Smoke Symbolism & Meaning (Communication & Purification)

Smoke symbolizes the journey of the soul after death, communication, connection with God, purification, introspection, warmth, and modernity.

Smoke holds many different meanings. Different cultures around the world had traditions or rituals linked to fire and smoke.

Smoke Symbolism

Remember that symbolism is subjective. The below are examples of possible interpretations only, and may not be the correct interpretations for you and your situation.

1. Smoke Symbolizes the Release of the Soul 

Smoke symbolizes the journey of a soul, being free from the physical body after death. This symbol appears in many cultures and religious traditions. For example, the funerary rites of the Vikings.

2.  Smoke Symbolizes Ascension and Connection with the Divine

Smoke symbolizes the ascension of the soul, but also the ascension of prayers. In the Bible, there are many references to this image.

For Taoist monks, it also symbolized their prayers ascending to God. In many religious rites, the smoke was an offering to the deities.

3.  Smoke Symbolizes Communication

Smoke also represents communication because of smoke signals. They also represent communication with God.

4.  Smoke Symbolizes Purification

Smoke usually comes from fire, which is often a symbol of purification. But smoke itself represents purification, as many traditions use it for this purpose.

Native Americans smudge themselves to prepare for a ritual, and Taoist monks cleanse themselves with the smoke of a sacred fire. 

5.  Smoke Symbolizes Modernity and Pollution

Smoke often appears in art and films to represent the pollution in a big city, such as the smoke that comes from factories, or the one that comes from vehicles. In this context, it is a sign of pollution and modern life.

6. Smoke Symbolizes Introspection

Historically, philosophical or introspective characters were depicted as smokers although this has fallen out of favor now that we understand the health risks associated with smoking.

7. Smoke Symbolizes a Warm Home and Family Love

Smoke coming from a chimney represents the warmth of a home. The Irish word for smoke, ‘deatach’ also refers to the family huddled together around the fire.

The Meaning of Smoke in Christianity

In Christianity, the smoke from incense, with its sweet-smelling scents, is a representation of prayers rising to God in his kingdom in Heaven. There are several allusions throughout the Bible.

The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.

(Revelation 8:4, NIV)

Over the years, the Catholic Church had used smoke significantly. They not only use incense in ceremonies, but they also use it for smoke signals. 

During the election of a new pope, the eligible cardinals vote in secret until one of them obtains the required two-thirds plus one vote.

They burn the ballots once they finish voting. If there is a failed ballot, they combine straw with the papers to make black smoke. When pure white smoke billows from the Vatican, it represents the election of a new pope.

Celtic Meaning of Smoke

Celts used fire in different rituals during Beltane. 

Beltane is a Celtic word that translates to “fires of Bel” (Bel was a Celtic deity). It is a fire celebration that commemorates the arrival of summer and the fertility of the next year.

Courting was a common part of Beltane rituals, with young men and women gathering blossoms in the woods and lighting fires in the evening.

In other ceremonies, they used fire because they believed it could cleanse, purify, and promote fertility, in a similar way to how Christians think of rivers and baptism.

They often passed their cattle between two fires because they thought that the properties of the flame and smoke ensured the fertility of the herd.

Native American Meaning of Smoke

Native Americans employed smoke for a variety of purposes. Surprisingly, the Navajo and Pygmies shared the same tradition. They burned the bodies, as well as the houses, of the deceased.

Then, the mourners would stand in smoke from a sacred fire to cleanse themselves from the energy of death.

Native Americans also employed smoke in communication, such as smoke signals. They put burnt moist leaves on a high place to create clouds of thick smoke that could be seen for miles.

Smudging is one of the most meaningful uses of smoke for Native Americans. They do it to calm the participants or a ritual and to help them focus. They also do it to remove illness and negative energy. 

Traditionally, they fill a bowl with sweetgrass, sage, and cedar. Then, they fan the smoke from the smudge pot all over the room using a feather.

This way, it reaches every corner and then every individual in the room. Each individual takes a bath in the smoke, starting with the heart, then the head, the arms, and finally the legs.

Symbolism of Smoke for the Vikings

The cremation of dead bodies was the first use of smoke in lifting. The most graphic example was the Viking funeral, where they placed the dead body on a ship or raft and carried it into the fiord.

This event was the start of the deceased’s journey to the afterlife. 

But then they fired flaming arrows at it until the entire ship was set on fire. The smoke transported the deceased Viking’s spirit up into Valhalla, as it climbed into the night sky.

Primitive tribes used to burn their dead, interpreting the rising smoke as a physical expression of the soul’s journey.

The Meaning of Smoke in Taoism

The holy smoke from joss sticks, according to Taoists, may fend against bad energies and evil spirits, as well as attract divine blessings. The monks also employ smoke when they burn joss paper. 

They employ two types of smoke. The first sends up perfumed smoke which travels up to the sky like a prayer, as a sign of gratitude to the Gods.

The second use of smoke is as a purifier: They believe the smoke washes away their sins washes away their sins

The Meaning of Smoke in Ancient Greece and Rome

Incense was imported from southern Arabia in the Greek world beginning in the Orientalizing Period (seventh century BCE). The same occurred in Rome in the late republican era.

Incense burning could be an independent form of worship or a component of a variety of ceremonies. In the Greek and Roman religions, incense smoke ascending to Heaven was a form of contact with the gods and fed them, as it was in many other religions. It also symbolized the divine presence.

The Greeks performed animal sacrifices in altars outside the temples. The participants consumed the meat of the animals. They burned the remaining inedible parts as an offering to the gods.

How to Interpret Spiritual Symbolism

Interpreting symbolism and spiritual meanings is subjective and deeply personal. The symbolic meanings listed in this article are examples of potential interpretations, but might not be true for your situation.

Make sure you meditate and journal about your vision. Reflect on what you saw and think about what message you think is relevant to you and your life right now.

This doesn’t mean choosing the message you want to hear, but the one you think you need to hear at this point in your life. Only you can decide which meaning is the right one for your situation.

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Conclusion

Smoke has a great variety of meanings in different cultures and traditions.

Sometimes, smoke represents purification. Most often, it represents the soul leaving the body, or the connection with divine realms. In literature and art, it also had to do with death and religiosity.

In modern times, smoke has become a symbol of modernity and pollution.

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