Sandalwood

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Sandalwood

Powdered and whole sandalwood
Many religions use sandalwood in ritual. Dinodia Photos / Getty Images

Although not truly an herb, but a wood, sandalwood is an item found often in modern Pagan rituals. In fact, “sandalwood” is an entire class of wood, found in trees that are part of the flowering Santalum family. These aromatic and dense plants are packed full of essential oils, which are often extracted for use in a variety of religious rituals, aromatherapy, and even in medicine.

Sandalwood History

Sandalwood has been used for thousands of years in a ritual context. It appears in Buddhist and Muslim rituals, and was one of several fragrant plants used by the Egyptians in embalming rituals. In China and Tibet, its antiseptic properties make it a valuable part of folk medicine. In India, the wood is used for intricate carvings that adorn shrines and homes; figurines and mala jewelry are also crafted from sandalwood. In addition, a paste is sometimes made that can be used to anoint the forehead of the faithful in Hindu temples. 

One particular species, the Indian sandalwood, which grows primarily in Nepal and southern India, is an endangered plant. However, people still harvest the trees for the essential oils, and a single kilogram of true sandalwood oil can sell for up to $2,000. That’s a pretty steep price - but don’t worry, most of the sandalwood essential oil sold in the United States and Europe today actually comes from the Australian sandalwood. This is a non-endangered species, and although it has a lighter concentration than the other varieties of sandalwood, it’s still very fragrant and is popular with many aromatherapists.

Aromatherapist Danièle Ryman says, "Sandalwood oil is still one of the main remedies used in the Ayurvedic system of medicine. Asians and Arabs use it in self-treatment for a great number of diseases. In Europe, it mostly features in perfumery and soap, and it once had a major role in aromatherapy." 

While it is is typically the flowers that are harvested and used, many different parts of the sandalwood plant are used for a variety of purposes. For instance, the essential oil is often used in holistic medicine for its anti-inflammatory properties, and some researchers are even testings its impact on cancer and other diseases. The wood can be ground down into a fine powder, and used for beauty treatments - add a bit of rose oil or camphor, and apply it to your skin for cleansing.

In a 2012 issue of Current Science magazine, A. N. Arun Kumar, Geeta Joshi and H. Y. Mohan Ram wrote an article called Sandalwood: History, Uses, Present Status and the Future, in which they discuss spike disease, which has caused many of the species to become endangered. The authors say, "Sandalwood cannot be equated with other commercial short-rotation or timber-yielding species in which improvement work has been considerably successful. The sandalwood tree has to be viewed from a different perspective. Some of the inherent advantages of sandalwood would certainly help not only in its survival, but also in redeeming its past glory." 

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Sandalwood Magic and Folklore

Burning incense
Calvin Chan Wai Meng / Getty Images

Sandalwood has a number of magical applications, and they tend to vary depending on which religious group you’re looking at. In many traditions of modern Paganism, it is associated with healing and purification. In Hindu rites, sandalwood paste is often used to consecrate ritual tools before ceremonies. Buddhists believe that sandalwood is one of the sacred scents of the lotus, and can be used to keep one connected to the material world while the brain wanders off during meditation. In chakra work, sandalwood is associated with the seventh, or root, chakra at the base of the spine. Burning the incense can help with issues related to self-identity, security and stability, and trust.

In a few Neopagan traditions, the actual wood of the sandalwood is burned as incense - sometimes mixed with other woods or resins, such as myrrh or frankincense. A few forms of folk magic associate it with both business and protection magic. You can also use pieces of the wood in spellwork - write your intent on a chip or stick of sandalwood, and then place it in a brazier to burn. As your sandalwood burns, your intent, or wish, will be carried up to the heavens on the drifting smoke.