What is Cedar?
Cedar refers to evergreen conifers (genus Thuja) of the cypress family (Cupressaceae). The true cedars belong to the coniferous genus Cedrus (pine family) and are found from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas. Six species of Thuja are recognized: 2 in North America; 4 in eastern Asia. Western red cedar (T. plicata), found along the BC coast and western slopes of the Rocky Mountains, can grow to reach up to 70 m tall, and 3 m wide. Eastern white cedar (T. occidentalis), growing to 25 m, finds its home in the Great Lakes-St Lawrence forest region. The Asiatic species (T. orientalis), is often planted as an ornamental. While the yellow cedar on the coast of British Columbia is technically a species of cypress, it usually stands between 20 to 40 metres tall.
Often referred to as arbor vitae - ‘Tree of Life’ in Latin. Cedar has been used for healing, purification, and spiritual protection for thousands of years. Like Sage and Sweetgrass, Cedar drives out negative energy and brings in good influences. When burned, Cedar acts as a purifier, cleansing the area in which it is burned and emitting a pleasant scent. It’s one of the four sacred medicines for the North American indigenous people, the other three being sweetgrass, sage, and tobacco.
Cedar is the main purification herb used at the Lakota sun dance ritual. In sweat lodges, Cedar was offered to the fire to smudge the whole area as well as the people, and cedar branches are used to cover the floors inside. It is believed to aid clairvoyance, revive the tired mind, body, and spirit, and ward away sickness.
Wood from the Cedar tree is associated with longevity and protection, it’s regularly used in charms to enhance these desires. Cedar can be used externally to make oils and ointments for sore muscles, chest congestion and colds. When it’s mixed with sage for a tea, it cleans the body of all infections. For a cleansing and stimulating magickal bath, place cedar needles in a loose-woven bag and run bath water over it.
Cedar Through History
The Cedar tree is surrounded by lore going back to the beginning of time. While Norse people sometimes referred to the Tree of Life as Grandmother Cedar, it has deep connections with the Greek Goddess Persephone during her detainment in the Underworld. It’s also strongly associated with the Celtic Goddess Sezh who watches over the realm of fertility, herbs, and trees. King Solomon, one of the greatest mystics of all time, used Cedar in the building of the temple in Jerusalem.
Representing incorruptibility and eternal life, cedar was thought to symbolize purification and protection. It was a Jewish custom to burn cedar wood to celebrate New year, while the ancient Celts used cedar oil (mainly yellow cedar) to preserve the heads of enemies taken in battle. The Druids and ancient Celts also believed Cedar to be the Tree of Life.
In traditional African American conjure - also known as HooDoo, Cedar is used where benevolent power is needed. This might look like needing to draw someone in to rent a room, to make someone move out of a house, or to entice someone to come with you when you move house.
Cleansing With Cedar
Smoke cleansing - also known as ‘smudging’ or ‘saining’ - the burning of sacred herbs is a common practice in many healing ceremonies and shamanic traditions around the world.
It’s a way of purifying and cleansing a space, person or an object of negative energies or influences. Burning certain herbs gives access to the power of the plants and the fragrance releases a high vibrational energy which protects the physical and spiritual bodies. Its metaphysical properties promote peaceful thoughts and help interpret messages from your inner self. Cedar supports us on spiritual quests by reconnecting and grounding us with earthly roots. Many have said that working with Cedar on a spiritual level has helped them build confidence and courage.
Cedar and Costal First Nations
Cedar is a well-known symbol of the Northwest Coast. For thousands of years, coastal First Nations in British Columbia use the versatile wood in many aspects of their lives. Not only is cedar a key natural resource in the production of material goods, the tree also plays an integral role in their spiritual beliefs and ceremonial life. Almost every part of a cedar tree can be used, from the roots, the bark, and the wood, all the way to the tips.
Two native species of cedar trees grow in the temperate rainforests of coastal British Columbia: Yellow Cedar and Western Red Cedar. Yellow Cedar is distinguished from Red Cedar by its smaller size and bushier growth. Yellow Cedar typically grows at subalpine elevations in damp coastal forests ranging from Vancouver Island to Alaska, but is rarely found in inland regions. Unlike Yellow Cedar, Red Cedar is common both on the coast and in moist slopes and valleys of the Interior. Because of this, some Interior Salish groups also harvested Red Cedar, but not to the extent of the coastal peoples. Red Cedar is not only the tallest, it can also live up to 1,000 years old and the lightweight, rot-resistant wood made it the most widely-used plant among coastal First Nations. Although both types of cedar are harvested by coastal First Nations to create a variety of implements for daily use and ceremonial purposes.
Coast Salish peoples have a creation story that explains the origins of Cedar. According to the story, there once lived a good man who always gave away his belongings and food to others. When the Creator recognized the man’s kindness he declared that once the man dies, a Red Cedar tree will grow where he is buried, and the tree will continue to help the people. The Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island have a similar origin story for Yellow Cedar. According to their stories, Yellow Cedar trees were transformed from three young women running up a mountain. Therefore, Yellow Cedar trees are found on the slopes of subalpine mountains, and contain soft inner bark, like that of a woman's hair.
Using Cedar Respectfully
Always set your intentions and thank the plants, telling them how you hope to use them. Whether you are preparing your sacred space for meditation and healing, cleansing your living space, to relax and reduce stress, using sacred herbs is healing for the body and spirit and connects with the source.