the use of herb incense in North European & other Indigenous traditions
Annette Høst & Sacred Hoop 2010 ©
Burning incense is an ancient way of gaining access to the soul and power of plants, for spiritual, ceremonial and magic use. Incense means consecrated smoke, or smoke offering. The sacred smoke has been used in most peoples' spiritual and shamanic healing traditions, including the North European.
Through hundreds of generations of cooperating with the innermost nature of plants, wise women and men have come to know that certain types of plants carry certain definite qualities, and have certain effects when used as incense. No matter if you learn from traditional Native Americans, European peasants of old, or Siberian shamans, they will all tell you that the smoke of some plants purifies and cleans spiritually, others will invoke spirits and healing powers, others again will carry your prayers further to the Universe, some are good for calling balance and harmony.
The beautiful common earth wisdom is that all these people - on continents far apart - agree on which plants are good for which purpose. Lets us look at what they have to teach us.
PREPARING AND PURIFYING
Used in the beginning of your shamanic or ritual work, the fragrant smoke will help to define a ritual space and open the doors in your soul to the spirit world. The plants used for this are generally the same as for purifying. You may purify your magic tools and yourself before important spiritual work in order to become clear.
The other purpose for cleansing or purifying with smoke is to get rid of unwanted spirits, illness, bad energy and the likes. One can clean a room, a person, or objects after heavy healing work or after a bad argument to get rid of the last feelings of misery. In Danish peasant tradition the whole house and all the dark corners were smoked thoroughly with wormwood after the long, hard winter. In some parts of England until quite recently it was traditional to smudge the house on Mayday with burning Rosemary leaves. When you clean a room or house remember to leave a window opened so that the unwanted energy can slip away, riding on the smoke.
The following herbs have been used primarily for cleaning: (you will find Danish plant names in the end of the article)
Cedar and Juniper family.
There are many local varieties of these, and often confusion about their identity. This doesn't matter so much, since they completely overlap in use. In Tuva, Siberia, juniper is always burned before anything sacred happens.
Wormwood and Sagebrush
(Artemisia absinticum and A. tridentata) as well as sea wormwood (A. maritima) and mugwort (A. vulgaris). Use leaves and young flowers, avoid twigs. This whole Artemisia family is traditionally used for spirit work. They grow in temperate climates. As the name indicates these herbs are dedicated to Artemis, the Greek name for the Goddess of the Moon and the Wild Animals.
The American Artemisia named sagebrush is sometimes even called ‘sage’ for short. This has created much confusion in smudging circles, because true sage (Salvia), is also used for purifying smudge. Let's get it straight that "sagebrush" is an Artemisia, it is not a member of the sage family, and the two are very different in body and personality. Local varieties of sagebrush are A. tridentata, A. frigida and A. California, and they grow abundantly on depleted soil.
Sage family (Salvia)
The name Salvia comes from Latin salvus (health). Use leaves picked before the plant flowers. The more sun the plants gets, the better and stronger it will be. In my opinion, Denmark is the northernmost area for growing sage for incense. Apart from the garden sage (S. officinalis) common to Europe, another subspecies of true sage, called white sage (S. Apiana), grows only in the southwest of North America, where it is popular for smudging.
INVOKING AND BALANCING
The smoke of the following herbs is used to invoke and call desired spirits and powers, to attract harmony, create beauty and sweetness; (the word perfume comes from the Latin par fumare; through smoke). They are also used to give thanks and send prayers.
In Black Elk's account of the seven rites of the Oglala Sioux, Slow Buffalo placed sweetgrass on the coal, and then said: "Grandfather, Wakan-Tanka, I offer to You Your sacred herb....I am going to make smoke which will penetrate the heavens, reaching even to our grandfather, Wakan-Tanka; it will spread over the whole universe, touching all things!"
Woodruff (Galium odoratum)
Grows in leafy forests, for example beech. Use the whole herb picked before the tiny flowers open. Traditionally woodruff is harvested up until Beltane, when its power culminates. Local names for woodruff like Kiss-me-quick (Dorset), and Sweethearts (Somerset) attest to its ability to bring sweetness and binding spells, while the Berwickshire name ‘sweet-grass’ shows the close spirit relationship with its namesakes in North America and Lapland.
Sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata)
Grows and is used in northern North America and Northern Scandinavia. In both places the dried grass is commonly braided together for incense. Sweetgrass also grows in parts of Scotland where it was known as Holy grass and put on church floors. With the plains Indians, sweetgrass was very sacred and used for almost all purposes, also purifying.
In sweetgrass and woodruff, (as well as in others like Yellow Bedstraw), the common power and sweetness is carried by the substance coumarin, which has the characteristic sweet scent and the physiological effect of relaxing and lifting the spirit.
NATIVE PLANTS FOR NATIVE TRADITIONS
In my years of shamanic work and picking up the path of folk magic and wise women's ways, the learning of plant knowledge has been indispensable.
In the case of herbal incense one thing has impressed me a lot. It is that Nature has so wonderfully seen to it that no matter where you live there are always native herbs with exactly the quality you are looking for, including every smudging purpose.
Where it gets too cold or harsh for one plant to live, the next one with the same qualities takes over. Sweetgrass' territory starts where it is too cold– for woodruff and bedstraw. And cedar and juniper will grow where it is too cold for sage and artemisia.
Knowing this we can now understand that the apparent differences in smudging practises are not really differences. It's the same spirit knowledge, the same plant powers and plant spirits, but with local variations caused by climate and earth.
So, roughly said, Native Americans use sagebrush, sage, sweetgrass and cedar-juniper. The European tradition uses woodruff instead of sweetgrass, and wormwood instead of sagebrush. The eastern Siberian tradition uses juniper/ cedar for almost everything.
Sweetgrass is getting rare in North America and threatened by over harvesting, partly due to its popularity at the New Age market, including export to Europe. My point here is: Why use plants from another continent, when the ones you need grow in your own backyard, native to the same soil as you, the same plants that your ancestors used.
THE PLANT IS THE TEACHER
Local traditions and personal preferences vary endlessly, and many other herbs can be used, and the purposes they are chosen for can overlap and change. In Northern Europe, the use of lavender, wild rose petals, bedstraw, blackcurrant leaves, birchbark, thyme, mint, rosemary and pinesap is documented. In Denmark we know also of amber and oak touchwood for incense.
The spirit power and the aromatic smell of the plants can also be released not through smoke, but by warming or rubbing the plant. Sagebrush is sprinkled over the floor in the sweatlodge. Young Chippewa men used to braid sweetgrass in their hair as perfume, while young Danish peasant women would put fresh sprays of aromatic Artemisia in their cleavage when they went dancing.
Everything I have passed on to you here is old knowledge. I see it as a common ground for each of us to build onto. My deepest understanding is that whenever we turn to the plants for healing or magic, the plant itself is the real authority, the best teacher.
GATHERING AND CRAFTING YOUR OWN INCENSE
The Earth gets clothed in green every spring, opening a new season for herb gathering. If smudging and herbal incense is part of your shamanic or ritual work, try gathering and crafting your own herbal incense this year.
Gathering the plants
Finding, harvesting and drying plants is a time consuming and sensual way of connecting with plants. It is a universal activity going beyond time and culture, where you tap into the same sources of knowledge that guided our own ancestors, shamans and village witches and healers, as well as Native American medicine women and men.
There is such a beauty and timeless power in the direct teachings from plant and herb spirits, working with them face to face. This is where all plant magic stems from.
Use the same principles for gathering, drying, and storing herbs for smudging as you would for all other practical or magical herb usage. General guide-lines can be found in good herb books. The time, place, the state you and the plant are in will all have an effect on the power of the finished incense.
Approach the plant with respect, and ask the plant for permission. I have also learned that it is a good idea to tell the plant which parts you wish to use, which powers and to what purpose you plan to use it for. Give the plant some time to prepare itself before you harvest it.
Some people feel that it is important not to use metal when harvesting plants for sacred usage, and have made special wood and stone tools for the purpose. To show your gratitude you can, for example, sing to the plant. When drying and storing be gentle with the herb so that its' scent, power and soul are preserved as much as possible.
Making the incense
Your incense can be made either from one kind of plant, or it can be a blend of different ones. After you have chosen the plants, there are then many ways to go. One common way is to burn the crushed, loose herbs or clippings in a bowl.
Another way used by some Native Americans is to tie the herbs into bundles or smudgesticks, resembling big cigars. These are lit at one end and burn slowly on their own or with the help of fanning.
Another technique is to throw the loose herbs directly on the coals of the fire. I have heard of Siberian shamans using Thyme this way. They can also be sprinkled on top of hot rocks or wood burning stove. In Tuva, juniper branches are simply lit and waved around, while in Mongolia the needles are crushed to a fine powder and lit.
Making loose herb mixture
Here is my favorite recipe which I have used with great satisfaction in circles for twenty years. The quality is mostly invoking and balancing, and it can be made solely from native plants of most North European countries.
One part (5-10 grams) of woodruff
One part garden sage
One part lavender blossoms
One part of good local Artemisia (I prefer sea wormwood)
Half a part of juniper needles
or cedar twigs
Optional: Half a part of wild rose petals
Use a small, shallow bowl to burn the mixture, and put at least two tablespoons-full in. Maybe you must crush the dried plants a bit more, so that they burn better. Light the incense near the edge of the pile with a lighter or a couple of matches until it burns well.
Blow the flame out and fan to keep the ember alive. With a little practice you can direct the amount and direction of the smoke with a feather or fan. Let the person or object to be smudged be surrounded and bathed by the smoke.
Making herb bundles or smudge sticks
In this case, you use a ‘bouquet’ of complete plants, which are bound together when they are almost dry, but before they are brittle. You could, for example, make it with bedstraw in the middle, insuring good ventilation, surrounded by woodruff and/or lavender, and on the outside artemisia's soft leaves and the broad leaves of sage to hold the mixture together.
Tie the bundle firmly in diagonal turns from the root end to the top, and back down.
Use cotton thread, not synthetics, which will melt and smell bad. If the smudgestick is bound too tightly it will have trouble burning, and if you bind it too loose it will burn away in no time. The only way to get it right is with practice. Once the stick has been lighted it can be put out halfway by scraping the ember off, or putting it in sand.
IN THE RIGHT SPIRIT
Plants are strong. And old. They were here long before us. Fire is an even older being in the world. Let your heart be open, in respect, when working together with these great beings. My best advice for good results in your cooperation is to see yourself as apprentice to them and seek their friendship when you harvest, and throughout the smudging ceremony. If you do that, it will also be easy to find words or songs of thanksgiving, once the work is completed.
PLANT NAMES IN DANISH:
Woodruff = Skovmærke
Sweetgrass = festgræs, sødgræs
Yellow bedstraw = gul snerre, jomfru maria sengehalm
Garden sage = salvie
Lavender = lavendel
Juniper = enebær(nåle)
Cedar = ceder
Wormwood = malurt
Sea wormwood = strandmalurt
Mugwort = gråbynke, bynke
Sagebrush = krydret malurt-agtig bynke, kun i nordamerika
This article was first printed in Sacred Hoop Magazine www.sacredhoop.org in issue 24, 1999.
This version, slightly edited, is printed here with the kind help from Nicholas Breeze Wood of Sacred Hoop.
** When gathering wild plants, it is very helpful to follow the HONOURABLE HARVEST guidelines, as shared by Robyn Wall Kimmerer from the wisdom of her elders. Read more in her "Braiding Sweetgrass" book (p.183) or watch her short talk for a clear simple recipe