People have burned different herbs and spices to create a cleansing smoke bath, and to purify people, ceremonial space, and ritual objects since the dawn of time. Many different cultures have had their own methods and favourite burning mixtures over the ages, and the substances used have long been carried on the world's trade routes as valuable commodities.
The practice of burning herbs has again become popular in the West in recent years, re-emerging under the old English word smudge which originally meant a smoky fire by which cattle were driven to clean them of unwanted insects.
What herbs can be used for Smudging?
There are a fantastic number of aromatic substances used for smudging mixtures around the world; most are herbs, but some are gum resins such as Copal from Mexico. These aromatic gums are found in many areas of the world; Frankincense being perhaps the most famous, and clouds of smudge smoke still rise from the incensors in Church ceremonies. We all seem to hold smoke sacred, perhaps because smoke is a sort of halfway between spirit and matter; we see it, and yet we cannot truly touch it, and as it rises higher it gradually dissipates and suddenly it is no longer there.
No wonder that in many traditions, it is seen as a perfect vehicle to carry our prayers from this reality to the other.
The principle Native American smudging herb is Sage. This includes both the true Sages of the Salvia family, such as Common Sage (Salvia Officnalis) and White Sage (Salvia Apiana) as well as the 'so called' sages of the Artimisia family such as Sagebrush (Artimisia Tridentata). Other Native American herbs include Sweetgrass (Hierochloe Odorata), which is a sweet smelling reed, Cedar and Juniper. Cedar and Juniper are also used in Mongolia, Siberia and Tibet, and Sweetgrass is also burnt in other countries where it naturally grows such as Scandinavia.
In Britain, there are also many herbs used, including Rosemary (Rosemarinus Officinalis), Mugwort (Artimisia Vulgaris), Lavender (Lavandula Angustifolia) Woodruff (Galium Odoratum) and Wormwood (Artemisia Absinticum). It was, until very recently, the practice in some places in Britain to smudge your house on May day with Rosemary smoke after all the physical 'spring' cleaning had been done. The herbs are burnt on their own or in mixtures, depending on tradition and required effect. Many herbs such as the true Sages, Sagebrush and Rosemary are used for cleansing and purifying. The effect of the smoke from these plants is to remove negative energies. Other herbs, such as Sweetgrass, which is also found in Scotland (where it was known as 'Holy Grass') and Northern Europe, are burnt to bring blessings and beauty, and to invoke the spirits.
The plants used in Native American smudging practices are all non mind altering, but some cultures use very specific mixtures of powerful plants that have a pronounced psychoactive effect on those who inhale their smoke. In Nepalese shamanism for instance, shamans have different smudge mixtures, made from a huge variety of plants, resins and flowers and will use them according to the situation and ceremony they are engaged in. Many of these plants are toxic and they also often mix hemp with the other herbs to produce a powerful brew. These sorts of smudge mixes are used to call different spirits who work with the shamans, so the shaman can ask the spirits to help with the healing work they are doing the ceremony for. This spirit specific smudging can also be seen in Morocco, where the Islamic shamanic Gnawa traditions work with the Jinn (spirits of the desert), each jinn requiring a different smell, together with different colours and specific music to attract it to the ceremony.
How to Smudge Yourself
When you smudge, the best way to start is to smudge to clean the space and your self and to offer prayers. Begin by placing your herbs or smudge mixture into a shell, or a fireproof bowl or dish. The mixture can burn quite hot so it is important that whatever is used can take the heat without cracking or becoming too hot to hold. Some traditions say not to use shells, as they say the water does not blend with the fire. Others say that to use a shell balances all the elements.
When you are ready, the mixture is lit and helped to burn by a feather or fan. Blowing into the mixture is generally not encouraged as it can be seen as blowing one's own negativity into the mixture. The smoke then rises in a sweet smelling cloud, in which you can wash yourself, other people, your room, the objects you are using in your shamanic practice; the list is endless.
When smudging indoors many traditions say that a window should be open at all times to allow any negative energies out. If you are washing a person, one way to do this is to start at the left foot and to move the smoke up the left leg with the use of the fan or feather. Proceed up the body and around the top of the head, back down the centre of the body, moving the smoke outwards to the sides and around the back. Finish off by wafting the smoke down the right leg and out and away from the right foot.
The feather can be used as a sort of psychic brush with which you wipe away un-pure energy as if it was dust or cobwebs. Sometimes, rather than burnt as loose herbs, the mix is bundled together in a short fat wand often called a 'smudge stick'. The leaves of the herbs are often bound with cotton thread.
Herbs from your local area for Smudging
Smudge sticks work just as well as loose herbs; which method you use is a matter of personal choice. It can be a good idea to find out a little about the herbs that grow where you live. Almost every country has something that grows nearby for smudging. In a dry hot place, one herb will grow and where the climate changes another will take its' place. Once you have done a little research, you can go about harvesting your own herbs and drying them.
When you have found your plant, talk to it; tell it what you want it for and that you wish to take it in a sacred manner. Ask it's permission before you cut it and remember to leave a give-away gift as an exchange. Then you can dry it by hanging it up in a bunch in your house until you wish to use it.
Planting and harvesting your own herbs can be very rewarding, as you not only make good contact with the plant people near you, but also, help save the destruction of habitats to satisfy the increasing demand for native smudging herbs. This is particularly true of Sweetgrass, which is a very slow growing plant that in some places is being over harvested to destruction.
A Simple Smoke Prayer Ceremony
A Simple Prayer Ceremony Offering smoke is a very good way of making prayers, and it is of course part of the Native American pipe ceremony. If you do not personally have a sacred pipe, there is no reason why you cannot use this simple ceremony loosely adapted from the traditional pipe ceremony.
Begin by getting your smudge bowl and your smudge mix. You may like to lay it out on an altar cloth on the floor in front of you. Any nice piece of cloth can be used for this, and once you have found it you may like to keep it special so you can use it every time you do a ceremony with your altar. Other things you can put on this altar cloth are a candle and a feather to fan the smudge with. I always use a candle on an altar, as it is a way of saying when the altar is active (candle alight) or inactive (candle snuffed out). I also like to use the candle to light matches rather than striking them on the matchbox, this makes it much easier if your one hand is holding the smudge bowl.
Now you can begin to perform the ceremony as if the bowl was a pipe. Take a small quantity of burning herbs and offer them to the Powers 'who love you'. These would generally be the Powers of the Four Directions, the Above (Grandfather Creator) and the Below (Grandmother Earth). You could also invite in any other spirits who love you such as ancestor spirits or power animals. It is always important to specify 'who love you' as not everything does. Now the herbs can be lit and the smoke fanned with a large feather as you offer the smoke to the Powers you have asked to help you with the ceremony, as well as any other powers, you wish to call to.
Now you can make your prayers, maybe for a sick friend, or to ask for guidance or another reason. You can offer the smoke again as you pray, or sit and quietly sit and 'dream' to get an answer to a question, perhaps feeding the burning smudge with a little fresh material to stop it going out. If you are with other people and they wish to take part in the ceremony, you can pass the bowl clockwise (sunwise) around the circle and each person can say their prayers.
Once your prayers are said remember to thank the powers whose help you asked and announce the end of the ceremony by stating that it is completed and you have done it for all your relations (all living beings in creation which includes the two leggeds, the four leggeds, the swimming beings, the plant people, the stone people etc). After you have finished, the ash and some more fresh herbs can be given to the land outside to say thank you.
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