How Palo Santo Got To Be ‘Holy’

Since this was first posted, I’ve learned more about Palo Santo – not so much about the endangered species aspect of it, although this article here has a heap of legit info, but weirder theories.

Palo Santo means “holy tree” or “sacred tree” and it refers to a few different species that are native to South America. But it didn’t get that name from indigenous shamans, it was dubbed that by the Spanish conquerors. Ironically, despite having banned and burnt millions of ancient documents – including medical literature – they were delighted to find that Guaiac wood cured the syphilis they were plagued with.

They began exporting literally tonnes of it back to Spain, Queen Isabella ordered it in bulk, it was hung in churches and avidly researched. Up until then, the in vogue treatment for this condition was the incredibly toxic mercury. So the invaders named it Holy Wood or Palo Santo – it’s not the original name.

What is? This is where it becomes complex: There are several trees dubbed holy and as Palo Santo is now a mainstay of new age merch, many importers and suppliers of it are keen to differentiate their product from the varieties that are endangered species and/or linked to the venereal disease ‘cure.’

So, whether you purchase it or not, wouldn’t it be cooler to use the indigenous name for it? The problem is that so much of the pre-invasion culture was dismantled so between that and the Palo Santo p.r. brigade, it is difficult to get clear info. But somewhere in my vast file of esoteric clippings, I have a list of some names so I’ll post them here when I find them.

Also, legit question and not judgmental: using even just Peru as an example, the Incan culture had an extraordinarily rich cosmology and intricate shamanic culture – has it really come down to burning wood from a tree dubbed ‘sacred’ by the invading force to remove negative energies? You can get some concept of how complex it was from this ‘Inca Shamanic glossary‘ by a lexicographer .

Apparently, no tree is felled to obtain the Palo Santo. The little chips are collected from the dead branches that fall from the tree. Or so I am told? Truth? Or propaganda? I’d hate to think yet another blessing of Gaia was destroyed for money.*

To burn these little wood chips has a similar effect to sage in that it is said to be magical and to clear energy, scare away ghosts/vampires, etc. But it feels more warm and nourishing. Even just having the wood sitting in a corner or someplace appropriate is aromatic and comforting.  And, bonus: it does not make your house smell like you’re a super-enthusiastic pothead as, let’s face it, sage/mugwort smudging can.

Saturn type people or anyone during a Saturn transit can find it too cloying. If you’re finding everything too patchouli or reminiscent of a rancid damp Yin Yoga bolster, bang some metal about. It’s brilliant for elevating heavy Saturnine energy. Palo Santo is more soothing and reassuring.

If you were ever to do a massive house-witch bender – like in the Dark Moon before a New Moon Eclipse or when you wanted to shift some stale old energy around and out, stirring a veritable vortex of Qi, you would do Sage Smudging AND Palo Santo + my insanely cool space clearing music.

You could unclutter like you were an Elite Swat Team Operative Declutterer on a deadline, fling salt around like the Ancient Romans used to do for a psychic cleanse, vacuum that up, wipe everything down with an oil infusion, smudge with Sage and then burn the Palo Santo.  Or, definitely consider it for the next time you’re in that Urban Shaman Vibe.  It’s soothing post-break-up, for melancholy or on a hormonal low also.

*When I first did this post in 2016, I was clearly more naive. Now I think it’s definitely suss and if I want to purify air/space cleanse, I use a few dried leaves from my own mugwort.

40 thoughts on “How Palo Santo Got To Be ‘Holy’”

  1. It’s also is endangered, so what you maybe purchasing could be leading to the extinction of this beautiful tree. There are a lot of other options.

  2. I popped into a shop this morning after my swim to find some cotton clothing for summer (i hate wearing clothes in summer!) anyway blah blah..on the counter they had little bags of Palo Santo for sale with the smudge sticks. I had never tried it before either…it’s gorgeous!

  3. omg i just need to say this – not related to post MM YOUR HOROSCOPES ARE SO SPOT ON i want to vomit love hearts.

    So good.

  4. I discovered Palo Santo after staying in an air bnb in Glebe this year with an acrobatic yoga instructor who had the most amazing vibe – and so did the house. As i was leaving she said “it’s cause i burn Palo Santo in that room after every guest” and so i hunted it down in Melbourne, they sell it really cheaply at Spellbox in Royal Arcade.
    For a vata-pitta type like me, the smell is really grounding and soothing.

    Oh yeah and she also said she waves the smoke around under the aerial yoga straps so the participants feel ‘grounded’ even while in the air! Ha

    1. Thank you for this. I lived there and they sell two lunch bags of palo santo for a few dollars. It’s good to know ps is being attempted to be protected in Machalilla.
      But given their government allow Japanese fishing ships into Galapagos and the coast is near bereft of life due to trawlers we can only hope. Such a jewel of a country!

  5. “super-enthusiastic pothead as, let’s face it, sage/mugwort smudging can”

    So all first nations people smell like super-enthusiastic potheads? Bit of a weird statement.

    1. I turned up at school to pick up the kids after smudging with sage, and I was chatting with the school principal in the playground. His nostrils flared a little bit, and he asked me whether I’d been smoking pot.

      Mystic was speaking from her own cultural context, which I can relate to.

    2. Not really if you read it – sage “can” smell like weed. And that is not always a desirable odor. I smudged after i got burgled one time and the police actually asked me about my “usage” – you might like the post further back on the blog that discusses cultural appropriation of sage etc.

  6. I also love Palo Santo, tho I use it sparingly – as others have said, it is a lovely light smell compared to other plants used for smudging.
    However a note of caution. Its recent popularity means that concerns have been raised regarding its sustainability. Traditionally the parts used are the fallen leaves and branches, but in recent years illegal harvesting and the cutting down of trees has become a problem despite laws to protect it for example by the governments of Ecuador and Peru. It grows in many countries in South America.
    For this reason, it is important to source products from ethical suppliers, preferably ones that are ensuring the re-planting of trees. Googling ‘palo santo’ and ‘sustainability’ or ‘overharvesting’ will bring up suggestions.

      1. Yes, it’s a problem for lots of the imported natural products we use. When they come from across the globe we don’t have a connection with how they grow, whether they are plentiful or not, whether they have been cultivated or harvested in the wild…so many questions. But consumers do have options – sometimes we can grow the plants we need, otherwise we can ask suppliers for information about their source, and use our purchasing power to support those suppliers who are doing the right thing. Like the link you provide below, Alouetta.

  7. I make and sell a smoke-free spritz made from palo santo infused oil! My mother in law lives in Peru half the year–love palo santo. Burning it is the best obviously, the spritz is good for on the go needs though–on a bus, elevator etc.

  8. Palo Santo really does do an excellent job of setting up Sacred Space! Unfortunately, the scent of it burning always gives me a really sharp headache, so its smoke must give off some kind of compound that just does not agree with me. 🙁

    However, I was recently gifted some pinon incense and that has become my new go-to for smudging. I find it to be similarly warm in feel (pine IS Mars-ruled, after all), but believe it or not I also catch a really Venusian hit off it. After my very first smudging with pinon, the vibes in my house felt super peaceful and grounded in what I would liken to a Taurean sort of way. Within an hour, a small swarm ladybugs had invaded the room where I was last smudging! O_o There were probably 30 of them – very unusual! So yeah, I’d say some definite Venus vibes there for sure! It’s also not an acrid pine-y sort of smell…it’s much lighter; almost floral. It’s more like the gentle aroma of dried fallen soft longneedle pine. I find it quite pleasant, so it’s another really good option if you don’t want to feel like you just emerged from a hotbox sesh, LOL!

    1. I love piñon! Yessss! I lived in the Midwest/Southwest area for a bit and got hooked but haven’t sighted it here in the East. Silly me, I should probably try the Internet.

  9. This is cray Mystic — I have been burning Palo Santo every day for the last week, as I’m work-vacationing in Florida until the new year, staying with my family, and trying to naturally mask any marijuana scent coming from my life into theirs. It has brightened and purified my mood and I’m thinking of making it so much more of a regular thing.

  10. I am also in love! I burn it while I’m in the bathtub and the smell lasts a few days. It’s so relaxing to breathe air onto it and watch it burn.

  11. I like the idea of it, but it usually gives me a headache. Rooibos and jasmine teas do the same thing, so maybe they all have a compound in common.

    1. I’m with you. I have some and I occasionally get the urge to use it but I always find the scent cloying afterwards. Sorry bout the teas though, jasmine tea is one of the joys of my life.

    2. OMG, you too?! Rooibos does not bother me though and the touchiness of jasmine tea (it gets hella bitter if it steeps too long!) makes me not particularly care for it, but no headaches.

  12. My nanny when i was growing up in a little beach town in the north of Perú was a lovely Virgo woman that taught me all about cleaning my aura. She used to clean the energy of my house with Palo Santo and some flower waters that she made herself. She died this year because Saturn-Neptune, but i am forever grateful that she taught me these things 🙂

    1. I’m sorry for your loss, she sounds lovely. Having grown up in a strictly atheist, nothing exists that’s not scientifically provable, family, I find the idea of people teaching children about magical/spiritual traditions delightful. My inner child is enchanted by your story.

  13. Palo santo is my jam!!!!! I wear the oil as a scent and people always wonder what it is. I loOove smelling like palo santo all the time!

  14. This one is my favorite. When my ex and I were splitting but he was still living here I burned it NON-STOP. I also had to have fresh flowers around al the time. Now I like to have them around but I don’t *need* them in the same urgent way. I didn’t burn palo for a while but now I’m looking to move and am full on again smudging everyday. Saturn is in my 4th and everything needs moving all the time cause that dude is heavy.

  15. This is so weirdly timely (I feel like all of my comments on your blogs begin with that!) – I was given my first piece of palo santo last week and I’m totally in love with it. It came with a little ribbon tied round it and I can’t bear to burn it, it’s currently sitting on my bedside table. The smell and feel of it are beautiful, it’s comforting just to hold it. I will have to invest in some more pieces to burn so I can keep this one next to my bed!

      1. Ah, that’s good to know, thank you! In that case I’m going to smoke the heck out of my house and self 😀

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