By Moira Payne
Originally published in the Crazy Wisdom Journal Issue #74. Read it here.
I remember coming home after my divorce was finalized. The exhilaration I had felt once the burden of a decade had been lifted changed when I walked through my door. It was quiet. Too quiet.
Through the next several weeks, the weight of coming home was wearing me down. I could not understand how the solitude I had longed for had become my newest burden. I began the process of getting rid of things—the pretty little porcelain butterflies that hung on my wall that he had bought me for Mother’s Day during a getting-along year, the picture frames that I never really liked, but had been given with such love that they still sat on my dresser, the stuffed animals that sang the ballad of everlasting love.
Even with these things, and several other car loads, taken to the nearby donation store, the very air in my home had ceased to circulate and had become heavy. That’s when I bought my first sage stick. I lit it and walked from room to room, corner to corner, waving it around and blowing on it, to keep it going strong. To the tops of the walls and back to the bottom, from the back of the house to the front. The sweet smell of sage smoked my home each evening until finally, the weight was lifted. It is from my own personal experience that I write with such confidence.
Smoke permeates the air. You can see its path and how it spreads. There can be no place that is missed in a place where there is smoke. In so many ways, the smoke takes our hopes and desires and carries them away to be spread across the world. Given this, it’s not surprising that it has been used in spiritual and religious ceremonies around the world and across virtually all cultures. The first recorded use was with incense used by Egyptians as far back as 2500 BC, but it was also being developed in practices in China at the same time. Religious use of incense is prominent in Buddhist, Taoist, and Shinto shrines. These practices saw the burning of incense to be a way of purifying the surroundings and bringing forth Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Gods.
Smoke and incense aren’t just relegated to Eastern spiritual practices either. Christian belief holds that the three wise men brought frankincense and myrrh as gifts to the baby Jesus, recognizing it was one of the most valuable things they could give. In many Christian practices and ceremonies, the rising smoke is seen as a conduit to send prayers directly to God. We see this referenced in the bible in revelations chapters five and eight. “And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God”.
Whether it be Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, indigenous peoples, or contemporary Paganism, we find the use of incense and smoke. It is seen as a way to clear and clean spaces and energies, make offerings, and carry our intentions and prayers out to the divinity in all its forms.
The Native Americans have a smoke cleansing tradition called smudging. As I am not Native American and have not been initiated into that tradition, I refer to burning herbs as a smoke cleansing. I have attended Native American ceremonies and have witnessed smudging. However, I respect their tradition and would not refer to my own smoke cleansing as smudging as I would also not call the water wafer a communion wafer. Religious traditions aside, smoke cleansing has an incredible impact on clearing negative energy.
There are as many different ways of smoke cleansing as there are traditions. My own method involves me moving the energy through the home and out the door! Spring and fall make ideal seasons to smoke a house, as the windows can be opened to let out the excess smoke. I place my herbs in a fireproof dish or Abalone shell. I start in the far back corner of the house and make my way through the house until I reach the door. I never leave any herbs alone to burn, as the wind might blow them out of the dish. I sometimes play music that I find healing in the background, as it gets my mind in the right space. When the cleanse is complete, I sit in appreciation for the moment. I focus on the positive in the world until I can vibrate this love outward.
There is an abundance of herbs that you can use to smoke cleanse an area. Although, many of these herbs can be grown and harvested in our own yards, they also can be purchased quite easily at a metaphysical shop. If it is a local shop, they will know the origins of the herbs and if they were harvested in a sustainable manner. Although my personal favorite is sage, there are other herbs and herb combinations that are sold, usually in a bundle and tied with twine. Although each bundle may have different qualities, your intention matters. Be clear in what properties you are looking to bring into your own sacred space!
When burning the herb of your choice, it is important not to forget the most important tool of all—your intention. Set the intention that the smoke will clear and lift any negative or stagnant energy. To help you stay focused on this intention throughout the process, many people will repeat a chant to themselves, though it’s certainly not necessary. You will then waft the smoke into all areas of the space you are clearing. Moving from floor to ceiling and corner to corner, simply be certain that you are moving the smoke throughout the entire space while staying focused on your intention. Being able to visually see the smoke move throughout a space allows you to be certain that the intention you have set is moving throughout the entire space as well. It helps you to not “miss” any corners or stagnant spaces.
While bundles are the most commonly sold form of binding herbs for smoking, there are a variety of other forms as well. In the list that follows, you will find that in addition to bundles, some may be wood, some come as loose dried herbs, some in incense cones or sticks, and some as resins that you burn on charcoal disks. For any of these, if you are unsure of the proper (and safest) way to use them, I would encourage you to consult packaging, speak to the salesperson, or consult online resources. In the end, it is not about the form the herbs and plants come in that is important. What really matters is the smoke that they produce. Lastly, if you are drawn to a certain herb, take heed! We do not need to know in our minds what the purpose is if the body and spirit are sending out a message.
Birch: This tree is very protective, not only in the visible world, but with unseen energies as well. Birch holds strength over new beginnings and drives out negative energies.
Cedar: The pines from the tree make for a great alternative to sage. Cedar is known for its healing and protection qualities. As it clears the negativity, it brings in the good spirits. As a tree, cedar is great for grounding.
Copal: This resin will help you bring in strength, motion, and energy. Copal is used for purification, protection, and opens spiritual portals. This is often substituted for frankincense as they have a similar scent and come from the same tree family.
Frankincense: Calming and connective, frankincense sets your mind to embrace spirit or what is unseen. It is purifying and capable of washing away the ill that affects thought/mind.
Juniper: When burned, juniper will ward off airborne illnesses. It is cleansing, purifying, and healing.
Lavender: Most of us are aware of the calming effects of lavender. It relaxes our minds to allow us to key into our psychic ability while deepening our meditation.
Mugwort: This herb is burned to place you in a trance-like state. Known for its assistance in divination, Mugwort is a favorite for people who meditate and wish to create a sacred space. This herb is great for dreaming and those who wish to work in the in-between worlds.
Mullein: A unique herb that it is said to shine light upon the darkness. It brings divine energy into reality while holding strength in both the visible world and the unseen world. Mullein brings strength to breath. It feeds life and understands change.
Myrrh: This resin will help you embrace what is true and honest. Myrrh fills you with strength, courage, and awareness while helping you become mindful of your potential.
Palo Santo: Holy Wood, which is what Palo Santo translates to, is used for the deepest of healing.
Pine: As an evergreen, it is forever green. Pine is full of life, abundance, growth, prosperity, immortality, and renewal. It offers protection from a cycling process or embraces a cycling process. Your intention is your choice, either with growth or stagnation. Make sure your intention is true through time.
Pine Resin: This resin aids in speed of action or thought. It holds the ability to sustain determination over time. Pine resin has an immortality aspect, is purifying and cleansing.
Rosemary: As it clears the negativity, rosemary brings a sense of calmness. Rosemary is known for clearing the mind until your mind can remember things. It’s a great herb for dream recall.
Sage: This herb is known for its antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. Not only does sage clear the negative energy, but it removes most bacteria from the air. Sage is a great bug repellant. Metaphysically, sage is known for its healing, cleansing, and protection properties.
Sweetgrass: Used to bring sweet, positive energy or spirits (ancestors, angels, guides) into your space. It is particularly powerful when combined in practice with sage, as sage clears out old and negative energy and the sweetgrass brings in positive to fill the void that is left
Thyme: This herb offers strength and calming of the mind. While clearing, cleansing, and purifying, burning thyme will disrupt air traveling illnesses. Thyme is known to bring courage, strength, and healing. Use thyme to invoke spirits.
Willow: Wood used for burning has additional qualities as it comes from a tree. Willow is much more healing and protective. It brings a regenerative process into view or existence and holds a destructive strength, yet that destruction will only bring forth growth and renewal.
If you go to the store to purchase one herb and are drawn to a different one, listen to yourself! Our discernment is the most important tool we possess. Remember, you had the power all along, my dears!
Moira Payne, with the assistance of MeKailia Nimue and Kelley Emerson, wrote this article on smoke cleansing and they are just three of the many witches that gather in the Crazy Wisdom Community Room for Witches Night Out. They each bring forth different ideas, energies, and experiences and hope you receive this all for your highest good. You can reach them at WitchesOfAnnArbor@umich.edu