Smudging the Word Smudge
Recently I was scolded by a fellow witch for suggesting the use of smudging to prepare magical tools. It’s not the first time I’ve been scolded about smudging. Smudging, I am told, is a cultural practice and doing it is cultural appropriation, damaging and disrespectful. But I had lots of opinions about this, some of them indignant. So, I researched it and asked some people their thoughts, which triggered more research and, after all that research, it just seems natural I should put it all into a blog.
Before I begin though, I want to be very clear that I have no intention of demonizing Native Americans and nor am I griping that they are being overly sensitive or anything like that. The fact of the matter is, no Native American has ever complained to me about my use of the word smudge or my practice of smudging in public or private. In fact, those who I have discussed the matter with did not see the issue. One person told me that he believed everyone should smudge, that it was healing for humanity-at-large and the Earth.
I also started discussions about parallels and differences in our practices- because I am that annoying person who asks all sorts of uncomfortable questions about things that are probably not my business. Oh there are issues, but smudging itself isn’t really one of them. Does that mean I think no Native Americans have an issue with this non-Native people smudging? No. I hardly think my discussions with friends and random strangers are representative of every individual in a rather large group of cultures. Of course, now that it’s in my head, I’ll probably ask every Native American who has the misfortune to cross my path.
That being said, let’s start at the beginning.
Where did the word smudge come from?
The word smudge comes from the Middle English word smogen. It means to smear, blur, obscure, to smother with smoke, to use dense smoke to protect an area from insects1. It has been in use since the 15th century, and first appeared after the Norman conquest, so it’s certainly of Germanic origin. Another source2 says it derives from the German schmutz, meaning smut, dirt.
Quite probably, the English word “smudge” was given to the practice we now refer to as smudging by white folks who observed it and it stuck. The thing about this though… and this should probably go into another section so…
What do you mean Native American cultural practice?
… the idea that smudging is a “Native American cultural practice” has its own issues. The first and most obvious is the fact that Native American isn’t one culture. It’s a lot of cultures, each with their own practice, their own religions, their own rituals, their own smudging ceremonies. I am willing to believe that all Native American cultures have, or have at some point had ceremonies that involved the burning of herbs to make smoke for spiritual purposes, not because I associate such practices with the big faceless entity that is The Native American Culture, but because it’s a practice that has been common throughout the world, so it stands to reason. And yes, it is true that smudging is a feature of many Native American ceremonies, including those performed for tourists, but “smudge” is not one ceremony, it’s different ceremonies that have burning, smoking, herbs in common, done for different purposes in different situations and calling for different materials according to the purpose.
To me, it is more disrespectful to say “This smudge stick represents Native American culture” because what you are doing there is inventing some sort of Pan-Indian imaginary culture that suits your pre-conceived notions and ascribing a practice to it that you really know nothing about. That shell, that smudge stick, selling it with “Native American” as a marketing tactic is offensive. Because which Native American culture? That’s like saying “African” as if it’s one thing (although admittedly, there’s probably more variety in Africa than in Indigenous America because, while genocide certainly happens in Africa, nobody does genocide like we do and many of the remaining cultures became homogenized while others were lost and recreated.) Not all tribes use smudge sticks. Some tribes prohibit burning certain herbs. Some prohibit the sale of certain herbs. You could at least figure out which tribe you’re using as a marketing gimmick.
So what are you doing when you smudge, if not imitating Indians?
I have never felt that I was imitating a Native American cultural practice when smudging because the only thing that I am certain that my smudging ceremonies and anybody else’s smudging ceremonies have in common is that there are plants and they smoke. I don’t use the same herbs. I only use the herbs I grow or collect with my own hands. I might use cedar, but white sage, sweet grass, and tobacco don’t grow around here. I do use tobacco as an ancestral offering at Samhain simply because Grandpa was a smoker, but I don’t smudge with it. Tobacco has very different connotations to me than it does to those who hold it sacred.
The herbs I grow in my garden are sacred to me. I only use herbs I grow myself. I grow them, cut them, dry them, store them and burn them with great ceremony and when I burn them, I am making smoke for a sacred purpose. I am, in fact, smudging by the only definition I understand. Each ceremony might have a specific purpose and thus has a different name, but the act of burning those herbs and making the smoke and using the smoke is, according to my personal lexicon, smudging.
I don’t use smudge sticks, I use a copper smudge pot. Smudge sticks are handy conveniences, and yes, I’ve been smudged with one at public rituals. But my smudge pot is sacred to me, and that’s what I use. (Many people would refer to it as a cauldron, but my cauldron does not get burning things put into it because that’s not what my cauldron is for, and it would take forever to get it back in usable condition if it wasn’t completely ruined.)
While I am familiar with the general sage-smudging ritual that everyone has seen, I know that there are many more smudging practices of which I am not aware. I have never been trained in any of these. I’m not trying to imitate them. But I do know that the meaning behind smudging is much deeper for Native Americans. Yes, I am generalizing and I hate that, but bear with me because I have a point: when Native Americans smudge, they are repeating cultural practices that are recorded in memory for generations. Their culture has been attacked on all sides and they have lost much but their ceremonies act as an anchor to connect them to each other and to their history. Each time they smudge, they are remembering the people who came before them who smudged. Smudging connects them to their ancestors, their culture and their history.
I am not doing that. I might be waking up spirits to do them honor in some cases, but my ancestors didn’t smudge for ceremonial purposes, at least not in the recorded history of my family. I do have an Ojibwe Great-grandmother, but I really don’t know her story and her people didn’t smudge the way I do, I am sure. The Lutheran majority went to church and the minister fumigated the church and everyone sat in their pews and didn’t think much of it. We come from a long line of farmers, and smudging might have been used for its utilitarian purposes to drive off insects, and smudge pots might have been used to protect trees in the case of an early frost. In truth, my smudging is almost always utilitarian. I smudge with pine to drive out negativity and increase joyful energy. I smudge with garden sage to wake up the spirits of a place before I present offerings. I smudge with thyme to banish disease and ill humors. Those are all magick, but they’re utilitarian, they’re not really spiritual or religious. Do I think that makes it disrespectful? No. I think it makes it different. I absolutely respect Native American practices, I just don’t practice them.
One thing we do have in common, from my understanding of conversations about the subject, is that smudging connects us to the land, though there are differences here too. For Native Americans(as I understand it), the connection is related to their shared history. I don’t have that kind of history with the land or anything that grows on it; not a multi-generational history, anyway. For me, it is related to my tending of the land. The herbs (which I also use for food and medicine) are the gift that I get in return for the care I give to the land and in return, I can use them to smudge during rituals and receive aid from the genius loci.
All of that being said, it is in no way my intention to demonize people who smudge like Native Americans either. Many of us do have indigenous blood and as such, smudging is a way that we can connect with the ancestors and culture they’ve been removed from and the land they held sacred. Even those who do not have Native American blood might still feel that deep connection through smudging that exists between all of us and the land and that can go a long way to healing the disconnect we white people have with the land, and the friction between the many cultures who call it home. It’s about intention, it’s about the level of respect and thought you put into it. If the herbs are sustainably obtained with all due regard for the traditions that surround them and it’s done with respectful intent, smudging according to Native tradition can be a force for good.
So there’s no disrespect related to smudging?
Oh no. There’s plenty of disrespect.
It is very disrespectful to package up a set of materials, give directions for a set of actions, say they’re going to bring about certain results, package them as Native American cultural practices and sell them – either literally and figuratively3.
It is disrespectful to wild harvest sacred herbs to the point that the people who actually deem them sacred have a hard time finding them – or affording them. And to sell and profit from herbs, supposedly for sacred use, when those who hold them sacred would never do so.
It may also be disrespectful to use your perceived Native American smudging practices to perform exorcisms of disturbances that are strictly in the realm of Western lore, like poltergeists. I’m not sure if disrespectful is the word, inappropriate might be a better word. Actually, the first time I heard of this I was a little shocked but I feel using the word “shocking” would be dramatic.
But smudging? Smudging is burning herbs to create smoke for a purpose. It’s a very general word. Wearing imitation war bonnets is disrespectful, but wearing feathers? Lots of peoples wear feathers.
What about cultural appropriation?
Selling smudge sticks is cultural appropriation. Using “Native American” as a marketing ploy is cultural appropriation. But smudging is, of itself, pretty universal.
Smoking tobacco, I’d say, is cultural appropriation too, and we turned that into something dirty, for which we, as a people, ought to be ashamed. Come to think of it, all of the sacred herbs that we turned into party time is pretty freaking despicable, but perhaps that’s what happens when you consciously strip your culture of ecstatic spiritual experiences… but I digress.
Yea, so, we white people- we suck. It’s the truth of it. I’m glad we’re finally starting to notice.
But seriously this is not the least of it
Native Americans have been shit on since white people laid foot on this country. They were treated like pests to be exterminated. They were driven from their land and forced to scrape a living off of land that nobody else wanted because they couldn’t figure out what to do with it. And then when white folks decided it might be useful after all (because there was, say, oil under it) they lost that too. Their children were stolen and brainwashed in “schools” and even today they are more likely to be removed from their homes for their “protection”4. Meanwhile treaty after treaty has been broken. Their graves have been robbed, sacred artifacts, even the very bones of their ancestors stolen because it gave some guy jollies to own them.5 Even today the police and our justice system treat them even more disgracefully than they treat African Americans and Latinos6, but they aren’t even mentioned in most conversations about racial bias.
As of this writing, thousands of Native Americans from dozens of tribes are standing up for our right to clean water and standing against oil companies7 determined to keep our country enslaved to their product. They are protecting their own sacred lands too, but they are also fighting for us. They are being attacked by armed, militarized police and winter is coming8.
Right now people are more culturally sensitive than we have been in the past and this is a good thing, but arguing over semantics isn’t helping anyone. It’s a distraction. It’s a way that white folks can feel like we’re doing something to support Native Americans while not actually doing anything to support Native Americans.
Shall we just say screw it then?
Well, no. Obviously, I don’t like to offend, and I do want my readers to feel comfortable. This isn’t just about being politically correct either. In discussing this with other people I have come to understand that most people hear the word “smudge” and they think “white sage smudge stick”. If you’ve read this far you know that this is not my definition of the word smudge9 and my continued use of the word is clearly causing confusion and I should just stop. I have trouble sometimes with words that should mean one thing but everyone understands its meaning as something else, but I can accept that words evolve and while “smudge” may have once meant something more general in a dictionary sense, it has apparently evolved into something more specific that isn’t at all what I mean.
There are many other words that mean similar things to smudging that are more precise and don’t offend.
Purification by smoke is a phrase that has been suggested to me, as has the related smoke cleansing and these are okay for some purposes, those purposes being specifically cleansing and purification. If you’re making smoke for some other purpose, then obviously this term is not appropriate. But it is interesting linguistically to point out that here is an example of my understanding of the word “smudge” as a general term versus other peoples’ understanding of the word as a specific term.
Fumigation or Suffumigation These words are from the Latin for “smoke” or “fumes” and relate to the creation of fumes for a specific purpose. Suffumigation10 implies that the thing creating the fumes is underneath, so this would be especially appropriate for ceremonies during which an object is passed through rising smoke to be purified. The modern usage of fumigation in the pest-control industry causes me to think of filling an area with smoke, when I think of fumigation. In both cases, I also tend to think of “fumes” rather than “smoke” and that makes me think more of resin and incense than herbs. However, I believe the suggestion of “Fumigation by Aromatics” in the Orphic hymns11 refers to the burning of aromatic herbs, so there’s your precedent. (Here “fumigation” is the translation of thymíama (pronounced something like (thoo MEE-a mah) meaning “an aromatic substance that is burnt, incense”12).
Maybe I should add thymíama to my list, but I could only use it at home because nobody outside would have any idea. (It is interesting to note the relationship between this word and word thyme, from thymon “to rise in a cloud”, also thyein “to burn as sacrifice”13, suggesting that thyme may have been commonly used as a smudge by the ancient Greeks. But again; I digress.
I have also learned that the Czech term is kouření.
I am going to keep on researching this, as I change the Witchipedia to be more politically correct. This is going to take awhile. And you can help. If you know of any other appropriate terms, please do share them. I will research them and if they are suitable I will add them to my lexicon.
This other person wrote about this too…
2 thoughts on “Smudging the Word Smudge”
Hi, regarding the czech term – kouření is just smoking, like smoking cigarettes or a chimney that is smoking. The practice to use smoke for ritual purposes (often cleansing, but not only) would be “vykuřování” (something like “smoking out something”) and the herbs/wood/blend used for it would be called “vykuřovadlo” 🙂