Persian spice burning for protection

The informant is a 19 year old student studying Vocal Arts at the University of Southern California.  Her heritage is Jewish and Persian and she speaks Hebrew and Farsi.  Her family maintains many of their Persian traditions from various regional cultures in Iran.  The informant is Kashi (from Iran’s Kashan region) from her Dad’s side, while her mother’s side is from Tehran (maternal grandfather) and Komijan (maternal grandmother).  She herself mainly identifies with the Kashi culture.  The custom shared below is a custom performed by her maternal grandmother, who is from the Komijan area. 

“My Grandma will burn spices in a thing of aluminum foil on the stove and then just wave them around our heads muttering prayers that she herself doesn’t believe in.  It’s very weird and like pagan.  And I’m like “Maadar-Bozorg* why do you do this?” and she’s like “You just do it, it’s a thing you do”.  After she’s just chilling, she’ll be in the kitchen, and just burn some saffron in some tinfoil, and like clove.  It gets the devil out – but we don’t believe in the devil because we’re Jewish.  It’s just a custom because her mother did it and her mother’s mother did it and her mother’s mother’s mother.”

*Maadar-Bozorg – grandmother in Farsi

When asked if she would do that to her children or grandchildren, she said, “Probably”.   She doesn’t know what the prayers are because “she mutters them very quickly and quietly”, but that they are not Jewish prayers and are more like an “incantation, and are very witch-crafty”.  She says that she does know that it is supposed to be a blessing and a ward against evil.



This custom is a ritual that is supposed to protect the performers loved ones from harm.  I think it shows that receiver of the blessing that the performer cares for them.  It might, as the informant guessed, have its roots in witchcraft.  It is symbolic that this ritual occurs after cooking/while in the kitchen because food preparation, cooking and eating are very ritualistic things and, my informant tells me, there is a lot of ritual surrounding food in Persian cultures.  Meals are very important in solidifying family ties.

The use of cooking spices in this custom is significant for several reasons.  Historically, spices were considered a valuable commodity so, when this custom originated, it could have been a symbol of great honor to burn valuable spices to protect someone.  Valuable spices were seen as a way to ward off evil in other cultures.  For example, it is customary to throw salt over your shoulder to ward of the devil or to counter-act the bad luck caused by spilling salt in some western cultures.  The use of spices in this custom could also be because the fragrance and smoke from the burning spices creates the proper atmosphere in a ritual that is supposed to bestow special protection.