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Smoke Cleansing Around the World

Smoke cleansing herbs and resins smoking in a bowl.

Smoke cleansing—burning botanicals, resins, wood, etc. for health and/or spiritual purposes—is an ancient practice that is common in a wide variety of cultures and faiths around the world. For instance, I was introduced to smoke cleansing through the practice of “fire saining,” a Celtic tradition that resonates well with my cultural and personal history. However, the form of smoke cleansing that most people are familiar with today is “smudging.” The commercialization of smudging is unfortunate on multiple fronts—it is cultural appropriation of North American indigenous practices, it has created serious issues around illegal and/or irresponsible wildharvesting of traditional smudging herbs, and it disregards the wealth of other forms of smoke cleansing that are just as ancient and powerful. Many times, looking to our own culture, faith, community, or heritage in our relationship to the botanical world can help us identify herbal allies that are particularly aligned with us as individuals. Our ancestors had personal relationships with these plants; they have been part of our people—our DNA—for time immemorial. Smoke cleansing can be a powerful, renewing, and healing practice for many people, particularly when they are embracing a form that resonates with their genuine self.

Smudging vs. Smoke Cleansing

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the verb “smudge” is an English word from the mid-18th century that originally meant to obscure or smother something with smoke and was often used in terms of filling an area with smoke to get rid of insects or to protect plants from frost. However, in the late 19th/early 20th century in the United States, the word became associated with the smoke cleansing ceremonial practices of some First Nations People, in which other rituals are also employed along with smudging in preparation for spiritual ceremonies or personal rites. Increasingly, the term “smudging” is considered specific to those people’s spiritual practices.

Other smoke cleansing rituals from around the world often have similar goals and outcomes as smudging, but also can be used to achieve a wide variety of different purposes. Whereas one smoke cleansing practice might be used to connect with a spirit world or as a purifying act in preparation for a ceremony, others are intended to eliminate negative energy, to bring together a community, to create a sacred space, or simply to provide herbal support. What they have in common, however, is that they use burnables that are regionally, culturally, spiritually, or historically significant to the people performing the ritual.

Smoke Cleansing in the Ancient World

One of the earliest written records of smoke cleansing comes from the Vedas. These ancient Hindu texts written in Sanskrit detail the use of incense as a healing tool to support recovery from illness and, equally important, to create a clean, peaceful, nurturing space in which to heal. We know, however, that long before the Vedas documented this use of smoke cleansing, people throughout the ancient world burned herbs to create sweet-smelling smoke in their temples, in their home alters, and in places of healing.

Frankincense resin burning on a charcoal round.

The Minoans and the Mycenaeans in Mesopotamia burned ladanum and saffron. The Assyrians burned cedar, cypress, juniper, boxwood, and fir. Ancient Romans burned cinnamon at funerals and rosemary for healing.

In Africa, traditional healers and spiritual leaders burned herbs on charcoal or threw herbal powders into the fire so that the smoke spread around a person, and they “bathed” in it. Depending on the herbs used, the goal might be a purely healing one and/or it might be part of rituals to connect to the spirit world. The burnables vary by region. In West Africa, there are long traditions with N'tabanokò (Cola cordifolia), Ganianka (Combretum mole), and Nèrè (Parkia biglobosa). In South Africa, Imphepho (Helichrysum odoratissimum) continues to be a burnable for ritual.

In ancient China and across Asia, incense was ever-present in Buddhist, Taoist, and Shinto temples and in the veneration of ancestors. Jìngxiāng 敬香, “offering incense with respect," was a fundamental element of ancestor veneration, often using joss incense sticks made from a variety of botanicals and the roots and barks of trees like magnolia, peony, and cypress. Incense was also used by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners to support emotional and physical wellness. Agarwood and sandalwood were considered particularly potent and precious. Another TCM burnables therapy with a long history of use is moxibustion; often used in conjunction with acupuncture, practitioners burn ground mugwort that is formed into sticks.

Smoke cleansing in the form of incense was a significant element of ceremonial worship in ancient Egypt as well. A particularly popular incense of the day was called kyphi. There were versions of kyphi that were intended for the home—to purify the space, give a pleasant aroma, and help people sleep well—and others intended specifically for the temples, particularly those honoring the goddess, Isis. Depending on which recipe one used, the ingredients included a mixture of herbs and resins (ground myrrh, frankincense, calamus root, juniper berries, spikenard, cinnamon, etc.), often mixed with raisins, wine, and honey.

Smoke as part of ritual was also important to the ancient Israelites, so much so that God gave Moses an incense recipe. Exodus 34-35 tells us it included storax, onycha, galbanum, and frankincense in equal parts, which was to be blended and salted in such a way that it would be pure and sacred. And of course, in the Biblical birth-of-Jesus story, frankincense and myrrh where two of the three precious gifts given by the wise men.

Tumeric root in a bowl with red roses.

Smoke Cleansing in India: Havan Samagri

Perhaps you heard about an issue that came up a few years back that started when a number of popular American media outlets featured smoke cleansing articles with titles like, “The Science Behind Smudging” and “The Benefits of Burning Sage Include a Better Night’s Sleep (no wonder it’s an ancient ritual).” The articles referenced a 2007 study, “Medicinal Smoke Reduces Airborne Bacteria,” published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology. The media outlets used this study to make a case for the health benefits of smudging, particularly with white sage. The problem however, beyond the obvious cultural appropriation involved, is that the study had zero to do with smudging as a practice and did not include sage of any sort.

The study took place in India, looking specifically at “havan samagri,” a mixture of ceremonial and Ayurvedic herbs, wood, and roots used throughout India in fire oblations. Havan samagri includes botanicals like rose petals, sandalwood powder, agar, lotus seeds, turmeric, mango wood, etc. It is not burned in the form of a bundle or a stick, as in smudging or moxibustion, but is burned loose in a bowl or dish so that the rising smoke fills the space. And yes, the research did show that this form of smoke cleansing—specifically burning havan samagri for one hour—significantly reduced the bacterial count in the air.

Other smoke cleansing burnables used in India include star anisecedarwood, vetiver, valerian, patchouli, clove, etc.

Smoke Cleansing in Oceania

Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have also utilized traditional smoke cleansing for thousands of years to support health, wellbeing, protection, community, and connection with their land. Smoking ceremonies mark rites of passage; they are used to protect a newborn or a mother who has just given birth. In naming ceremonies, elders put their hands in the smoke over the ceremonial fire and then on the hands, feet, and eyes of the baby. Smoke cleansing is also used as an act of goodwill to welcome and protect visitors. This is done with a smokey outdoor fire, and uses a number of different plants, depending on region and availability. Emu bush (Eremophila longifolia), eucalyptus, cauliflower bush (Cassinia longifolia), mints, and Australian sandalwood are all traditional. This smoke cleansing tradition is so much a part of the culture of these people, the National Museum of Australia produced this video with Ngunnawal man, Adrian Brown, to help people better understand the cultural significance of the smoking ceremonies and the plants used—enjoy!

European Smoke Cleansing Traditions

Saining is an age-old Celtic practice. Through the medium of fire and water saining, people bring the spirits of the botanical world to their aid in safeguarding, purifying, or healing a person, an animal, a place, an object, or an entire community. Seasonal holidays in the Celtic calendar like Beltane and Samhain traditionally included a fire saining. At this time, communities would build a ritual fire, often with juniper, rowan, or elder. The members of the community would take turns “jumping the fire” through the smoke to cleanse (purify), heal, and protect. They would also run their livestock through the smoke and bring the smoke into their homes. Throughout the rest of the year, saining was and continues to be used to mark life’s passages: births, handfastings, funerals, etc. Also, individuals or families practice smaller, simpler saining ceremonies at home as the mood or need arises.

Smoke cleansing was traditionally used in Europe in much more secular ways as well. In the 14th and 15th centuries, people burned rosemary in their homes as a means to protect themselves from bubonic plague and other contagions. Into the 20th century, French doctors recommended burning rosemary and thyme in sickrooms and hospitals to purify the air. They also recommended herbal smoking mixtures to address respiratory problems. These herbal blends would be burned on charcoal or thrown into a heating or cooking fire to fill the space and be inhaled.

Cedar leaves burning in a smoke cleansing practice.

Create Your Own Smoke Cleansing Traditions

The vast record of smoke cleansing in cultures throughout the world makes this ancient practice incredibly inclusive and accessible without needing to encroach on traditions that are sacred to others. There are many ways to find the burnables that resonate best with you. You can research your family’s history or culture, you may be on a spiritual path that has botanical traditions, or you may have a longstanding relationship with particular herbal allies that have served you well time and again. Aim for sustainable herbs, ones we can grow or which the earth offers us in organic abundance.

Also look at the means by which you burn your botanicals of choice. “Smudge sticks” are pretty specific to North American indigenous traditions. Around the world, traditional smoke cleansing rituals are more commonly performed with incense or loose botanicals and resins burned on charcoal or thrown into campfires and bonfires.

My people are mostly of northern European descent. Our ancestral record shows we have been farmers and gardeners of one sort or another for centuries. While others were exploring and conquering, we apparently realized early on that working with the earth’s bounty fed our souls. This is reflected in the botanicals I bring into my saining traditions. The burnables that resonate with me at a cellular level are the coniferous evergreens common to the northern forests, as well as fruitwood from my orchard and the protective garden herbs that my people have grown, and harvested, and cherished over centuries: comfrey, elderberry, valerian, lavender, rose, etc. I’ve also added Oregon grape just recently, which I grow in my yard, because this powerful ally has been part of my personal life since the moment I could walk.

Smoke cleansing can be profoundly beautiful, empowering, and supportive. Explore your history and your herbal allies so you can avoid cultural appropriation and move closer to your genuine self.

 

Want to learn how to respectfully work with at-risk plants?

Read About Endangered White Sage!

 

You may also enjoy:

Smoke Cleansing Pinterest Pin for Mountain Rose Herbs

 


Topics: Aromatherapy, Herbalism, Specialty Ingredients

Heidi

Written by Heidi on July 26, 2021

Heidi is a native Oregonian and an award winning freelance writer with a passion for urban homesteading. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing, and has been honored to receive a number of literary prizes including the esteemed Pushcart Prize, and an Individual Artists Award in Creative Writing from the Oregon Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts. When she isn’t working in the garden, cleaning the henhouse, preserving food for winter, pruning the fruit trees, or writing and editing content for really fantastic small businesses, you’ll find her in her quilting room, or somewhere with her nose in a book, or up in the mountains alongside her husband and her terrier pup, Gracie Cakes.


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