You may have read recently about the Sephora/Pinrose “Witch Kit” drama. If you haven’t I highly recommend you pop yourself some popcorn and read some of the articles surrounding the mishap, such as this one.
The Witch Kit included a tarot deck, a Rose Quartz, some essential oils, and a smudge stick. While the greater witch community had things to say in regards to just about every one of the items in that kit, heir inclusion of a traditional Native American smudging tool, without any religious context, in this generic “witch” kit, sparked some truly important conversation and I think it’s pretty clear that we really need to evaluate how we use other traditions’ spiritual tools.
Cultural Appropriation, what is it?
I don’t typically like to reference Wikipedia because it’s not a regulated information source, but I think the description of cultural appropriation is summed up perfectly: “Cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It is distinguished from an equal cultural exchange due to an imbalance of power, often as a byproduct of colonialism and oppression.”
Religious appropriation is a part of this adoption. Essentially, it’s when the religious elements of a minority culture are adopted and exploited by the members of the dominant culture. This can be seen in the prevalence of Yoga studios, where the practices of Yoga are stipped of their religious context in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, and delivered as a trendy form of exercise. You can also see this in the Hamsa necklace that is being sold at Target or the commodification of Native sweat lodges. Religious appropriation for the blissfully ignorant enjoyment of those that can afford it is so widespread, most of us, if we are not part of the culture that is experiencing the appropriation, don’t even recognize it when we participate in it.
The truth is…
I’m really no better. Historically, religious appropriation has been a difficult subject for me as an eclectic, non-denominational witch. I don’t have the safety-net statement that “it’s part of my religion” to legitimize my use of any given tool unless I invented it myself. My “religion” is, essentially, custom-made, ever-changing and ever-growing. Traditions that I practiced before I got to where I am at now include Christianity, Buddhism, Wicca, Thelema, and Seidr, among a number of others. And I KNOW my personal practice was formed, to some degree, from those religions and traditions. I have since developed a form of spirituality that is largely based in my psychology education, that I call “mind magic”, which distills out a lot of the ceremonial aspects that often come with religion, so that I can perform successful “magicking” without being limited to certain tools. As a result, one of the cool parts of my own practice, is that I can largely avoid religious appropriation now because most the magic occurs in my mind. And I’m happy with what I’ve created, though it is ever-growing.
But I recognize that I grew to this point in my knowledge, in part, by adopting elements from some minority traditions, knowingly (like my early use of sage) and also by proxy of other religions that have adopted the spiritual tools of other religions (as is common with many pagan traditions). As I’ve grown in my own knowledge, however, I do understand more about how to use spiritual tools ethically and respectfully (and with permission). I do know enough to not to make the issue worse by purchasing many of those items, if I use them, through big businesses that are profiting off a minority culture’s spiritual aesthetic. And I do know enough to find alternatives. And that’s the best part of growth – Once I know something, I can act on that knowledge. And so can you! So, I hope you see this post as I intend it – Evidence that you can develop your own spirituality while also being considerate to those whose cultures have been ravaged by consumerism and colonialism.
What is smudging?
In aftermath of the Sephora/Pinrose debacle, the First Nations and Native American community has asked (once again) for witches to treat their traditions and their tools with respect. Many have asked non-Natives to please stop using their spiritual tools out of traditional context. In particular, smudging has become mainstream among the spiritually inclined. If you identify as a spiritually flexible person, regardless of your ethnicity, there’s a really good chance, like me, you’ve used or bought a smudge stick.
Smudging is when a bundle of herbs, sacred to the First Nation and Native Americans, such as white sage or juniper, is tied up and burned for the purpose of purifying and cleansing a person or place during traditional Native ceremonies. There is a LOT of really amazing information about this tradition and I encourage you to read up on it. Here’s a great article about that tool here.
But I’ve already made smudging part of my practice!
While the tradition of “smudging” is unique to Native traditions, burning herbs, loose or bundled, for purification, divination, and many other purposes exists in nearly every culture. What that means is that there are TONS of alternatives for cleansing and clearing a space spiritually that you can use instead of white sage smudge sticks, and it really costs us nothing to make an adjustment to our spiritual practices on behalf of our Native neighbors. Some of these herbs I list below may even line up with your own ancestry (if you know it). There are also many herbs that are not associated with another culture’s religion that you can test to see if they resonate with you (instructions on how to do this below). And beyond that, there are also many cultures with religions that are open to outsiders and whose members are generally happy to share their spiritual tools, with education and respect.
I want to share with you, for the next few days, some alternative herbs to white sage that you can burn for cleansing, clearing, protection, and spiritual connection, so that you can continue to pursue spiritual growth and your own, unique ceremonial magic. I encourage you to try them out and see what resonates with you most.
Testing out a new herbal smoke:
Before I get to talking about alternative herbs, let’s first talk about how you can test an herb for it’s cleansing and protective qualities. First, purchase your herb from an ethically sourced producer if you can. Or grow the herb on your windowsill or, if you’re lucky enough to have space for a garden, in said garden. Make sure that it is dry, as the moisture from fresh herbs can make them difficult to burn. Sit in front of a safe, ceramic bowl or cup (that you don’t mind getting stained from the coal) and bring yourself to a calm meditative state. Next, light a coal and place or sprinkle the herb on top of it. Allow the smoke to billow around you, or waft it with your hands towards you, and ask yourself a series of questions. If you’re really adventurous, do this in the dead of night somewhere safe and quite outside, where the potential mental “creep factor” is at it’s highest.
Questions to ask yourself when you’re testing a new herb for it’s cleansing and clearing properties:
- Does this smoke lighten the mood?
- Does it wrap you in a comforting blanket?
- Do you feel a positive change either physically or emotionally?
- Does the space you’re in feel more energetically “silent” to you?
- Do you feel closer to your guides or more connected to the universe?
- Do you feel spiritually safe?
If the answer is yes for any herb you tried, then you may have found a great alternative to a white sage smudge stick.
Other useful herbs that have been said to have protective, cleansing, or clearing properties:
Bay is one of my favorite herbs to use in lieu of white sage, because the leaves are quite large and you can draw sigils or words of power on the face of the leaf before burning it. Bay smoke is also said to have a mild anti anxiety effect. In other words, it literally lightens the atmosphere by calming the mind. Bay was used by the Ancient Greeks and Roman’s medicinally and as an incense, too.
Holy Basil is touted by some to be so great at relieving pain through it’s anti-inflammatory properties, and is used frequently in Eastern medicinal traditions. Holy basil is also used in many spiritual practices, and is considered a gift from the Hindu gods. Remember to be cognizant of cultural context using this herb as well, as like sage, it also has its own religious history. As a smoke, I can’t really speak to its medicinal use, but it is often associated with wellbeing and enlightenment.
Cedar and Juniper are actually different trees but their names are sometimes used interchangeably, and pine is considered to have very similar metaphysical properties. Juniper and cedar are both are used by a variety of cultures for spiritual purposes, especially in America where the trees are prevalent. Consider cultural context when you use this plant as well. Pine and juniper are plants sacred to the Native Americans (Juniper, in particular, is also used in smudge sticks sometimes) and it is was also used as a Judeo Christian spiritual tool (see Leviticus), although there is some debate over whether or not the cedar referenced therin is actually Juniper. Either way, all three plants are thought to cleanse and clear the energy of a space and in my experience have very similar feelings associated with the smoke.
Gods almighty, I don’t love lavender. But it deserves to be on this list, because it truly does clear out the space (including myself). The use of lavender both, spiritually and olfactorily, ranges from ancient Egypt to England, and is said to metaphysically represent protection and love. The use of lavender is, in fact, so widespread, finding a single link with all the historical uses is proving challenging so I’ll leave that up to your own googling superpowers.
This combo is another of my all-time favorites because it smells like deep magic to me. Many of you are probably familiar with the resins from the popular Biblical story about the three wise men. According to the Hebrew Bible, frankincense and myrrh used in the holy incense ritually burned in Jerusalem’s sacred temples. Not surprisingly, ancient Egyptians also used myrrh for healing, as well as spiritual rituals and burning Frankincense has been found to lower anxiety in mice. Recently, studies have also found that frankincense has a mild psychoactive effect on the brain.
Though last in my list, rosemary is by no means the last of them. Used by the Greeks and Romans in religious ceremonies that range from the Ancient Greeks to the Christians. Here’s a fun bit of historical info – according to ThoughtCo.com, “Greek scholars often wore a garland of the herb on their heads to help their memory during examinations.” Rosemary is used in witchcraft for its protective properties.
There are MANY more herbs that can be used for protection, cleansing and clearing. If there’s an herb you love, please share with us in the comments below!