I think a lot about smell, as you might have guessed from my having written a magazine article about it for an offbeat quarterly. Today I find myself musing about odors, ritual, and sacred spaces.
It's no surprise that incense and its ilk are associated with religio-magical practices beyond written history. its ability to mark and recall deep memories is well-attested, and the entire practice of aromatherapy is based on its power to subtly alter moods at an almost pre-conscious level. Beyond sacred circles, geometrically-bewitching architecture, or striking acoustics, making a place sacred starts with making it smell different.
I realized this, as it happens, while waving a burning smudge of white sage around my campsite at dusk, muttering "repel ghosts," a meme-worm picked up from Basquiat via my art-friend Superchief Jeronimo. The phrase felt like the right thing to say at the time, but I had no intentions of a supernatural nature: I just wanted the damn mosquitoes to back off.
According to the Department of Agriculture, white sage was "burned as an incense to cleanse and drive away bad spirits, evil influences, bad dreams, bad thoughts, and sickness...The smoke was used to purify people, spaces, implements, utensils, horses, and rifles in various ceremonies." It also mentions the specific use of burning smudges by the Mesquakie (Fox) to drive away mosquitoes.
I had no idea about any of this. I just knew it smell good, natives had used it at some point, and hippies seemed to be into using it in some pseudo-religious way. Without knowing it, I was taking the smudge full circle, from effective mosquito area denial tool to purification agent and back again. Yet it makes sense for the two to remain one and the same; at a gut-empirical level, purification works if it stops or reduces the occurrence of disease. Mosquitoes, after all, are vectors for some of the most persistent threats to human life and health around. Call me a materialist in the Marvin Harris vein, but I tend to think that cultures tend to preserve things that seem to work, or otherwise serve a purpose. Purification 'works' when fewer people get sick or die horrible deaths. Repel ghosts.
These thoughts also came in handy when I needed to convert a cave-like space under a highway into a half-decent ritual space, but that's another story for another day.