“Herbalism is based on relationship – relationship between plant and human, plant and planet, human and planet. Using herbs in the healing process means taking part in an ecological cycle.” – Wendell Berry
Burning herbs, herbal wands, smoke bundles, sacred wood or incense has had ritualistic, spiritual as well as practical purposes and uses throughout the world on all continents humans have existed. Using smoke is an incredibly useful way to use herbs as well as connect to the herbs on deeper levels spiritually. Additionally, we can use these varied methods of integrating herbal smoke into our lives to equally connect to the Otherworld, our living space and ourselves. The most important caveat with herbal smoke is recognizing that there are various practices with varied intent that require recognition and likely a more accurate use of terminology. For example, if we’re using smoke to clear or keep out insects or harmful bacteria, that would be referred to as ‘fumigating’. If we’re clearing out negative energies from our living space, we might refer to it as ‘smoke clearing or cleansing’ or simply refer to using an herbal wand to clear negative energies. Of course these are practical and everyday uses that anyone could engage in comfortably.
“Similar to savin is the plant called selago. It is gathered without using iron and by passing the right arm through the left sleeve of the tunic as though in the act of committing a theft. The clothing must be white, the feet washed and bare, and an offering of wine and bread made before the gathering. The Druids of Gaul say that the plant should be carried as a charm against every kind of evil, and that the smoke of it is good for diseases of the eye. (104) The Druids, also, use a certain marsh-plant that they call samolus, this must be gathered with the left hand, when fasting, and is a charm against the diseases of cattle. But the gatherer must not look behind him, nor lay the plant anywhere except in the drinking-troughs.” – Pliny the Elder (Roman, 23 – 79 CE)
There are important spiritual aspects of using sacred smoke as well which in today’s day and age, many people often call smudging. The popular word ‘smudge’ or phrase ‘smudging’ is middle English in origin and refers to the practices of Indigenous people through an English lens but in actuality, Indigenous cultures have their own unique names for their practices that include herbal smoke. For example, the Cree Native Americans call using herbal smoke in sacred ceremonies atisamânihk and the Ojibwe call it nookwez. In all reality, I find using the word smudging is incredibly over simplified as well as inaccurate for the vast array of uses that herbal smoke had in the past as well as still has in ceremony today referring to Indigenous practices. Additionally, there’s nothing I could be engaged in within my own practice that could accurately be referred to as smudging either. For my own reasons, I don’t use the term and I usually stick to using the phrase ‘smoke clearing’.
With that said, there are Native traditions on the isles as well as Europe that included using herbal smoke to heal or using specific sacred wood in ceremony. Saining, that is, burning herbal smoke with the intent to heal has roots in Irish and Scottish cultures and is referenced as being performed by a druid in the Irish Metrical Dindshenchas written from the 11th through 15th centuries. It was described during a ceremony that ‘The king goes his way westward. ‘Let Dinel come to meet me to sain me’, said he. Dinel was a druid. He sained Dubthach, and rid him of the deafness.’1 It was called saining, suening or to sain and it meant ‘to charm’. Using incense for purification was known as diaid thúsi and a protective charm was known as sén in Old Irish.2 Saining was still referenced in Ireland in the early 1900’s where a priest was ‘… to sain the expected child as well as the mother from all harm, and to attach all good spiritual powers on her side.’3 Saining is mentioned in Scottish references by way of recorded rhyme and charms and for example a popular one that went “The charm placed of Mary of light, Early and late going to and from home, The herdsman Patrick and the milkmaid Bride, Saining you and saving you and shielding you…”4
Saining as a practice was mainly used to aid in healing a person, a specific injury or more specifically, to lessen the negative spiritual influences on people, livestock or places that were causing or could cause an array of ailments. Additionally, it could have likely been used to delineate sacred space during ritual, to clear old or bad energy or to aid in meditation in order to gain wisdom, clarity before journeying or increased spiritual awareness. You will find many common smoke clearing herbs are also mild psychotropics and when you’re using smoke for any amount of time, will start to sense some of these effects, especially breathing it in directly. Within this practice, is again the underlying echo to the belief in animism, that everything has a spirit or essence and those energies may need to be cleared from time to time. We see the echoes of delineating sacred space in modern practice such as the Catholic church’s supplanted use of frankincense before their services. The use of healing herbal smoke was carried out by as mentioned priests, but also ‘fairy doctors’ in Ireland at least until the early 1900’s where they would have waved herbal smoke in a patient’s face so that it could easily be breathed inward as they chanted a particular healing incantation. They held an incredible wealth of herbal knowledge and were known as highly respected members of the local community of ‘old knowledge’ as it is referred in the Irish Folk Duchas. This knowledge was again still up to this time typically passed down from generation to generation and it was likely seen in many instances as an inherited role. Today, we know that scientific evidence backs up herbal smoke burning for at minimum clearing away bacteria in the air as well as keeping harmful insects away.5
In Europe, the plants that were somewhat unanimously and traditionally used for smoke purification or spiritual purposes were pine, juniper, rowan, vervain, meadowsweet, yarrow and mugwort. Rosemary, thyme, sage (possibly salvia verbenaca in Ireland and Britain or salvia officinalis on the mainland) and lavender were frequently used in the Mediterranean regions and likely readily traded to cultures throughout Europe and beyond. The use of three herbs in particular, that of mugwort, yarrow and sage has evidence of being incredibly popular to our ancestors and as such became very prevalent and widespread across Europe, Asia and North America. Remnants of mugwort were found in a cup in a gravesite thought to likely be that of a Druid called the ‘Druid of Colchester’ buried around 40 CE and was cremated so it’s unclear whether it was a man or a woman. Fascinatingly, they would have been alive precisely during the reign of Cartimandua as well as Caractacus and Boudicca’s famous rebellions against Rome. Yarrow is fascinatingly found still growing among countless sacred sites across Ireland. I’ve personally found it along ancient rock crevices among sites in Donegal (Beltany), Sligo, Meath (Tara, Loughcrew and Newgrange) and Kerry. Yet, I won’t necessarily find it by the roadsides and I’m not entirely sure this is by accident. Vervain, along with Meadowsweet and Watermint were said by Irish folklorist Lady Wilde to have been the three most sacred herbs of the Druids. It was said by Caesar that the druids of Gaul placed vervain all over themselves to induce prophecy and it has very old cross cultural references to being burned as a mood enhancer. The long phallic wands of vervain flowers make perfect natural smoke sticks.
The type of herbal smoke used by the Druids and fairy doctors may have also depended on the ailment. For example, mullein or marshmallow may have been burned to help assuage an asthma attack. In Ireland and Scotland, the power of smoke and herbs was most clearly realized during the quarter sacred festivals such as Bealtaine and Samhain. Sacred fires were lit by a head Druid often known as ‘need or neid fires’ that were likely created using various sacred wood. During Bealtaine in particular, the cattle were typically driven between two fires and this practice was said to bless them and remove negative spirits. People would also jump over the fires for a similar effect. Each person of the community would then take a piece of the sacred fire home with them and relight their own hearths after they had been thoroughly cleaned by the woman of the household. Again, we can understand clearly that herbal smoke burning was used to heal and to clear away physical as well as spiritual ailments by purging away negative influences on people, animals and places.
“On May Day all the fires of the district were extinguished and ‘ tein eigin,’ need-fire, produced on the knoll. This fire was divided in two, and people and cattle rushed through for purification and safe- guarding against ‘ealtraigh agus dosgaidh,’ mischance and murrain, during the year. The people obtained fires for their homes from this need-fire.” – Alexander Carmichael, (1860 – 1909) Carmina Gadelica
Additionally, an old Scottish rhyme preserves the idea of using ‘sacred wood’ to build certain ceremonial bonfires…
“Choose the willow of the streams, Choose the hazel of the rocks, Choose the alder of the marshes, Choose the birch of the waterfalls, Choose the ash of the shade, Choose the yew of resilience, Choose the elm of the brae, Choose the oak of the sun.”6
Two of the herbs that I have had the most potent experiences with in regards to using as herbal smoke are pine and juniper. I believe this is partly due to their strong earthy essence and also the way they heavily penetrate a space energetically. These herbs both feel very ‘clearing’ whereas most of my other herbs while I do include in smoke bundles, feel medicinal. For example, I will typically include sage, yarrow or mugwort in bundles if I’m feeling in need of connecting to or calling on my ancestors and when I’m needing to feel their strength in addition to clearing my house. So when I say medicinal in this case, I mean spiritually or emotionally medicinal as well rather than strictly ‘clearing’ negative energy. As another example, if I or my family has a cold, I may include mullein or marshmallow in the bundle and so on.
“Juniper, or the mountain yew, was burned by the Highlanders both in the house and in the byre as a purification rite on New Year’s morning. Like all magical plants, it had to be pulled in a particular manner. The Druids, as we have seen, had considerable medical skill. They knew all that was known of botany and chemistry, and to them fell the selection of the herbs for the mystic cauldron. These were gathered at certain phases of the moon. Magical rites were employed in the culling; sexual abstinence, silence, a certain method of uprooting, and occasionally sacrifice was necessary. Long after the disappearance of the Druids, herbs found by sacred streams were used to cure wounds and bruises and other ills, and traces of the rites and runes linger in folk tradition. Juniper, for instance, to be effective, had to be pulled by the roots, with its branches made into four bundles and taken between the five fingers, whilst the incantation was repeated: “I will pull the bounteous yew, Through the five bent ribs of Christ, In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Against drowning, danger, and confusion…
An old Hogmanay (New Year’s) custom in the Highlands of Scotland, which has survived to a small extent and seen some degree of revival, is to celebrate Hogmanay with the saining of the household and livestock. Early on New Year’s morning, householders drink and then sprinkle ‘magic water’ from ‘a dead and living ford’ around the house (a ‘dead and living ford’ refers to a river ford that is routinely crossed by both the living and the dead). After the sprinkling of the water in every room, on the beds and all the inhabitants, the house is sealed up tight and branches of juniper are set on fire and carried throughout the house and byre. The juniper smoke is allowed to thoroughly fumigate the buildings until it causes sneezing and coughing among the inhabitants. Then all the doors and windows are flung open to let in the cold, fresh air of the new year. The woman of the house then administers ‘a restorative’ from the whisky bottle, and the household sits down to its New Year breakfast.” – F Miriam McNeil, Silver Bough
“Juniper is another tree whose branches were sometimes hung above the doors and windows on auspicious days or burned in the fire. Juniper burning, which formed part of the New Year rituals in some parts of the country, seemed to have a dual purpose. Not only was it supposed to ward off witches and evil spirits but, at a more practical level, it cleansed the house of pests and diseases. The branches were dried beside the fire the night before, and when all the windows and doors were shut, fires were lit in each room until the whole house was full of their acrid smoke. When the coughing and sputtering inhabitants could stand it no longer, the windows were opened, and the process was repeated in the stables. Interestingly, the smoke of burning juniper is also used for spiritual cleansing in Nepal, where it plays a key part in puja ceremonies such as those held before attempts to climb Mount Everest.” – William Milliken & Sam Bridgewater, Flora Celtica
The process of using herbal wands and sacred smoke is very individualized today but there are a few generalizations that can be applied to lend to the best practices. Although, this is of course only based on my own practices and relationship with my local plants and herbs.
Make sure your herb is homegrown or grown sustainably
Whatever herbs you’re using, make sure they’re homegrown yourself, grown sustainably as well as organic and chemical free. This allows your use of the plant to be most “untainted” spiritually. If you grew it yourself, you cultivated, fertilized, watered and cared for it. If there is anyone that has a right to its use from a spiritual perspective, it’s going to be you. I’m not against wild harvesting but rather am sensitive to it due to over harvesting issues so I try not to do it unless it’s very plentiful and not a host plant to many insects such as the case with Mugwort or large trees.
Give thanks to the plant before harvesting
Typically, you want to give thanks to your plants before harvesting and only cut pieces off sparingly and as needed. You don’t want to take too much from the plant that would leave it struggling to survive or ever completely cut it down to the root. Many people make small offerings to their plants while harvesting such as leaving compost or flower petals.
Prepare your herbs
Your herbs need to be bunched and either braided or held together with string and dried. You’re going to want to wrap or braid your herbs fresh and then hang them to dry for approximately two weeks before use. Some you may be able to use sooner as they will dry quicker, such as pine or juniper. If you use twine, make sure it’s the thinnest hemp twine you can find.
Find a good container pot and fan
You’re going to want to find a good container pot for your herbal wands that has meaning for you. You’re likely not going to burn the entire smoke stick at one time so it’s important to have a safe pot you can put it out on as well as hold it while it’s burning as you’re fulfilling your intention with the herb. Typically, you may want to put sand in the bottom of your container to make it easier to extinguish your smoke bundle. Many people use their hands to spread out the herbal smoke but if appropriate you could also use a fan of sorts. This naturally would have been a feather as birds were associated with the ‘spiritual’ and the Otherworld in Celtic and many other European cultures. Typically, it would also be a feather that you found naturally verses purchased.
Meditate before use
Before using your herbal wands, it’s always good to meditate and clear your mind. Focus on your intention and why you’re using your herbs. Are you trying to clear your house space of negative energy? Are you just trying to relax, gain clarity and mental healing? Focus on your intention and let that guide your practice.
Prepare what you’re going to say
Prepare what you’re going to say out loud or to yourself before you do your ritual. As an example in the Carmina Gadelica there is a saying that went “No fire, no sun, no moon shall burn me, No lake, no water, nor sea shall drown me, No arrow of fairy nor dart of fay shall wound me, And I under the protection of my Holy Mary, And my gentle foster-mother is my beloved Bride.” Another example if your intent is to heal a particular place is the old Irish prayer, “Deep peace of the running waves to you. Deep peace of the flowing air to you. Deep peace of the quiet earth to you. Deep peace of the shining stars to you. Deep peace of the gentle light to you. Moon and stars pour their healing light on you. Deep peace to you. Deep peace to you.“ While this seems odd addressing a place a person, remember that most folk and Indigenous practices were animistic in nature, meaning that everything had spiritual energy. If you’re not one for words, you could use music to aid in creating a spiritually aligned atmosphere for healing.
There are no officially recorded saining methods but we can make conjecture. When you’re clearing a room, you’re going to want to first spread the smoke around yourself first to cleanse and ‘clear’ yourself. Next, walk to each area and fan the smoke in quick short fanning movements to break up blocked or stagnant energy. Then, directly after, fan in long and flowing movements to smooth out the energy, creating a calming and balanced flow. Once you have fumigated the entire room and each corner, open the windows and doors to let the negative energy escape. You may want to move in a clockwise direction around the room as it was typically perceived as bad luck to move counter clockwise during any ritual. Saining done on a particular person or animal are very personalized but again, may have been done moving clockwise around the body, placing particular emphasis on an area that needs healing and repeating a prayer.
Note about the first image: Photograph taken in the UK in approximately 1890 and simply entitled ‘Druid family’.
- Gwynn, Edward. The Metrical Dindshenchas Part IV. Dublin, 1924. Pg. 305.
- eDIL s.v. 1 sén or dil.ie/37092
- Henderson, George. Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, Glasgow, 1911. Pg. 335.
- Carmichael, Alexander. Carmina Gadelica Vol. 1. Edinburgh, 1900. Pg. 261.
- Sivanesan I, Muthu M, Gopal J, Tasneem S, Kim DH, Oh JW. A Fumigation-Based Surface Sterilization Approach for Plant Tissue Culture. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Feb 25;18(5):2282. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18052282. PMID: 33668989; PMCID: PMC7967719.
- McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol. 1, 1957, Pg. 84.