Smudging involves burning of herbs to release their aromatic scent for a spiritual or ritual purpose.
The word “smudge” comes from Middle English and refers to making a very smokey fire specifically to ward off insects1, from there it was applied (by English speakers) to the Native American purification practice of purification by smoke. Each tribe that practices purification by smoke has its own methods, traditions, and name for the practice, applying the word “smudge” to all of them is an oversimplification and generalization. In fact, many spiritual traditions the world over use or have historically used purification by smoke, each in their own way.
Every group has their own word to describe the practice of burning herbs to create smoke for ritual purposes. The term “smudging” has been adopted by English-speaking New Age practitioners and has been adopted by many modern witchcraft traditions. Due to concerns about cultural appropriation, many folks today are encouraging the use of different terms for this practice, such as smoke cleansing, purification by smoke, fumigation or suffumigation.
Smudging is usually done as part of a larger ritual that varies greatly by intention and culture. The herbs or resins are burned, either in a bowl or another container, or bundled together to form a smudge stick, and the smoke from the herbs is wafted over an individual or object or throughout a space. The smoke may be directed toward to subject using a feather, a hand, or the practitioner’s breath. Smudge sticks are made by bundling herbs together and binding them tightly with a string. Incense may also be used for smudging.
Smudging is done for a variety of reasons: to purify or cleanse a space, person, or object, to connect with the land, to connect with or get the attention of spirits, including place spirits, gods, and ancestors, to create a welcoming space for spirit beings to dwell, to drive away unwelcome spirits, disease or general negativity, to sanctify an object, person or area, or as an offering to please the spirits, Gods or ancestors.
It is also interesting to note that most herbs used for smudging today actually have antiseptic qualities. That is to say, the burning herbs may actually purify the air or bacteria and viruses!2 Many of these herbs were burned in sick rooms in ancient times for the same purpose. This practice, the purification of the air or space by use of herbal smoke, is known as fumigation or suffumigation, though it is more generally referred to as smudging today.
Please note that burning any herb can release toxic gases and inhaling any smoke is unhealthy. Smudging should only be done in a well-ventilated space or outdoors.
Herbs Used for Smudging
Smudging in America is traditionally done with tobacco, cedar, sweetgrass or sage but these herbs are particularly sacred within certain Native American traditions. European and Mediterranean traditions make use of a variety of herbs native to Europe and the Mediterranean including garden sage and thyme as well as resins such as frankincense and myrrh.
Sourcing Smudging Herbs
Many witches believe strongly that you should use what is readily available and grows nearby for any magical purpose for practical and ethical reasons. If you grow them yourself, they are even more powerful. Things purchased from a distance could have been unsustainably sourced, wildcrafted from threatened populations, it can be expensive, and it’s not in tune with the energy of the land where you are standing. However, if you haven’t the space to grow your own smudging herbs or a location that you can sustainably and legally wildcraft from, purchasing them might be your only option. Make sure that you ask questions of your vendor about the origin of your herbs.