The Smoke Carries

Air by Andrew Jimenez 2009, commission for Via Hedera's Cunning Book

      Smoke and fumigation are as intrinsic to most ritualistic religious ceremonies as prayer itself, for smoke carries the prayers of the profane to the sacred while performing various other spiritual tasks such as the exorcism of unwanted energies, invocation of divine energy, placation of restless spirits or even to deliver healing.  Growing up, tia used to tell my sister and I that when you inhaled the smoke of certain sacred herbs, it was like inhaling medicine and exhaling poison.   When sacred healing herbs enter the body, they can help to "smoke out" poisonous spirits within; "Hippocrates, Discordes, Pliny, and Galen, among others, prescribed "the inhalation of smoke for the treatment of asthma and for some other ailments."" North Carolina Folklore Society.  Sometimes, smoking a cigar of a special blend during rituals is used to calm the spirits around the practitioner, lull them into complacency and docility.  Smoke could also bring forth messages or omens in the shapes cast by the puffs as they rise, in the shapes created as they pass through the mouth.

"When a man is smoking, if his smoke takes the form of rings, it is a sign that his fortune will have no end." and "If when smoking a pipe or cigar, the smoker sends forth a ring of smoke, he should put out his hand, catch it, and put it in his pocket, and he will have money inside of a day."- Cora Linn Daniels, Encyclopaedia of superstitions, folklore, and the occult sciences of the world: A Comprehensive Library of Human Belief and Practice in the Mysteries of Life 

      The coils and caressing waves that roll from the pipe enter your body and work away all kinds of illnesses and pains, depending on what you're smoking.  As the smoke leaves your parted lips or your nose, it carries out the ills and sorrows where it is scattered into the air or choked altogether.  Sometimes, there is no illness within and the smoke exhaled by the witch is simply imbued with their power, and that blend of healing from within and without permeates the air around her and the room in which he works, giving rest and compliance to all the spirits around them.  Some smokes draw spirits in, some scatter them far.  The smokes we inhale are almost exclusively evocative, healing or traveling because the ones that purge and exorcise are as acrid and distasteful to the human lung as they are to the spirits.

"To fumigate the patient with fire, smoke, and sulfur, making sure that he inhaled the smoke. This was believed to make it painful, or even impossible, for the spirit to remain in the body." Journal of American Folklore (1978)

          Smoke is a part of my everyday life.  I know a lot of people find it disgusting, trust me, I work at a college surrounded by well-meaning people who constantly remind other adults who smoke or even burn incense that we're personally responsible for all the worlds ills.  I get it, but it's part of me none-the-less.  I burn fumigate for all my rites.  I smoke for pleasure, for prayer, for purpose, and for pain.  I was raised with the smell of burning tobacco and sage, the smell of smoking plants and forest fires, the smells of auntie's red 100's and clouds far more dangerous than that.  Capnomancy was just a normal state of things, constantly checking the sage smoke for signs, symbols, and omens.  Reading smoke as it rises from my mouth, I see through a thin veil as it clouds my eyes, and see well into the otherside.

"Capnomancers were also known to inhale smoke to induce trance states from which they were able to make prophesies."- Norma J. Livo, Sandra A. Rietz,  Storytelling Folklore Sourcebook

          Tobacco might be the sacred shade of smoke witches, but to me, she's an addiction, and not used as often in my ceremonies as others, whom I find easier to work within general (go figure).  We all have our own relationships with the inhalants around us, and I prefer mine sleepy and friendly.  Tobacco makes me sick, even though I've smoked cigarettes for years- after a few puffs my stomach turns, and yet I crave it.   No other smoke effects me like that.  That's because the relationship I have with the ally is toxic, covered in poisons.  There are other, more powerful and even more sacred herbs to work with instead with whom I share a deep and positive history.  To all realms and needs in magic belong different kinds of inhalants and fumigation.  The great invocation herbs are; tobacco, papaver, salvia, wormwood, and mugwort.  The great healers are comfrey, c. sativa, licorice, and mullein. The great lovers are; damiana, marshmallow, rose and raspberry leaf.

"There was a form of native symbolism in the inhaling and then exhaling of the smoke in that it represented the breath of life itself.  As the smoke rose thus also did the soul of the smoker arise with it."- Marjorie Tallman, Dictionary of American Folklore

         Inhalants aren't for everyone.  I acknowledge that. You'll have to inhale burning material and risk the health of your lungs, you may also risk addiction. I've been there and I don't recommend spending all of your time in the company of any herb in the form of smoke, especially not mind-traveling ones.  Recreation is all well in good in moderation, but otherwise, you'll become a slave to a greater witch than yourself, and regret it.

"Let inhaled use of the Smoke be sparing, reserved but for Ceremony, for the degradation of its power in mundane forms provokes the plant to wrath, and its affinity with the shade of Thanatos is thus increased."- Daniel A. Schulke, Viridarium Umbris

       For those of you ready to make the sacrifice in moderation, smoke can be an invaluable tool for spirit travel.   I travel faster and further on-air and darkness than I do through oils, ointments or waters.  Some drink a magic brew to step out into the sabbat night.  Others consume the seeds and fungi of the land and this takes root in their soul, dragging them to the otherworld through the roots, tuning into the mycelium network.  Others rub their skin until their whole body transforms... and some, like me, inhale deep, lay back and let the wind take us.  I fly as a moth, as an owl, as a crow, ones that disappear in smokes and fogs.

"In Denmark it is believed that specters may be driven away by smoking the room with the smoke of a tallow candle."- Cora Linn Daniels, Encyclopaedia of superstitions, folklore, and the occult sciences of the world: A Comprehensive Library of Human Belief and Practice in the Mysteries of Life 

       Occult lore usually espouses the use of herbs like tobacco, datura, henbane seed, wormwood or mugwort or opium poppy for herbal vapors to inhale in order to achieve spiritual connection or to fly from one's form.  Often times, smoking these herbs can be a very unpleasant, acrid experience.  They are not deliciously floral like many other softer herbs, but they are the very spirits of those witch herbs themselves, ushering you beyond your skins and into the void.  How those looking to heal rather than travel, lighter herbs, ones with aromatic scents and sweet smokes like marshmallow, licorice, and raspberry leaf are effective in drawing healing into a room, into a body, into a soul.  These smokes draw ancestors and light, airy spirits but they don't pack the same necromantic punch as their poison sisters.   Locally, bearberry, salal leaf, and mullein are the main herbal inhalants.  Catnip and wormwood are often mentioned in magical herbalism, but the very smell of either of them burning is a turn-off to my personal tastes and both are known to be distressing to some people.

"In the pipe ceremony, smoke is a viable representation of prayers and intentions drifting heavenward.  The intent of smoking is prayerful and its purpose is to give thanks to the creator, to ask for health and help for humankind, and to bless, honor and heal the Earth."- Jay Cleve, Path of the Sacred Pipe: Journey of Love, Power, and Healing

        Buhner called the sacred pipe and instrument of the earth, while Schulke associates it with those spirits of fire.  Myself, I see the pipe as a part of the realm of wind, like a flute or horn; tools of the breath and stomach.  I don't currently have a sacred pipe, it's something I'm working on, I'm waiting for a friend to finish a shiny black stone pipe they've been working on, I feel like that's what I'm waiting for.  In the meantime, I use a green ceramic pipe for ceremonies, and basic natural papers when I'm looking to purify before, during and after rituals.  Pipes are conduits, they facilitate this beautiful elemental magic; a synthesis of fire, earth, and air.  And when the coughing is all said and done and tears roll down your cheeks- water.

herbs that create sacred smoke; tobacco, marshmallow, licorice, catnip, damiana, raspberry, and fairy dust.
         What we bring into our bodies as food of the earth, as drinks of water, as homes full of warmth and breaths of air; all of these things affect us, our spirits, our minds, and our work.  As one who allies closest to air and fire, I feel an affinity for that which fills my lungs and body with warmth, for those foggy vapors and gales and winds and smokes which allow my spirit to travel here and there, in waking or in dreaming.  Where fire meets earth, where smoke becomes air, this is where you'll find me floating, dissipating into nothing, and everything.

Vanish. Vanish. Into The Air.
Slowly disappear.  Never really here.
-A Perfect Circle, Vanishing

Consulted Sources

  • Path of the Sacred Pipe: Journey of Love, Power, and Healing by  Jay Cleve
  • Encyclopaedia of superstitions, folklore, and the occult sciences of the world: A Comprehensive Library of Human Belief and Practice in the Mysteries of Life  by  Cora Linn Daniels,
  • Viridarium Umbris by Daniel A. Schulke
  • Dictionary of American Folklore by Marjorie Tallman, 
  • Journal of American Folklore (1978)
  • Storytelling Folklore Sourcebook by Norma J. Livo, Sandra A. Rietz, 

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