If you have ever burned sage as part of a meditation ceremony, or been in a church where incense is burned, you have participated in a smudging ceremony. It is a practice which goes back deep into human history, and has been used around the world in many religions and belief systems as a method of cleansing and purification. While some dismiss this practice as unscientific or “magical”, recent studies have found that there are proven benefits to this practice.
The Ancient Art of Smudging
Smudging is a ritual which uses the burning of herbs or other natural substances to purify or cleanse a person, place, or object and has been an important part of ritual and worship from the earliest eras in human history.
The history of smudging is similar to the art of burning incense, and this practice has its roots sunk deeply into the past. The oldest known record of this practice is transcribed on a tablet from ancient Egypt that dates back to 1530 BC. From Egypt, the practice spread to Babylon, and then to parts of the Mediterranean basin. This includes Greece, Rome, as well as India. Additionally, it was extensively practiced among various Native American tribes, before and after European settlement.
The practice is still very much alive today in Native American culture. It is also used in Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox Christian churches, as well as Buddhist and Hindu traditional worship.
What the Latest Research Found
Despite its long history, there are those who dismiss smudging as “unscientific”, with no concrete benefits. However, recent research is beginning to show that this ancient technique, used by so many around the globe, actually has clinical advantages:
- The first study entitled “Medicinal Smokes”, was published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, and studied smudging practices from around the world, including 50 different countries on 5 different continents. It found that there are some cultural consistencies for this practice, which largely used smudging to treat ailments of the lungs, skin, and brain. It also discussed the fact that there are many advantages to smoke as a method of delivering medicinal herbs, including that it allows active compounds to be delivered rapidly to the body and is easy to absorb. It was also deemed as a cost-efficient method of medicine delivery.
- The second study entitled “Medicinal Smoke Reduces Airborne Bacteria”, was published in the same journal. It found that the burning of medicinal herbs was able to reduce the number of pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria in the room by 94%, including bacterial species responsible for serious illnesses and infections similar to the Corynbacterium, Pseudomonas, and Staphylcoccus species. The effects of this technique were noticeable in the room even after a day; when scientists went back and studied the room a month later, there were still very low levels of the bacteria present.
Studies like these have given validation to the whole practice of smudging, so much so that a hospital, St. Peter’s in Helena, Montana, opened up a “culture room” adjacent to their chapel. It is decorated with motifs of waterfalls and eagles, which gives Native Americans there the space to perform their cleansing ceremonies. While some hospitals still do not permit this practice on their grounds, more are becoming open to it, and St. Peter’s has been praised for the respect it has shown for native spiritual practices.
In short, the art of smudging is as old as human history itself. It has been used in many major spiritual traditions and is still widely in use today across the globe. Not only is it a widespread and ancient ritual, science is discovering that there are proven benefits to this ancient practice, including the ability for the smoke to purge the air of bacteria, that commonly spread infectious diseases.
Featured photo credit: PROlatisha (herbmother) via flickr.com