Spiritual Scents Excerpt

Introduction to Spiritual Scents:
Burning incense, sage, candles, or using other scents can be a powerful tool in rituals. But as more ritual attendees come forward with allergies, or as we work in venues that don’t permit smoke or fire, how can we still achieve compelling rituals? First we’ll explore how scent and fire work in ritual to engage our visceral senses. Then we’ll explore alternatives to candles, incense, and other scents for those times when you won’t be able to have them physically present, such as trance work, singing, chanting, group participation, and other techniques. New ritualists will learn ways to avoid logistical difficulties, advanced ritualists will deepen skillsets to be able to include participants with allergies and adapt to situations where scent or fire are not allowed. Limitations don’t have to mean your ritual will lose its power; learn how to bring even stronger magic to your rituals.


Incense, smoke, and flame can be some of the most powerful tools in rituals or any spiritual practice. Used well, they can engage deep trance states. Used poorly, they can cause asthma attacks, set off fire alarms, or get you kicked out of a venue. Perhaps you have health reasons why you can’t use scent. Perhaps your venue doesn’t allow incense or fire, or perhaps you are accommodating participants with allergies.

Learning how to use scent and fire–and how not to use them–are important skills to have in your tool bag. In this article, I offer several examples of good, bad, and creative use of scent and fire, as well as totally scent and fire-free ritual including utilizing trance work to evoke scent, accomplish purifications, and invoke fire without any flame.

Imagine being at this ritual:

There’s an elaborate altar with a perfumed, musky incense burning; the scent fills the room. The ritual facilitators welcome people, and the ritual suddenly begins with blessings and invocations. Next, there is a long and confusing blessing to prepare a long-time Pagan elder as an oracle; a large bundle of sage is lit to purify and bless her. This goes on for about five minutes. Then, the sage is used to smudge the first participant going clockwise. Wordlessly, the bundle is passed to that participant, with the nonverbal indication that they should smudge the person after them.

With sixty attendees, and each person taking between twenty and forty seconds to smudge, the smudging takes about forty-five minutes before the actual ritual can begin. Sometime after I am smudged, the scent of the sage began to clash heavily with the cloying incense. I’m sensitive to perfumes and to smoke, and my eyes are watering. I notice the smoke is hanging heavy in the room; we have high ceilings but no airflow. People begin to cough; I see more watering eyes.

I risk the high priestess’s displeasure by sneaking to the back and opening the door, getting a cross-breeze and clearing out some smoke. The ritual continues, involving a few more rounds of “one at a time around the circle” logistics. I air out the room a few times, and I’m really grateful when the ritual at last concludes.


Have you been to this ritual?

The ritual I attended years ago was full of “scent abuses,” as well as other logistical problems that made it tough to get through. For folks with sensitivity to scent and smoke like myself, the ritual was interminable. If anyone had been heavily allergic to sage or the incense, it’s possible I’d have had to call the paramedics.

When I am facilitating large public rituals at festivals, conferences, and around Chicago, I look at scent and fire as tools I have at my disposal to help engage the entire group in a trance state. It is within an altered state of consciousness that we are able to do deeper spiritual work, whether that work is connecting to a deity, to our inner divine, to community, or effecting a personal spiritual transformation, spellwork, or the many other reasons we gather for ritual. In the classic The Spiral Dance, Starhawk refers to our conscious mind, “Talking Self,” to “Younger Self that directly experiences the world through…sensations, emotions, basic drives, image memory, intuition…and physical symptoms,” and “Deep Self” as our divine self. It is through Younger Self that we get to Deep Self, and there we can do some of our most potent spiritual work.

The idea is that the visceral physical senses are what get us into an ecstatic, embodied trance state and, from there, to the deep magic and the divine. While scent and fire are both tools that can help with trancework, they are tools that we sometimes must choose not to use. At indoor events, I obviously can’t have a huge bonfire, and sometimes not even votive candles. With the public rituals I’ve done, I have learned that using incense or sage is a risk as there’s often at least one person who is allergic to scent.

While sometimes it’s a challenge working around constraints, there are a lot of tools we have at our disposal as ritualists to craft a potent experience for ourselves and our participants for both large-scale public rituals and personal practice at home.