Smudging – Medicine for the world around and within you

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a bundle of California mugwort

There is A LOT of chic info on smudging out there; pinterest pins, cute little jpeg images, youtube videos of teenagers smudging their rooms. Most of this is random “new age” grab bag mysticism and most of it lacks context. So this article is to give context, as well as some applicable techniques, in a manner that will help the interested reader to know what is going on during a smudging ceremony and why certain elements are included.

First, the smudging ceremony is a rite in and of itself, it can be performed on its own or in conjunction with other ceremonies. It can be used to cleanse and purify a space, to banish unwanted energies or spirits, to cleanse or purify an individual, to attract helpful energies or spirits and to overall aid as the olfactory (smell) element of ritual. What goes into the smudge mixture, what is said during the smudging and the intent of the ceremony and practitioner all play factors as to what is going on with the ceremony.

Smudging is practiced by many cultures, but not always for the exact same reasons, or in the same ways. The first example of smudging I will give is a generalized Native American / First Nation’s ceremony, followed by differences that are found in the smudging practices of the California Miwok people, subtle differences that add greater context and meaning to the process and observations we can make from them.

Element’s of the ritual:

  1. Gathering, selection and preparation of herbs to be smudged
  2. Placing the herbs inside a smudging vessel
  3. Lighting the herbs
  4. Purifying the ritual tools
  5. Purifying the practitioner
  6. Recitation of prayer to direct the ceremony
  7. Purifying observers
  8. Purifying the space

Gathering, selection and preparation of herbs to be smudged

When possible, the herbs being used should be gathered and prepared by the practitioner who will use them, although this is not necessary, it adds significance to the ceremony and aids the practitioner in their work as it will be a more meaningful experience, the same can be said for the ritual tools, which are:

  1. Smudging vessel, (usually a clay pot or an abalone shell)
  2. Herb Bundles, (any mixture of aromatic herbs)
  3. Fan, (usually a simple fan constructed of feathers, sometimes wrapped in leather)
  4. Burning methods (while some use lighters or charcoal, a wood match or a fire ember is more natural)

The herbs or botanical’s that may be used are many and varied, most commonly, we see California white sage (Salvia apiana) or the South American Palo Santo (Bursera graveolens) being sold by metaphysical stores. While these are fine and good, there is a much more diverse range of plants that find use. Commonly, in Native American traditions, we will also see the use of Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), Sweet Grass (Hierochloe odorata), Cedar (Cedrus), Lavender (Lavandula), Copal (Protium copal) as well as mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and in the Miwok people’s of California’s use of California mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana) and California bay laurel (Umbellularia Californica) specifically.

The Herbs

White Sage (Salvia apiana) – the most commonly burned botanical, valued for its ability to cleanse spiritually, banish negative energies and purify dwellings.

Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) – used as an offering of respect to spirits, also used as a vehicle to communicate prayer to the spirit world. The idea behind tobacco use is that it is a pleasant offering to the spirits and that it makes them more receptive to the requests used during the prayer. If tobacco is used, try to avoid anything with additives, you want tobacco that is as unprocessed and commercialized as possible.

Cedar (Cedrus) – associated with healing and visionary dreaming, cedar is burned as an aid to empower the ritual or to help as a healing medicine. Cedar smoke is used in sweat lodge ceremony and often the spirit lodges are constructed of cedar and covered with cedar bark. Cedar is considered a symbol of good fortune, bounty, generosity and divine providence.

Lavender (Lavandula) – associated with easing of spiritual blockages, healing of stress and anxiety. This was a practice picked up from European settlers, the native plant Desert Lavender (Hyptis emoryi) is found in Arizona and Southern California, it is used similarly but was not widely used outside of this region.

Copal (Protium copal) – also referred to as torchwood, is mainly burned as a Mayan practice, as Copal is a Spanish derivative of the Nahuatl word copalli, meaning “incense.” The Mayan people saw this as the food of the god’s and used it in their rights as an appeal to them although there is some suggestion of its use by tribes along the California coast. Copal is burned as a resin.

Mugwort (Artemesia) – use of mugwort as a medicine and visionary aid are widely documented. Aside from its uses among women during menstruation, the aromatic plants prophetic, visionary and divinatory properties are celebrated in many cultures. Mugwort cleanses and purifies in a similar manner to white sage, it is actually referred to as “black sage” in some instances as it has similar qualities and can be used as a stand in for sage.

The moral of this is that you can use any type or combination of botanical’s that you wish, but you should carefully select and prepare the herbs that apply to you and the ceremony you wish to perform. Each botanical should be selected for its meaning and intended use, not just burned methodically from habit. Herbs should be gathered and then bundled or braided and dried. When wrapping the bundle, using string or twine, it may be beneficial to use a color significant to the practitioner. The Miwok people of California for example, use red string, specifically to symbolize the “blood of the people”.

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Red string fastening together a smudge bundle

The Smudging Vessel

The vessel to be used to “burn” the herbs could be made of clay, often times an abalone shell is used. This is largely a matter of personal choice and almost anything can be used, but the bottom should be lined with dirt or sand to prevent heat transference to one’s hand or damage to the smudging vessel. It is important to note that the vessel, when made from shell, can be used to represent “water” as an element. When combined with the “air” of the fan, as well as the “fire” and “earth” of the lit smoking herbs, there is a full representation of the four elements.

The Fan

This is not a necessary tool, although many like to use it. Simply holding a burning sage bundle and “smudging” with waves of the hand is still effective. Ceremonially and traditionally however it is still useful and in keeping the representation of the elements. This is usually made of turkey or raptor feathers in Native American practice, although if gathering feathers yourself, it is recommended you consult local laws, as picking up any migratory bird feather or raptor feather is illegal in the US, decontamination is also an issue. Craft feathers of all sorts may be safely and legally purchased online for use in such a project.

The Ritual 

Begin by lighting the herb bundle or any resins that you have chosen. Place the bundle in the smudging vessel and then place the vessel in front of you. You should pass the ritual implements through the smoke and then wave your hands in the smoke to cover your face, shoulders and chest, this purifies and banishes influences on the practitioner before proceeding. While covering the implements or yourself in the smoke, visualize within your mind’s eye: the smoke washing over the tools and yourself, dissipating negative energies, cutting harmful influences and purifying everything it touches.

A prayer may be said at each stage of the ceremony, if so, the prayer should be written or developed by the practitioner, it should have personal meaning and come from the heart. Searching for Native American smudging prayers will quickly show that these are usually personal and specific to the event or purpose at hand.

Interestingly enough, while western traditions usually seek to banish all spirits from the ritual space, many Native American prayers tend to be inclusive and use language such as “I invite all well-meaning spirits or those spirits with good natures to participate and aid us in this ceremony”. Where western ceremony tends toward sterilizing the ritual space of all outside influence, the more animistic Native American practices view the positive energies of local or ancestor spirits as being necessary to the success of the ritual. The best practice of this is up to the individual as both paradigms are sufficiently different in reasoning and method, but use of the indigenous method should be considered, especially if seeking contact with native spirits. It is most beneficial to leave western sensibilities at the door when attempting to use other methods or interact with the spirits of another culture. Consider what it is you are trying to accomplish when you make your decision.

After the purification of the tools and practitioner, the vessel should be picked up and used in conjunction with the hand or fan to cover the ritual space and any observers, prayer may also be used here. Special attention to corners should be given, as many cultures believe spirits and energies may hide in them, this is also a common reasoning behind circular buildings and the use of circular spaces throughout the world.

During the ceremony, visualize what it is you are asking for in your prayers, attempt to keep the mindset of what you are trying to do and even visualize that effect taking place. For example, when using sage to cleanse and purify a dwelling, visualize the smoke carrying away dark energies and spirits and covering the area in a positive and protective veil. Everywhere where the smoke touches is being cleansed, purified, protected and healed. At the end of the ceremony, give thanks to any spirits who were in attendance to help, tell them you are finished and it is alright for them to depart.

Variations

The Miwok people of California utilize a roundhouse, called a hun’ge for spiritual ceremony. It is designed and built by the tribes spiritual leader and it is de-constructed when that leader dies before being rebuilt by their successor. Having no access to white sage, mugwort is used in its place for smudging. The above photograph is not an active hun’ge, but a small outbuilding that shares the construction and design elements with the larger one nearby to it.

Inside of these lodges, which are constructed of cedar and covered in cedar bark, a central fire pit is used, burning cedar logs and sometimes bay leaf to act as a fumigate to clear the space of insects. Mugwort is burned instead of sage and it is important to note that mugwort is attributed to visionary and transcendental powers more so than white sage, using mugwort to smudge would very probably lead the experience more in the direction of visionary or divinatory experience over simple purification and prayer. According to Miwok beliefs, the dances and ceremonies within these hun’ge are participatory between the people and the spirits who come to teach and guide them during the rituals. From an outside perspective it is interesting to note that this more participatory interaction is also facilitated with a more chimerical botanical like mugwort.

In this usage, the smudging takes place not just in the use of hand vessels, but the entire space is simultaneously smudged via the central fire pit burning cedar and other herbs. This example also clarifies that smudging can be done for a variety of purposes, outside or indoors and that while some uses may be purely to cleanse or prepare a space, the practice also has many uses to include individual visionary experience, healing, or guided group ritual. Hopefully, this article has both increased your understanding and opened you to the wider degree of both meaning and practical use that smudging inhabits, above and beyond merely chasing ghosts from our houses.

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