Smudging is the name given to the ceremonial and day-to-day act of cleansing and purification using a selection of herbs, which are bundled together using string to form a smudge stick and then ignited. The smoke emitted from the bundle is said to cleanse negative energy, influence or spirits and purify places, people and even objects such as tools.
The smudge stick and the ritual itself are treated with great reverence and respect among traditional societies. Native American cultures famously utilized the herb sage in rituals, something which has been widely adopted by those in the New Age community. Yet many different herbs are used for almost identical ceremonies worldwide, such as juniper, lavender, cedar and non-processed tobacco.
Smudging has been utilized for thousands of years, possibly pre-dating Native American culture. The act of burning herbs and plant resins in a ceremonial and religious setting is mirrored all over the globe. The burning of incense burrows deeply into our past, occurring in Egypt in 1530 B.C.E and in Israel in the fifth century B.C.E in ceremonies where the practice was so revered that separate altars where used.
Like many spiritual and historic practices, smudging resides behind an erect intellectual barrier of skepticism, which isn’t without its reasoning. However, with regards to smudging, science is now showing that ancient cultures were on to something, and that this ritualistic act may go beyond mere superstition.
Published research reveals that cleansing herbal smoke, such as that mustered in the ceremonial burning of smudge sticks and incense, may indeed cleanse the surrounding air of harmful bacteria, granting the practice proven clinical benefit.
A 2006 review titled “Medicinal Smokes” published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology administered single and multi-ingredient herbal and non-herbal remedies in smoke form. The authors reported: “The most frequent medical indications for medicinal smoke are pulmonary (23.5%), neurological (21.8%) and dermatological (8.1%). Other uses of smoke are not exactly medical but beneficial to health, and include smoke as a preservative or a repellent and the social use of smoke.”
The authors state that ambient smoke — the type of passive smoke generated by smudging — is air purifying and that smoke-based remedies are highly effective in that they offer rapid delivery to the brain and more efficient absorption by the body.
Contributing further credibility to the clinical effectiveness of smudging is a 2007 paper titled “Medicinal Smoke Reduces Airborne Bacteria” also published within the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.
The authors open with their intent: “This study represents a comprehensive analysis and scientific validation of our ancient knowledge about the effect of ethnopharmacological aspects of natural products’ smoke for therapy and health care on airborne bacterial composition and dynamics.”
The researchers analyzed the burning of wood and a mixture of medicinal herbs over a one-hour period in a closed room. A massive 94 percent reduction in airborne bacteria was detected over this short period and, as the authors detail, “the ability of the smoke to purify and disinfect the air and to make the environment cleaner was maintained up to 24h in the closed room.”
A very large list of pathogenic bacteria were found to be absent in an open room after a colossal 30 days following treatment, leading the authors to conclude, “We have demonstrated that using medicinal smoke it is possible to completely eliminate diverse plant and human pathogenic bacteria of the air within confined space.”
Considering the simplistic nature of what smudging consists of, the results it offers are nothing short of stunning. And the benefits of smudging are even more essential when we consider the state of the air within urban environments, where a huge portion of the human population resides.
Although the traditional use of smudging was not intended to seek and destroy microscopic organisms baring Latin names, it certainly serves that purpose in the modern world — a world facing an increasing array of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and pathogens. Though our ancestors didn’t view the world through a modern scientific lens, it appears the practice of smudging was forged from the fires of intuition. Smudging is also showing promise as an effective aromatherapy agent, assisting those plagued by depression, resentment, anger, fear and grief.