History of Sage
Sage is an herb with many magickal and medicinal properties. A member of the mint family, sage is a beautiful herb which takes on a blue-greenish hue due to the silver down which covers its leaves. Long associated with wisdom and immortality, sage has an extensive spiritual and culinary history in many cultures all over the world. In this post we will be exploring this herb’s fascinating history, its use in food and tea, and of course, its magickal properties.
Although there are many kinds of sage, the most common is Salvia officinalis. Salvia is from the Latin “salvere”, which has connotations of salvation in terms of healing, being healthy, and feeling well. This name is an indication of just what kind of effects sage had on those who used it, whether by ingesting it, growing it, burning it, or any other number of uses. The word sage itself comes from this Latin word, whose Proto-Indo-European root means “whole” or “well-kept”. Interestingly enough, the word sage that is used in English to mean wise isn’t related to the sage used for the herb, although the two have become somewhat related in the modern vocabulary.
There are many other types of sage, such as Red Sage which originated in China, Salvia divinorum from Mexico, or Salvia apiana (white sage) from Southwest United States/Northwest Mexico. I may touch on these in this post, but for the most part, I am talking about Salvia officinalis here.
Sage Throughout History
It is believed that sage originated in the Mediterranean. There are records of sage being used more than 4000 years ago in Ancient Egypt in the embalming process and as an ingredient in infertility treatments.
Following the Egyptians, the Greeks had many uses and beliefs about sage. They thought that by eating sage, one would be endowed with wisdom. Sage was also thought to aid in retaining one’s memory. They also associated sage with longevity and even immortality, so many people grew it in their gardens. Sage was used to treat snake bites and as a meat preservative.
Although very similarly to the Greeks, the Romans thought sage even more sacred. They believed that sage helped people digest fatty foods, treat ulcers, and stop bleeding in wounds. They also used sage in tea to help with sore throats and loss of voice. It was also used as a diuretic and a local anesthetic. They called sage the “Holy Herb” and used it in sacred rituals. During these rituals, participants wore specially cleansed clothes, cleansed their feet, offered sacrifices, and used special knives to cut the sage. Romans also associated sage with “domestic virtue” and hung it near the beds of married couples.
Apparently Charlemagne had a great deal to do with sage’s popularity and spread in Europe. In the late 8th century, he started Europe’s first medical school in Salerno. Sage was one of the plants grown there and called the Salvation Plant. Charlemagne eventually ordered sage to be grown at monasteries throughout Europe, and from what we know, monasteries were the first kind of pharmacies in Europe, therefore sage’s medicinal and culinary uses likely spread from this.
In European societies, sage had many associations and purposes. It continued to be connected to longevity, fertility, and health. It was also connected to protection and keeping ill-meaning spirits at bay. The English herbalists wrote about it, prescribing it for
- calming the nerves
- reviving memory
- menstruation issues
- a diuretic
- to lower fevers
- aid in digestion
- ease sore throats
- ease muscle cramp or cold joints
- cleansing hands
Sage in Cuisine
Aside from the many medical and spiritual uses, sage was also used extensively in food (and still is!). It is quite strong, so it is often combined with other herbs in moderation to season meats, vegetables, and soups. Sage is often used in Fall or Winter foods, such as roast turkey or chicken, savory pumpkin dishes, sausages, and especially in stuffing.
Let’s Talk about Sage, Smudging, and Cultural Appropriation (I have to go there…)
Because this post is about sage, I wanted to clear up any confusion you may have about these issues. Some may have no idea there is a controversy, others may be new to the craft, and still others may just wonder if they are encroaching on another’s culture if they burn sage. So here is my two cents:
Cleansing sacred spaces with smoke has been practiced for thousands of years in thousands of different cultures. On Herbal Witchery, we’ve explored many different herbs that have been used to fumigate or cleanse sacred spaces. This act itself is NOT cultural appropriation. Burning regular sage, Salvia officinalis, as a part of a ritual, to cleanse your space, your body, or your home, is perfectly fine.
What has become more talked about however, is the ‘trendy’ aspect of buying the sacred White Sage (Salvia apiana) to ‘smudge’. There are several things to be aware of here. The first is that White Sage is an entirely different plant than common sage. White Sage is native to North America and has been used by Native peoples who lived in the plant’s natural environment. It has a sacred history with these tribes, with many beliefs, ceremonies, and rituals based in the special use of the herb. There is special symbolism and other tools used in the ceremony. The second is that because of the mainstream ‘trend’, White Sage has been in high demand, meaning that it has been over harvested and is in danger. And the third thing you should know, is that the term smudging refers to this specific practice.
Sooooo… in my non-expert but trying to be culturally sensitive opinion, it is insensitive at the least and appropriation at the worst, to buy White Sage and to refer to burning it as smudging. I think burning regular sage (or other herbs) and using your own ritual is perfectly fine. You can buy whole sage leaves easily, or better yet, grow them yourself! But steer clear of White Sage and smudging if you do not have any legitimate ties to the sacred cultural practice itself. There are many articles out there about this topic. Here and here are two I found particularly enlightening).
In Magickal Workings
Now that we’ve talked about sage and what to steer clear of in magickal workings, let’s look at what Salvia officinalis can be used for in spell or ritual work. Here are some of the magickal properties of sage.
- Dreams/psychic energy
To incorporate these magickal elements, you can do some cool things with sage. Just like you might do with a bay leaf, you can write an intention on a sage leaf and burn it to release that intention into the universe, or you could keep that leaf and carry it with you as a reminder of your intention. Since sage is good for prosperity, you can use it to anoint a candle or keep it in your purse/wallet to attract money. You can burn sage to cleanse your space (as we discussed above) or to cleanse your body before a ritual or spell. You can use sage essential oil for the same purpose. You can drink sage tea and even eat a dish prepared with sage as well. Sage is really easy to find and the possibilities of use in magick are endless.
I’m going with two ‘recipes’ for this one. The first is simply to suggest that you find whole sage leaves and drink them in a tea. I think this is the simplest way to get in touch with the herb’s magickal properties, and its taste and smell. Sage does contain a small amount of thujone (just like mugwort), so don’t drink it super strong and don’t drink it all day every day, but a small cup of tea will be a good way to get acquainted with sage. The second is an actual recipe for those of you who enjoy cooking! It is for tortellini with brown butter and sage – omg sounds delicious right? Sage is such a strong, unique ingredient and I think this dish is simple enough that it stands out. Enjoy!