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This clear and contemporary guide explores the ritual use of smoke and scents to cleanse the energies of mind, body, and home. Here, aromatherapist and long-time herbalist Amy Blackthorn offers the essential tools for creating sacred space—a safe space free of negative energies—using herbs, incense, smoke, and other practices.
Written in an accessible style, free of jargon, Sacred Smoke has everything you need to know to get started on your practice of purification and cleansing, including:
- The importance of self-care
- How to keep your home and family safe
- How to protect your home while you are away
- Adding crystals to your cleansing practice
Sacred Smoke is an essential guide for anyone seeking to practice the ritual use of cleansing and clearing to protect and heal themselves, their home, and their family.
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Read an Excerpt
What Everyone Needs to Know Before Starting a Cleansing Practice
Your sense of smell is the particular sense that connects you both to your past and to those around you. Our sense of smell connects to our oldest understanding of the world around us, and it is the most important one we have. We used that sense of smell as infants to connect to our mothers before we could even see, to tie emotions to places, and more. Home has a scent. Mothers and fathers have a scent. Partners have a fragrance all their own. Every day we use fragrant connections to further those bonds. Using the rituals of daily life, we strengthen our relationship with that scent concerning each person.
Recently my friend Sue was clearing out her supplies and asked if I could use a box of essential oils, knowing I was working on Blackthorn's Botanical Magic at the time, and I readily agreed. Once I arrived home, I grabbed the first bottle in the box without looking at the label, pulled off the lid, and smelled. Unbidden the corners of my mouth curled up into a giant grin, and my eyes twinkled with past memories. That particular container I had chosen was bottled summer walks to the library with my mom and three sisters for movies or books, and on the way home we'd stop at the neighborhood treat — a snowball. In a small outbuilding on the side of the street, crushed ice was covered in flavored syrups and occasionally marshmallow fluff. This barn-painted building sported forty-seven flavors, but for me and my mom there was always only one choice: egg custard. This bottle of benzoin oil I had just smelled was no mere essential oil, but a time machine. Such is the power of our sense of smell.
We are all creatures of art, poetry, and emotion, and I can prove it to you. Grab your favorite journal or the nearest pad of paper, and keep them close by while you close your eyes and inhale deeply through your nose. Imagine your favorite smells. We all have them. Pick your top five. It works best with your eyes closed to block out distractions. Go ahead and make a list with a little bit of space for your thoughts between each. Once you have your five favorite smells, I want you to concentrate on each one. I'll bet that rather than a smell, what rises in your mind is a memory. Even smells that aren't associated with traditional perfumes or essential oils have their place in this exercise. Musty basements can be family game nights, fertile fields can be the joy of playing outside with our best childhood friends. This journal entry isn't about judging flowers or perfumes, it's about connecting scent and memory. Every thought is the right one. Do you smell water? Is it the tangy metal of a summer sprinkler cooling the air around you or the local stream kids waded into to cool off? Floral doesn't always mean sweet; it could be the sharp minty spice of lavender. Pull out each memory and touch, taste, and experience it to the fullest.
Now that you're all fired up with the scents you love, it may seem like the most natural thing to go grab some dried, formerly green stuff, light it on fire, wave it around, and call it a day. However, before you run out and start ripping the weeds out of the sidewalk or stalking the local shop looking for any of "those stick things," there are a few more basics you'll need to know.
Terms of the Trade
If you've picked up anything about using sacred smoke before opening this book, you may have heard it called smudging. Indigenous people and First Nations peoples have an indigenous practice called smudging that is sacred to them. If you are not a member of an indigenous tribe and/or trained in that practice, it won't be smudging: it is smoke cleansing, smoke bathing, smoke rituals — you get the idea. We're here to learn how to build our own practice without appropriating another culture's. With the indigenous women I've spoken to about this project, the lessons have been many. Every culture has its own practices for sacred smoke, and they deserve their own time and attention. There is room for respect and growth without appropriation. For this book, we will talk about smoke practice in other ways with different terms.
Another practice has gotten more attention in recent years, especially with much-needed conversations about appropriate ritual observances and cultural identity, and this is Saining. Saining is a Scottish folk magic practice, which on the surface can have a similar outward appearance to smoke cleansing; however, the two are not the same thing. Saining uses the elements of nature to carry out blessings and charms. Though the word Sain sounds like "sin," it does not mean removal of evil, but connotes bestowing of the good or beneficial. Sain comes from the Scots-Gaelic term meaning "to charm." While Saining uses smoke bundles and other sacred smoke practices — as in the idea of driving pasture animals between two bonfires at spring and fall (Beltane and Samhain) to purify them for the next six months — that is not the only method it employs. Seawater and other blessed waters, candles, wood from pine trees, and other sources of charming are also used. Saining is a beautiful traditional folk practice in its own right, and most importantly not a loan word to replace smudging.
The materials for smoke cleansing come in different forms. Let's look at those and what they each mean.
Sticks. This is a general term referencing a stick of traditional incense where a sliver of bamboo is rolled in pine sawdust and scented so that consumers can burn it in their homes to create scented smoke.
Incense. This is a scented amalgamation of materials burned to produce a pleasing odor, with or without ritual intent.
Smoke bundles. Stick-like tools that can be made out of one or more plant materials and burned so that the smoke can bring about a desired change in the environment. They are usually 8–12 inches in length and 1–2 inches in diameter and bound with string and can be made at home or purchased. (More on that later!) Simply touch a lit match or lighter to the far end for a moment or two to get the bundle lit, and then blow it out until it starts to smoke. (This may need to be repeated, as these herbs don't have a heat source to keep them burning and are loosely packed, so that the flame may not be sustained.)
Resins. The dried sap of several species of trees is commonly found in teardrop shapes and is a usual ingredient in incense. Remember when burning these tears, less is more. Start with one tear and add more as needed. Their smoke will be much thicker than traditional incense sticks.
A Note on Ethical Consumption
It's important to consider where the plants you will be burning come from. Poaching of threatened species, overharvesting, and trespass on native lands are all too common. Get the facts on the plants you plan to use. Be sure you are not supporting harmful farming practices. Labels that say "wildcrafted" can be misleading, so double-check that this is not just window dressing for unethical practices.
There are many ways to be sure the plant you want to use can be employed with little to no negative impact on the floriculture or ecosystem where it is found.
1. Grow it yourself. We'll go into this more in chapter 7, but plants like white sage are easy to get going and sometimes available from garden centers. White sage grows in the desert, so don't worry if you don't have a green thumb. You have options.
2. Buy from an ethical supplier. There are indigenous/tribal suppliers of things like white sage that are supporting their communities through their sales. Meanwhile, I have found white sage bundles for a few dollars in the same mall stores as frat party supplies like beer bongs, flip-flops, shot glasses, and "adult novelties." I am sure they take as much time making sure their white sage isn't poached as they do that their bikinis aren't made in sweatshops — which is to say, none. Walk into your local New Age shop and ask them where they source their herb bundles. Ask how they know they are ethically sourced. If you use a small business online retailer, email them. I'm sure they'll be just as happy to talk to you. Big-box stores often don't have that kind of information about sourcing on the ground floor.
How Does Smoke Purify?
There are a few different ways.
1. Physically purifying. Heat from the burning materials is very physically purifying, and the process releases volatile oils from the plant materials that have antibacterial and antimicrobial properties as well.
2. Energetically purifying. Each plant material used in incense, smoke, or cleansing is going to have a different energetic association. Some are associated with the elements of earth, air, fire, or water; other are associated with protection, money, grounding, and other intentions. So there are a few uses for burning these materials other than merely purification. Pick the material to match your intention.
3. Emotionally purifying. Our sense of smell ties in directly to the limbic system, the part of the brain where all of our emotions come from. Why is that? When we smell something, we are unpacking all of our memories, looking for the last time we remember smelling it. Our sense of smell is really a trip down memory lane. That's why sense memories are such strong stimuli. Our sense of smell is 90 percent emotion and 10 percent recall.
Tools of the Trade
Let's go shopping!
Fire-resistant is the key word here. We will be working with fire, and even though we will never leave burning materials unattended, embers can and do happen.
This is what you'll need:
Incense charcoal. It will come in rolls and usually looks like it has been wrapped in foil. And don't buy the pretty abalone shell to put it in — that is a tool for the indigenous cultures of (mainly) the Pacific Northwest and has branched out to include other native and First Nations groups, along with feathers and smudge fans that are collected in ways that are sacred to each group. It is not appropriate. It also does not work for what I am discussing as the charcoal gets too hot for an organic container, and it will be destroyed.
Make sure to use tongs to light the charcoal — seriously. The charcoal contains something called saltpeter (potassium nitrate) to make sure it ignites quickly and burns evenly. So you will need to hold it over a fire source for a few seconds to a minute, depending on your charcoal. Also once the package of charcoal has been opened, remember to keep it in a small sealed container such as a resealable bag to keep moisture out, or else the saltpeter will absorb ambient humidity and the charcoal will no longer ignite.
A brazier (not to be confused with a brassiere). This is a container for hot coals, commonly made from brass or pottery, and the best ones have a brass screen for the charcoal to sit on so that the incense charcoal gets oxygen to all sides and continues to burn evenly. Keep in mind that even though they are made to contain hot coals, they're going to get really hot too. The ones designed for use by churches will have chains to hang them up with, but if you are planning to set yours on a counter or tabletop, make sure it has a heatproof material to sit on such as a tile.
Ornamental tongs. For incense charcoal these will often be sold with a similarly sized spoon used for scooping incense resin. Trust me, you don't want to sacrifice one of Aunt Suzy's good silver to be covered with sticky resin: it'll never be the same.
Windproof lighter. These lighters are different from traditional lighters. They sound like a small jet engine taking off and will have your materials, whether those are charcoal or herbs, lit evenly and quickly.
Mortar and pestle. This pair of stone tools is used to grind together herbs and resins to get a uniform size and texture. They are usually constructed of marble, granite, or another hard stone. It is possible to find them in hardwoods too, but resist the temptation. The tough resins in these rites, rituals, and recipes are not only pointed and can damage the wood, but if you decide to add oil of any kind, it can seep into the wood and taint any subsequent blends.
Bottles, jars, and labels. Once you start blending your own cleansing smokes and incenses, you'll need to bottle them and label them so that you know not only what you intended them to do, but also whether they worked.
Notebook and pens. And speaking of working, once you start your practice, writing down your recipes as well as how well they worked is going to be an essential part of the process. If you have a formula that works incredibly well, but the recipe is lost to the ages, that's a heck of a shame.
Featured Herb: Lavender
France, England, United States. Associated with Venus.
Lavender is known as a calming herb with antiseptic properties, as well as something your local yoga studios use in essential oil for balance, centering, and peace. But this plant is also burned for divination, clairvoyance, psychic development, and strength. It reveals the secrets of the universe. It has a similar action on the brain as hops, which you'll probably remember is also in beer — so a little bit is a stimulant and a lot will knock you out for the count. As with most flowers, it's associated with love, but without the strong scent that many flowers carry. It has a low moisture content, so it is much easier to dry for burning without the molding risk of roses. Be careful with lavender, however, because the buds are small cylinders and prone to pop when exposed to heat. So if you are making herb bundles for smoke purposes, use the leaves and stems only. Strip the flowers for use on charcoal and still monitor these carefully or you will wind up with herbal sparklers and potentially small burns on carpets or rugs when they spit fiery bits.
Featured Resin: Amber
Pinus succinifera. India.
Associated with water, love, happiness, and soul mates.
Amber resonates with attraction — even drawing customers to your business — and emotional strength and is useful for past-life journeying, friendship, and inner strength. In times of emotional turmoil, reach deep for memories of happiness and times when you felt loved before lighting some amber incense. It can be challenging to find true amber incense rather than scented sawdust incense. I suggest something along the lines of Fred Soll®'s Resin on a Stick®. If you are looking for psychic protection, amber is also the one to reach for. If the resin is hard to come by, diffusing the essential oil in an aromatherapy diffuser will do the same thing, but won't have the same waft (distance the scent is carried), so consider turning off the diffuser and moving it hourly. Make sure to search for the essential oil by the Latin name to help weed out fragrance oil sellers. Also look for dark glass bottles and lot numbers. Dark glass is used to block ultraviolet light that will cause oils to spoil faster. Fragrance oils come in clear glass containers that list the brand name and do not list lot numbers for quality control.CHAPTER 2
Starting with the Self before Reaching Outward
As with everything, we'll start with strengthening the self. Ready Freddy? 'Cause this is about to get bumpy.
I know, you saw some gorgeous blonde in a video from Coachella waving a smoking herb bundle and thought this self-fulfillment stuff was going to be easy, right? Well, it isn't. So buckle up. You decided you wanted to light some incense, burn some herbs, and get in touch with the Mother Goddess. Great. What happens if she picks up the phone and tells you to get your act together? Are you ready for that heart to heart? It's a toughie. If your partner isn't worshipping you like the goddess you are, or you're spending more than you're saving, or you're staying in a dead-end job because you're too scared of what you could do with your own potential, you already know what She's going to tell you: you can do better.
The kick in the pants comes when you remember it for yourself or when your tarot cards remind you of your dream of owning a bakery instead of working a soul-sucking office job. These are the times when incense and smoke bathing come into play.
That incense isn't just those crappy ten-for-a-dollar sticks you found on a gas station pit stop in a dusty highway in the middle of nowhere during that road trip with your friends that brings everyone fits of giggles when you mention it. Incense is that soul-cleansing smoke that clears out the cobwebs, the tears, and the sludge left over and leaves us waiting to be filled with creative impulses, drive, and that vital spark that animates us the way the gods intended.
Stop, drop, and roll.
Before you can do any of that soul-cleaving work, you've gotta stop what you're doing — all of it. Just stop — right where you are. Now breathe. Again. Yawn, stretch, and breathe again. We spend so much time running around, being, going, and doing that often we forget to breathe. Even when we tell each other we're making time, doing the things that we should, going to yoga, meditating, it's a competition instead of practice. We are posing for photos for social media, rather than being in the moment. My dear friend is a yogi and fond of reminding me that yoga is more than just poses. Breathe again. (This is going to be really important later ... keep doing that mindful breath.)(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sacred Smoke"
Copyright © 2019 Amy Blackthorn.
Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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