Thursday, January 31, 2008

Smudging: Sage, Cedar, and Sweetgrass

Painting by Howard Terpning: "Blessing From the Medicine Man"

I was raised with smudging, as many Native American kids were. We did it in our family and tribe for hundreds if not thousands of years. It is effective in helping, but it is not a cure-all. Think of it as spiritual "soap" that cleans an area, but if there is too much "dirt" or if you keep doing things that bring "dirt" it won't last. Things that bring "dirt" are things like evil actions, things like sinfulness, anger, hatred, wrongful sex, drugs, untreated mental and emotional problems, unforgiveness, revenge, ...things that harm yourself, others, or the land. And if a spirit is actively trying to get to you there, it can only be kept away so much, and you have to keep smudging. But ultimately it is best to correct the underlying problem.

A "smudge" is just another word for burning a plant as an incense, and using the smoke for cleansing. Smudging is not only for purification, people used to say you smudged using smoke of various plants to drive away pests like mosquitos too.

With "Sage" (sagebrush) and sweetgrass, they are most often burned as a tied bundle of the dried plant. There are three basic varieties of smudge for us plains Indians. People of the Northwest Coast, the Eastern Woodlands, and other places, use other different plants sometimes. The three plants used by my tribe...


1. "Sage" (Artemisia ludoviciana, Artemisia tridentata, and others): There are different varieties; this is "sage" that everyone talks about in most of the paranormal shows on TV. "Sage" is short for sagebrush. It is not the same as the European/cooking sage (Salvia) that you buy in the spice section of the supermarket. Prairie sage is related to the plants that Europeans call "wormwood" and "mugwort." It is used to cleanse and purify; evil spirits flee from it, but good spirits are ok with it. It is also known as white sage, prairie sage, and western mugwort (A. ludoviciana).


2. Sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata): Bought as a braid, it is good especially against storms; it soothes and purifies, and seems to work to calm spirits, good or bad. Spirits are soothed, rather than driven away.


3. Juniper/"Cedar" (especially Juniperus virginiana, but also Juniperus communis, Juiperus scopulorum , etc.): The scalelike leaves are burned to purify, soothe, and protect. The berries, some say, keep away ghosts. You can sprinkle the scales on a hot rock, or in a cast-iron skillet or old metal coffee can lid on a stove burner.

Smudge smoke is used by wafting it all over yourself as you stand, or for another person, from head to toe and back to front, around, using your hands or feather as though your were "bathing" in the smoke. You can also burn it in the evenings and mornings on the stovetop; be careful with it, it is after all, a form of fire. You can also try some of it in small bits on those charcoal disks used in metal incense burners. Those are the three main smudges I was raised with. But as I said, other smudges exist.

For example, here in Montana, you can use Sweet Fir, also called Subalpine Fir (Abies lasiocarpa) as the tribes along the Mountains did. It is often burned to keep away ghosts, bad spirits, and after a death, the sorrow and bad feelings.

One last thing. It is good to gather these things yourself, out in the wild, asking permission from the plant, with a prayer and an offering. You can give them or receive them as a gift. I was taught it is wrong to sell them, as it is wrong to sell spiritual gifts (Christianity calls this "simony") but it seems many people, even Indian tribes, do this these days.

SWEET FIR; SUBALPINE FIR (Abies lasiocarpa)

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