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Smoke Cleansing Across Cultures

Smoke Cleansing Across Cultures

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Smoke cleansing, which involves burning various natural substances like plants, resins, and wood for health or spiritual purposes, is an ancient tradition found in cultures worldwide. I personally learned about smoke cleansing through a Celtic tradition called “fire saining,” which is meaningful to my cultural background. However, the most well-known form of smoke cleansing today is “smudging.”

What is fire saining?

Fire saining is an ancient Celtic practice that involves using fire and water to bring the spirits of the botanical world to aid in safeguarding, purifying, or healing various aspects of life, including individuals, animals, places, objects, or entire communities. This ritual typically takes place within the context of Celtic traditions and is closely connected to the cycles of nature and the changing seasons.

Key elements of fire saining may include the lighting of a ritual fire, often using specific types of wood such as juniper, rowan, or elder. Participants may then pass through the smoke of the fire, symbolizing purification, healing, and protection. Livestock might also be guided through the smoke, and the smoke itself could be brought into homes for various purposes.

Fire saining is not only associated with specific events or seasonal holidays in the Celtic calendar, like Beltane and Samhain, but also with marking significant life passages such as births, handfastings (weddings), and funerals. It can also be practiced on a smaller, more personal scale as the need or mood arises.

Smoke Cleansing Across Cultures
Fire saining

What is smudging?

Smudging is a spiritual and cleansing practice that originates from the indigenous cultures of North America, particularly among Native American and First Nations peoples. It involves the burning of specific sacred herbs, often bundled together into a “smudge stick,” to produce smoke. This smoke is then used to purify, cleanse, and bless people, places, or objects.

The most commonly used herb in smudging is white sage (Salvia apiana), although other herbs like cedar, sweetgrass, and lavender may also be used, depending on the specific tradition and purpose.

Exploring our own cultural heritage and personal beliefs can help us find plants that resonate with us individually. Our ancestors had deep connections with these plants, which are intertwined with our history. For many, smoke cleansing can be a powerful and healing practice when aligned with their true selves.

Burning Sage

Smudging vs. Smoke Cleansing

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term “smudge” originated in mid-18th century English and initially meant to obscure or cover something with smoke, often used to drive away insects or safeguard plants from frost. However, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States, the word became linked to the ceremonial practices of some First Nations People, where smudging was an integral part of spiritual rituals, often accompanied by other rites. Over time, “smudging” has become closely associated with the spiritual practices of these specific communities.

What are First Nations People?

“First Nations” is a term used in Canada to collectively refer to the Indigenous peoples who are native to the country. These are the original inhabitants of Canada, and they have diverse cultures, languages, and traditions. The term “First Nations” is used to emphasize their status as the first or original peoples of Canada.

First Nations people include various distinct and separate Indigenous groups, each with its own unique history and heritage. Some of these groups are known by specific names, such as the Cree, Ojibwa, Haida, Inuit, and many more, while others are identified by their traditional territories or regions.

In various parts of the world, smoke cleansing rituals share common objectives and outcomes with smudging but serve diverse purposes. While one smoke cleansing practice may aim to connect with the spirit world or purify ahead of a ceremony, others seek to dispel negative energy, foster community unity, create sacred spaces, or provide herbal support. What unites these practices is their use of regionally, culturally, spiritually, or historically significant burnable materials chosen by the people conducting the ritual.

Who started smudging
The term “smudge” originated in mid-18th century English and initially meant to obscure or cover something with smoke

Smoke Cleansing in the Ancient World

One of the earliest documented instances of smoke cleansing dates back to the Vedas, ancient Hindu texts written in Sanskrit. These texts describe the use of incense as a therapeutic aid for healing from illness and emphasize its role in establishing a clean, tranquil, and nurturing environment conducive to recovery. Nevertheless, even before the Vedas recorded this practice, people in the ancient world had been burning herbs to produce fragrant smoke in their temples, home altars, and healing spaces.

What is Vedas?

The Vedas are a collection of ancient sacred texts and scriptures that are considered the oldest religious and philosophical literature of Hinduism. These texts are written in Sanskrit and form the foundation of Hindu religious and philosophical thought. The word “Veda” is derived from the Sanskrit word “vid,” which means “knowledge” or “wisdom.”

In Mesopotamia, the Minoans and Mycenaeans utilized ladanum and saffron for their smoke cleansing rituals. Meanwhile, the Assyrians employed cedar, cypress, juniper, boxwood, and fir for similar purposes. In ancient Rome, cinnamon was burned during funerals, while rosemary was used for healing ceremonies.

What is ladanum?

Ladanum, also known as labdanum or gum ladanum, is a sticky, aromatic resin obtained from various species of rockrose plants, primarily Cistus ladanifer and Cistus creticus. These plants are native to Mediterranean regions and produce the resin as a sticky exudate on their leaves and stems. Ladanum has been used historically for various purposes, including in perfumery, traditional medicine, and incense production.

Smoke Cleansing Across Cultures
One of the earliest documented instances of smoke cleansing dates back to the Vedas, ancient Hindu texts written in Sanskrit

In Africa, traditional healers and spiritual leaders followed distinct practices. They burned herbs on charcoal or sprinkled herbal powders into the fire, allowing the smoke to envelop a person, creating a sort of cleansing “bath.” These rituals could serve both healing and spiritual purposes, facilitating connections with the spirit world. The specific herbs used varied by region.

  • In West Africa, traditions involved N’tabanokò (Cola cordifolia), Ganianka (Combretum mole), and Nèrè (Parkia biglobosa).
  • In South Africa, Imphepho (Helichrysum odoratissimum) remained a vital herb for ritualistic smoke cleansing.

What is N’tabanokò?

N’tabanokò, also known as Cola cordifolia, is a plant native to West Africa, particularly in countries like Ghana, Nigeria, and Ivory Coast. It belongs to the Cola genus, which includes several species of plants known as kola nuts. The kola nut is significant in West African culture and is often used ceremonially and medicinally.

Throughout ancient China and across Asia, incense played a significant role in various religious traditions, including Buddhism, Taoism, and Shintoism, as well as in the veneration of ancestors. A fundamental practice known as “Jìngxiāng 敬香,” or “offering incense with respect,” was central to ancestor veneration. This practice involved using joss incense sticks crafted from diverse botanicals, as well as roots and barks of trees such as magnolia, peony, and cypress.

Read more:  Exploring Cedar Sage: Uses, Benefits, and Characteristics

What is Incense?

Incense is a fragrant substance that is burned to produce a pleasant aroma and smoke. It has been used for various purposes in cultures around the world for thousands of years. Incense is typically made from a combination of aromatic materials, which can include plant resins, woods, herbs, spices, and essential oils. These ingredients are often blended to create unique and appealing scents.

What is Jìngxiāng 敬香?

Jìngxiāng (敬香) is a Chinese term that translates to “offering incense with respect” or “paying reverence to incense.” It is a traditional Chinese ritual and practice associated with the burning of incense as an offering to deities, ancestors, and spirits. This practice is an essential element of Chinese religious and cultural traditions, particularly in Buddhism, Taoism, and ancestor veneration.

Incense also had a vital role in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), where it was used to support emotional and physical well-being. Highly prized and potent varieties included agarwood and sandalwood. Additionally, TCM practitioners employed a long-standing therapy known as moxibustion, often in conjunction with acupuncture. This therapy involved burning ground mugwort formed into sticks to promote healing and balance.

Smoke Cleansing Across Cultures
A fundamental practice known as “Jìngxiāng 敬香,” or “offering incense with respect,” was central to ancestor veneration

What is mugwort?

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is a perennial herbaceous plant that belongs to the Artemisia genus, which includes a variety of aromatic plants and herbs. Mugwort is native to Europe and Asia, but it has also naturalized in other parts of the world, including North America. It has a long history of use in traditional medicine, culinary practices, and folklore.

In ancient Egypt, smoke cleansing in the form of incense played a significant role in ceremonial worship. One particularly popular incense of the time was known as “kyphi.” Various versions of kyphi existed, some intended for home use and others specifically crafted for temple rituals, particularly those dedicated to honoring the goddess Isis.

Who is Isis?

Isis is a goddess from ancient Egyptian mythology and one of the most widely venerated and iconic deities in the Egyptian pantheon. She is known for her multifaceted roles, including that of a mother goddess, a healer, a protector, and a symbol of magic and wisdom. Isis played a central role in Egyptian religious beliefs and was associated with various aspects of life and the afterlife.

What is kyphi?

Kyphi, also spelled kypi or kapet, is an ancient Egyptian incense blend that was used in religious and spiritual rituals, particularly in the worship of various deities. It is one of the most famous and revered types of incense in ancient Egyptian history. The precise recipe for kyphi varied over time and among different temples and regions, but it typically included a mixture of fragrant botanicals, resins, and other aromatic materials.

The ingredients for kyphi could vary depending on the recipe. These often included a blend of herbs and resins such as ground myrrh, frankincense, calamus root, juniper berries, spikenard, and cinnamon, among others. Additionally, kyphi formulations might incorporate raisins, wine, and honey. The purpose of using kyphi in these rituals ranged from purifying the space and providing a pleasant aroma to promoting restful sleep, depending on the specific recipe employed.

Read more:  Top 10 surprising health benefits of sage tea
Smoke Cleansing Across Cultures
Kyphi, also spelled kypi or kapet, is an ancient Egyptian incense blend that was used in religious and spiritual rituals, particularly in the worship of various deities

Smoke played a significant role in the rituals of the ancient Israelites, so much so that God provided Moses with a specific incense recipe, as described in Exodus 34-35. This sacred incense blend consisted of equal parts storax, onycha, galbanum, and frankincense. These ingredients were carefully combined and salted to create a pure and sacred incense for use in religious ceremonies.

In the biblical narrative of the birth of Jesus, frankincense and myrrh were two of the three precious gifts presented by the wise men. These gifts held symbolic significance, emphasizing the spiritual and sacred elements associated with the use of incense and aromatic resins in religious traditions.

What are the three precious gifts?

The “Three Precious Gifts” are a reference to the gifts or offerings presented to the infant Jesus in the Christian Nativity story, as described in the New Testament of the Bible. These gifts are traditionally associated with the visit of the Magi, also known as the Three Wise Men or Three Kings, who traveled to Bethlehem to pay homage to the newborn Jesus. Each of the three gifts carries symbolic significance:

  • Gold: Gold is a symbol of kingship and royalty. It represents the recognition of Jesus as a king and the acknowledgment of his royal status. It also symbolizes wealth and value.
  • Frankincense: Frankincense is a type of aromatic resin obtained from the Boswellia tree and is often used in religious rituals and incense burning. It represents the divine nature of Jesus and his role as a spiritual leader. The burning of frankincense is associated with prayer and worship.
  • Myrrh: Myrrh is another aromatic resin, often used in ancient times for its fragrance and in the preparation of bodies for burial. It symbolizes mortality and foreshadows Jesus’s future sacrifice and death. Myrrh is a reminder of the suffering and sacrifice that would be part of Jesus’s life.

These gifts are significant in Christian tradition and are often depicted in Nativity scenes and retellings of the Christmas story. They are not only seen as physical offerings but also as symbolic representations of Jesus’s identity and mission. The presentation of these gifts by the Magi is an essential part of the Christmas narrative, celebrated in many Christian cultures as the Feast of Epiphany or Three Kings’ Day.

Smoke Cleansing Across Cultures
The three precious gifts

Smoke Cleansing Around the World

India: Havan Samagri

Some years ago, a controversy arose when several popular American media outlets featured 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).” These articles referenced a 2007 study titled “Medicinal Smoke Reduces Airborne Bacteria,” published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology. However, there were issues with these references.

Firstly, the study itself had nothing to do with the practice of smudging as commonly understood, and it did not involve sage of any kind. Instead, the research took place in India and focused on “havan samagri,” a blend of ceremonial and Ayurvedic herbs, wood, and roots widely used in India for fire oblations. Havan samagri includes various botanicals like rose petals, sandalwood powder, agar, lotus seeds, turmeric, mango wood, and more. Unlike smudging or moxibustion, it is not burned in the form of a bundle or stick; instead, it is burned loosely in a bowl or dish, allowing the rising smoke to fill the space. The study did indeed find that burning havan samagri for one hour significantly reduced airborne bacterial counts.

In addition to havan samagri, India employs various other smoke cleansing materials, including star anise, cedarwood, vetiver, valerian, patchouli, clove, and more, each serving distinct purposes in rituals and ceremonies.

Smoke Cleansing Across Cultures
Havan Samagri


Traditional smoke cleansing has been a vital practice for Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities for thousands of years, serving multiple purposes related to health, well-being, protection, community, and their profound connection with the land. These smoking ceremonies hold special significance during various life events and rituals.

  • Rites of Passage: Smoking ceremonies are integral to marking significant life transitions, such as the birth of a child. They are used to protect both newborns and mothers in the postpartum period. During naming ceremonies, elders pass their hands through the smoke rising from the ceremonial fire and then place their hands on the baby’s hands, feet, and eyes, symbolizing blessings and protection.
  • Welcoming and Protection: Smoke cleansing is also a gesture of goodwill used to welcome and safeguard visitors. This practice typically involves an outdoor smokey fire and employs a variety of indigenous plants depending on the region and their availability. Traditional plants like Emu bush (Eremophila longifolia), eucalyptus, cauliflower bush (Cassinia longifolia), mints, and Australian sandalwood are often used for these ceremonies.

The significance of smoke cleansing in these cultures is deeply ingrained, reflecting their close connection to the land and their profound respect for tradition. To help people better understand the cultural importance of smoking ceremonies and the plants used, the National Museum of Australia produced a video featuring Ngunnawal man, Adrian Brown, which serves as a valuable resource for learning about these traditions and their rich cultural heritage.

Read more:  How to Smudge Your Home, Office, and Yourself with Sage

European Traditions: Saining in Celtic Culture

What is Saining?

Saining is an ancient Celtic practice deeply rooted in European traditions. It involves harnessing the elements of fire and water to engage with the spirits of the botanical world, seeking their aid in safeguarding, purifying, or healing individuals, animals, places, objects, or even entire communities. Within the Celtic calendar, seasonal holidays like Beltane and Samhain were traditionally marked by fire saining ceremonies.

During these occasions, communities would come together to create a ritual fire, often using juniper, rowan, or elder wood. Members of the community would take turns “jumping the fire,” passing through the smoke as a means of purification, healing, and protection. Livestock were also led through the smoke, and the cleansing smoke was brought into their homes. Beyond seasonal events, saining continued to play a role in marking significant life passages, including births, handfastings (weddings), and funerals. Furthermore, individuals or families would engage in smaller, simpler saining ceremonies at home as the need or mood arose. These practices reflect the enduring and meaningful connection between the Celtic culture and the tradition of smoke cleansing.

In addition to its ritualistic and cultural applications, smoke cleansing found more secular uses in Europe throughout history.

  • During the 14th and 15th centuries, a period marked by the threat of bubonic plague and other contagious diseases, people turned to the practice of burning rosemary in their homes as a means of protection. The aromatic smoke was believed to help purify the air and ward off illness.
  • Even into the 20th century, French doctors recognized the benefits of smoke cleansing for health purposes. They recommended burning rosemary and thyme in sickrooms and hospitals to cleanse the air and create a more sanitary environment. Additionally, these doctors advocated the use of herbal smoking mixtures to address respiratory problems. These herbal blends were typically burned on charcoal or thrown into heating or cooking fires, allowing the fragrant smoke to fill the space and be inhaled as a form of therapeutic treatment.

These historical practices highlight the enduring belief in the cleansing and healing properties of smoke in European culture.

Using Sage vs. Palo Santo Understanding Their Purpose
European Smoke Cleansing Traditions

Creating Personal Smoke Cleansing Traditions

The diverse tapestry of smoke cleansing traditions from cultures worldwide offers an inclusive and accessible avenue for individuals to develop their own practices without intruding on sacred traditions of others. Here’s a guide on how to create your own smoke cleansing traditions:

  • Rooted in Respect: Recognize the importance of respecting the sacred traditions of others. Your personal practice should be inspired by, but not copy or appropriate, the practices of different cultures.
  • Seek Personal Resonance: Connect with burnables that resonate deeply with your own history, culture, and personal experiences. Research your family’s heritage and any botanical traditions it may encompass.
  • Spiritual Path: If you follow a particular spiritual path, explore its botanical traditions. Many spiritual belief systems incorporate herbs and incense for various purposes, including purification and spiritual connection.
  • Herbal Allies: Consider the herbs and botanicals that hold special significance in your life or have provided you with healing and support over time. These can become your allies in your smoke cleansing rituals.
  • Sustainability: Choose herbs that are sustainable and environmentally responsible. Opt for those that can be grown in your own garden or that are readily available in organic abundance.
  • Methods of Burning: Explore different means of burning your chosen botanicals. While “smudge sticks” are associated with North American indigenous traditions, traditional smoke cleansing rituals around the world often involve incense or the burning of loose botanicals and resins on charcoal or in fires.
  • Cultural Heritage: If you have a northern European heritage, as you mentioned, tap into the wisdom of your ancestors. Embrace botanicals that reflect your farming and gardening roots, such as coniferous evergreens, fruitwood from your orchard, and protective garden herbs like comfrey, elderberry, valerian, lavender, sage and rose. Incorporate plants that hold personal significance, like Oregon grape from your yard, which has been a lifelong ally.
  • Meaningful Practice: Craft a meaningful smoke cleansing practice that aligns with your beliefs and intentions. This can include the use of specific tools, recitation of words or prayers, and the creation of a ceremonial space.
  • Gratitude and Authenticity: Throughout your practice, express gratitude to the Earth and the plant allies that support you. By avoiding cultural appropriation and embracing your genuine self, your smoke cleansing traditions can become a powerful and beautiful aspect of your life.
The variety most suited for this purpose is commonly known as 'California White Sage' or 'White Sage Smudge Stick
White sage is probably the most common and popular herb for smudging

By weaving together your personal history, spiritual beliefs, and connection to the natural world, you can create smoke cleansing rituals that are authentic, respectful, and deeply meaningful to you.

Author Linh Vu
Linh Vu

“Herbs are the friend of the physician and the pride of cooks.” ~ Charlemagne.