THE PRAYER OF TRANSCENDENT SMOKE

It is remarkable that many of us have trouble naming five or ten plants associated with smoke medicine. In my search through the ethnobotany of Mesolithic Britain I was delighted to re-discover at least 120 species indigenous to that area alone.

Smoke is an area of medicine that is, to me, a practitioner’s dream. There are fires made from specific species for specific purposes. I found a surprising number that went to fire-making tools. The pallet of plants for smudging or smoldering was staggering, burned as remedies for everything from disease and injury to exorcism, good luck and purification. And nothing that I learned suggested that selections were random, coincidental, or based on availability. Remembering that each species invoked a distinct spirit that addressed a clearly specific value, I could only conclude that smoke medicine, although wholly spiritual, was hunter-gatherer science at its finest.

Our penchant to view information compartmentally rather than holistically, as a hunter-gatherer might makes divisions among plant species problematic, as there exists no clear lines. For example I could not delineate between objectives such as ritual, purification or magic. There was never a clear view of separation between medical, exorcismal or purificational. Even fire making presented issues as to where tools left off and fire began. I asked, what divides protection against from the curing of illness, or the need to repel as opposed to exorcise? Where does the medical imperative of sleep leave the realm of casting spells for it? So you can see that the problem of classifying species by usage is quite a challenge. Should you refer to the essay appendix, please take all of this into account when studying the species organized by use.

Examples of species that crossed categorical lines were certainly not difficult to find. For example oak (Quercus) was not only burned on Summer Solstice for purification and endurance but was regarded as fuel for the sun as well. Ashes from the burn were spread on fields to empower growth and also placed on the tongue for sanctification. Smoldering oak coals were carried from home to home to both exorcise and bless the dwelling in the new season. Oak bark was used to carry fire from one place to another and its leaves were used as wraps in which other herbs were rolled for ceremonial smokes. The same leaves were braided into crowns worn by ritual lovers, fostering fertility of the Earth in spring. The smoke from smoldering oak pitch was inhaled for respiratory distress. Acorns, recognized as sacred first foods, were believed to harbor the spirits of security and abundance and were left at gravesites during ancestral feasts. Those same acorns were used in divination and prophesying as well as stood as profound tantric symbols. As a keeper of lineage and history, oak was entreated for the resolution of disputes with the knowledge that it safeguarded. Oak is linked to expansiveness even as it stands as a boundary marker between worlds. It counteracts loneliness, protects against lightning, and is handled in an array of crafts that include prophesying, divination, and ancestral invocation. Oak enjoys many other fine properties so it becomes evident that it can’t be placed in only one category of spirit handling.

Yarrow (achillea) enjoys many excellent qualities too. Its flowers can be smoked or smoldered to repel malevolent spirits. The same smoke purges persons or places while setting up a formidable shield of protection. Yarrow juice has been applied by the intrepid before fire walking and its leaves chewed before fire eating. Yarrow is believed to combat fear, promote courage and placate the spirits that impair vitality while it also enhances psychic awareness and ability. It is love medicine as well used to cast spells to attract love, repel undesirable attention and sooth unrequited love. Yarrow smudge revivifies during rituals. Clearly yarrow is not easy to classify either, demonstrating again the need for holistic rather than compartmentalized thinking.

Juniper (Juniperus) smudge is another with a wide range of applications. It can be used to exorcise the spirit of illness from a person and their home while preventing that spirit from returning. The same smoke is used to modify bad behavior. It can exorcise the malevolent spirits that cause bad dreams, protects newborns and mothers, and placates the spirit of grief after funerals. Juniper smoke is believed to remedy dizziness while its ashes have been used to appease the spirits that cause convulsions. Juniper smoke has countless other applications and all of its fine properties are brought to fire making tools such as torches, tinder, bases for fire drills and as a means of carrying fire.

All told I found nearly forty species, indigenous to the British Isles alone, associated with fire making tools. A remarkable number of magical species were used as fire drills such as holly (Ilex), willow (Salix) and blackthorn (Prunus). An array of mosses as well as alder (Alnus), mullein (Verbascum), and hazelnut (Corylus) made good tinder. Many more species went to pipes and pipe stems such as dogwood (Cornus), rhododendron (Rhododendron) and ash (Fraxinus). It needs to be remembered that even in the most ancient times our ancestors had oil lamps simply by pouring a puddle of oil into a hole or depression in a stone and adding a wick. Thistle seed (Carduus) was rendered into lamp oil; thistle long known as a formidable agent in incantations that led to understanding the causes of spiritual pain. Another thistle (Onopordum) was used to fortify personal shields of protection and countered the effects of malevolent spirits. Its seed was rendered into lamp oil as well. Fibers twisted or braided into wick included mullein (Verbascum) a caster of spells, a formidable exorcismal and a revivifying shield of protection. Sedge (Carex) went to wick as well. Its exorcismal spirit repelled malevolence believed responsible for stealing self-expression or robbing an individual of trouble-free sleep.

An impressive list of smoke medicine was found for casting spells of all types such as skullcap (Scutellaria), mullein (Verbascum) and burdock (Arctium). Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) were both used as smoke during descrying rituals. Some like thyme (Thymus), samphire (Inula crithmoides), and spikenard (Inula conyza) went to smoke that enhanced psychic ability. Ash (Fraxinus) fires were used for divination, juniper (Juniperus) smudge empowered incantations, and columbine (Aquilegia) smoke promoted courage and daring. Loosestrife (Lysimachia) smudge appeased strife (hence the name) while burnet (Sanguisorba) smudge preserved health.

I found almost thirty species that were linked to purification and ritual, loosely distinguished from sixteen exorcismals and thirteen repellents. Protection against malevolent spirits, injury or illness enjoyed a menu of about eighteen species with additional handfuls for good luck in general, prosperity, strength, and hunting savvy. Even love medicine could be selected from a pallet of about eleven species. Just building a fire from a choice of about fourteen species required knowledge and consideration as each of these species had profound magical properties.

I found smoke medicine to be absolutely amazing and as sophisticated as any group of species I had studied. It speaks eloquently to the exceptional and encyclopedic knowledge of the environment, both tangible and spiritual that our ancient ancestors enjoyed. My research was deeply validating for me, as I never believed that our ancestors, portrayed as confounded and unintelligent, could have even survived did they fit this errant description. I found them to be profoundly ritualistic, and magnificently beautiful in their frugality and love for our Earth. I am relieved to have been able to re-construct to some degree a picture of their world and their intensely prayerful lives colored magically by humility in presence of the spiritual mystery all around them all the time. I came away holding the fervent belief that we, as a species, had reached our spiritual apex during the Mesolithic era. I am profoundly grateful to not only know our ancestors intimately again but find some comfort in knowing as well our capacity for both spiritual lives and spiritual reverence for our planet.

If you find smoke medicine intriguing by all means consult the appendix for more information concerning smoke and other forms of plant magic as well as The Compendium for Spirit Handing. It contains thousands of entries on the magical properties on more than 400 species indigenous to the British Isles.




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