The power of herbal smoke cleanses spaces, facilitates ritual, and even heals physical ailments. It can also be a transcendental medium to alter mood and allow us to engage in shadow and dream work. It’s no wonder then that the burning of herbs has become so popular. However when anything becomes mainstream, we must always remember to look at where these traditions actually come from so that we may use them in a respectful and sustainable way.
Smudging vs. Smoke Cleansing
The controversy surrounding smudging has been abuzz in the herbal world. Not only is smudging an infringement upon certain cultures, but many traditional herbs are starting to fade from the landscape as they become more popular in the herbal trade. I believe everyone should have the right to benefit from the powerful medicine that is herbal smoke. We just need to be clear on what is and what is not respectful and sustainable in our practice.
The burning of herbs has taken place all over the world for centuries. Unfortunately, the main form of herbal smoke known today is appropriated from the Native American tradition of smudging. The burning of indigenous herbs, specifically white sage, acted as a tool for invocation performed by specific members of the tribe. They didn’t use the herbal smoke to cleanse a space, rather it was a sacred element to the rituals they performed. It was necessary that the members who led the smudging had experience navigating the spirit realm. If done incorrectly, this could anger the spirits and cause negative effects. Therefore smudging is a symbol of their culture, faith, and heritage.
Smoke cleansing on the other hand is a much more interpretive practice that can be performed by anyone. These smoke cleansing rituals include spells, crystals, incantations, tarot, and any other number of modifications one desires. Because it is not tied to a specific rite or culture, creativity is a key component to these rituals. Although smudging and smoke cleansing can look visually similar, the meaning and purpose behind them is starkly different.
Some argue that the plants don’t know borders or cultures. They just want to heal and commune with people. While this is true, we simply can not ignore the wishes of people who have endured so much trauma and damage to their culture because of colonization.
Therefore the best way to avoid appropriation is to steer clear of using sacred herbs that are not specific to your heritage. There are many powerful plants that want to connect with us in that way. The appropriate offerings lie beyond what the mainstream herbal industry offers.
Smoke Cleansing Across Cultures
Now let’s zoom out and look at the burning of herbs through a more global lens. For example, early European peasant cultures burned herbs in a more utilitarian way to clear insects from domestic animals and to cover the smells that life would entail. While not very romantic, these herbs gave their gifts so that the peasants could make do with what they were given.
In France, rosemary and thyme were burned in hospitals as purification. They believed these herbs prevented the spread of contagious diseases, which is probably true to some extent because of their anti-microbial properties. These herbs along with other blends were also used medicinally when rolled into a cigarette to alleviate respiratory issues.
The Scottish practiced a more spiritual purification through an animistic craft called “saining”. This revolves around the belief that everything has a spirit. These spirits were called upon to purify a person, animal, or entire community of negative energies. Juniper and rowan were the main plants used for these practices, though other elements such as water and fire were used as well.
Across the world, incense played a major role in Egyptian culture. They imported a wide range of exotic plants to burn in honor of specific gods and ceremonies. It is said that they burned frankincense in the morning, myrrh at midday, and Kyphi in the evening. They would ground these herbs and throw them on hot coals to burn or combine them with dried fruit to be formed into pellets and burned.
Finally, we round out this world tour with a stop in Asia where incense also played a major role in culture and everyday life. The earliest record of any incense was in ancient China. A blend of herbs including cinnamon and sandalwood acted as catalysts for worship and prayer. Buildings were erected solely for the purpose of burning incense all the way until the 12th century. In Japan, samurai warriors would sometimes perfume their helmets with incense as a gesture towards those who may decapitate them in battle.
This is of course just a taste of how herbal smoke was used throughout the world. Different forms of burning herbs have traveled through India, Arabia, the Mediterranean, and many other walks of life.
Different Ways to Burn Herbs for Ritual
This versatile form of herbal smoke is easily transported and burns for a long time. To make your own, gather herbs from the garden or wild and bundle tightly with natural twine. Hang them to dry or put them in a dehydrator for a five to six hours on low. In addition, elaborate smudge wands are also available that include a wide variety of aromatic herbs, flowers, and scents.
Burn ground herbs by lighting a charcoal pellet in a small cast iron container and place the loose herbs or resin on top. The smoke will journey out of the container. Waft this smoke in a desired direction with a feather or let it flow freely. Abalone shells are also a great container for the loose herbs. The shell represents the water element to compliment the fire within the smoke, and the air within the feather. Place a thin layer of sand in the shell before adding the herbs to represent the earth element. This also protects the shell during the burning.
To combine ritual with the medicinal, consider a rolled herbal cigarette. Try using these little herbal sticks in dream work as well by including plants such as blue lotus, mugwort, damiana, etc. The secret is to only take a puff or two at a time instead of smoking the entire cigarette in one sitting. Moderation helps us to fully savor and connect with each plant we inhale.
Incense sticks are incredibly versatile. Besides incense for ritual, I have found great success in using incense sticks that contain lemongrass, citronella, and peppermint to ward off bugs outside. Place them in a protective barrier around the sitting area and replace them every hour or so. Additionally, dhoop cones are another form of incense in which raw incense is shaped into a cone. These are useful in creating a more intense effect that can fill larger spaces.
Perhaps the most ancient of herbal smoke, humans have been summoning campfires for hundreds of purposes and rituals throughout time. Today, campfires are perfect for big groups and celebrations. Once the fire is lit, throw herbs directly on the fire to invoke protection, gratitude, the banishing of old habits, and any other number of intentions.
Sustainable Herbs for Smoke Cleansing
What herbs should we use to avoid appropriating from indigenous cultures and depleting delicate ecosystems? There are many common herbs that offer their cleansing gifts to us. This list covers just a few that create beautiful herbal smoke.
- Garden sage
All of these herbs bundle well in smoke wands or ground as a loose incense. They also all have their own specific symbolism and uses. I highly recommend checking out The Master Book of Herbalism by Paul Beyerl to learn their medicinal and magickal uses.