I often dream about houses. Invariably they are sprawling, many-storeyed, labyrinthine affairs, with dozens if not hundreds of rooms through which I wander at a loss, generally not knowing what it is I’m looking for. In the semiotics of dream imagery, a house is said to represent the Larger Self. In real life, my dwelling is smallish and hopelessly choked with clutter, especially of the papery sort. What all this says about my personality/character is obvious and indisputable. But I probably could never relax in a space with perfect, elegantly spare feng shui. And no, I’m not throwing out any of my books, no matter what Marie Kondo says, whether I ever read them or not.
Buildings, like people, come with psychological baggage, which tends to accumulate over time. One need not believe in ghosts in a literal sense to appreciate the idea that the strong emotions expressed in a space – and especially any dire deeds committed there – might leave a lingering psychic impression, perceptible to sensitive types. Your living space may not be haunted by malevolent spirits, but if you feel “stuck” there in some way, you might, perhaps, be trying to move through someone else’s pile of clutter besides your own – as if your own weren’t enough, right? Exorcism is probably not warranted, but a periodic house-cleansing ritual might make you feel somewhat better.
On a more day-to-day level, many people from many traditions believe, we all carry around “energies” or “chi” wherever we go, as surely as we juggle our keys, mail, coffee mug, umbrella, handbag, groceries and whatever else we’ve picked up on the way to our front doors. The more visitors our living and working spaces have, the higher the chance that some of their energies will stick. Consciously leaving the negative vibes outside before we come inside is not a spiritual discipline for which the busy, multitasking pace of modern life makes much room.
If you pay a visit to the Awareness Shop in New Paltz, you’ll encounter an ingenious preventive remedy before you even cross the threshold. Beside the front door is an urn filled with large sea salt crystals. A sign above it invites customers to lay their palms on the surface of the salt for a few moments to suck out the “oogies” before entering the building.
Why don’t we see more homes and offices with such amenities at their doorsteps? Maybe it’s because most Americans aren’t Pagans, and the Awareness Shop’s owners come from a Wiccan tradition. But salt has been used as a cleansing and filtering agent around the globe since time immemorial. You probably know half a dozen housecleaning hacks that involve common table salt, such as degreasing drains, removing bloodstains or scrubbing your painstakingly seasoned cast-iron pans. On a more esoteric level, sea salt is an ingredient used in Christian holy water, just as it is in the water used by Pagans for cleansing and blessing. Both traditions sprinkle salt water in house protection rituals: a technique known as “asperging.”
In Roman Catholicism, the preferred timing for house blessings is annually on January 6: the Feast of the Epiphany, a/k/a Twelvetide. On this day Christian lore marks the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Notwithstanding the premise that Mary gave birth far from home, this visit is seen as the prototype for housewarming parties in Christendom ever after. Besides spritzing a house and its inhabitants with holy water in the Three Kings’ honor, a priest will also mark the front door with chalk, inscribing crosses and the letters CMB. Handily, this acronym is not only short for Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, but also for the Latin benison Christus mansionem benedicat (“May Christ bless the house”).
Other holy intercessors charged with protection of the home by Christians have included St. Leonard, St. Blasius, St. Agatha and St. Florentius, but the primary patron even today remains St. Joseph. His carpentry skills as well as his role as the chaste and patient patriarch of the Holy Family are invoked when Catholics seeking to expedite the sale of a house bury a statue of St. Joseph in the soil of their front yard. The image is supposed to be inserted head-downward. According to one version of the prayer recommended to accompany this real estate ritual, there’s deliberate blackmail involved: “Saint Joseph, I am going to place you in a difficult position with your head in darkness and you will suffer as our Lord suffered, until this [house/property] is sold.” (Wiccans, by contrast, use crystal magic instead of images of saints when they have a house to sell, burying a chunk of amazonite or citrine in their yards.)
One wonders whether the custom of “chalking the door” inspired hoboes during the Great Depression to create their chalked sign language alerting their fellows to the abodes of kind women who would share food or ferocious dogs that would bite. Was J. R. R. Tolkien, raised Catholic, thinking of that ritual when he had Gandalf scratch a mark on a certain hobbit hole inviting an unexpected party of Dwarves to gather there?
Older far than any of these Christian practices is the custom, mandatory among religious Jews, of affixing a mezuzah beside one’s door. Inside a small ornamental case is a klaf: a tiny scroll of parchment inscribed in Hebrew with a prayer from the Torah known as “Sh’ma Yisrael.” Posting these holy words is an explicit instruction from the Book of Deuteronomy, but in addition, the presence of the mezuzah is believed by many to ward off demons and other misfortunes from afflicting the household. This of course brings to mind the story from the Book of Exodus of lambs’ blood being sprinkled on the lintels and doorposts of Hebrew families in Egypt to cross them off Angel of Death’s enemies list: the literal passing-over that gave Passover its name.
Before germ theory became a thing, religious explanations for widespread deaths from pandemics – such as what probably happened to the Egyptian children – were naturally quite popular. During the Middle Ages, when nearly half the population of Europe was wiped out by bubonic and pneumonic plagues, people could go to a pardoner’s stall at a fair and buy a document called a Pestbriefe or “pestilence letter,” which would be posted in the home to protect its inhabitants from disease. Owning several cats to control the rat populations around their dwellings would have been more effective, but who knew back then? For fire insurance, the Three Kings, whose remains were believed to be contained in a reliquary in the Cathedral of Cologne, would again be invoked: A popular souvenir from a pilgrimage to that shrine was a Feuerbriefe or “fire letter,” again bearing the letters CMB.
Non-Western religious traditions have their own house-blessing rituals. In Nepal, Gurung people set out fresh prayer flags every October. Hindus in Tamil Nadu walk a live cow through the rooms of their houses, and milk is a popular choice for pouring libations. We don’t call them “sacred cows” for nothing.
Ganesha is the deity invoked for protection of the home in Hinduism, and polytheistic religions in general usually have some member of their pantheon responsible for protection of dwellings. In old Europe, these were often fire goddesses, their altars set up near the hearth: the Greek Hestia, Roman Vesta, Celtic Brighid, Norse Frig, Lithuanian Gabija. It was customary for Lithuanian Pagans to set up a sort of altar/terrarium in the house for a pet green snake, thought to bring luck and protection – a throwback, perhaps, to the tempered glass “snake tubes” found in the bases of walls of ancient Minoan ruins, which archaeologists have speculated were installed to allow serpents, sacred to the mother goddess Rhea, to have the run of the house.
Hearth-related goddesses and gods lead us to the household gods of ancient Rome: the lares and penates, to whom offerings had to be made at regular intervals in order to ensure safety, peace and prosperity. They have their cognates in many cultures, mostly traceable back to ancestor-worship. Such customs still thrive today in the ofrendas set up to honor deceased family members in Latin American countries for El Día de los Muertos. But often house-dwelling beneficent spirits occupy a muddled middle ground incorporating aspects of ancestors, deities and Little People.
The Slavic Domovoy is a good example: a powerful god in the guise of a tiny old man. In Japan, the mischievous zashiki-warashi resemble small children, and are only visible to small children. Trasgu in Spain, kobolds in Germany, nisse in Scandinavia, brownies in Scotland, hobs in England all fall into this category. In folklore, they are usually inclined to be helpful, even taking over menial household chores if not offended in some way. Unfortunately, the folktales rarely agree on whether your little helper will be more offended if you leave it offerings of food or clothing, or if you fail to do so. Dobby and the other house-elves of the Potterverse, clearly derived from hobs, are contemporary literary examples of the household spirit who will abandon his or her place of servitude if given the wrong sort of gift. The consensus over many centuries of superstitious practices, however, seems to be that it’s safer to lure such potentially beneficent beings to live with you with offerings of bread and salt. That’s why we bring those as housewarming gifts, though few nowadays remember the basis of this tradition.
But setting a hospitable table for friendly spirits is not enough. Before we invite the good energies in, we need to make room by driving the bad ones out. That brings us back to the most popular of contemporary house purification rituals, which has roots in shamanic practices all over the world: smudging. Symbolically, smoke is tied to the element of air, and thought capable of carrying away negative vibes to be scattered to the winds. Filling every corner of your living space with the right kind of smoke can lift your spirits in more ways than one.
Incense is one way to go. The burning of incense has long been regarded by many religions as a vehicle for raising prayers aloft to gain the attention of some sky-dwelling deity. It may not be coincidental that two of the three gifts of the Magi were types of incense, and that they are revered as patrons and protectors of the household. In Central and South America, the incense of choice for house blessings – not to mention aromatherapy – is a fragrant bark called palo santo.
The plant most commonly used today to drive the “oogies” out of your home and draw in healthier vibes is sage. White sage, Salvia apiana, native to the Southwestern US and northern Mexico, is generally preferred for purification rituals, and the species typically sold in dried bundles for smudging; but common or culinary sage, Salvia officinalis, will also work. Since the latter is an Old World plant, used in herbal remedies for millennia, folks of European ancestry may find it a preferable alternative to the “cultural appropriation” of Native American traditions by smudging with white sage. My own take is that we’ve all got shamans in our family trees if we go back enough generations, but your mileage may vary.
Back through the aforementioned doorway of the Awareness Shop, we find the store manager, who goes by the single name Dani, presiding over a busy trade in magical supplies. She escorts us to a whole nook devoted to house purification supplies to fit every budget, from a mini-smudge stick for $3 to an elaborate house blessing kit for $50. The latter includes a white sage bundle, a feather for wafting the smoke, an abalone shell to catch the ash, sea salt and a bowl for water, an orange (“Jupiter energy,” per Dani) blessing candle and a polished chunk of the semiprecious mineral howlite. Among them, they’ve got all four elements covered.
That’s a lot of paraphernalia to carry around, so you may want to have a helper when you do your smudging ritual, and Dani thinks that’s a good idea anyway: “Other people who live with you should be involved in the cleansing.” If you want to pull out all the stops, take a relaxing bath with some sea salt in the water before you get started; otherwise, begin by “cleansing” yourself with the smoke from your smudge. Light your candle, both for protection and to ignite your smudge bundle (though a mechanical fireplace lighter is the most reliable tool for that purpose). Once the bundle catches a good flame, blow it out so that it smolders. You’ll find that the smoke has a clean, appealing, invigorating herbal smell. If you have chemical sensitivities to smoke of any kind, a mister filled with salt water is a good substitute, and New Agey vendors like the Awareness Shop even carry little bottles of “sage spray.”
Phase One – done with the windows open, moving from the front door “widdershins” (counterclockwise) through the rooms and from the ground floor upwards, if you have more than one floor – releases negative energies. Dani recommends asking the “spirits” to leave, politely, as you begin. “Say, ‘This is my space; I’d appreciate it if you’d go now.’ If the energy is not willing to leave, then claim the space as safe and protected.” Stamping your feet in spots that feel especially “blocked” can be helpful, she says. Some like to ring a small bell, sing or whistle as they go.
Though the smudging can be done with the sage alone, many magical practitioners like to use a single feather, feather fan or even a dried bird’s wing to wave the smoke into every corner and cranny, where negative energies are thought to pile up. Closets and drawers should be opened and smudged as well.
Phase Two involves setting up your space to welcome the positive energies that you’re inviting to replace the negative. At this point in the ritual, Wiccans like to place crystals – howlite, hematite and black tourmaline are recommended types – at the four directional corners to define and protect the space. Then you retrace your steps, working your way back down in a spiral from upper to lower floors, moving “deosil” or “sunwise” (clockwise) this time, again smudging as you go, closing windows and doors behind you and visualizing your spaces filled with light and beneficent energy.
When should you do a house cleansing/blessing? Certainly before moving into a new space, and afterwards, as often as you feel the need. “Doing it more often is better,” says Dani, noting that some massage therapists regularly smudge their workrooms in between clients, to expunge the bad juju that we all carry around lodged in our muscles. If you want to get really serious about the timing, correlating your ritual with the zodiac or the phase of the Moon, there are plenty of resources to research. But ultimately, those variables carry less weight than your intentionality. “Some people might want to use the New Moon to build energy, or Dark Moon to expel negativity, or the Full Moon for protection. As long as you understand why you’re doing it, it doesn’t matter,” Dani avers.
That attitude nicely addresses the question of us habitual skeptics as to whether any of this is anything more than highly unscientific mumbo-jumbo. Just as we don’t have to believe in Eastern deities, in a literal sense, to derive physical and mental relaxation from meditation or yoga, we may also feel much more comfortable in our living spaces by concentrating our intentions on clearing them from “blockages” of any kind. I think I’ll start with that big pile of papers over there, and save the smudging for later.