Day 111/365 - On routes of administration
Herbs, like drugs, have other possible routes of administration besides oral (by mouth). Historically, herbs have been used in food and drink (tea, wine, tincture). Other ways are by inhalation/steam (lung), vaginal steam/douche, topically (wash, cream/ointment, poultice), and as amulets or flower essences. However, predating some of these uses are the ancient uses of burning herbs, for either inhalation (smoking) or symbolic/ceremonial use (smudging).
I attended a class on these precise routes of administration at Flower Power, in NYC. The shop itself is very special and I highly recommend stopping by if you’re ever in the area (East Village in NY). [On a side note, I work at Radicle Herb Shop downtown Brooklyn, which is another great place to check out for your herb needs.] Anyway, I learned a ton of ways herbs can be used ceremonially, with purpose, and recreationally. Going back to ancient Egyptian practices to worship gods and goddesses (Ra and Isis), and the three gifts of the wise men in Christianity: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Burning sacred herbs were meant to cleanse an area and make room for positive spirits and vibes to inhabit the space. White and blue sage, cedar, and many others are usually burned to purify a space or invite spirits into a place, while sweetgrass traditionally ensures that only the good spirits stay (as the sweet scent offends the other spirits).
Because inhaling herbs via burning or smoking bypasses the digestive tract and liver, they are absorbed faster and more efficiently than other routes of administration. Often, when treating the lungs or acute symptoms such as pain or cramps, the inhalation method is preferred. Catnip smoked or inhaled can instantly soothe digestive tract issues, or even cramps. It can also mellow people out and promote mental relaxation.
Another common use of smoking/inhaling herbal smoke is in ceremony, such as the ‘peace pipe’ or in sweat lodges (See my sweat lodge post here). When leaders of Native American tribes used to meet to decide territorial matters, they often pre-emptively smoked together to mellow out and be happy so they can amicably agree on issues. The way tobacco and cannabis are used today differ greatly from traditional uses of the plants, and are more often than not abused. Tobacco has been used as an offering plant, and wild cannabis has only a fraction of the psychoactive properties for which it is mostly bred today.
Finally, dreamwork is often sought with burning or smoking herbs. Catnip, calea, mugwort, rose, and lavender are commonly used to promote vivid dreams. Dreams are a way to explore the sub- and un-conscious, and allow us to go deeper in our pursuit of self-exploration. These herbs can be consumed as a tea or in a smoke (to offset the taste) to encourage us to get the inside out.