Smudging and Incense

In new age or occult circles the act of smudging seems fairly common. Although its heritage comes from native American traditions. For me, there is a lot of interesting material packed into smudging. There is a lot of plant related material and ceremonial material. The two topics are very important to each other.

I guess, if you’ve never heard of smudging, it involves burning a bundle of dried and tied plants. The smoke is fanned around a space to cleanse it of evil and to ritually purify a space for ceremony. The popularity of smudging is interesting. The practice is from native American tradition but every major religion burns incense to purify, cleanse, and/or please their spirits. Anyway, I’m going to stick to the plants used in smudging for now.

Sacred plants, incense, and smudging

A quick google search for “smudge sticks” (as the bundles are known) could get confusing. The fundamental component plant in a smudge stick is called “sage.” This is the first stop on the confusion train. There are 2 types of plants called “sage” that have been used by native Americans. One plant, Salvia apiana known as White Sage, is botanically, a sage plant. The other plants, Artemisia ludoviciana or Artemisia frigida, are members of the Asteraceae famly and more closely related to sunflowers.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

Obviously, having the right plant would be important. White sage has a more documented history of use for purification rituals. However, the plant is only native to California. Meanwhile the Artemisia’s are common all across North America. That raises the question; which is more likely to have been used most for ceremony? I argue that the Artemesia “sage” is the more likely used for ceremony. But, this also becomes a situation where location is important. Both are valid choices. However, I think in day to day practice it would have been more common to use a variety of Artemisia.

After sage comes Hierochloe odorata known as Sweetgrass. It is native to all of Canada and parts of the American northeast down to Virginia. This is another plant used for smudging. It’s a grass, and the leaves are braided, dried, and burned ceremonially. Sometimes it’s mixed with sage (Salvia or Artemesia) and cedar to create a smudge stick. Which leads us to cedar. Cedar is common across North America and known for it’s sweet smell. It’s also sometimes added to smudge sticks.

Incense and ritual cleansing

Part of this is to learn about sacred native plants in my location. But, it’s hard not to notice when concepts overlap. Smudging seems to be gaining in popularity among non-native Americans. It also gets wrapped up in shamanism. Which is all great. But, it’s not a new concept. And again, native Americans don’t own the rights to ritually purifying a space with sacred smoke.

Petroglyph Penitente Canyon, Colorado
Petroglyph in Penitente Canyon, San Luis National Forest, Colorado

The most glaring example for me is the Christian (Orthodox) church and the Catholic church. When the priest walks through the church with the censer he is ritually purifying the space. But the use of incense and/or sacred smoke can be found all over the world. It’s the commonality of the practice that I think is fascinating.

It’s interesting that primitive humans had an intuitive sense that a sacred place should be purified of unclean spirits. It seems that ritual cleansing is one of the most basic acts of religious expression. It seems to make intuitive sense that sweet smelling incense would be the cleansing agent. Not only could it be said that the sweet smell is pleasing to the spirits- practically it makes a space more comfortable to occupy.

Final thoughts

This topic is one of many that suggests to me that following intuitive sense is fundamental to primitive religious expression. I think this leads to the question; what influences intuition? Or; is it possible to influence intuition? I’ve read books and taken classes and I have have knowledge. Compared to a primitive person without books or structured classes; does the access to structured knowledge influence my intuition? I think at first it would be easy to say yes. However, what of memory?

Just because primitive humans didn’t have books or universities doesn’t mean they didn’t have a form of structured curriculum. It’s well understood that most “traditions” were passed orally. To put that another way- knowledge was passed through lectures. How much has really changed? And while I may have sat through numerous lectures; how much information have I retained? Or, how much information retained has also been influenced by newer information or the all powerful- bias? Am I to assume that primitive man didn’t suffer the scourge of bias?

The Edge of the Prairie
Mount Blanca, Colorado

I think it’s important to understand the way these issues influence intuition in order to try to understand the fundamentals of religious expression. When some guru tells me to meditate will I reach an intuitive result comparable to the ancient who first taught the religion? If not am I still practicing in true form? It’s here that I tend to find the all powerful answer- it’s the intent that powers religious expression. That concept is most recognizable in its form- the power of positive thinking. But the concept puts the locus in the individual practitioner and we’re back to intuition. In fact we’re at the fundamental reason for my exploration of animism.

So, if the power of religious expression is in the intent, then my intuitive sense of how to express myself is the locus of religious expression- in that my truest intent should manifest as an intuitive sense. From this perspective why do I need any form of organized religion. It’s impossible for organized religion to provide me with a truer form of religious expression than I can for myself.