And smoke is very purifying, when it comes to air-born pathogens. It’s an example of one of those old superstitions that has a strong basis in science, before the science that backed it was understood at all. Long ago, people believed that sickness was caused by evil spirits or ghosts. Ceremonies were developed to banish these spirits, often involving large amounts of burning herbs. Smoke was especially sacred in the times of the Plague, when its purifying properties were used spiritually to scare away the demons that brought with them the illness. Those who had a “purer” home were the ones that survived… of course they believed it was because of God’s will, or that they were more morally chaste.
Perhaps part of the reason smoke has such a strong connection to religions is simply because large groups of people gathered in a small space can spread illness, and smoke is wonderful at clearing the air of those pathogens. Think of the many religions that burn some kind of incense - the incense-filled Thurible from Catholic ceremonies to communal pipe-smoking practices of Native Americans, to sandalwood in a Buddhist temple.
But I believe there’s more to it than that. The smell of burning sage or mugwort instantly makes me feel grounded and calm. Smoke permeates our senses, clears out heads and our rooms, and reminds us to be present. It’s a wonderful tool to use today in many ways - to purify the air when one has a cold, to burn with prayers and meditations to associate that smell with a calm and focused brain-state, to refresh a room and clear out the negative energy, and so on. But the plants that you burn do not have to be something that someone else has deemed sacred; they can be something that is special to you, perhaps growing in your own garden or backyard.
White sage, for example, is sacred to several Native American tribes here in the west. That does not mean it is sacred for you. In fact, it is overused and often harvested unethically to be sold to people who have no understanding of the spiritual value it holds to Native Tribes. If you prefer using white sage, that is fine - just make sure you are honest with yourself about why you prefer it, and that you get it from a reputable and responsible source. But sacredness is not something that is taught or told, it is something that is felt. Spend enough time in your local landscape or garden and you will learn what plants feel sacred to you. Do certain plants make you feel differently? Some can be elevating, some soothing, some warm and gentle and loving. Think about the nature of your favorite plants and which ones might be most appropriate for smudging with. Typically bitter herbs work best - sages (white, garden varieties, even wild sagebrush), yarrow (flowers and leaves), mugwort (for intense dreams), rosemary, thyme, lavender, and so on. Even tender dried petals like rose are smudge-stick worthy. Just be sure that whatever you are using is not toxic when it is burned. (Elderberry branches or Water Hemlock, for example, would be terrible to burn.) Craft your own personalized smudge sticks out of the plants that speak to you, and you’ll have a much more powerful tool to work with.
And when it comes to smudging for a spiritual or religious purpose, what’s important is your intention. Your own intention is what will clear a space of bad energy or refresh your body or bless your latest work; smoke is just one of many tools that can assist you. Below are some of my suggestions for using smoke to clear; feel free to adapt to your own needs as you see fit. If you are sensitive to smoke or prefer not to use it, you can instead use a spray made of salt, water, and your favorite essential oils.
To Make A Smudge Stick:
a handful of herbs you feel connected to (see suggestions above)
Intro: all you’ll need to smudge is your smudge stick of choice, a lighter, and some sort of little ceramic or metal bowl or shell to extinguish it in when you’re finished. You may like to use a large feather to waft the smoke around; this is entirely optional but can be a nice touch. If you’ll be using a large amount of smoke or smudging for some time, you may want to disable your smoke alarms and open some windows before you begin.
Yourself: To smudge yourself, simply light the very tip of your smudge stick (you won’t need very much), wait until it is burning steadily, then blow it out. This will release a fair amount of smoke. If you’d like to use less, you can break off a little piece of your stick and just light that (one single sage leaf, for example). Hold it out in front of you with one hand, then use your other hand to waft the smoke over your head, down both arms, down the rest of your body, and around your heart and torso. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, then extinguish your smudge stick by pressing it into your container of choice until it stops smoking.
Another Person: You may want to smudge another person when you are welcoming them to a ceremony or sacred space. It helps to clear any extra “energy of the day” from them and fills them with the grounding scent of smoke to ensure they will be calm and present. To do so, simply have them close their eyes and stand still, arms out to their sides. Light your smudge stick and blow it out, then waft the smoke over their head, down their arms and legs, down their back, and into their heart. It is sometimes nice to complete this mini-ritual with an acknowledgement of each other - a smile and nod will do nicely, or a gentle squeeze of the hand.
Your Space: To clear a room, building, or other space, light the tip of your smudge stick, wait until it is burning steadily, then blow it out. Walk into your space and waft the smoke into all of the corners, along the edges of the ceiling and floor, and through the middle of the room. You may want to say aloud a statement of your intention or a prayer; for example: “With this smoke I refresh and reclaim my space, clearing it of any negative energy or ill intentions so that I may be safe and relaxed here.” You, of course, know what is best for you to say. Repeat this process in every room, paying special attention to any rooms that feel stagnant or “off.” Your smudge stick may go out before you finish your entire space. If that happens, simply relight it and continue. When you’ve finished, extinguish your smudge stick in your heat-proof container or bowl. Sometimes it is nice to smudge yourself after a large space cleaning like this.
A Project or Object: You may want to purify a sacred object, art project, or other meaningful item. (For example, many like to clear sketchbooks before filling them with their own magic.) To do this, you won’t need as much smoke. I recommend lighting only the very tip of your smudge stick, or breaking of a small piece of one of the herbs to light. Light as above, then waft the smoke over, around, and under your object, holding your intention in mind (or saying it aloud) as you do so. If it’s a book or a box, you may want to open it and waft some of the smoke inside. When you are finished, extinguish your smudge in a heat-proof container and say a little prayer or blessing over your item.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little introduction to smudging. I’d love to hear about your own smudging practices if you’d like to share them below!