Home > The History and Use of Smudges

The History and Use of Smudges

Many customs have been handed down from Native Americans to modern day people who appreciate such things, among them sweat lodges and totems, but one very well-known tradition still in wide use is the smudge stick. Interestingly, this practice is not limited to North American indigenous cultures, but appears all over the world in many widely varying cultures and times. Many religious and spiritual ceremonies and practices use the smoke from sage and other herbs as a means of purification and for other reasons. A basic approach to understanding these uses is the idea that the smoke from the burning of these natural, powerful substances has a power - the ability to root out and take away negative energies.

A smudge stick consists of dried sage and other herbs such as lavender, cedar, mugwort, and cilantro, tied together with twine or string in a bundle, usually small enough to hold in the hand. White sage has been the traditional herb used in purification rituals by Native Americans, and contemporary practices have added more aromatic herbs to the list. The main criterion for an herb to be used for this purpose is the fragrance - they give off a strong yet pleasing smell as they burn.

The word smudging is used to describe the use of a smudge stick in a ritual or ceremony, and is closely related to the use of incense in many spiritual traditions around the world. While purification is the primary power of smudging and the smoke produced by it, the symbolism of the rising smoke from incense is important even to established religions. Catholicism, for example, has a long tradition of using incense in masses and at other holy celebrations - it not only has a strong fragrance, but the visible smoke going up to heaven symbolizes the path the soul takes to heaven.

While the psychotropic properties of smudge depend on the composition, it is also clear that the use of aromatics (as evidenced by aromatherapy and the use of different fragrances to establish different moods) alters the perceptions and perhaps the functioning of the brain. No one who has experienced the power of a ceremony or ritual that includes an olfactory component - something you smell and remember - would dispute that a contact high of sorts is possible just by getting a whiff of that smell in another context. It is truly powerful in changing consciousness, moods and perceptions.

In modern times, the use of smudging has been adopted by a variety of systems of belief, mostly related broadly to what most people think of as New Age practices. It is used in ceremonies of purification, but also as an aid to meditation and such esoteric practices as astral travel and shamanic journeys. The actual process of smudging involves a participant first getting the smudge to burn, then distributing the smoke in various directions at him or herself or towards others by means of another ritual object like feathers or a plant frond.

Participants in such a ceremony are aware not only of the importance of the smudge itself and its ingredients, but other surrounding factors that may influence the potency and success of the ritual. The collection of the various herbs that will ultimately go into the smudge is not haphazard, but is conducted according to rules defining when the most advantageous time of the day or night, the month, or the year is for the harvesting. Certain rules are also followed with respect to how the plants are collected - the attitude and behaviors of the collector can have an effect on the power of the smudge that is produced from the plants. Another important factor is the timing of the ceremony itself - certain times of the year is thought to be more auspicious than others, such as solstices and equinoxes, for example.

Modern science has provided some evidence for the effectiveness of smudging at least for the more every day, practical aspects of the practice. Whether it actually cleanses a person of evil influences is a difficult claim to test, but we do know that the sense of smell is amazingly powerful in the process of memory recall. A very small amount of a substance with a scent that is related to a memory can awaken many forgotten memories in the brain and allow the reliving of those memories as well. If a small amount of an everyday smell - roses, for example - can have such power, it's easy to see how a practice like smudging could become so commonly used in so many traditions and cultures around the world. Roger M. 2-20-2015