Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Cleansing and Banishing in Pagan Ritual

(a basic replacement for 'smudging')

Pagan social-media conversations often circle back to the use of herbal smoke for cleansing material spaces, and ‘banishing bad vibes’. In my summary opinion the notion of ‘sage-ing’ or ‘smudging’ has reached the level of superstition, in which people imitate gestures without understanding, seeking an effect. This trend has bumped-up against efforts by native peoples to preserve their own ways, and prevent their dilution by misappropriation. Recent internet notices have warned us against depriving native people of revenue and recognition in our sources of specific plants, and reminded us that merely imitating a picture of a ritual action does not mean we’re actually doing it.
                When I was coming up in the craft in the 1970s we never spoke of ‘smudging’. The first time I saw the ‘shell-and-fan’ set-up was probably in the mid-80s, at a festival.  Traditional western magic performs cleansing of space with a dual approach, using water and fire. That is how I learned to clear a space, whether casting a circle or giving a basic cleansing to a house. Water-and-fire cleansing is also used in western magic to cleanse and pre-bless objects used in magical ritual, whether the ‘tools’, or the physical basis of talismans, charm-bags, etc. While each of these symbols deserves a full research-report, let me say a little about the traditions surrounding ritual fire and water:
Ritual Water
                The central symbol of cleansing in Euro spiritual ritual is water. The work of finding, bearing, and protecting safe water sources is always central to the lives of early people, and such matters make their way from the mundane into the sacred in a variety of customs. Evidence for the use of specially-dedicated water and water-sources extends as far back as written sources allow.
                In the Greek Magical Papyri of the turn of the first millennium ritual water is gathered from different sources for different intentions. So for work with celestial gods, and various blessings one might collect rain-water, while for Underworld work, fertility, etc water from underground springs is preferred. For modern practitioners this offers a chance to consider the sources of water in your region, and to pay direct attention to weather as a concern in magic.
                If you choose to bring water directly from a natural source, try to choose places where you can gather clean, clear water. Water pure enough to drink seems to have been the basic standard for traditional ritual water, and great care was taken to insure its cleanliness and purity. There is no reason to avoid using the tap water from most modern water-systems – ritual water is always formally consecrated.

The summary of the method of making ritual water is to bring pure water, add some further agent of purification, and speak intention over the water. The added element is often salt, though some Celtoids have the custom of ‘silvering’ water – silver has active anti-microbial properties, so that’s cool.
The western traditions of ritual magic (what is often called the ‘Solomonic’ style) use this basic formula with its usual lengthy ritual recitations. There’s a very complete set of such consecrations at the Digital Ambler
A simple working consecration is given below.
Fire and Smoke
                Ritual flame is the traditional center of much Euro-Pagan ritual. In archaic forms the central fire receives the offerings of the people, and may represent the very presence of divine power. Its lore emphasizes ritual purity, spiritual power and the Right Order of wholeness and wellness.
                Among Indic ritual traditions the fire retains most of this archaic power, and stands at the center of what remains of Vedic ritual. In Persian religion (‘Zoroastrianism’) the fire becomes the only idol, the very image of the divine. In Hellenic and Roman religion the sacrificial fire consumed the portion of the offerings given to the gods, and was treated as a deity.
                Ritual fire has the same emphasis on ‘purity’ as does ritual water. Fire can be employed to burn trash, cleanse illness, even consume corpses. Ritual fire is to be made with clean, dry materials, carefully laid, with no unintentional or incidental contents. It receives equally-pure offerings of food, oil, etc.
                In many traditional cultures the ritual fire is connected directly to the hearth-fire. Hearth-fire is kept burning perpetually, the spark carefully preserved over each night, for months at a time. Hearth fire was, in many places, renewed annually or bi-annually, to allow for cleaning and purity. In such cases the hearth was extinguished, and new fire brought into the home from one of the blessed ritual fires. For the rest of the year all ritual fire was lit, in turn, from a hearth-fire.
                Some sects of modern Paganism are attempting to establish the keeping of a perpetual tended flame in homes. The old 20th century dodge was to bless the ‘pilot light’ of a gas stove. (If you don’t know what that it, it’s because the tech has largely passed away, and I don’t think anyone blesses their piezo…). On modern Pagan shrines and altars a flame can be kept in a succession of seven-day candles, in an oil-lamp, or even a gas fireplace or lamp. Such a light is carefully kept through the year, and ritually snuffed and re-lit in a sacred occasion – often at Spring Equinox or Beltaine. In the many circumstances where a ritual fire cannot be lit from a good hearth-fire, then custom calls for a proper incantation recited over proper fuels, and lit at a proper moment.

Blessing by Smoke
                The central formula of cleansing by water and incense is that it is the water which first rinses away pollution, and the incense smoke which then confers blessing on the clean thing or place. In ancient days bad smells were associated, not unreasonably, with ritual and physical uncleanliness, and smells themselves were considered to transmit disease. Thus perfumes were used to drive off such impurity, and to fill the air of a ritual space with scents attractive to good influences, especially those proper to the rite at hand. Thus it was ordinary to clean a room with water and brush, and then to burn pleasant woods, etc, in the hearth, even in cultures that didn’t use ‘incense’ as such. Both Gaelic and Scandinavian cultures preserve very little trace of the use of formulated incense for either religion or household perfume, but might burn boughs of pine, or apple, or juniper to scent their rooms, especially after sickness.

                In ritual magic of the late classical and medieval days evil spirits, as such, were banished by the burning of ill-smelling smokes. No sense of ‘opposites’ involved – burning asafetida and pepper will drive most beings out of a room. Resorting to such measures today would be for the most extreme matters, I suppose.
At the core of this formula, I think, it is the sacred power of the spark of ritual fire that serves to bless and purify, much more than the effect of any specific herb. Of course there are a variety of herbs used for banishing ill in European tradition, lists are easy to find Any combination can be burned on charcoal (maybe mixed with some nice frankincense) to good effect. If you find yourself unable to use smoke in an apartment or public space simply blessing a candle or (more dramatically) a fire in a bowl will be fully in keeping with the core symbolism of the work. Even the light of an electric candle can serve, especially if the space is dark enough for the light to be visible.
                Refer to the ‘digital Ambler’ link above for the full Solomonic version of the consecration of Fire. For small ritual fires a simple prayer or charm is the usual method.
• It is usual to arrange a token ritual hearth indoors. This is easily done by placing a circle of candles around an incense-burner, allowing incense offerings to be made in the center of the symbolic flames.
• Such a Fire should be lit with a proper charm or incantation, such as the one given below.

Purification By Water and Fire:
A Druidic-style 'altar' arrangement
These simple customs can be used to spiritually cleanse a house, a room, or a person or object. Choose a proper place for the altar – at your home shrine if you keep one. For cleansing a house consider starting at the highest reachable point and working downward and out the doors. In a single room an altar might be on the eastern wall or at an eastern window. In any case the simple tools can be arranged as needed, with consideration as to beauty and harmony.
• Bring clean water, and a little salt.
• Prepare a fire, whether a true wood fire or a ring of candles surrounding a censer. If you are clearing a space, be sure the censer can be easily lifted and moved. If purifying an object the censer can be stationary. Have a good supply of incense – enough to last for the whole area you intend to bless.
Druidic arrangement in detail
• On an experiential note, if I am not using herbal incense on charcoal I have come to prefer good, fresh cone incense – Indian brands are usually nice and oily. Cones can be lit at the tip, and will often burn with an open flame for a minute or three, making a dramatic visual and a literal magnification of the ritual fire before snuffing into fragrant smoke. Setting such a cone on charcoal insures the cake will light, as well.
• As a performance note, a full house cleansing will benefit from having two operators – one for water, one for fire. In this way the elements can move through the house together. It is entirely reasonable for a single operator to do the two phases sequentially, but takes more time.
• With all arranged in the chosen starting-place, take up the salt, and conjure the water, saying:
The water is poured into the vessel, and/or the full vessel is raised, saying:
Here we bring the Waters of the Land, 
Clean from the deep, borne by the pure, 
So that everything it touches may be made pure. 
Let this Vessel be the Spring of the Deep for our rite, from which we draw purification.
On Land (add a tiny pinch of salt)
Beneath the Sky  (add a tiny pinch of salt)
And within the Sea  (add a tiny pinch of salt)
Let the Water make pure the earth, make pure this (place), 
Make it whole and Holy, and free from every ill.
• Light the incense, preferably from an altar-candle or fire and as the initial flame rises, conjure it, saying:
I kindle this fire
In the presence of all the spirits
Upon the Land, within the Sea, Beneath the Sky
At the Center of Worlds
I kindle this fire in Wisdom
I kindle this fire in Love
I kindle this fire in Power
To be the Light of the Heavens upon this Earth.
To be a Fire of Welcome to all of good-will
And a blessing to all beings.
So be it!
(• The above is a ‘long form’ for consecrating the Water and Fire. It is best for new students and beginners to us the long form, paying full attention to the intent of the words. When you have some experience, it can be more convenient to use a short for, such as:
• Salt the water, light the flame, and recite three times:
The Fire, The Well, The Sacred Tree
Flow and flame and grow in me
In Land, Sea and Sky
Below and on high
Let the Water be blessed and the Fire be hallowed.)
• The elements having been blessed, we can use them to purify objects or spaces. In Pagan ritual preparation the space in which ritual is about to be done is cleaned with water and fire. Objects which are being dedicated to sacred work are cleansed, and the materials which are used for talismans, as well. Such things can simply be sprinkled with the blessed water, and held in the smoke of the fire or incense.
• The work can be supported by proper visualizations – see the water rinsing away a layer of dirt to reveal shining; see the fire sparkle on and within the item.
• To cleanse a space, start at one corner or position in a room, and go sunwise around the space (right shoulder to the center), first with the water, and then with the smoke.
• To cleanse a house thoroughly start at the highest room in use and cleanse each room in turn, finally cleansing the front door. Doors and windows can be specifically cleansed around their frames.
• For a single-story house one might start at the front door and go sun-wise through the place, cleansing each room in turn.
• It is traditional to speak one’s intention aloud. If you wish you might speak to the work without script, politely instructing (don’t ask – tell) all inharmonious influences to depart. It is also traditional to repeat a charm.
• In our Druidic ritual, we incant, simply:
By the might of the Water and the light of the Fire, this (place/thing/etc) is made whole and holy.
And slightly more detailed:
Fire and Water, Earth and Sky, 
Rooted deep and crowned high,
Ill be gone and good draw nigh, 
Fire and Water, Earth and Sky
• If cleansing a house, the elements might be returned to the original altar, or taken out the final door and spilled/extinguished at the boundary of the property. Sometimes it is proper to take the live elements out the door and work the edges of the property itself, though often this is impractical.
• When finished return to the original Altar or work-spot, and envision the whole work, solid and complete. Conclude with an affirmation of success and blessing, such as
The Blessing of the Holy Ones
Be on me and mine
My Blessing on all beings
And peace to thee and thine.
The Fire, the Well, the sacred Tree
Flow and flame and grow in me.
Thus do I affirm the work of the wise!