Fire in ceremony

Fire in ceremony

Many aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional religious ceremonies and rituals are an important part of expressing cultural beliefs, meanings and concepts that link people to their environments in complex ways.

Many ceremonies involving fire have been performed by Aboriginal people for thousands of years. Smoking ceremonies are used in many parts of Australia, and involve gathering guests around a smokey fire so that are protected while visiting their hosts’ country. These are unique to each region and use local plants and materials.

Fire has been central to many aspects of traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life, including cooking, storytelling, providing warmth, as a ceremonial and ritual device, and is also used in medicinal practices. Aboriginal people on mainland Australia also used fire extensively for land management to promote productive ecosystems.

Smoking ceremonies

Smoking ceremonies have been performed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for thousands of years to cleanse people and places of bad spirits and to treat sickness. These ceremonies encourage good health and wellbeing through connection to culture and the health benefits of traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander medicine.1 They are regarded as an important part of connecting people to the country and keeping them safe from the dangerous powers of the spiritual beings residing in the land and waters.

The practice of smoking to cleanse a house or person is used in many cultures around the world, and often involves burning herbs, special wood and bark, such white sage among native Americans. There is some evidence that traditional use of burning white sage can significantly reduce harmful bacteria present in the air2. Similarly, in Aboriginal medical practices, emu bush (Eremophila longifolia) is highly prized for use in smoking, and scientific research has supported its use as an anti-bacterial, antifungal and antioxidant substance3. The leaves of the emu bush are placed on hot embers to produce wet steamy smoke, which kills bacterial or fungal pathogens. This can be of benefit for someone who is sick, to prevent spread of sickness, and for use in childbirth4.

There are many different plants used in smoking ceremonies and for medicine. The type of leaf used for smoking varies by region and availability, but can include peppermint, cauliflower bush5, eucalyptus and sandalwood6. Smoking ceremonies are used for burial, celebration, healing and ‘clearance’ (cleansing), and are also a gesture of goodwill, bringing people together; performing the ceremony for another is a gift and a blessing7. Smoking ceremonies can also be a way of connecting with country by speaking to and acknowledging the ancestors or ‘Old People’.

Fire in ceremony

Traditional fire-starting methods are sometimes used as part of a ceremony8 which is a specific skill requiring particular tools and materials9. This is sometimes included in Welcome to country ceremonies.

Emphasis is placed on fire in cultural belief, such as in Nyungar language, the word for fire ‘karl’ is the same word for immediate family, similarly ‘hearth’ describes family and home in European contexts10. There are also records of Warlpiri clans using fire in ceremonial type of ritualised and symbolic fire combat to settle arguments and to remove the feelings of bitterness and rivalry among rival groups, clans and families.11

Classroom activity - Health and Physical Education Years 5 and 6

Students will explore the use of fire and plants in smoking ceremonies, and how traditions combine ritual with skill and knowledge of traditional medicine to promote connections to community and country and bring about feelings of wellbeing and goodwill.

Curriculum connections

This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:

  • Examine how identities are influenced by people and places (ACPPS051)
  • Investigate the role of preventive health in promoting and maintaining health, safety and wellbeing for individuals and their communities (ACPPS058)
  • Explore how participation in outdoor activities supports personal and community health and wellbeing and creates connections to natural and built environments (ACPPS059)

This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Years 5 and 6 in Health and Physical Education:

  • explain the influence of people and places on identities
  • examine how physical activity, celebrating diversity and connecting to the environment support community wellbeing and cultural understanding

Activity 1 – Smoking ceremony

Suggested timing for activity: 30 mins

Required resources: Computer and internet to watch video, notebooks and pens

  • Watch ‘Adrian Brown on smoking ceremonies’ (National Museum of Australia):
  • Inquiry-based questions for discussion:
    • What is smoking ceremony used for?
    • Who does the presenter talk to in language and why? How does the smoking ceremony connect people to country?
    • What kind of plants and what stage of leaves are used to make the smoke?
    • How does smoking ceremony help people connect with community and place? Discuss identity and its relationship with mental health and wellbeing, and belonging.
    • What beliefs does smoking ceremony relate to, and how are these beliefs different to European or Western beliefs? What does this tell you about the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people ‘border-crossing’ or walking in two worlds?

Activity 2 – Fire starting techniques

Suggested timing for activity: 20 min

Required resources: computer and internet to watch video, notebooks and pens

  • Watch video: or
  • Inquiry-based questions for discussion:
    • What techniques and tools were used to start the fire for the ceremony?
    • Did it look difficult to start the fire? How many people participated? What does this tell you about the importance of community and working together?
    • There are three main elements needed to make fire – air, heat, and fuel. What steps were used to get the fire started?
    • What are the benefits of starting a fire this way, rather than using matches?

Activity 3 – Campfire construction

Suggested timing for activity: 30 min up to one lesson

Required resources: Sticks, leaves, stones, access to natural outdoor area

  • Take students on a walk to an outdoor/natural area where they can gather sticks, leaves, stones and other kindling material (not a national park)
  • Students can work individually or in groups
  • Each group can choose a cleared spot in which to build their ‘fire’
  • Using the stones to create a border and piling up sticks and kindling material, students will construct a fire (without lighting it). This could be a traditional campfire set-up, or a novel design. Students should consider the need for oxygen, heat and fuel in their campfire.
  • Inquiry-based questions for discussion:
    • How did you think about oxygen, heat and fuel in building your campfire? Do you think it would burn well?
    • What did you notice while gathering kindling? E.g. animals, plants.
    • What activities would you use a fire for in your own lives? What could you cook on a fire?
    • Would having fire skills encourage you to spend time outdoors, e.g. camping, and help you enjoy nature?


1 Jones, G. (2014) Indigenous medicine – a fusion of ritual and remedy. Retrieved from:

2 Nautiyal, C.S., Chauhan, P.SNene, Y.L. (2007) Medicinal smoke reduces airborne bacteria. Retrieved from:

3Sadgrove, N.J., Jones, G.L. (2013) A possible role of partially pyrolysed essential oils in Australian Aboriginal traditional ceremonial and medicinal smoking applications of Eremophila longifolia (R. Br.) F. Muell (Scrophulariaceae). Retrieved from:

4 Jones, op. cit.

5 Brown, A. (2017) Adrian Brown on smoking ceremonies. Retrieved from:

6 Forrest, S. Curtin University (2012) Smoking ceremony at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies. Retrieved from:

7 Harrison, M. (2017) Smoking Ceremony. Australia Day. Retrieved from:

8 Scorching Hot News (2016) Indigenous Australians Fire Ceremony Bunburra PCYC Yugambeh. Retrieved from:

9 Griffith University (2013) The traditional way to make fire. Retrieved from:

10 Kelly, G. (n.d.) Karla Wongi Fire Talk: A Nyungar perspective on forest burning. Retrieved from:

11 Morton, J. (n.d.) Splitting the Atom of Kinship: Towards an understanding of the symbolic economy of the Warlpiri fire ceremony. Retrieved from:

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The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.