Smudging et al.

There are hundreds of ways to express or name the act of burning herbs to cleanse an area. Smudging [1], smoke cleansing, or fumigation. Mankind has used incense, in its earliest forms, since the dawn of human history. With the discovery of fire, our ancestors would have realized that most materials give off a unique and sometimes powerful aroma when burnt. The difference between the smell of a handful of Parsley and that of a Pine tree branch is greatly emphasized when each is burnt. Then as now, the air is quickly filled with intoxicating aromas simply by throwing some dried leaves and spices into a fire.

There is historic evidence in most cultures that our ancestors used incense burning for sacred and healing purposes. From ancient times people recognized that aromas produced by burning materials could heighten the senses, both sight, and smell. When early man gathered around his fire, the smell of aromatic woods, resins, herbs, and leaves carried by heaven-wards spirals of smoke was a rare sensory pleasure. It was a short step to dedicating fragrances to the Gods by adding them to a fire, as offerings that would also carry the good wishes and prayers of men upward in the heat of the flames. Other benefits ascribed to the burning of incense included the purification of an area, facilitating meditation or religious practices, and cleansing or disinfecting living spaces, especially after pollution caused by, for instance, death or illness.

For several thousands of years plants, herbs, and spices that produced the best scent were highly coveted. For a time Frankincense was actually more valuable than gold or silver. In almost every religion, aromatic oils, leaves, and powders were considered a gift from the Gods, symbolic of divine grace. Frankincense was used in vast quantities by the ancient Egyptians, Persians, and Assyrians, and via them, by the Romans, who learned of its use when coming into contact with eastern nations.

The trade of Frankincense flourished for centuries, particularly in the area of Oman, and its use can be traced back to the reign of the Queen of Sheba. For fifteen hundred years, the trade thrived. Peaking at the height of the Roman Empire. The trade only declined due to reduced demand after the fall of the Roman Empire and taxes levied along the strictly controlled trade routes.

The idea of purification through smoke is certainly not the sole preserve of the world to the east of the Atlantic. The Native North Americans have also burned herbal smoke mixtures in ceremonial cleansing and healing rituals for thousands of years. Smudging (the European settler’s name used today; given to the sacred smoke bowl blessing) has been a part of Native American tradition since ancient times.

As with its Eastern counterparts, “smudging” continues to be a practice held literally sacred by many traditional cultures. Smudging takes many forms; herbs are either tied into bundles called “smudge sticks,” or the longer, tendril-like herbs may be braided into “ropes.” Smudging calls on the spirits of sacred plants to drive away negative energies and restore balance. The most popular herbs and plants for smudging include Cedar, Sage, Sweetgrass, and Tobacco. Each of these plants is imbued with a unique quality and specific energy and as such are known as “Sacred Plant Helpers.” Their smoke is ceremonially fanned through the energy field (aura) to cleanse negative energies, heal, bless and attract positive forces.

Smudging continues to this day as an integral part of Native American purification rituals. All spaces and the tools used for healing must be smudged, and smudging is an integral part of other important ceremonies such as medicine wheel gatherings, the vision quest, and the sweat lodge.

The use of incense in organized religion continues as a relevant and important aspect of several confirmed religions, being used to prepare the congregation for prayer and ritual. In the Roman Catholic and Eastern churches, incense is a sacramental, that is, “an action or object of ecclesiastical origin that serves to express or increase devotion”.

The mystical meanings ascribed to incense by the church hardly differ from those of our ancestors. By its burning, incense symbolizes the zeal of the faithful, its sweet fragrance echoes the “odor of sanctity” believed to be exuded by saints and martyrs, and its rising smoke symbolizes the ascent of prayers to heaven. Also, incense creates a cloud, which is another symbol of godliness.

Incense has quite rightly been called the forefather of modern Aromatherapy, and its use as the earliest form of healing based on scent is undisputed. Today, there has been a resurgence in the use of essential oils and the burning of incense as tools to employ the power of Aromatherapy, which is now recognized as being able, via the stimulation of the olfactory nerves, to produce physical, emotional, and psychological effects independent of the thinking process.

As we smell scents, whether it be incense, fresh paint or sausage, and bacon; our mind is busy working on a subconscious level, deciding whether we like it and determining whether we recognize it. These responses are created in the limbic system, or more accurately, the information is sent via the nerves to the olfactory epithelium, which is part of the limbic system in the brain. Data is then transmitted to the conscious parts of the brain. The limbic system is the oldest and most primitive section of the brain. It stores information about every scent ever smelled and provides responses and reactions to various stimuli. It is considered the seat of memory, and as such is a powerful mood lifter or changer.

All smell is molecular. In other words, when we smell a scent, we are registering a physical molecule that disconnects itself from its carrier and drifts in the air, arriving through the nose to the mucous membrane which has millions of odor-receptor cells and cilia to catch and identify scent molecules in the air. Unlike our other four senses, the nerve system for smell is directly exposed to its source of stimulation. This explains the immediate, unthinking effect of scents on the nervous system. Scent can cause an instant and overwhelming reaction, either pleasant or unpleasant, in a way that no other sensation can.

In addition, our ability to learn and our capacity for sympathy are also located in the limbic system, hence the often close link that feelings of sympathy and antipathy often have with smells. The limbic system is also responsible for creativity, inspiration, and all non-thinking, automatic life processes such as heartbeat, hormone regulation, and respiration. Scent can affect all of these powerful bodily processes.

The use of incense, and essential oils in modern Aromatherapy, has validated the belief held by our ancient forefathers. Many of the reactions and decisions we make are intrinsically linked to our sense of smell, and many areas of our health and relaxation can be positively affected by smell, and by definition, through Aromatherapy. Incense can help to:

Cleanse the atmosphere
Aid calm and reduce anxiety, stress, and fear
Revitalize, stimulate, and renew energy
Alleviate insomnia
Prepare the mind and body for prayer, meditation, and contemplation
Accelerate healing

Follow the example of the ancients, and allow the fragrant smoke from the incense to cleanse your living space, relax your body, calm your mind, create a spiritual atmosphere and heighten your awareness.