I’ve wanted to say something about smudging for a while now. The term “smudging” is widely used today and it’s one of the most popular ways in the spiritual community to attempt to get right of negative energies, and it’s even entering the mainstream. It’s not unusual to hear “muggles” say something like “We need to smudge this office!” after there’s been an interaction with a person deemed toxic or an event viewed as negative has happened.
Nothing I’m going to say is going to stop the practice of using smudging with, especially, white sage as a “cure all” but I think that if you’re going to do something, perform what is essentially a ritual and an indigenous practice, you should at least to some degree understand why you are doing it.
I’ve grown a little tired of hearing people defend themselves by saying that we’re all in different stages of our journey so we mustn’t judge what people do. We are, but it doesn’t excuse anyone from having a responsibility to remain informed of why they’re doing something and where a practice came from.
So, in broad terms about what is probably a very deep subject:
What is smudging?
Smudging is essentially a burning of herbs and in pop culture the term is mostly associated with the burning of white sage "smudge sticks". The herb is burnt in most cases to clear negative energy be it from people or less desirable entities, or even as an attempt to get rid of negative entities themselves.
Burning herbs is practice in many cultures and these practices differ greatly. It’s used for many purposes and those include medical, practical and spiritual purposes. A traditional smudging practice generally involves prayer and ritual while burning sacred medicine plants such as tobacco, cedar, sweetgrass and sage. Smudging is one of the practices that have survived colonisation of the Native America peoples. Smudging is an English term that has been applied across the board to this practice.
How is Smudging Done?
Generally speaking it require a vessel to carry the herbs – it can be a container, a shell, a smudge stick (the herbs tied together and dried) or a ball. The burning herbs produce a smoke that’s believed to be sacred to Creator.
When smudging a person, the smoke from the burning sacred plant is wafted with the hand or, for example, a feather over the face and body of the person being smudged. The person also wafts the smoke towards their face and body with their hands, inhaling it during the process. When smudging a space, the smoke is wafted into and around the space while the person performing the smudging prays for any negative energy to leave the space.
The ashes left over from the smudging are not disposed of in the garbage but are returned to the earth as a way of signifying the negative energies are being returned to earth and put outside the person or the space.
Who performs the smudging?
Smudges are most often traditionally performed by elders or spiritual leaders but other people do it too if the need arises.
What is Represented in the Ceremony?
If you’re looking at the traditional Native American teachings which is mainly where the now pretty mainstream practice to burn white sage comes from, it’s important to note that the Medicine Wheel very much features in the process in some cultures, and so the featuring of the four elements in the ceremony is very important.
What’s the Purpose of the Smudging?
In ritual events, smudging is part of the spiritual beliefs and is included in events like sweat lodges and sacred pipe smoking. The intention is to connect the people to Creator, and it gives the people a way to receive protection and blessings as a way of restoring spiritual health. The smoke purifies the body and the spirit which in turn brings clarity. Smudging may be performed during a crisis or a chaotic time, when there’s physical illness or when there’s been a death.
Smudging can also be used to restore the physical body depending on what parts of the body are targeted with the smoke. For example, you could smudge the back of a person to get “a monkey” off their back or a problem weighing heavy on their shoulders. You may smudge the ears to help a person hear better.
Increasing respect for everything around very much part of the smudging. The smudging is done with intention is one part of the ritual performed in most cases.
There will be arguments about this one I’m sure, and people will get defensive, but personally I have very little respect for the argument that people are in a specific stage of their journey or on their path so they can do what they like because they don’t know any better yet.
Even when I do work as a modern/urban shamanic practitioner I believe I don’t have a right to steal practices especially if I don’t have respect for their origin or I don’t fully understand why they’re done, and if I haven't been taught by someone who has not only granted me permission but also made sure I know the practice fully.
Smudging is a deeply spiritual thing in the cultures it’s practiced in. If you're culturally sensitive the protocol is generally to wait for an invitation to learn a practice and to use it, and it needs to be taught by a person with indigenous ancestry and knowledge.
Language has Power
If you were to ask me, a shamanic practitioner with circa 20 years' experience under my belt, what smudging really is (in the Native American traditional sense) I would answer that I don’t actually know. It’s not part of my heritage and it’s not something I’ve been taught formally (even though my own teacher was of Native American heritage and it was part of my training).
In the past, I have grown my own white sage (which was far superior to any commercial white sage I’ve ever met) and while growing it I formed a close relationship with the plant spirit just as I was taught to do by my own teacher. I harvested the plant after asking it permission, I tied it up it up in neat bundles (refer images attached) and I burned it in my own practices, ceremonies and rituals with good result.
But, if I say I’m smudging then I’m referring to the Native American practice. To me it’s not OK to use a word in a way that seems or is disrespectful of the culture it came from (and please don’t argue with me that “smudge” is an English word and therefore we can use it as we please) when we have caused the people in that culture so much pain, and when our culture still holds so much privilege over that culture.
If you feel a need to hold on to the word “smudge” despite that, have a bit of a think about why, please. It’s perfectly fine, albeit less fashionable, to say that you’re burning some herbs to cleanse yourself, a client/friend or a space, and that you’ve tied the herbs up into a bundle or you went a bought an herb stick.
I just said that I grew white sage – honestly, I loved it – but I also grow a bunch of other herbs and plants that I burn. The companion plant to my white sage was a culinary sage that I started growing first because I couldn’t find white sage seeds. I still grow my other “burning herbs” such as rosemary, mugwort, basil, thyme, vervain and bay leaves, for example. I’m also lucky to have three rather healthy lavender bushes where I live now.
In the 25 years or so that I’ve been a practicing witch I’ve never referred to the practice of burning herbs as “smudging”. Way back when I was initiated no one used that term about the witch practice of burning herbs for protection and to banish negative energy. We still tied our herbs in to neat little bundles and dried them, we wafted the smoke into the dark corners of our houses and onto ourselves and those who had sought our council, but not once did I ever hear a witch say she was smudging anything.
The use of burning incense and herbs in religious and spiritual rituals is a worldwide practice, and there’s simply no need refer to it as smudging. If we’re not brought up in a Native American culture and know the ins and outs of it then we are better of going about burning our herbs in accordance with our own traditions that we seem to, for some reason, be rejecting here.
The Real Question (for some) – Does “Smudging” Get Rid of Entities?
In short, because I’m sure you’re getting weary (if you’re still with me, thank you and bravo!), the answer is:
No, "smudging" doesn’t rid a place of negative entities.
While burning certain herbs with intention can and will clear negative energy (which may or may not have in influence on whether negative entities like to hang around or not) wafting white sage smoke around your house doesn't get rid of any negative entities. It may, however, slow them down, sedate them or generally make them a little more compliant. To rid ourselves of negative entities we generally have to employ other tactics but that, my dears, is a whole other story.