Time for one of my fun history posts. I am so glad that people are enjoying these. I thought that this would be a good topic for this time of year as I often pick and dry the end-of-season herbs to be used for making pastilles. I also use them for strewing herbs, so if you missed that article you might want to check it out.
Suffumigation is a term used to refer specifically to burning plants for their smoke during magical rituals. The earliest recorded use of suffumigation was by Mesopotamians who were known to burn juniper in their dining areas to overcome bad smells while making offerings of ritual meals. The practice seemed to be based in the idea that it was disrespectful to present food to their deity or family ghost in the presence of noxious odors that might ruin their appetite.
In the works of Corpus Hermeticum we are told that early priests “did not think it right to render service to the Pure and perfectly Harmless and Unpolluted with either bodies or with souls festering and diseased.” The Orphic hymns, written in the 3rd century CE, include with each tribute the type of fumigation to be used for each Roman deity. The hymn to Neptune is to be accompanied by fumigation with myrrh, while the hymn to Jove is to be accompanied by fumigation with storax.
Mesopotamian physicians also performed suffumigation rituals along with incantations to ward off ghosts with evil purposes when they believed an illness had a supernatural cause. For example, if a person was seeing malevolent ghosts in their dreams (and consequently sleeping poorly) priests burnt juniper in the bedchamber, and mixed juniper and cedar oils with red salt to rub it on their patient’s head and feet, to ward off the spirits. (This is probably where most magical thinking about those substances began.)
Regardless of their somewhat more rational approach to medicine, the Greeks did not abandon this practice and still attributed some illnesses to the malevolent spirits. Epilepsy was thought to be the result of being possessed by the demon Lugalurra and there was a complex ritual for exorcising him that ended by fumigating the patient with a sacrificed goat.
These beliefs, which almost certainly predate written history, persisted in magical lore for centuries influencing folkways into the 20th century throughout Europe especially in the use of plants as wards. On Walpurgis Night in Central Europe, hemlock, spurge, rosemary, and sloe(blackthorn) twigs were bundled and burned to rid the the locale of malevolent beings. In parts of Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany they would burn pine resin every night between Christmas and the New Year to ward off evil spirits.
There was also a curious European practice of fumigating the home that persisted into the 20th century. In some places in Europe, houses were closed up and fumigated with juniper and rue over the last three days of April . Scottish Highlanders were would tie juniper together in faggots and burn them in their homes and byres on Hogmanay calling it a need-fyre.
The theory that demons, ghosts, elves, or other spirits caused disease slowly gave way to other theories, but the usefulness of medicinal fumigation was then attributed to the fact that particles of smell entered the body through the nasal cavity and then touched the brain and other organs, influencing various bodily fluids.
Aristotle believed when aromatics were burned their warmth diffused through the brain which was naturally cold and congested. Greco-Roman fumigations also involved burning pennyroyal or balsam seeds as sudorifics for cold conditions or fumigating asthmatics with aromatics. In 1726, Threlkeld wrote that in Ireland fumigations of Artemisia vulgaris (mugwort) were used to drive away tumours.
The Mesopotamians were the first to write of using fumigations for gynaecological purposes the Egyptians and Greeks followed suit, incorporating these practices into their system of medicine. The Trotula was a compilation of women’s medicine first published sometime in the 12th century. In this text, we find the curious assertion that fumes rising into the womb will cause the womb to move towards the respiratory organs. This idea about fumigation continued to be written about in gynecology texts for centuries. Midwives fashioned fumigation chairs to be able to deliver smoke or steam to women’s “privy parts” in order to address issues such as prolapsed uterus and infertility into the 17th century.
Fumigation to Repel Pests
This is also an age old practice as we know the Egyptians and Mesopotamians both had herbs they burnt to ward off pests. Pliny wrote about burning a resin extracted from fennel to ward off nits and lice. He also wrote that burning thyme “puts flight to all venomous creatures. In the Trotula there is an entry on fumigating people with henbane seeds to repel itching mites.
Ancient gardeners tending orchards would sometimes burn cauldrons of aromatics for fumigating the trees. There are 53 verses that recommend smoking plants in ancient Ayurvedic texts.
“The trees give extreme satisfaction by their fruits and flowers when rendered free even from the suspicion of impurity by subjecting them to the treatment of smoking by the mixture of white mustard seeds, flowers of the arjuna (Terminalia arjuna) tree, and flesh of the hare added to a combination of antiseptic (bidanga) and turmeric powder.”
Roman gardeners burned a mixture of sulfur and aromatics in copper cauldrons to repel pests and spread this practice all over Western Europe. One Middle English word associated with this practice was smogynge or smoginge, presumably because it left a residue on the fruits that had to be washed off. This practice was widely used in US orchards for heat when smudge-pots that burned natural gas were invented in the US in the early twentieth century.
Hippocrates is said to have resolved an Athenian epidemic by setting great fires of cypress, juniper, and pine around the city. In his Canon of Medicine (1025CE), Ibn Sīnā recommended several fumigations to purify the air including galangale, frankincense, myrtle, rose and sandalwood.
Fumigations once again became very popular during the time of the bubonic plague, when Europeans began to believe that bad air or miasma was the root cause of these outbreaks. This belief held on until the invention of the microscope led to the development of our modern germ theory.
People were told that fumigations would “purge all pestiferous and corrupt aires out of your houses.” and sometimes they fumigated whole sections of a town. This continued in into the 1800’s as newspaper stories from Co. Cork speak of fumigating a district around Flag Lane in Cork due to a typhus outbreak in 1894.
A variety of plants were used including, Artemisia abrotanum (robe-garde), Artemisia absinthium (wormwood), Artemisia vulgaris (mugwort),Centaurium erythraea (centaury), Cinnamomum verum ( true cinnamon not cassia), Damask roses, Fumaria officinalis (fumitory), Lavandula angustifolia (lavender), Lignum rhodium (rosewood), Orris root, Rosmarinus officinalis (Rosemary), Syzygium aromaticum (cloves).
Orris root is the dried and powdered root of either Iris germanica or Iris pallida. Contrary to what you might hear about this preparation, it is not just a perfume fixative. It has its own pleasant smell when dried properly (there is a trick) and a long history of medicinal use.
Resins and gums the receipts might include Santalum album (sandalwood), Boswellia serrata (frankincense), Styrax benzoin (benzoin or benjamin in old literature), Commiphora myrrha (myrrh),or Pistacia lentiscus (mastic).
They also used less attractive ingredients. Musk usually referred to the substance stored in a gland near the penis of a musk deer. Civet is excreted by the anal glands of the civet cat. Ambergis is excreted in the fecal matter by sperm whales. I tend to skip these components.
I guess what is fascinating to me is that the practice persisted though centuries of changing medical theory, probably because it worked even if they didn’t understand why. We know now that medicinal smoke reduces the bacterial count in the air of a room and that in some cases fumes released in the smoke confer the same benefits as aromatherapy.
This is often the first thing that comes to mind for me when I think about other things like when I use something traditional like a coltsfoot steam, that shouldn’t work but does. There’s a lot of science out there to be discovered, yet.
As ancient homemakers were responsible for stocking their own apothecaries, receipt books as well as medical texts contained various recipes for making preparations to be used for fumigation. The herbal pharmacopoeia wasn’t as standardized as it is now. Preparations had various names. I’ve seen the tablets called pastilles, fumitories, fume-terres, or burning perfume, depending on the writer.
Today, the word pastille is used to refer to a type of medicinal lozenge, but In their earliest form, pastilles would be burned in the sick room or as an incense to clear the air when guests were coming.
Rose pastilles were especially popular. The earliest receipts for these pastilles involved grinding rose stems and leaves with benzoin, ambergis and musk, then drying each tablet between two rose petals which would be lit when dry to start the tablet burning. Towards the end of the 17th century they started using sugar as a binding agent. This receipt was in Kenneth Digby’s text on Physick published in 1675.
To make Perfumes to Burn.
TAke half a pound of Damask Rose-buds (the whites cut off) Benjamin [benzoin] three ounces beaten to powder, half a quarter of an ounce of Musk, and as much of the like of Civet. Beat all these together in a Stone-morter. Then put in an ounce of Sugar, and make it up in Cakes, and dry them in the Sun, or by the fire.
The brilliant thing about these pastilles is that they burn on their own. You don’t need to burn them on a charcoal.
I shared my own adapted recipe in the graphic up above. I really love the blend of rose and frankincense, so I keep it simple. I have found that you can use tapioca flour in place of the sugar. It helps with binding without turning into a caramelized mess like the sugar does. If I am honest, I have to admit that the sugar burns a little bit better. Be sure to use water that is quite warm as it melts the resin which assists in binding the tablets.