The Global Tradition of Smoke Cleansing

Smoke cleansing is the practice of burning leaves, resins, wood or other plant matter to create smoke that has health and/or spiritual benefits. The word that most people in North America are most familiar with is "smudging." This word refers to a practice of burning herbs - usually sage - as part of or in preparation for spiritual practices that are linked to some native cultures of North America. Increasingly, using this term has been deemed culturally appropriative when used in any way other than to refer to that specific practice. The growing popularity of smoke cleansing has also lead to serious issues with over harvesting, making the white sage plant an endangered species. At B.A.G. Box, our policy is to source only sustainably harvested sage. This means that the sage we buy is farmed specifically for human consumption, and harvested in a way that leaves enough of the living plant intact for re-growth. Read more about the efforts to preserve this plant here.

Smoke cleansing as a practice can be found in nearly all corners of the globe, and has roots in so many cultures that it really is a part of human culture. With a little research into our own cultural backgrounds, we can all find a form of smoke cleansing that we can be comfortable with. Read on for a little information, and then do a little research into your own background and the traditions of your own ancestors. 

European smoke cleansing

My own cultural background happens to be mixed European, with emphasis on the UK region. For this reason, I tend to lean into Celtic traditions, as they feel the most appropriate. The practice of saining goes so far back in Celtic practices that it's unclear when it started. Juniper, rowan, or elder branches would be placed on a fire in a home with all doors and windows closed. The smoke from the branches would be allowed to fill the home, and then all doors and windows would be opened to carry the smoke out. The idea is that the smoke would carry away any unwanted spirits or energy. In the modern world, you may want to leave your windows open so you don't set off the fire alarm ;) Celtic practice also incorporates saining into seasonal celebrations, during which people would jump over a fire burning with these sacred plants for purification. Livestock would also be lead through the smoke of such a fire for the same reason. Celtic culture also incorporates smoke cleansing for health benefits. Herbs like rosemary and thyme actually help to cleanse the air of germs, and are often burned in the home when someone is ill. Read more about saining here.

Smoke Cleansing  in the Ancient World

People across the ancient world burned plant matter in temples and homes. 

The practice served spiritual, health, and aesthetic purposes. Evidence of plant matter being burned in temples can be found in Mnoan, Mycenaean, and Mesopotamian sites that still exist today. Traditional healers in Africa tossed herbal mixtures into a fire, or burned plant matter over coals to create a smoke that a person would "bathe" in for healing or spiritual purposes. The purpose and plants used varies. Read a bit here about a Sudanese practice involving smoke. 

Burning incense made from an assortment of plant matter was ever-present in cultures across Asia - and still is today. Burning incense as an offering in temples is a sign of respect and veneration of the ancestors. There is also a rich history of using incense for health related matters in traditional Chinese medicine that is still thriving today. 

Smoke cleansing using incense was also an important part of ceremonial worship in Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians used a mixture including frankincense, juniper berries, and other plants to purify a space, create a nice aroma and calming atmosphere, and to help people sleep. 

Smoke ritual was also important to the ancient Israelites, who also used Frankincense as part of a blend of herbs that was considered to be pure and sacred. And of course, in the biblical story of the birth of Jesus, in which the three wise men gifted the baby Jesus with gold, frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense and myrrh are both tree resins burned for spiritual and cleansing puproses, and were highly valued at the time. 

Create your own smoke cleansing practice

Now that you've got a general idea of the long human history of smoke cleansing, why not create your own practice that is unique to you and your beliefs, culture, and heritage? A little digging into herbal correspondences from your own cultural background, combined with a little research about what plants are readily available in your area can help get your creative juices flowing. 

the method of burning herbs is something to consider as well. rolling dried leaves into a bundle or stick that is lit on one end is just one method - and how most of us are familiar with seeing dried sage sold  and used. Loose leaves or parts of plants can also be purchased, and lit individually or placed on top of a burning coal in a fire safe dish. Incense made from natural plant matter is a convenient way to practice smoke cleansing without the need for extra accessories or caution.

I made my own herbal blend as an offering and blessing for my handfasting ceremony last year. I combined loose dried cedar, lavender, mugwort, and rosemary together and sprinkled the mixture over burning coals placed in a miniature iron cauldron before the ceremony. Cedar represented my home state of Michigan, as well as my current home of California. This plant is sacred to the First Nations people of both areas, and was my acknowledgement of their stewardship o the land. Lavender was a nod to my French heritage as well as a blessing of peace and calm for the day and the marriage. Rosemary was included for protection against ill will, infidelity, and unwanted energy, as practiced in Celtic traditions. I added mugwort as an alternative to sage, as it has similar properties to sage without being endangered. 

Here is a brief overview of some herbal correspondences to get you started. There are endless resources out there with a plethora of information on the subject. Just remember to be respectful of the plant you are using. No matter the plant, it is important to understand the history, lore, and culture that surrounds the plant you are using, and to show respect for the people who came before us in using them. It is also important to buy herbs only from suppliers that are ethical and sustainable in their farming practices, so we can be sure that future generations can enjoy the benefits of sacred plants. 

happy smoke cleansing!