will say that they can use it to ‘explain’ religion, as if everytime someone got mildly baked off of psychoactive chemicals in bark or tree resin, they came up with two-millenia-lasting notions of a triune God, the Resurrection of Man, and other assorted ideas. That is, psychoactive chemicals can explain certain phenomena within religion, but they certainly could not explain any religion as a whole. Otherwise, there’d be a lot more theological creative stoners shambling around.

And so we’re left with the advice in Exodus (30:34-37):

And the Lord said to Moses: Take unto thee spices, stacte, and onycha, galbanum of sweet savour, and the clearest frankincense, all shall be of equal weight. And thou shalt make incense compounded by the work of the perfumer, well tempered together, and pure, and most worthy of sanctification. And when thou hast beaten all into very small powder, thou shalt set of it before the tabernacle of the testimony, in the place where I will appear to thee. Most holy shall this incense be unto you. You shall not make such a composition for your own uses, because it is holy to the Lord.

Published by


Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s