Our Human Fascination with Smoke
Cultures across the globe have created herbal smoke to both inhale and burn in communal spaces for medicine, magic, connection to spirit. Our human fascination with smoking sacred herbs spans across centuries and has a sensory experience in which aromas and the rising smoke evoke and captivate our senses. The act of ritualistic participation of smoking is a tactile connection to our emotional selves and ancient traditions that taps into a primal instinct of other energies and realms outside of our usual physical realities.
Smoking mugwort bundles and putting herbs in a pipe are two ways in which we connect with plants for sacred purposes. A pipe becomes a magical tool and needs to be cared for like any other tool; it needs to be cleaned properly and maybe even charged in the moonlight of a full moon once a month.
Here, we will look at what this deep-rooted human connection to smoke may stem from, some history and practices.
Fire is an element both terrifying and fascinating, crucial to life but also easily the cause of death and destruction. So essential to early life, as humans we have developed alongside fire. However, often in these modern times, we’re disconnected to it. Fire and smoke provide food, cure meat but also sterilise, discourage pathogens, ward off mosquitos and insects, and keep predators at bay. Fire was essential for survival, yet today, we are all too often separated from this most sacred of elements.
The hearth historically is at the centre of the home, where we gather, tell stories, cook food; the fire provides, the smoke protects. Fire is a fundamental element to the creation of smoke.
A recent study in Pennsylvania State University has suggested that humans evolved with smoke. A genetic mutation/evolution may have helped early humans fend off toxic fumes that wafted into the air from ancient cave fires.
Medicinal and Spiritual Powers of Smoke
Smoke can be considered to originate as a combination of all four elements Earth, Air, Fire and Water. A substance of the earth is burned, be it a herb or wood or resin, and air is needed to create smoke, otherwise the oxygen burns out and the fire goes out. Smoke is mainly composed of water particles and fire is needed to create the ignition for smoke in the first place.
As we’ve heard smoke has been created to cleanse spaces and alter states of consciousness, depending on what is burned. This is a millennia old practice. However, modern research is now also showing the power of smoke as a healing, antimicrobial, protective agent.
Smoking and Pipes
Have you ever smoked a pipe? Or been around one? There is something ethereal, magical about pipe smoke as it billows. The scent of herbs smoked in pipes is so evocative, and yes, conscious shifting, depending on which plant is smoked.
A pipe with a shaft represents the direct energy of Mars and provides cooling for the smoke as it travels up the pipe, and the bow, the receptive energy of Venus, the yang and the yin.
The sacred portal or gateway plant tobacco has a powerful spirit. What an amazing herb that has become so prevalent the world over and has such a tempestuous connection to the human condition. The tobacco plant, like all herbs, can be revered and celebrated. You’d be surprised how many tobacco plants you walk past that adorn folks’ gardens with their small elongated trumpet-like flowers. They are real beauties. If you’ve ever smoked tobacco before but never seen a tobacco plant, why not familiarise yourself with them or even better grow one?
Tobacco, like many of the Solanacea plant family, originated in what is now known as the Americas, known as a powerful medicine and spiritual gateway herb in peace pipes and ceremonially.
As a medicine, tobacco leaves are applied to cuts as an antiseptic and to stop bleeding. Ground tobacco leaves are also used as “snuff” (inhaled through the nose) for medicinal and ritualistic purposes. Tobacco smoke is sometimes blown into the ear to treat earaches.
The use of cannabis, a religious sacrament predates written history and evidence of its place as a sacred plant can be found in many ancient religions, including Buddhism, Shintoism, Sufism and Christianity; and among the Bantu, Pygmy, Zulu and Hottentot tribes of Africa. The sacred use of cannabis in the form of charis is prevalent in India amongst many of the Sadhus openly connecting to spirit through cannabis inhalation.
Cannabis is a mesmerising beauty with those iconic shaped leaves that appear so patterned and fractal. One of our community growing projects is in a valley where hemp was grown for the rope industry for many years. When you see hemp growing wild in India or other places, it is a stark reminder that wild hemp has all but been irradiated from UK soils expect for the experimental grows that are starting to happen as hemp is finally becoming more accepted for the useful, fast growing, abundant crop that she is!
We would love the day to come where hemp can be re-introduced as a wild plant into UK hedgerows.
Our old favourite. You may hear us mention mugwort often if you follow our work. Mugwort is not only a commonly growing, easy to smoke or reek with, but we consider her a marvelous gateway herb to subtle altered states of consciousness. She holds keys to plant connection and can open up the doors of possibility.
Known as the traveller’s herb, she adorns the waysides and has been a staple of nomadic travelling folk, and a European brewing, strewing and smoking herb for centuries. Highly aromatic, there is no doubt that assays would show the similarly anti-microbial effects demonstrated in the combustion of the South African herbs, if mugwort were to go through the same process. When you burn a bundle of mugwort, the air becomes palpably cleansed. Clearer, more calm.
The Ancient Greeks, who held the opium poppy sacred, tell of Demeter first connecting with poppy. Figurines of Poppy goddesses have been found in Gazi, Crete. Evidence of neolithic inclusion of opium in medicine has also been uncovered. When you connect with a plant, reach on the plant for medicine and live alongside the herbs of the land, they become revered and celebrated as healthful, pain-relieving or life-enhancing sacred agents.
The practice of smoking opium dates back centuries and was valued for its medicinal properties and was particularly prevalent in cultures along the Silk Road, including in parts of Asia and the Middle East. Smoking opium was believed to provide pain relief, relaxation, and a sense of euphoria. It was also used to alleviate various physical and emotional discomforts, such as anxiety, wounds, diarrhoea and as a cough suppressant.
Herbal Reeking Revival
From measurable antimicrobial properties, a sense of calm and connection to exploring the smoking pipe with herbs, there are many ways to enjoy, celebrate and spell cast with herbal smoke. We invite you to tap into your ancestral connection to fire and smoke and get connected to the herbs.
Look for mugwort next summer as she blooms her silvery flowers. Observe the contrasting leaves (dark on the top, silvery white underneath) and how they reflect the wax and wane of the moon. The moon represents the ebbs and flows of emotion and energy over the month, mugwort helps to tap into this.
We always cleanse a space with reeking rods before any session that we run for groups, a new home, a space between seeing clients. We smoke a pipe before harvesting rituals.
As a result, we have deepened our relationship with herbs through the power of smoke.
Don’t stop reading yet…!
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Our article on Smoking Sacred Herbs covers the topics above more in-depth, plus:
- Smoke Methods
- Smudging, saining and reeking
- How to Make Reeking Rods Herbal Smoke
- And much more!