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Imphepho – The Controversial Smudging Herb

Table of Contents

WHAT IS IMPHEPHO

Imphepho is the Zulu name for the Helichrysum species – going by many common names including Everlasting, Sewejaartjies, Kooigoed, African Sage and Licorice Plant. 

It’s worth pointing out here that the local name ‘imphepho’ refers broadly to the Helichrysum species, of which there are over 100 different types. A friend of mine asked a traditional healer in the Eastern Cape if imphepho grew nearby there. The healer said he could identify about 40 different kinds of imphepho growing in the forest.

Imphepho has arguably become the most well known South African indigenous herb used in modern smudging practice. Lately a lot of controversy has arisen about using this herb for smudging, with some practitioners stating that it is dangerous to use imphepho as it may invite in unwanted spirit guests, entities and harmful energies.

TRADITIONAL ZULU USES

Much of this debate has arisen over the fact that the Zulu culture traditionally uses imphepho to commune with their ancestors. It is, in fact, central to all their spiritual workings, as no ceremony or ritual can take place without first burning imphepho.

"Impepho is a way of communicating with the ancestors and it must be burned before most ceremonies can be performed. Impepho is very important as it is the only way to communicate with the ancestors. Therefore without imphepho, traditional rituals cannot be performed."

Mpumelelo C. Ntshangase, Some Gendered African Ritual Practices: The Case of Imphepho, University of KZN

Imphepho is also used to induce a trance-like state, for divination, as part of an initiation rite to become a diviner, for prayer, blessings, as a teacher plant, to increase spiritual awareness, and warding off evil.

"H. aureonitens is thought to be used by izangoma to induce trance states (Z) [20], while H. decorumis is used to induce trance states by inhaling smoke from burning plants (Z) [20]. Callaway [4] describes how eating imphepho is considered vital to the proper initiation of a Zulu diviner."

.F. Sobeicki, A Review of Plants Used in Divination in Southern Africa and Their Psychoactive Effects

"I eat medicines that work in my body like matches to dry wood. I do not open my eyes. It is not with my eyes that I see. My ancestors see for me. I see in a dream."

Diviner Mahube to Kuper 1942: 167–8

TRADITIONAL KHOISAN USES

However, imphepho’s traditional use does in fact extend to clearing energy and protection, in the Khoisan traditions. The Khoisan also use imphepho as spiritual protection, to keep out evil spirits and people with bad intentions. 

At Gamkaberg Nature Reserve there are around 40 rock art sites belonging to the Khoi and San people who lived, hunted and worshipped there more than a millenium and a half ago. A new heritage trail was officially opened in 2018 to allow visitors to learn more about these early tribes. At the interpretation shelter, a Khoi headman performed a traditional ceremony by lighting a bundle of imphepho as ritual incense and as purification and blessing, carrying the smoking herbs on a pair of kudu horns around the space.

In 2012, the senior Khoisan chief Francisco Mackenzie was present at a land-cleansing ceremony in Rondebosch, Cape Town, where the clan leaders gathered in a circle around a small fire burning Kooigoed for this purpose.

https://www.iol.co.za/capetimes/ritual-on-rondebosch-common-1227971

PSYCHOACTIVE CHEMISTRY

Interestingly, imphepho has been shown to contain psychoactive chemistry, specifically the GABA-receptor binding effect, a ‘significant inhibitory neurotransmitter chemical responsible for relaxation’ (Stafford, Jager and van Staden 2005). Inhaling imphepho promotes a calm and relaxed state of mind, which assists in spiritual practice. In large doses, the psychoactive effect increases.

"Unlike many plants with magical properties ascribed to them which are used in traditional medicine and shamanism, Helichrysum species do not contain alkaloids, instead a mixture of flavanoids, volatile oils, sesquiterpenoids and acylated phloroglucinols seem to mimic the effects of alkaloid compounds on the central nervous system. In order to experience the effects of imphepho a lot of smoke must be breathed in for a long time. Euphoria, ecstasy, uncontrolled giggling and sedation are commonly experienced by people inhaling imphepho smoke. Other symptoms may be more rare, mild hallucinations (such as seeing everything bathed in a gentle golden light), ‘visions’ and ‘speaking in tongues’ have been known. The plant is mainly used in traditional ceremonies and rituals as well as African traditional medicine, but it may be used privately by individuals from time to time to ward off evil, dispel negativity, for meditation or other such purposes. Despite its mild psychoactive properties the plant is not commonly used recreationally as a mind-altering or consciousness-expanding herb."

Heather Dugmore and Ben-Erik van Wyk, Muthi and Myths From the African Bush

THE ROLE OF INTENT

Make no mistake, imphepho is a truly powerful medicine available to us, and as with any plant, must be used with respect and purpose.  

"One of the first Muthi’s or herbal medicines I learned to use as a Twasa (initiate) was this sacred smudge and medicinal herb. It is said that Imphepho was the first medicine that was shown to the healers. When they started to use this medicine, it guided them to find and how to use other medicines and so they started to learn about herbs."

SANGOMA, INITIATED IN THE LINEAGE OF THOKOZA. IMPHEPHO - AFRICA’S SACRED HERB

I’ve used imphepho for many years before a ritual or ceremony, to cleanse and purify a sacred space, and on myself and others before an energetic working, and personally have never experienced any unwanted or unexpected energies arriving. My standpoint has always been that any tools we use for energy work are there to assist us, to help us, but it is our intent – our energy work – that affects change. 

I don’t believe that burning a herb to clear a space can invite unwanted energies in simply because one of the herb’s associations is in calling the ancestors. I believe that I would need to intend to invite energies in for the herb to activate in that way. The Zulu culture from which the association arises also uses imphepho for other purposes, including physical healing and getting rid of bug infestations. It would seem that they themselves do not consider it a risk.

Some practitioners have expressed concern that people with no or little experience in working with energy are at most risk that they may burn imphepho and inadvertently let unwanted energies in, due to this lack of experience. However, based on the fact that this is not the sole traditional use of imphepho, and in fact is traditionally used as a clearing herb, to ward off evil spirits and to protect a space by the Khoisan, I think it safe to conclude that imphepho is not dangerous, no matter your skill level.

Consider a crystal – say Labradorite. A beautiful, iridescent stone, it can open portals to different dimensions and heighten psychic powers. It is also known as a stone of vitality and can impart strength and protection. If I were to use Labradorite, since it was what I readily had available, for protection, I’m not likely to unexpectedly open a portal to a different dimension. Rather, the crystal will attune with my intent and assist in the protection energy working. Likewise, I could choose to call in protective energy by visualising myself surrounded in an impenetrable white light shield, without any tools bar my mind. But by using a tool, I invite the energy of the stone or plant to assist me in strengthening my ability to work the energy, by assisting in focusing my will, by acting as a channel for the energy, or by assisting in attuning my energy to my purpose.

The powerful spiritual tools we have around us work in unison with us, and are directed with our focused intent. They are unlikely to cause us spiritual harm if we use them for a less common intent than they are most associated with. This is, of course, assuming that the intent is without harm, and due respect is given to the tools employed. If a person is actively doing a working for a harmful outcome, or performing an energy working without any focused intent, then any tool they might use can be considered dangerous for them.

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