THE HISTORY AND SYMBOLISM OF SAGE AND SMUDGING

Common sage or salvia officinalis is a smallish evergreen shrub that can be used in a wide range of applications. My favorite way to use common sage is for tea. Sounds crazy, I know, but it is delicious—it’s like drinking sage’s shadow. But when it comes to creating smudge sticks or bundles, white sage (salvia apiana) is most commonly used. White sage tends to have longer and more narrow leaves that densely populate the stem, more so than other sage varieties, which makes it easier to bundle together.

If you’re unfamiliar with the practice or ritual of smudging, it is the burning of sage by itself (or with other plants) to cleanse the energy or spirit. Lighting a smudge stick creates a spiritually cleansing smoke bath that can purify anything from crystals to spirit. It’s a calling on of the spirits of the plants being burned.

Early Origins
White sage is native to high desserts, but is most commonly found in California and the mountainous American west. And Native Americans were the first on record for using it in a ceremonial or ritual manner. For many of these cultures, white sage went by the name “Sacred Sage.” It was used to get rid of any unwanted persisting energies, to ask the spirits for blessings, prosperity, protection and more.

In many native cultures, plants are more than living things, they have a soul, a spirit, and sage was no different. Burning sage was a way of communing with the spiritual realm and connecting to the spirit of the plant and the earth. By burning the sage with intention, you are asking the spirit of the sage to lend its cleansing and protective energy into your space, body, energy, etc.

Symbolism
Most native cultures incorporate a fireproof bowl of sorts to catch the smoldering embers. Abalone shell is just one of such vessels. If you choose to use an abalone shell in your smudging, you are creating a synergistic loop. The abalone represents the element of water, the unlit sage represents the element of earth, the smoke, the element of air, and the lit sage, fire. By connecting all four natural elements, you are inviting harmony and balance into your space and spirit. The smoke is said to both bind to negative energy and spirits to carry them away and carry prayers into the Universe.

In addition to a vessel to catch the falling embers, feathers were also a staple in smudging ceremonies and rituals. Birds were reverenced for their ability to be closer to the heavens, the Most High, as well as their construction. Natives thought that bird feathers helped to comb a person’s energy and aural energies. Waving or combing the smoke was encouraged, but not blowing. It was thought that blowing on the smudge stick or the smoke released any negative energies from the person into the smoke.

Other common plants to smudge with include lavender, mugwort, tobacco, cedar, sweet grass, juniper, and copal. Tobacco, which grows very prolifically in the Americas, was actually considered to be the most sacred by many Native peoples. Each plant has its own merits and purpose, so experiment to see which ones you resonate with most.

Comments (11 Responses)

07 November, 2021

Theo

I encourage you to stop referring to indigenous peoples in the past tense. These rituals have continued to occur in spite of genocide. Natives are here and their culture and sacred plants are being poached and appropriated under white supremacy.

07 November, 2021

Theo

I encourage you to stop referring to indigenous peoples in the past tense. These rituals have continued to occur in spite of genocide. Natives are here and their culture and sacred plants are being poached and appropriated under white supremacy.

20 September, 2021

Scarlett Giselle

While smudging is indeed an indigenous practice, white sage has been used by many civilizations for medicinal purposes since the ancient times. Anyone has the right to use white sage for smoke cleansing or any other purpose. It is not currently on any list as being at risk for endangerment, and different cultures have different rituals for smoke cleansing. For example, the Saxons called their smoke cleansing rituals “Recaning”.
But does anyone have the right to practice smudging? There is no correct answer. Every indigenous family and culture has their own opinion. I have had 100% indigenous people tell me that anyone can practice smudging if they wish to, and I have had another 100% indigenous people tell me that these ceremonies are very sacred and people must be invited. I’ve had others tell me it’s closed to all non-indigenous altogether.
Unless all indigenous peoples worldwide sit down and have a meeting on this topic and decide on a single answer, there will never be one correct answer to non-indigenous being able to practice smudging.

11 May, 2021

Dena

The original inhabitants of Mother Earth also known as Turtle Island, were the First Nation people (Native American). We do not live on momma Gaia.

06 March, 2021

Gillian

I have just received a Native American flute from a Master Craftsman in California. His daughter put in a sprig of white sage. Thank you for explaining its meaning.
Can we grow white sage in the U.K.?

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