The Mystic Cat Logo with white strip

How To Smudge, When & Why!


What is smudging? How do you smudge? What is a smudge stick? Where is smudging from? What’s the purpose of smudging? When should I smudge? All these questions answered here!


Let’s take a look at the process of “smudging” and demystify it. Essentially, smudging is an ancient sacred technique for shifting energy. It involves the burning of fragrant, medicinal dried herbs and resins. Easy and accessible, it’s a tool that anyone can learn to use.

1. Where Does Smudging Come From?

Let’s take a look at the origins of this practice.

Smudging is an ancient ceremonial tradition. While the practice of smudging is most widely known to be associated with many Native American tribes, it is in fact a tradition that is widespread throughout human history in tribes all around the world.

Smudging, smoke and burning plants for spiritual and medicinal purpose have been recorded in:

  • Ancient Egypt
  • Other African countries including South Africa
  • Europe including Greece and France
  • The ancient Celtic nations of Britain and Europe
  • Far north traditions in Europe and in Ireland
  • India
  • Nepal
  • Japan
  • Other Asian countries
  • Australia
Kahun Gynecological Papyrus 1825BCE "fumigating the patient"
Kahun Gynecological Papyrus 1825BCE “fumigating the patient”


The word ‘smudge’ dates from:

  • Late middle English ‘smogen’ around 1400-1450: to ‘soil, stain, blacken’;
  • In 1860: ‘make a smoky fire’;
  • ‘Smudge-pot’ (medicinal) in 1903 (Douglas Harper Etymology Dictionary).
  • It later came to represent specifically the Native American practice of burning herbs.
  • Today it encompasses the modern pagan revival of this ancient tradition.

In different cultures and eras, different words were used to represent the same ritual, such as ‘saining’ or ‘fumigation’.

“Saining is a common practice in modern traditions based on Scottish folklore, such as blessing and protecting children and other family members. While many of the surviving saining prayers and charms are Christian in nature, others that focus on the powers of nature are used as part of Gaelic Polytheist ceremonies.”” – Ronald Black, The Gaelic Otherworld * Annie Loughlin, Saining

2. What Does Smudging Do?

Our ancestors burned dried sacred and medicinal plants in ceremony and ritual, in order to raise energetic vibrations, clear negative energy and dis-ease, and bless spaces, as needed. We use the same practice today. Different plants have specific properties that are then burned for different purposes.

On the physical plane, the most common herbs used (like sage, pine and imphepho) have powerful antimicrobial properties, serving to also physically disinfect, cleanse and purify spaces and people.

“In most cultures throughout the world smoke, smudge and incense would have formed part of ritual and ritual was seen as part of the sacred ordinary and ordinary sacredness. Smoke was used as an offering to the deities and the sacred, for meditation and ritual, to cleanse animals (including the human ones) and make them healthy, for fumigation and space clearing, to preserve food and in some places squatting over smoke was used to cleanse and repair the womb after childbirth” – Nikki Darrell, Smudging – Rekindling Ancient Traditions, Network Ireland 

Smudge and feather ceremonial

3. The Five Elements

Energetically, the act of smudging is given further significance and power through the calling of the 5 elements, also known as the Airts or Directions.


Earth Element Alchemy Symbol

The dried herbs and plants of the plant kingdom represent the element of Earth.


Air Element Alchemy Symbol

The smoke released represents Air, as well as the feather often used to wave the smoke.


Water Element Alchemy Symbol

A bowl or shell is used to catch the falling ash, or in some cases the herbs are burned loose inside it. This vessel represents the element of Water.


Fire Element Alchemy Symbol

The act of lighting the smudge stick calls in the element of Fire, as does the smoldering ember.


The Ether, or ethereal realm or aether, is known as the energetic plane and the fifth element, considered by some to be the source of magic. The act of smudging, the transformation of sacred plant to waving smoke, the energy being transformed in the process by being cleared, purified or a channel opened, represents the Ether.

Ether Element Alchemy Symbol

4. Types Of Smudge

There are different kinds of smudging. The most common is the burning of a smudge stick. A smudge stick is made by drying specific aromatic and medicinal herbs and tying them together with string to form a short, thick length.

The loose dried aromatic and medicinal herbs or nodules of resin are also used to smudge as is. A small smudge bowl, plate, shell or stone holds a burning coal, over which the loose herbs or resins are crumbled. Smudge pots and censors are also used for this purpose.

Finally, aromatic wood is cut into a small size and burned as a smudge stick, such as palo santo. The ancient Celts would burn a whole Juniper branch as part of a specific ceremony to bless a home.

5. How To Smudge

Alright! Let’s look at how to smudge. Gather everything you need to begin:

  • Smudge stick / loose smudge
  • Bowl or plate
  • Lighter or a lit candle
  • Your intention, prayer or incantation
  • A feather to move the smoke (optional)
Smudge purple candle

Choose Your Preferred Type Of Smudge

If you are just learning how to smudge, I would recommend going with the simplest option. A palo santo stick doesn’t make much smoke, it’s small and portable, and there’s very little ash created too. This makes it a great place to start. It’s also hands down my favourite smudge in the world! One little stick will last several smudge rituals, depending on how often you smudge they can last months.

Another good all-round choice is a white sage smudge stick. It’s a classic, and also will last a long time. Be aware that it will make ash, so you’ll need a little bowl or plate. If you’re in a confined space, make sure you can open a window for ventilation. And don’t try smudging under a smoke detector!

Both palo santo and white sage can be used to cleanse and clear negative energy from people, places and objects. I personally find palo santo to also be very uplifting. Pine is a good choice to clear illness. Frank and Myrrh have deep spiritual roots and are great for sacred space and altars. Lavender can settle chaotic energy, bringing in a peaceful calm. Do a bit of reading on the different plants available if you want to smudge for specific purposes.

Set A Clear Intention

Setting your intention simply means to be clear on what you are doing and why. Smudging is an energetic process, so you should center yourself and align your energy with your purpose.

Some general guidelines to help you with setting an intention. Keep it simple and to the point. For example, “With this smudge I am cleansing and clearing all unwanted and negative energy from (this space/this object/myself/you”. You can also choose to read a smudging prayer or incantation.

I recommend not combining two opposite purposes into one ceremony. For example, if you want to do a healing, you might want to first clear any blockages or unwanted or stagnant energies causing the state of dis-ease, before calling in healing energy as a separate ceremony. The first intent is about clearing and sending away. The second intent is about attracting and calling in. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but rather try to keep it simple and clear, especially when you’re just starting out.

Light The Smudge

Practically speaking, a lighter or candle work better than matches to light smudge. You might need to relight the smudge a few times if the smoke dies down.

Hold the smudge over the flame until you can see red embers forming, then gently blow on it to get a good amount of smoke flowing. Simply relight and repeat this process if needed during the ceremony.

It’s good practice to start a smudge with a thanks to Spirit, and smudge yourself first so that you are “clean” before you begin. You can also call in your guides to be with you. Be respectful of the plant medicine, the elements being called and the ceremonial tradition of the act. 

Lighting smudge stick over bowl


You can use your other hand or a smudging feather to move the smoke coming off the smudge. You would do this to smudge a person or object, directing the smoke over them or it while repeating your intention, prayer or incantation.

For spaces, walk around the space, starting at the entrance, wafting the smoke out as you go. In general I recommend moving in an anti-clockwise direction to clear and send away, and clockwise to bring in and attract. At windows and doors, waft the smoke at each of the four corners, tracing the shape. I like to do this at mirrors too.


There is no set time limit to how long a smudge should take. Trust your intuition, and when you feel it is ‘done’ you can close off.

To end the ritual, respectfully put the smudge out on your bowl or plate. Give thanks to Spirit, the plant, your guides and the elemental energies called in (feel free to adapt this to suit your faith – the point is express gratitude).

You can sprinkle the ashes on the earth as an offering as well.

6. When Should You Smudge?

Smudging can be done for many different reasons. Here are some examples:

  • Clearing the energy of a room or place of old, stagnant or negative energy
  • Blessing a new home, a person or a space
  • Consecrating a sacred space by purifying it 
  • Bringing in protection
  • Sealing in the positive energy you want to be surrounded with
  • Releasing illness, dis-ease or negative emotions
  • Dissipating the energy after an argument or unwanted guest
  • Removing blockages to allow positive or healing or light energy to flow
  • Cleansing the residual energy of an object
  • Purifying your energy before doing an energy working, meditation, etc.
  • Connecting to your spirit guides, guardian angels, animal totems, or ancestors
Smudging crystals

7. Modern Cultural Misunderstandings

Native American Appropriation

A while ago, there was a movement against the practice of smudging as it was seen as unfair appropriation of Native American culture. It is important to be aware of this from a space of sensitivity and awareness, but also to recognize that the practice was never limited to North America. The important thing is to remember that smudging is a sacred practice and should always be approached with that sense of the sacred.

Ancient Egyptian incense burner 7th century
Ancient Egyptian Incense burner – Walters Art Museum – Bronze 7th Century BC

Imphepho Is “Spiritually Dangerous”

White sage, the most common smudging herb today, is very specific to North American native culture. In South Africa, our homeland, imphepho is the parallel ancestral herb used.

A while ago imphepho also got embroiled in a movement against it, as in one African culture it’s used to contact one’s ancestors. Thus people claimed that burning imphepho would open the door to spirits, rather than cleanse negative energy. However, the oldest record of imphepho usage is through the KhoiSan tribes, who used it in the same way white sage was and is used.

I address this in more depth in my article, IMPHEPHO – THE CONTRAVERSIAL SMUDGING HERB.

eating imphepho
Traditional medicine ceremony involving the eating of imphepho