Our Native elders have taught us that before a person can be healed or heal another, one must be cleansed of any bad feelings, negative thoughts, bad spirits or negative energy – cleansed both physically and spiritually. This helps the healing to come through in a clear way, without being distorted or sidetracked by negative “stuff” in either the healer or the client. The elders say that all ceremonies, tribal or private, must be entered into with a good heart so that we can pray, sing, and walk in a sacred manner, and be helped by the spirits to enter the sacred realm.
Native people throughout the world use herbs to accomplish this. One common ceremony is to burn certain herbs, take the smoke in one’s hands and rub or brush it over the body. Today this is commonly called “smudging.” In Western North America the three plants most frequently used in smudging are sage, cedar, and sweetgrass.
There are many varieties of sage, and most have been used in smudging. The botanical name for “true” sage is Salvia (e.g. Salvia officinalis, Garden Sage, or Salvia apiana, White Sage). It is interesting to note that Salvia comes from the Latin root salvare, which means “to heal.” There are also varieties of sage which are of a species separate from Salvin Artemusia. Included here are sagebrush (e.g. Artemisia californica) and mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). We have seen both Salvia and Artemisia sub-species used in smudging.
Sage is burned in smudging ceremonies to drive out bad spirits, feelings, or influences, and also to keep bad spirits from entering the area where a ceremony takes place. In Plains nations, the floor of the sweat lodge is frequently covered with sage, and participants rub the leaves on their bodies while in the sweat. Sage is also commonly spread on the ground in a lodge or on an altar where the pipe touches the earth. Some nations wrap their pipes in sage when they are placed in pipe-bundles, as sage purifies objects wrapped in it. Sage wreaths are also placed around the head and wrists of Sundancers.
There is some potential confusion here about the terms used to name plants, mainly because in some areas, junipers are known as “cedar” – as in the case of Desert White Cedar (Juniperus monosperina). This doesn’t mean that J. monosperina wasn’t used as a cleansing herb, though; in the Eastern U.S., its relative, Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginia), was used ceremonially. However, in the smudging ceremonies we have seen or conducted ourselves, Western Red Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) and California Cedar Incense (Libocedrus descurrens) were used … not varieties of juniper.
Cedar is burned while praying either aloud or silently. The prayers rise on the cedar smoke and are carried to the Creator. Cedar is also spread along with sage on the floor of the sweat lodges of some tribes. Cedar branches are brushed in the air to cleanse a home during the House Blessing Ceremony of many Northwest Indian nations. In the Pacific Northwest, the people burn cedar for purification in much the same way as sage – it drives out negative energy; but it also brings in good influences. The spirit of cedar is considered very ancient and wise by Pacific Northwest tribes, and old, downed cedar trees are honored with offerings and prayers.
One of the most sacred plants for the Plains Indians, sweetgrass is a tall wild grass with a reddish bas and perfume-like, musty odor. It grows mainly on the eastern side of the Rockies in Montana and adjacent Alberta, Canada. It also shows up in some small areas of Wyoming and South Dakota. Its botanical name is Hierochloe odorata. Some common names for it are Seneca grass, holy grass and vanilla grass. We have been told that a variety of vanilla grass grows in North Central California. But, how similar it is to the Plains variety we don’t know.
On the Plains, sweetgrass is usually braided together in bunches as a person’s hair is braided, although friends have said they have seen it simply bunched and wrapped in cloth. Either way, it is usually burned by shaving little bits over hot coals or lighting the end and waving it around, letting the smoke spread through the air. This latter method is how we were taught to burn sweetgrass in the sweat lodge – allowing the purifying smoke to get to all parts of the lodge.
We were taught that it was good to burn sweetgrass after the sage or cedar had driven out the bad influences. Sweetgrass brings in the good spirits and the good influences. As with cedar, burning sweetgrass while praying sends prayers up to the Creator in the smoke. High Hollow Horn says in the The Sacred Pipe “This smoke from the sweetgrass will rise up to you, and will spread throughout the universe. Its fragrance will be known by the wingeds, the four-leggeds, and the two leggeds, for we understand that we are all relatives; may all our brothers be tame and not fear us!” Sweetgrass is also put in pipe bundles and medicine bundles along with sage to purify and protect sacred objects.
Sweetgrass is very rare today, its territory severely cut by development, cattle- grazing, and wheat fields – and tradition Indians in the northern Plains are trying to protect the last remaining fields. The best way for most folks to get sweetgrass is to buy it at Native American retail outlets. This gives support to Indians who can help the fields from being depleted.
To do a smudging ceremony, burn the clippings of these herbs (dried), rub your hands in the smoke, and then gather the smoke and bring it into your body, or – rub it onto yourself; especially onto any area you feel needs spiritual healing. Keep praying all the while that the unseen powers of the plant will cleanse your spirit. Sometimes, one person will smudge another, or a group of people, using hands – or more often a feather – to lightly brush the smoke over the other person(s). We were taught to look for dark spots in a person’s spirit-body. As one California Indian woman told us, she “sees” a person’s spirit-body glowing around them, and where there are “dark or foggy parts,” she brushes the smoke into these “holes in their spirit-body.” This helps to heal the spirit and to “close up” these holes.
Recently we did a “light” house cleansing for a friend. We use the term “light”, for this is a relatively simple ceremony as opposed to some that are more lengthy and complicated. Our friend had some serious emotional and relationship problems, and he felt they had left a heavy and dark atmosphere.
First, we prayed together to the Creator and to the spirits for help. We then, burned sage, purified ourselves, and took the sage to all the corners, closets, and rooms of the house. We pushed the smoke with our hands to cleanse every bit of space – lingering over dark or cold spots that “felt” uncomfortable.
We used sage first in order to drive out the bad influences. Then we purified ourselves with cedar and, then repeated the cleansing process throughout the house with that. Then sweetgrass was used in the same manner to bring in good influences. All the time we prayed for help in this cleansing. Finally, we took a candle over the whole house and pushed its light into every corner. The People of the Pacific Northwest Coast taught this “lighting-up” of a house to us. We’ve been doing this type of house cleansing for ten years, and it never fails to “clear the air.”
In any case, smudging is a ceremony that must be done with care. We are entering into a relationship with the unseen powers of these plants, and with the spirits of the ceremony. As with all good relationships, there has to be respect and honor if the relationship is to work.
Shamanic smudging—or just smudging—is an age-old tribal tradition which has been used for centuries to create harmony and peace. There are many different shamanic smudging ceremonies, and different tribes use a variety of herbs for smudging.
To define it more clearly, shamanic smudging is the burning of herbs or incense for cleansing, purification, protection of physical and spiritual bodies, banishment of negative energies and creation of sacred space. You can use smudge sticks (herbs that are tied into a bundle for easier handling), braided herbs and botanicals (like sweetgrass) or loose herbs (burned on charcoal or mugwort, or in a firepit). Shamanic smudging releases the energy and fragrance of the herbs and botanicals so they can heal, cleanse and purify.
In many traditions, shamanic smudging involves a four directions ceremony or prayer, which sends specific kinds of smoke or prayers into the four directions. Different tribes have different smudging prayers that “program” the smoke to do a specific action, such as cleansing or aiding in divination.
In general, shamanic smudging can be used in daily life for practical purposes—to restore physical, mental and emotional balance; to shield against negative energies; to cleanse yourself, use your tools and clear your space; and to restore you sacred space.
COMMON HERBS USED IN SMUDGING
Although different tribes and traditions use different herbs for shamanic smudging, some of the most popular herbs include desert sage, white broadleaf sage, juniper, pinon (sometimes in resin form), sweetgrass, copal (in resin form), mugwort, lavender and sacred tobacco. Here are some general uses for the different herbs often used for smudging:
– PINON RESIN
Primarily fire element though can also be used as for four-element general purposes. Has a pleasant and meditative fragrance. Is cleansing, strengthening, warming, and used by Native American cultures for its spiritual and healing properties. Produces a thick stream of smoke, and is excellent for refreshing the senses and reviving a tired soul.
– COPAL GOLD RESIN
Primarily fire and water elements though can also be used as for four-element general purposes. When burned, the scent is sweet, resinous, slightly woody, mildly earthy and spicy. Was a holy incense used by the peoples of Mesoamerica. Traditionally used as incense in divinatory and cleansing ceremonies. The resin contains aromatic chemicals called terpenes, which make it volatile and flammable. Used by Mayan shamans prior to ingesting mushrooms.
– MYRRH RESIN
Primarily earth element though can also be used as for four-element general purposes. Produces a lot of smoke when burned, very earthy, piney scent. Gathered from an almost leafless Middle Eastern shrub called the Commiphora Molmol. It was used by the ancient Egyptians in rituals of Healing and Passing. It is one of the ingredients used by the Egyptians to embalm bodies. Useful for spirituality, meditation, happiness, release, transformation, strength, confidence and stability.
– FRANKINCENSE RESIN
Primarily fire element though can also be used for a four-element general purpose. Is the resin of an African tree and produces a rich, dense smoke when burned. Used extensively in meditation and healing. In numerous religious traditions, frankincense’s spiritual scent was believed to confer divine blessing. Pliny the Elder mentioned it as an antidote to hemlock poisoning.
– DESERT SAGE
Primarily air element though can also be used as for four-element general purposes. Has a somewhat sharp, light and refreshing scent. One of the most sacred herbs among Native Americans. Used to purify the mind, body and spirit before prayer, meditation, ritual or ceremony. Also used to purify sacred items such as pipes, magical tools, tarot decks and eagle feathers. Can be used for area, house and personal cleansing. Some people carry a small amount of Sage in a pocket or medicine pouch to insure personal and spiritual safety.
Primarily fire element though can also be used as for four-element general purposes. Has a sharp, piney scent. Excellent to stimulate and revive when tired in body, mind or Spirit. Used in ancient times for ritual purification of temples. Smoke believed to aid clairvoyance. Also useful for purification and to stimulate contact with other worlds. Burned during the Plague to resist disease.
Primarily air element . Has a light, aromatic and refreshing scent. Useful for attracting peace, happiness and restful sleep. Also reduces depression, grief and sorrow. Aids in meditation and divination, and often said to aid in manifestation. Known as Elf Leaf, Nard, Nardus, Spike and Lavender. Traditionally associated with fairies and elves.
– WHITE BROADLEAF SAGE
Primarily air element though can also be used as for four-element general purposes. This is a broad leaf sage is highly prized for its strong aromatic properties (strongest of the different types of sage). Considered the king if all sages. Excellent for meditation, divination, smudging, cleansing and purification.
– YERBA SANTA LEAVES
Traditionally used for enhancing psychic abilities, magical protection, healing and spiritual strength. Excellent for meditation and divination. Said to be ruled by the moon. One Native American tribe rolled the leaves into balls, dried it in the sun and chewed it for a natural mouthwash.
– HIBISCUS FLOWERS
Primarily fire and water elements. Produces a sharp, invigorating scent that lasts for a long time after burning. Often used in divination and psychic communication. Excellent for rejuvenating the senses and restoring life force.
– ROSE FLOWERS AND PETALS
Primarily water element. Produces a heavy, warm, aromatic scent with just a hint of sharpness – scent lasts a long time after burning. Excellent for meditation, divination, increasing psychic abilities, contacting powers and beings in other dimensions and psychic communication. Also traditionally associated with attracting love, conferring peace, stimulating sexual appetites and enhancing beauty.
Primarily air element. As its name suggests, sweetgrass produces a sweet and light fragrance that does not last for long. Excellent for cleansing sacred space. Sweetgrass is a rare grass which is found growing wild in very few places. Traditionally, sweetgrass is believed to invite the good spirits.
You can burn these herbs singly or in combination with each other. One good combination that covers all four magical elements of air, fire, water and earth is pine resin and sage (either desert sage or white broadleaf sage). This combination is appropriate for general use, cleansing, ceremony and ritual.
WHEN TO SMUDGE YOURSELF
Smudging yourself on a daily basis can be very helpful in keeping yourself balanced and maintaining a peaceful state of being. However, you should definitely use shamanic smudging techniques when you’ve been around people who are ill, depressed, fearful, angry or generally emotionally unbalanced; before meditating to create a calm state of being; when you’re feeling blue or depressed; or when you’ve been under a lot of stress.
Smudging yourself is easy. If you’re using a smudge stick, light the smudge stick on a candle flame. Hold the stick in the flame until there is a lot of smoke and the stick is burning well (that’s why a candle is better than a match—it can take a while to get the stick really smoking). Using a feather (or feather fan) or your hand, gently fan the smoke onto your body, starting at the top of the body and moving downward. Get the back of your body as best you can (it’s often easier to use a smudge pot and loose herbs for this). When you’re done, inhale a little of the smoke (just a little!) to purify your insides.
If you’re using a smudge pot or Fire-bowl and loose herbs, light the herbs (using self-lighting charcoal—not the barbecue kind!) until it is smoking well. Then, put the Fire-bowl on the ground and stand over it with your legs spread and feet on either side. Weave back and forth in the smoke until you have been thoroughly cleansed. Clothing is optional for this approach, and smudging in the nude is recommended for a more thorough cleansing. Again, when you’re done, inhale a little of the smoke to purify your insides. People often feel more relaxed, lighter and brighter after smudging.
If you’re going to use the smudge smoke during meditation, use a charcoal burner or Firebowl, light the herbs and enjoy the scent and smoke as you meditate. Meditating with these herbs often produces a deeper and longer-lasting state of relaxation and contemplation.
Native Americans used herbs to purify the spirit and bring balance to people who are unhealthy in spirit, mind, or body. Everything that happens within your home leaves a trace. The morning after party, the tired- ..but-happy revelry from the end of the evening is still in the air; Focusing your true intention to purify your space with time-honored method can return a dwelling to its rightful place as your sanctuary. One such cleansing method is known as smudging. Smudging originated as a Native American custom, and modern practice can reinvigorate your living space.
The vital action of smudging is lighting aromatic bundle of herbs and allowing it to burn away the negative energy that has been collected.
You can celebrate a new phase in life by conducting a smudging ceremony, or improve someone’s day by smudging the space around a friend. Offices and work spaces can benefit from smudging as well, allowing clarity of thought and improved productivity. The essential object for smudging is the herb bundle. It can be purchased or made by hand.
Using a match or candle, put the flame to the smudge stick. Then blow or wave it out, allowing the stick to smolder and the aromatic smoke to fill the room.
If you don’t have a smudge stick, you can also place loose herbs directly onto burning wood in an indoor fireplace or into a fireproof container with some charcoal. As the herbs begin to burn, the honored method is to use a feather to move the smoke around the person or place you are smudging. You may also use your hands. As you feel the space fill with the herbal scent, take time to consider the parts of your life that need cleansing. Imagine the smoke lifting away all the negative thoughts and emotions around you.
Tradition teaches that each smudging herb is used for a different purpose. So an important aspect of the ritual is finding the right herb for the moment. * Sage is the most prominent herb and is used to purify and protect one’s living area by removing negative energy.
* Sweetgrass is often burnt after smudging sage to welcome in the positive influences.
* Lavender restores balance and creates a peaceful atmosphere. It also attracts love.
* Rosemary is effective for gaining clarity about perplexing problems.
* Mugwort is celebrated for stimulating psychic awareness and powerful dreams.
* Bay leaf is used to protect against colds and flu.
* Cedar is burnt upon moving into a new home. It works as a purifier and as a way to attract positive energy. The act of cleansing your space can help you to truly put the past behind you. As the herbal aromas gently enter a room, clearing out accumulated spiritual clutter, you’ll be free you to enjoy your abode as the place of it was meant to be.
~ Author unknown