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Smoke is magic. It’s not fire or air, but something in between. It takes shape, has a flavor and a smell, but it’s formless and insubstantial. It can fill a room and disappear with a gust of wind.

Given smoke’s liminal, neither-here-nor-there quality, it’s no surprise that it’s figured in our religious rituals and spiritual practices for millennia. As long as humans have been worshipping and wondering, they’ve been burning things to bridge the vast gap between in here and out there.


Ancient Greeks on the isle of Crete burned resinous ladanum and bright orange saffron as early as 3000 BCE; Egyptians mixed that bright orange plant with cinnamon, myrrh, cassia bark, and frankincense to make a blend called kyphi, an offering for the goddess Isis they also burned at home as an anti-insomnia bedtime aid. Most famously, the Magi are said to have gifted the baby Jesus with frankincense and myrrh, fragrant offerings to bless his body and home.


Incense, from the Latin incendere, to burn, is everywhere. It’s set alight in Japanese Shinto shrines, Buddhist ceremonies, and Chinese Taoist temples; Hindus offer aromatic wands of it daily to their robust pantheon of gods; and Catholic and Anglican priests swing metal thuribles filled with heady smoke down the aisles of their churches, a symbol of the congregation’s heaven-bound prayers.

Andean shamans burn wands of Palo Santo, holy wood, for good luck and purification, a practice dating back to their Inca ancestors. Elsewhere, many Indigenous Americans practice smudging, the burning of sacred herbs like white sage or cedar during healing or purifying ceremonies. Bundled and bound together, the dried herbs and leaves become sacred smudge sticks, a spiritual tool with great significance.

A word on smudging. This practice is undeniably having a moment right now: smudge sticks and smudging kits are for sale pretty much everywhere and most spiritually-minded websites offer tutorials and how-tos on how to smudge your office, yoga studio, Airbnb, etc. While peoples and cultures around the world use smoke as a divine tool, the act of smudging is an Indigenous American practice, one that, like many others, was stamped out and suppressed by the dominant culture that’s now commercializing and Instagramming it. As with all rituals and spiritual practices: explore consciously.


There is a through line in all these traditions: Smoke is a powerful deterrent to malevolent forces, unwelcome spirits, negative energy, and #badvibes. White sage, especially, has a reputation among Indigenous peoples as a protector; its Latin root salvia stems from the verb to heal. Some American Indigenous groups burn it alongside a braid of sweetgrass, which is believed to appeal to all the spirits, letting the sage ward off any unwanted ones attracted by the sweetgrass.


Smoke serves as a portal. An offering and a tool, it’s an invitation to enter into a space of connection with our inner knowing, and to our ancestors who burned their own offerings centuries ago. At the very least, it’s a way to quiet the chatter in our heads as we watch one substance transform into another, taking care not to burn our fingers in the process.

Find a smoke cleansing practice that resonates with you.

free your mind and your hair will follow

free your mind and your hair will follow

free your mind and your hair will follow

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