"Smudging" is the practice of smoldering herbs in order to purify or otherwise change the energy of a space or person. The most common way to smudge is to use a smudge stick--a bundle of dried herbs bound with some kind of natural fiber into a convenient bundle you can carry around.
The herbs most commonly used for smudging are white sage (Salvia apiana), desert sage (Artemisia tridentata), and sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata). But modern witches and other neopagans sometimes use different herbs for smudging, depending on their intentions. One reason for choosing alternate herbs is that white sage and desert sage are plants that grow best in arid climates: and this green witch lives in Oregon's wet, verdant Willamette Valley, where white sage is most likely to mold or wither rather than thrive. Since working with living plants is an important part of my spiritual path, I've spent the last decade exploring the use of plants I can grow myself for smudging.
Here's a short list of some commonly available herbs that can be used for smudging--it's by no means exhaustive, but should give you a nice jumping off point for your own research.
Garden Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia, L. dentata, L. stoechas)
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Mint (Mentha species)
Rose (Rosa species)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
Vervain (Verbena officinalis)
So how do you smudge? Once you have a smudge stick--you can buy one or make your own--all you need is a source of fire and a heat-proof dish or shell to catch any hot ash or smoldering bits of herbs that might fall to the ground.
Hold one end of the smudge stick over a flame until the dry herbs catch fire. Let them burn for a few seconds, then wave the smudge stick a few times to put the flame out, or blow it out. You should have a nice, steady stream of smoke coming from the end of the smudge. If not, try blowing on the end or waving a fan in front of it to make the herbs smoulder faster. If you still aren't getting a decent amount of smoke, try lighting the end again and let it burn a little longer. It can take some practice to get the hang of this part, but it won't hurt anything if you need to relight a few times during use.
Once you're satisfied with the amount of smoke being produced by your smudge, there are two ways you can use it.
To smudge yourself, hold the smudge stick and bowl or shell in your non-dominant hand, and use your dominant hand to waft the smoke around yourself, paying special attention to your head and heart.
To smudge another person, a room, or any space you're going to use for magic or ritual, hold the smudge as described above. Walk around the person you are smudging, or around the perimeter of the space you want to cleanse or energize, and use your dominant hand to waft the smoke about. You could also use a feather or a hand-held fan to distribute the smoke. As you move, visualize any unwanted energies being erased by the fragrant smoke as it fills the space with the kind of energy you desire.
If you're smudging primarily to banish or cleanse unwanted energies, you might consider walking "widdershins" (or anti-sunwise), which is counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern. And if you're smudging primarily to create new energies--for example, calling in happiness or healing or love--you might walk "deosil" (or sunwise), which is clockwise in the northern hemisphere, counterclockwise in the southern.
You should walk all the way around the person or space at least once: sometimes I will circle three times, especially if I'm casting a circle in order to perform a spell or healing ritual.
When you finish smudging, extinguish the smudge stick by crushing the end in a heat proof dish or burying it in a bowl of sand. Be thorough: If the herbs aren't completely extinguished, they're a potential fire hazard. And while we're discussing reasonable precautions, please be careful NOT to smudge with any plants you are allergic to; and if you have asthma or a respiratory infection, smudging probably isn't a good idea for you. Also, small children, birds, and some other animals have very sensitive lungs and shouldn't be forced to inhale a lot of smoke.
That's all there is to it, although I think smudging combines well with chanting or otherwise speaking your intentions aloud. It also works well with bell ringing, drumming, even shouting to chase out the bad vibes--but do be considerate of your neighbors. And for a really thorough purification, I like to follow a round of smudging with a round of sprinkling--carrying a bowl of salt water or herbal infusion around the room and sprinkling the liquid with a sprig of herbs or my fingers.
Smudging is a powerful tool of transformation. In time, if you smudge regularly, you'll begin to feel your energy shift the second you light your smudge bundle and smell that first whiff of sacred smoke.
About the Author
Michelle Simkins is a green witch, reiki master, fiber artist, writer and publisher living in Portland, Oregon with her wife and too many spoiled critters. For more articles on magic and nature spirituality, visit her website, A Witch's Path.