Psychology and Paganism (part 2): Smudging


Palo Santo

In my preparations for this exploration of Paganism (I am still trying to figure out if this is the best term to use when referring to multiple Nature-, Goddess-, or Magick-associated traditions), I found that many shops that sell crystals, candles, and incense also sell these things called “smudge sticks”. Curious, I picked up a small kit that had both a sage and a Palo Santo smudge stick, and an abalone shell that was suggested to me by a local shop owner.

Going online to learn more, the first thing I noticed was that a very wide variety of sites and online magazines were talking about smudging. Vogue and the spruce introduced it as a way to remove negative energy from the home. Healthline added a medical twist. Many blogs and smaller sites dedicated to both Western and Eastern spiritual practices had helpful guides and How-tos. And there was no shortage of sites advertising smudge sticks for sale, mostly white sage. (I will be posting soon about the psychological studies on the effects of burning herbs, incense, and using essential oils). So this was obviously a more widespread practice, across spiritual traditions, across the world, across many types of people, than I had realized.

Then I looked into the origin of smudging, and realized that although many cultural and spiritual traditions include burning herbs and other plants for reasons from healing, to cleansing, to sending intentions up to the gods, “smudging” in particular, with sage and certain other plants, is specific to the Native or Indigenous peoples of the Americas. The Canadian Encyclopedia has a particularly informative entry about smudging that has been performed by Indigenous people in Canada. This article also brought up the question of whether smudging might be considered cultural appropriation. An article on Bustle also addresses this question, and notes that the increase in smudging or “sage-ing” seen in recent years has put stress on the white sage industry, with some producers inappropriately and unsustainably harvesting, and a concern about the potential for over-harvesting the wood Palo Santo that is also used for smudging.

I still wanted to try it, however, and rationalized that I had already purchased the smudge sticks, they were constructed by small sellers in small quantities, and that I could approach the ritual both as something important to the original peoples of the Americans and try to be respectful of their heritage, and as a practice extremely similar to what so many cultures over the millennia, including the Northern Europeans from which I descend, with the use of smoke being a unifying activity.

So I opened some windows, lit the Palo Santo stick pictured above (I read that the scent is lighter than sage and that it is good for both getting rid of negative energy and helping with physical healing), and stated my intention that the smoke might clear away the negative energy and tension that had been building in my house. I started at my altar and then walked around the house in a clockwise fashion, room by room, wafting the smoke toward corners and into closets. I had to relight it a few times. Not sure if that is my inexperience or a characteristic of Palo Santo.

As I walked around my house, watching the smoke rise from the smoldering smudge stick, I did imagine my ancestors, in my mind’s eye they were women, similarly preparing a space, gathering their materials, making a flame, stating an intention, and using the smoke to have an effect on their surroundings, to have a physical manifestation of their desire to cleanse their minds and their homes, to use the things provided by the earth around them.

Of course, as I passed through the living room, my son asked me why I was making the house smell like a fire. “I’m cleaning,” I replied.