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Who started smudging

Who started smudging?

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Many who have explored the world of new age and alternative health online are likely familiar with smudging, which involves burning sage bundles, abalone shells, and hawk feathers. But where did this practice start?

Ancient Aromatics: Tracing the Roots of Incense

Burning fragrant herbs and resins has a long history. Incense burners dating back to Egypt’s 5th dynasty, around 4500 years ago, have been discovered. Early humanoids likely collected aromatic stems and leaves, possibly for their pleasant scents or other beneficial properties. Examples from nature include white-faced capuchin monkeys using piper plant leaves for grooming, which repel insects due to their antibacterial and anti-fungal qualities.

Who started smudging
Bronze Egyptian incense burner from the 7th century BC on display at the Walters Art Museum

What is Incense?

Incense is a substance composed of aromatic materials, such as dried herbs, resins, woods, and essential oils, that is burned to produce fragrant smoke. It has been used historically in various cultures for religious, spiritual, and ceremonial purposes, as well as for relaxation and meditation. The act of burning incense is often associated with creating a sacred atmosphere, purifying spaces, and invoking a connection to the divine.

What are white-faced capuchin monkeys?

White-faced capuchin monkeys, scientifically known as Cebus capucinus, are a species of New World monkeys belonging to the family Cebidae. They are also commonly referred to as white-headed capuchin monkeys or white-throated capuchin monkeys. These monkeys are native to Central and South America, including countries like Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador.

What is piper plant?

The term “piper plant” likely refers to plants of the Piper genus, which is a diverse group of flowering plants commonly known as “pepper plants.” These plants belong to the Piperaceae family and are often associated with producing various types of peppers, including black pepper and white pepper, which are used as spices.

Who started smudging

From Practicality to Spirituality: Evolution of Burning Herbs

Certain herbs like citronella, sage, and rosemary, when burned, can repel insects. These types of herbs would have been advantageous for people living in caves or prehistoric shelters. It’s conceivable that the practical benefits of burning herbs gradually took on a spiritual dimension. As ancient individuals watched smoke rise from fires and inhaled the aromatic scents, they may have entered meditative states, feeling a connection to something sacred or divine.

Read more:  What is the Scent of White Sage?

What is Citronella?

Citronella refers to a type of grass (Cymbopogon nardus or Cymbopogon winterianus) known for its strong, lemon-like scent. This scent is used in various products to repel insects, especially mosquitoes. Citronella oil, extracted from these grasses, is a popular natural insect repellent.

What is Sage?

Sage is a common name for a group of plants belonging to the genus Salvia, which is part of the mint family (Lamiaceae). These plants are known for their aromatic leaves and are widely used for culinary, medicinal, and ornamental purposes. The most well-known species of sage used in cooking and herbal remedies is Salvia officinalis.

What is Rosemary?

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a fragrant and aromatic herb that belongs to the mint family (Lamiaceae). It is native to the Mediterranean region but is now cultivated and grown in various parts of the world. Rosemary is valued for its culinary uses, medicinal properties, ornamental qualities, and its association with cultural symbolism.

Who started smudging
Burning Herbs

Diverse Cultural Embodiments of Ancient Practices

This ancient practice has been embraced by various cultures.

  • The Celts practiced “saining,” which combined water from rivers with burning juniper to bless and safeguard homes or individuals.

What are The Celts?

The Celts were an ancient group of diverse and interconnected tribal societies that existed in various parts of Europe from around 1000 BCE to the early centuries CE. They are often associated with distinctive cultural, linguistic, and artistic elements. The term “Celts” refers to a collection of people rather than a single unified civilization, as the various Celtic groups shared certain cultural traits but also exhibited regional differences.

  • Amazonian tribes still use Palo Santo wood in healing and shamanic ceremonies.

What is Palo Santo wood?

Palo Santo, which translates to “holy wood” in Spanish, refers to the aromatic wood from certain tree species found in Central and South America. It is known for its distinctive sweet and woody fragrance when burned. Palo Santo has been used for centuries in various cultural and spiritual practices for its believed cleansing, healing, and spiritual properties.

  • Catholics also recognize the scent of burning frankincense and myrrh in churches, a tradition rooted in the Old Testament (Exodus 30:1-10).

What are Catholics?

Catholics are individuals who adhere to the Christian faith within the Catholic Church, which is one of the largest branches of Christianity. Catholicism is centered around the teachings and beliefs of Jesus Christ, as recorded in the Bible, particularly the New Testament. The term “Catholic” comes from the Greek word “katholikos,” meaning “universal,” reflecting the church’s historical claim to be the universal and worldwide body of believers.

What is Frankincense?

Frankincense is a resin obtained from the Boswellia trees, which are native to the Arabian Peninsula and parts of Africa, particularly Somalia, Oman, and Yemen. It has been used for thousands of years for its aromatic, medicinal, and spiritual properties. Frankincense is well-known for its appearance in historical and religious texts and its use in various cultural and spiritual practices.

What is Myrrh?

Myrrh is a resin obtained from the Commiphora trees, which are native to parts of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Like frankincense, myrrh has a long history of use in various cultural, religious, medicinal, and cosmetic practices. It is known for its distinct aroma and its appearance in historical texts and religious stories.

Diverse Cultural Embodiments of Ancient Practices
Diverse Cultural Embodiments of Ancient Practices

The Heart of Smudging: Native American Traditions

Smudging is primarily linked to Native American traditions in the northern regions. While sage is a commonly used herb, other herbs like cedar, tobacco, yarrow, and sweetgrass also play a role in smudging ceremonies. This practice frequently signifies the start of ceremonies. By lighting the herbs, often placed in a shell or fireproof container, and using a feather or fan, the smoke is spread into the air. This ritual employs the smoke clouds to cleanse spaces and individuals from negative energies and to purify them.

Read more:  Top 6 must-try sage varieties for smudging

What is Yarrow?

Yarrow, scientifically known as Achillea millefolium, is a flowering plant that belongs to the Asteraceae family. It is native to temperate regions of Europe and Asia but has become naturalized in many parts of North America and other regions. Yarrow is valued for its medicinal, culinary, and ornamental uses, as well as its ecological importance.

What is Sweetgrass?

Sweetgrass, scientifically known as Hierochloe odorata, is a fragrant grass native to North America. It is valued for its pleasant, sweet scent and has been used for various ceremonial, spiritual, and cultural purposes by Indigenous peoples of North America for centuries.

The Heart of Smudging: Native American Traditions
The Heart of Smudging: Native American Traditions

Preserving the Integrity: Honoring Traditions and Respecting History

When engaging in smudging, it’s crucial to honor the Native American traditions. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act wasn’t established until 1978. Before that, certain places had banned Native American rituals, including smudging. Thanks to the bravery of those who practiced secretly, these customs endured and were handed down to today’s generations.

What is The American Indian Religious Freedom Act?

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) is a federal law in the United States that aims to protect and preserve the religious rights and cultural practices of Native American tribes and individuals. It was enacted to address concerns raised by Indigenous communities about the infringement on their religious freedom and traditional practices by federal policies and actions.

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act

Cultural Sensitivity: Navigating Terminology and Sustainability

To avoid cultural appropriation, some recommend using the term “smoke cleansing” instead of “smudging.” The Chumash tribe of California is concerned about the excessive harvesting of white sage. To address this, some propose the idea of cultivating your own sage.

Read more:  Everything you need to know about Blue Sage

What is The Chumash tribe?

The Chumash tribe is a Native American group indigenous to the central and southern coastal regions of California, particularly in what is now known as the Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo counties. The Chumash people have a rich history and cultural heritage deeply connected to the land and ocean resources of their traditional homeland.

According to the USDA:

This species is readily available from native plant nurseries throughout its range.

What is USDA?

The USDA stands for the United States Department of Agriculture, a federal executive department of the United States government responsible for policies and programs related to agriculture, rural development, food safety, and nutrition. The USDA’s mission encompasses various aspects of American life, including agriculture, food production, natural resource management, rural communities, and consumer protection.

Personal Connection and Respect: Embracing the Sacred Ceremony

Various types of smudge or smoke cleansing bundles are available, and you can opt for one that aligns with your cultural heritage. No matter how you choose to practice, always keep in mind that this is a sacred ceremony. Remember to respect its history as you purify and bless your space.


The journey into the origins of smudging reveals a rich tapestry of ancient practices that have transcended time and culture. From practical purposes to spiritual connections, smudging continues to hold significance in the modern world, reminding us to honor traditions and approach this sacred ceremony with respect and mindfulness.

Author Linh Vu
Linh Vu

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