Thursday night of Sirius Rising, I was watching the opening of the show that Artists Dream was presenting. I had participated in my first sweat lodge earlier in the afternoon and I was completely wrung out. The sweat lodge had been an intensely emotional and physical experience and I was basking in the afterglow of having let go of some intense feelings and issues.
The whole week had been about a lot of intense ritual. I assisted in the elevations of two of the members of our coven and participated in Jason Mankey’s Morrison ritual (more about that later!). And all of that was after driving nearly twenty hours to get to New York where the festival is held and helping my partner get his band up to Brushwood along with us. There had been a lot of planning, work and details to see to up until that point and it was finally all done with except for the long drive home.
At that point I was pretty exhausted, but over all, I was feeling really good. The sweat lodge, while an intense experience, was a good one. My coven sisters survived their elevation, my partner’s band mates had all arrived and were sounding good together as they prepared for their Saturday night concert and I was successfully initiated into the Morrison clan. There was still a whole lot of festival to go, but I felt like I had done the things that I needed to do and could relax for the last few days. I was carrying a pretty positive buzz around with me.
And then…I started smelling sage.
I had been smudged earlier in the day. Before walking onto the island where the sweat lodge was held, I was smudged. Before participating I had to go to an instruction class about what to expect, what to do, when to show up, ect. ect. Sweat lodges can be dangerous if you aren’t correctly prepared for them. You are in intense heat for at least an hour, if not longer and wearing jewelry can produce severe burns. People have died in sweat lodges not done correctly. If handled properly, the sweat lodge is a safe experience, but it is definitely something you need to be prepared to do, especially if you’ve never been in one before. It is not a ritual to walk into without any preparation or forethought.
In the instruction class, one of the things we were told is that before coming onto the island with the lodge, we would be smudged, and if we left the island at any point and had to come back, we needed to repeat the process. The woman who poured our sweat discussed that she tried to keep things as traditional as possible (her lodge was based on the Lakota sweat lodge) and talked a little bit about what a traditional Lakota sweat lodge was like in comparison to a lodge poured elsewhere. While sweat lodges can be found throughout many cultures of the world, each kind has different traditions and rituals. In the Lakota sweat lodge, modesty and purity are important qualities. You are there to work with Spirit, not worry about the physical world. We were asked not to drink alcohol or take any drugs for the rest of the week before the sweat. We were asked to wear clothing that covered our bodies. The women were asked not to participate if they were menstruating. Respect was a key component of our conversation. The smudging was a part of the process that I was gladly willing to do.
Smudging, for anyone not familiar, is when sage or sweatgrass (sometimes mixed with ceder, lavender and other herbs) is used to purify or bless a person, item or place. North American smudging has been traditionally practiced by the native peoples and has been heavily appropriated by NeoPagans and other new age-y sorts everywhere. My partner and I have many discussions over smudging and cultural appropriation. My partner also argues that smudging is not a part of our traditions (we practice mostly Welsh and Celtic). He sees it as being somewhat disrespectful to our gods and traditions as well. (The discussion on cultural appropriation is often discussed in the Pagan community and if you want to read more eloquent discussions on the subject, see the end of this blog).
I like smudging because it works. You don’t have to do an intense ritual, you simply burn your sage and it’s going to clear out excess energy hanging around. When I smudge, I know that it has absolutely nothing to do with the traditional Sacred Smoke Bowl Blessing and I don’t try to pretend like it is. I have no tribal affiliations and no traditional training. I am a Wiccan priestess that takes advantage of an herb that is readily available to me in my community. For me, burning sage works for my purposes. I like to do it when I’m cleaning my house and getting ready for something new or preparing for a ritual later on. It creates a neutral atmosphere and lets me set things up for whatever I am doing next. It’s sort of an easy reset button. Ever been home alone at night and suddenly realized things just feel off? Smudging will take care of it! Ever had an argument and can’t get away from that energy hours later? Again, smudging will do the trick!
But that’s just it, people often ignore the fact that it doesn’t just carry away negative energy. It’s a neutralizer. It cleans everything out.
That happy buzz that I had been carrying around with me? Gone. I felt violated. I had not gone to the concert to be smudged. No one had asked me if I had wanted to be smudged, someone just deciding that it would carry away the “negative vibes” and walked through the whole audience. There wasn’t a general announcement and they obviously didn’t think through all the possible consequences of their actions. We were not in a ritual setting, we were not in someone’s occult shop (in many occult shops, smudging happens regularly), I was not in someone else’s personal house or space…I was at an outdoor concert at a festival.
While the long lasting effects of the rituals I had participated in were certainly not gone, the happy energy that I was still carrying with me that night was. I had worked hard for that energy and I couldn’t easily get it back. I was immediately exhausted.
And maybe this is a part of the cultural appropriation discussion. We do magic and magic can blow up in your face when not done properly. We work with deity and one deity may not want to have anything to do with another deity. You also have to be very aware of what you are doing to those around you. Being a responsible practitioner, no matter what tradition or traditions you’re working with is hard work. It takes research and attention to detail. It also takes a level of awareness that most people just don’t have. This person obviously had no idea that their good intentions were going to have a negative side effect.
This person was working with energy and did not bother to ask people’s permission first.
Consent, as with everything else in life, is vital.
Festival can be a hard experience to deal with. There are tons of people around you doing all kinds of crazy things with music, dance, art, ritual and magic. You are out of your comfort zone and the societal rules that most of us live with disappear. There are different traditions and practices going on all around you. It is easy to be overwhelmed. That does not give you the excuse to be irresponsible with magic and energy in a crowd of strangers. In fact, I would say that it increases your responsibility in how you handle your magic and your energy.
No, smudging isn’t “casting a spell”, but it is an action with magical and energetic intent. Whenever you do something with magical and energetic intent, you need to stop and contemplate it’s effect on other people. You should never mess with someone else’s energy without their consent.
So think before you do something “simple”, even if you think you’re only getting rid of the negative. You might just be throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Cultural Borrowing/Cultural Appropriation: A Relationship Model For Respectful Borrowing by Christine Hoff Kraemer
Pagans and Cultural Appropriation by Lupa
How to follow the eclectic path, minus the cultural appropriation – In the Garden of Proserpine