Smoke Medicine & Culture

Smoke Medicine & Culture

Fire has been used to release the therapeutic properties of plants for tens of thousands of years and the practice is still present in many developing cultures providing humanity with invaluable health-based knowledge and products. Well known external skin applications in the form of tinctures and balms have been recently supported in medical advancements which have found that thyme essential oil, as one example, in medical dressings aids healing due to thyme being rich in antioxidative and antimicrobial properties (10.1007/s10856-010-4065-x).

Smoke cleansing through the practice of “fire saining,” a Celtic tradition, “smudging” from First Nations People in America and similar practices described within the ancient Hindu Vedas texts detail the use of incense as a healing tool to support recovery from illness. The burning of medicinal plants  are often also used as purifying act in preparation for a ceremony, to eliminate negative energy and as a community bonding ceremony - to recognise and celebrate births, deaths and marriages.

Hippocrates – the father of modern medicine – was credited with the salvation of Athens (400 BC) from plague by burning large bonfires in the streets using, among other ingredients, Juniper. Ancient Romans burned Rosemary for healing, a practice that continued into the 14th and 20th centuries, where European people burned rosemary in their homes as a means to protect themselves from bubonic plague and other contagions and French doctors recommended burning rosemary and thyme in sickrooms and hospitals to purify the air.

Juniper has several health-related benefits including as a health tonic and assisting with childbirth. Juniper bark, traditionally used in the treatment of digestive disorders, measles, cold, cough, diarrhea, arthritis, skin disease and  joint pain, has been found scientifically to contain several bioactive compounds (37 phytochemicals) which has antiseptic and anti-carcinogenic properties as well as being a natural alternative to antibiotics (

Moreover, the inhalation of smoke derived from plant oils allows almost instant access into the blood system via the large receptive surface area of the lungs. Various plants have been used to treat pain in this way – such as headache, backache, and toothache, and for respiratory disorders such as coughs and tuberculosis. For instance, whilst largely abused as recreational drugs in the recent times, cannabis and tobacco (DOI: 10.1177/0898010104266735) have a long history as medicinal herbs. Cannabis has been documented in ancient Chinese writings dating back 5000 years and similar histories have been recorded in Greece and Rome. Frankincense and Myrrh – with a biblical 2000-year history – are derived from their respective barks and have a long history of providing smoke-based medicines.  

Generally it has been catalogued that over 700 hundred plants provide over a thousand plant smoked-based medicines (Pennacchio, Jefferson & Havens, 2018). These range from smoke-based fumigations to treat wounds and to aid both the birth and aftercare of mother and child – a practice found in indigenous cultures in Australia, India, North and south America and Africa to stem post-partum bleeding, induce lactation, and to strengthen the physical and spiritual constitution of the newborn child.

Written by Dr Joe Hinds (MSc, PG Dip, DPhil) on behalf of Menteath

Author of Ecotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 

Buy Book here

In this thought-provoking book, Jordan and Hinds provide a comprehensive exploration of this emerging area of practice. Divided into three parts, the book offers a unique examination of a range of theoretical perspectives, unpacks the latest research and provides a wealth of illuminating practice examples, with a number of chapters dedicated to authors' own first-hand experiences of the positive psychological effects of having contact with nature. 

Back to blog