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Candle with smoke


The Essence of Smoke

Photo provided by Rissa Miller


Ancient and evocative, smoke blends the commonplace with an edgy element of danger; after all, where there is smoke, there is always fire. Fire is pure energy and smoke is the embodiment of its massive force, making capnomancy, or smoke divination, a powerful reflection for those seeking guidance.


Smoke’s magic is in its lightness, the way it stretches skywards, lifts our wishes, even shifts the energy of the dead. Smoke has historically been used to transport the remains of the deceased, lifting their souls from the physical world during cremation. In many cultures, it clears the air and eradicates negativity with energetic clearing and rituals such as smudging. Smoke occupies a position in all major religions and most Native cultures. Quite literally, smoke connects the earthly world with subtle energy.


Where Did Fire Divination Come From?

In divination, capnomancy falls under the category of pyromancy, aka fire divination, and dates back to the earliest fires created by humankind. People gathered around a fire, observing its flames, embers, and smoke stretch skyward, and looked therein for messages. The first recorded capnomancy was in ancient Babylon, approximately 2000 B.C., when cedar burned in ceremonial fires was translated by priests. Delphi’s oracles were also reported to use smoke in their seeing, as well as ancient Greeks, who preferred animal sacrifices in their smoke reading fires. Druids are believed to have used oak and mistletoe for capnomancy.  Another variation was practiced by Etruscans, who threw various seeds into fire and omens were interpreted based on the audible sounds of the popping seeds as they burned.


Time passed, and despite countless changes in society, both fire and smoke have remained constant in their nature. To read mystical swirling vapors is like seeing shapes in clouds or scrying from water. It’s randomized divination, and readings depend upon the skill, vision, and ability of the reader.


Photo by Kirsten Weaver

Reflections from Smoke

Divination, as I practice it, is a deep reflection on the present, how your past shapes it, and the how future will be rolled out, as well as the midpoint – now – when you have control.

Smoke paints a vivid scene, moving in real time with the practitioner’s thoughts and questions. Over the years, I have transitioned from reading smoke in the air to smoke drawing. Using a candle with a traditional wick (ie, not smokeless) I pass a blank page through the smoke until it fills with shapes made of soot from the smoke. The movements of the smoke create patterns and I use my intuition and analytical abilities to observe and interpret messages in the smoke capture.

The soot tends to offer a deep dive into the seeker’s questions. Often, full pictures of relationships and business endeavors unfold, complete with likely successes and very possible challenges. There are frequently specifics: I’ve foreseen a book club fall apart due to toxic members; a divorce involving two daughters; upstart small businesses that got going; and sadly, even self-destructive addictions and abusive relationships have shown up in the smoke.

Photo Provided by Rissa Miller

I usually observe the smoke from the candle before beginning, to get a sense for the reading. It sets the stage for the larger message that unfolds on the paper. I use the general observations listed below to get an initial vibe.

When reading smoke on the page or in the air, I look for the same symbology language I use for tea leaf readings, which I started developing 30-ish years ago in my teacups. Animals, human figures, letters and numbers, faces, geometry, and other details that are completely personal to the individual reading show up on the regular. Always, a story unfolds.


Because of its ethereal nature, smoke divination is ideal for reaching across the veil and into the spirit realm. Want to talk to an ancestor, guide, passed loved one, or resident ghost? They can speak with the smoke, as it’s easier for them to manipulate such an ethereal medium. Be sure, however, to set protective wards, in case an unexpected entity makes an appearance. Not joking when I say this: smoke cleanse your reading area first.

How to Read Smoke

Ready to give it a try? It’s critical to trust yourself and let your intuition flow. Smoke can be sourced from incense, burning dried herbs (like sage), outdoor wood fires, chimney smoke, or candles without smokeless wicking. Sadly, gas fires aren’t effective for this.

Photo provided by Rissa Miller

Practical Smoke Reading Tips:

  • Always look at smoke when it’s backlit, which means it’s brighter behind the smoke than the point from where you are looking. Having a darker background also helps.
  • Learning to see smoke can be aided by modern technology. Use your phone to grab a series of photos documenting changes in the smoke, or even videos. Study the shapes in the pictures, which are easier to see in a photo, and soon, you will recognize them more readily as they float in the air.
  • Never practice capnomancy outdoors on a windy day or inside near vents or open windows. First and foremost, it’s not safe. Secondly, the environment will totally change your reading, rendering it void. Safety is always key when handling fire! Keep enough water on hand to put out accidental fires. Never practice capnomancy on carpets!
  • Libanomancy is specifically reading smoke from incense. It’s a comfortable way to practice smoke divination and simplifies getting used to smoke patterns/behavior. Try several brands of sticks and cones to find the one you like best. Even better, make your own! Some commercial incense contains harsh chemicals, and breathing them too often can be bad for your health/your pets. If you plan to use candles, avoid smokeless wicks.


A few simple smoke gestures to get you started:

  • Straight up in a single line: Things are moving steadily in your favor
  • Broken line: Be careful, things not as they seem
  • Thin smoke: Clear path, steady progress
  • Thick, heavy smoke: Expect delays, energy is stuck, languishing
  • Right moving: Positive, you’re on the right track
  • Left Moving: Negative, reconsider your direction
  • Downward rolling: Huge disruption; like the Tower in tarot
  • Rolls towards the reader: Something is coming towards you
  • Rolls away from the reader: A situation is ending or moving away
  • If the flames leaps/visible fire jump: Situation is going to blow up, for better or worse
  • If the flames go out on their own: Energy is not aligned; failure likely
  • Swirls or spiral patterns:  Confusion; intentions aren’t clear
  • Ladder going upward: Hard work ahead, but you’ll get there
  • Smoke splits: More than one person is involved or there is a relevant choice point
  • Smoke in all directions: Chaos, prepare for distraction/disruption
  • True Circle: Success arrives in unexpected ways; completion of cycle
  • True Heart: Love from spirit/departed loved one; guidance from other side


If you are interested in experiencing a remote smoke reading by Rissa, or would like to learn more about her visit

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