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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.