'The Magic Circle' John William Waterhouse 1886
Smoke – made hallowed by the use of scented woods, resins and healing herbs and by the intention, reverence and prayers of its users.
Smoke - used by traditional societies in every continent of the ancient world. Smoke to celebrate ritual, moon and equinox. Smoke to mark rites of passage during untold millennia.
Smoke is scent made visible. A tangible, ephemeral presence. In the world of faery, the sense of smell is all powerful – these beings rarely eat, but take in nourishment through the air. The smell of mushrooms sizzling, a cut strawberry, a spike of lavender, the salt tang of the sea and the deep smell of the earth in pine woods – all these are simple sustenance in the twilight-world of The Magics.
In modern magic and spiritual celebrations, mortals and the faere-folk alike use either fragrant incense or smouldering ‘smudge sticks’ to cleanse, purify and protect.
A ‘smudge stick’ is simply a bundle of dried herbs, tied firmly to make them burn longer, and often slightly ‘green’ to produce plenty of smoke for the purpose in hand.
These days they can be bought – but to make your own is much more satisfying, and would give more meaning to your magical objective.
Smudging is a fairly recent name for a very ancient ‘cleansing’ ritual using fragrant smoke. There are records from all over the world mentioning the cleansing of everything from unwanted pests to unwanted spirits in people, places, objects and animals
Incense and fragrant wood smoke played a part in the cultures of Asian countries from China and Tibet, through India, and on into Aboriginal Australia, Northern America and Africa.
In many parts of Europe, during ceremonies often associated with solstice festivals, cattle and sheep were herded through the smoke of bonfires, both to physically clean them of insects and to magically protect them for the coming year.
In ‘The Golden Bough’ a folklore 'bible' and collection of well-researched anthropological studies put together in 1922, Sir James Frazer gives several examples of aromatic herbs being used for cleansing. One of these is ‘The Burning of Witches’, taking place in parts of Central Europe on Walpurgis Night – the Eve of May Day. …
“ The people have been busy with their preparations for days before. On the last three days of April all the houses are cleansed and fumigated with juniper berries and rue. On a Thursday at midnight bundles are made up of resinous splinters, black and red spotted hemlock, caperspurge, rosemary, and twigs of the sloe. These are kept and burned on May Day … as soon as the church bells begin to ring, the bundles of twigs, fastened on poles, are set on fire and the incense is ignited.”
A second excerpt decribes a Midsummer Day ritual once held in many parts of North Africa, called ‘L'ánsara.’ Bonfires are lit and -
“Plants which in burning give out a thick smoke and an aromatic smell are much sought after for fuel on these occasions; among the plants are giant-fennel, thyme, rue, chervil-seed, camomile, geranium, and penny-royal.
People expose themselves, and especially their children, to the smoke, and drive it towards the orchards and the crops ……. Moreover they take burning brands from the fires and carry them through the houses in order to fumigate them. They pass things through the fire, and bring the sick into contact with it, while they utter prayers for their recovery.
…… The beneficial effect is attributed wholly to the smoke, which is supposed to be endued with a magical quality that removes misfortune from men, animals, fruit-trees and crops.”
However, the ‘smudging’ now widely practised in the 21st century is based on, and adapted from, the beliefs and customs of North American Indian tribes in the powers of fragrant smoke.
In 'Blackfoot Lodge Tales' by George Bird Grinnell 1892, there’s a fine account of a medicine man and his wife, smudging with herbal smoke before unwrapping their precious medicine pipe for a healing ceremony.....
"With wooden tongs, the woman took a large coal from the fire, and laid it on the ground in front of the sacred stem. Then, while everyone joined in singing a chant, a song of the buffalo (without words), she took a bunch of dried sweet grass, and, raising and lowering her hand in time to the music, finally placed the grass on the burning coals. As the thin column of perfumed smoke rose from the burning herb, both she and the medicine man grasped handfuls of it and rubbed it over their persons, to purify themselves before touching the sacred roll. “
It is the way of more organised religions, in the past as now, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism etc. to burn costly resins and blends, swinging them in censers, or hanging them in ornate containers in the awe-inspiring buildings.
Smaller groups, those of forest, meadow and hedgerow, used the scented herbs which grew naturally around them, different herbs for different lands, often bunching them dried or throwing them straight into a ritual fire.
Native Indian peoples traditionally used ‘sweet grass’ - heirochloe odorata– because it grew around them in abundance and was associated with healing. Instead of a round binding it was often plaited. Smelling of clean fresh hay with a touch of vanilla, it’s smoke is gently invigorating, freeing the space of negative feeling.
Brush sage is also very popular.
We can use the wild herbs that grow in plenty in our meadows, hedgerows and waysides during the summer months. Choose one for its magical properties of protection, or mix and match as you wish (see below for some suggestions). A smudge stick isn't necessarily made for its beautiful scent, but rather for its cleansing intent.
I prefer to use a strong machine cotton in soft brown to bind the stick, and then to use raffia as a decorative finish.
All you will need:
Freshly cut herbs, scissors, strong natural cotton, natural raffia
* Harvest a bunch of your chosen herb or herbs, choosing pieces with quite long stems. Tie them and hang them in a warm place for up to a week until partly dried. (Meadowsweet should only be hung for a day at most).
* From the dried bunch, cut about six strongish twigs roughly 25cms (10ins) and another six or so smaller pieces, still with a strongish stem. Strip any small shoots and leaves from the base of the stem leaving about 7cms (3ins) bare. Keep the small bits for packing.
* Take a long piece of strong cotton. Make a neat bunch and tie at the top of the bare stems just below the first leaves. Do NOT cut the cotton - leaving a tail for tying in later, and the long length will be used to bind the bunch.
* Open the bunch up a little and push the small pieces and leaves inside, packing them well down the length as well as at the top to make a plump cigar-like shape. Now take the long end of cotton and carefully bind up the bunch, possibly turning the herb tops over at the end to make a smarter tip. Wind the cotton round, roughly binding in the herbs, pulling fairly firmly, but not too tight. (If bound too tightly the stick won't smoulder well). Pass back down and round the bunch. Tie off using the ‘tail’ that you left earlier.
* Lay out a clean tea-towel. Put the bunch on one end in the centre, and roll it tightly up in the cloth, turning in the ends at the finish. Roll it like pastry with the palms of your hands, the leave it wrapped up for ten minutes or so.
* To finish I like to use a long, thin length of raffia, wrapped round the stem to cover my original cotton and then wound up and back with the traditional cross over finish. Don’t make it pretty with a bow, as you're going to burn this stick at some point and want to make smoke, not set fire to yourself!
* You might want to trim any ‘untidy’ bits with scissors, or simply leave it as it is. Store the smudge sticks in a dry place. Possibly label them to remind you which herbs you have used, as they may be needed at different times of year or for precise magical intentions.
* When you use one, hold it by the bare stem ‘handle’ and light the tip (preferably with a candle) – blowing out any flames and allowing the herbs to smoulder.
*** Take great care to rest the stick in a suitable dish and extinguish it properly when you’ve finished – it can be re-used if you wish.***
Plentiful and free in the wilds of Britain ....
Mugwort - harvest under a full moon if possible. Herb of clairvoyance, protection and banishment of negative energies.
Pine, Fir and Spruce – used to invoke The Lord of the Greenwood. A powerful cleanser when added to a herb mixture as needles.
Meadowsweet – for cleansing particularly during summer months. Useful for purifying any objects for a ritual of love.
Thyme – a strong purifier and bringer of courage. Use in a blend when cleansing before any tricky or stressful situation.
Heather - harvest when flowering. Bringer of luck and youthful outlook. Also use when meeting new people and hoping for friendship and easy integration. In Ogham tree law, heather rules the summer solstice - June 21st.
Marjoram – use when cleansing objects or participants for any magic involving love. A bringer of happy energies.
Grown commonly as kitchen herbs ...
Lavender – brings peace in meditation. A powerful herb for cleansing.
Hyssop – use in a cleansing mixture to bring happiness and positive energies.
Rosemary – use to cleanse a space for births, marriages and deaths. Banishment of negative energies and promoter of healing.
White Sage – use to bestow long and happy life when cleansing partakers or objects. Use when wisdom is needed in daily life. Brings protection from evil.
You can read more about the Magic of Mugwort here
on the Wolfmoons & Muddypond Green Blog
and about the Magic of Meadowsweet here
Why try smudging? If for no deeper reason perhaps, then simply because it's a pleasant,
peaceful and thoughtful experience.
In Muddypond’s world of faerie, there are few rules for ritual. Each must find their own way with instinct, feeling and experiment – do it your way – make it natural and easy - you know what works ….
In the main smudge sticks are used to cleanse:-
Spaces – to bring positive feelings and energy into a room, whole house or any space. Might also be used to banish a feeling of negativity - to re-energize the space after an illness or unhappy event - or to bring protection.
Walk right around the space, fanning smoke into corners keeping your intention clear in your mind.
Objects – to bless and purify objects to be used in magic or meditation such as a wand, stone or drum (although faeries need very few magical ‘tools’) particularly when first made or brought home. Pass the object through the smoke, asking that it be blessed.
Mortals. Magics and Creatures – pass smoke over the body, especially over the head, hands and under the souls of feet. Many feel that the smoke interacts in a positive way with the Chakras. Keep your objective for the person clearly in mind.