This is a post in my ongoing series of “Sacred Trees in the Americas” where I examine the magical qualities of trees in the Midwest/Eastern/Great Lakes regions of the US. My previous posts have covered the Eastern Hemlock, Hickory, and Sugar Maple. Many more trees are to come in the upcoming year!
Since moving to the Great Lakes region six years ago, I am always delighted to find the Eastern White Cedar in many places , especially on the edges of Lake Huron or in swampy areas close to Lake Huron’s shores. I was also delighted to do this research and discover what others have learned about Cedar as a magical tree. In this blog post, I will present a comprehensive view of the Eastern White Cedar in order to understand the tree’s magical qualities: about the tree, its name, its uses, its medicinal properties, the western magical lore, a systematic review of the native American lore, and my own experiences. Come with me now on a journey with me deep into the swamp where the Eastern White Cedar is found in abundance….
About the Eastern White Cedar
The Eastern White Cedar is a tree native to much of central and eastern North America although it has been much more broadly introduced, often under the name “arborvitae” (the Tree of Life). It is most highly around the great lakes region in the US and Canada, although patches of it can be found in other parts of North America. The tree goes by quite a few names, including the yellow cedar, white cedar, swamp cedar. However, despite “cedar” in the name, this particular tree is not a true cedar but a cypress tree (Cupressaceae). It is often found in swamps and other wet areas where it does not suffer much competition, but can thrive anywhere were there isn’t substantial competition from other trees or where someone thought to plant one decoratively. Around the Great Lakes region, it can also be found growing on cliff faces—and some of the oldest specimens of Eastern White Cedar are located on the cliffs of the lakes. It is a fairly short tree (typically growing 33-66 feet) although taller trees (up to 98 feet with a 1.3 foot trunk) have been discovered.
Physical Uses of Cedar: Eastern White Cedar wood is in high demand commercially due to its anti-termite/insect properties as well as its anti-rotting properties (these properties connect to the “eternal” nature of the tree and native American legends). These straight, tall, beautiful trees make delightful log cabins, wooden shingles for natural building projects, and excellent strong yet lightweight support beams. When the cedars dry, they are incredibly lightweight and easy to work (although not nearly as strong as oak or hickory). I have found Eastern White Cedar a very easy wood to work and enjoy the beautiful white coloring of the cedar wood, especially when some oil is added to the finished wood piece. Eastern White Cedar has a whitish color to the wood—it is not intensely red like the Red Cedar found in the Western US.
The Tree of Life: Despite its small stature, the Eastern White Cedar is an incredibly long lived tree—Kelly and Larson (1997) report that the current oldest living Eastern White Cedar (found in Ontario overlooking the great lakes) is 1062 years old, having germinated in 952 (oh, the history this tree must have seen). they also report finding a dead Eastern White Cedar whose age was estimated at 1890 years old; these are the oldest living trees in Canada and Eastern North America (and one reason for the very deserving name, Tree of Life). Another reason for this name was given above–it is extremely rot resistant and its wood lasts a long time.
“Thuja” and Medicinal Qualities
A third reason that the Eastern White Cedar is known as the Tree of Life is due to its extensive medicinal uses. Eastern White Cedar is known as a medicinal as “Thuja.” Often, it is taken in small or homeopathic doses—that is, does that are less than, one part per million (therefore providing an energetic, rather than physical, connection to the plant). One of the reasons is that Eastern White Cedar contains thujone, a substance that is irritating to the mucus membranes and one that, given repeated large does, can cause permanent damage to the central nervous system. While a full review of its medicinal uses is certainly outside of the scope of this article, it is sufficient to say that humanity has a very longstanding relationship with Eastern White Cedar for providing relief or curing a host of illnesses and conditions—from warts to curing gout, from curing malaria to scurvy, from curing strep throat to rheumatism, from bringing on the courses to bringing labor. Modern medicine has even found the tree of assistance in treating two of the most devastating illnesses of our modern time: cancer and HIV.
Eastern White Cedar is one of the most important homeopathic remedies; Lilley (ND), a British homeopathic practitioner, writes that “among trees, Thuja is the supreme healer, even the lordly oak having to yield precedence…. Thuja is one of homeopathy’s greatest gifts to mankind and to medicine.” Of particular importance towards a magical understanding of the tree, we can further examine some homeopathic uses of the tree. According to Lilley, Eastern White Cedar is very useful for treating people who turn to various coping mechanisms in order to deal with the difficulties of our present age. Excessive behaviors (drug addictions, overeating) as well as those who have been sucked into materialism and escapist behaviors all benefit from Eastern White Cedar —it provides them with a way reconnect with the spiritual and the divine. It is also used homeopathically for those who feel dirty, have self-loathing, feel worthlessness or shame due to their own behavior or due to something experienced or inflicted upon them—again, it helps reconnect them and “clear” them. This is because Eastern White Cedar is able to go into the unconscious and connect us deeply, rather than through surface issue.
The fact that Eastern White Cedar is so medicinal but must be used carefully gives us another indication about its magical qualities.
Etymology of “Thuja.” Another way of examining the magical quality of the Eastern White Cedar is by tracing the Latin term through which it is linked – “Thuja.” Thuja is derived from the Ancient Greek Thuya (n), which means “to sacrifice” or thusia (n), a burnt offering. Given the nature of the uses of cedar as a smudge for protection and clearing, this connection is clear. It is also striking to me that the uses of cedar throughout the world, uses that rose independently, have so much in common with the root of the word.
Traditional Western Magical Lore
In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer suggests that the cedar is warm and dry in the 4th degree (e.g. extremely fire-based) and is a tree of Jupiter. He reports that Cedar has traditional symbolism also associated with the Yew; it was often planted around cemeteries both for the evergreen qualities of the tree (symbolizing eternal life) but also to keep the spirits of the dead contained (this ties directly with the Native American Lore, below). He reports that the Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest used cedar bark/needles for purification for those who had contact with the dead. He suggests its useful for purifications, banishings/exorcisms, success workings, and magical power workings.
Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic, suggests that in traditional African American Conjure, it is used where “benevolent” power is needed, such as to make someone move out of a house, to draw someone to rent a room, or to draw someone to come with you when you move.
Incense making & Magical Fire: Cedar wood and resin are both major incense ingredients (and as someone who makes incense fairly regularly, I can say that they are delightful to work with). Cedar wood, ground finely into a powder, produces a lovely woody aroma (I have used both red and white cedar–they produce a very similar energetic resonance with the incense, but do look a bit different, obviously). I have found extremely limited amounts of cedar resin on my trees; they don’t produce much resin at all compared to say, white pine. But when that tiny bit of resin is burnt it is somewhat light and reminiscent of smoke from the branches or wood but with a sweeter quality. You can also make smudge sticks from the branches.
Native American Legends and Uses for Eastern White Cedar
I’ll start this section with a caveat – challenge with the Native American lore on Cedar is that the stories rarely specify which cedar trees are being used. I’ve looked at stories and uses from tribes that were more located in the Eastern US, but since so many tribes were displaced over time, its hard sometimes to know which tree the lore discusses or where the tribe was when the story was written down. I’m not able to find details on white cedar vs. red cedar for stories and uses in many senses, but it seems that the uses of White Cedar in the Great Lakes Region are comparable to the uses of Red Cedar in the west. When the information is clear on which Cedar, I do present that in the synthesis below. The wood within the Eastern vs. Western trees is differently colored, but the consistency of the wood and bark are similar, and so I suspect that a use in one tradition is likely a use in another. And that’s been my experience in working with both kinds of cedar wood in incense making. I’ve seen some indication of that in my review of 1400+ tales for discussion of Cedar, where tribes from east and west are describing similar uses. The cedar is a powerful, revered tree throughout the Americas, and this is one of the consistent features of the lore regardless of its origins.
Physical Uses for the Tree: The Native Americans used cedar extensively for practical things—shredded cedar bark was made into canoes, rafts, paddles, and ropes; cedar was also frequently used for making totem poles on the west coast. Cedar was also used by many tribes, especially in the Western US, for making clothing and baskets—the cedar bark was peeled or shredded and woven in various ways. Where Sugar Maples grew, Cedar was used to make the spouts for the sap to drip from the trees.
Deities that Reside in Cedar Protecting the People. In multiple legends spanning Native American cultures, the cedar is said to house a deity or powerful spirit that will protect the people. For example, the Mandan myth “First Creator and Lone Man” Lone Man, who helped First Creator create the world, is born into the flesh. Before he leaves his people, he tells them erect a cedar pole as a totem and paint it red. This cedar is his body, and it will protect the people from all harm. In another tale, this one from an unknown tribe, Mother-Corn, who was the first ear of corn grown out of the sky, leads her people through many trials and tribulations to come to their lands and to receive the gifts of medicine and magic. When they finally arrive at their final destination, she transforms into a cedar tree to be with them always.
Cedar human souls can be contained within cedar. In a Cherokee legend, the Cherokee people asked for it to always be day, then always be night, and the Creator granted them their request. When it became night, many of them died of starvation. They finally beseech the creator to return the balance of day and night, and the Creator did so. But the Creator was sad for the loss of the people, so the Creator created a new tree—the cedar—and placed the spirits of the departed in the tree. The Cherokee, therefore, believe that their ancestors reside in the Cedar. In a Squamish story, “The Lure in Stanley Park” the Creator, Sagalie Tyree, transforms good humans into trees that they can go on benefiting humans after death.
Cedar as Creation and Transformation Agent. In one Cherokee story, the Great Spirit took a pinch of cedar from his pocket and it turned into the animals. In several stories from the Pacific Northwest, cedar is carved into seals or fish and the carvings are transformed into real animals who are able to follow instructions of the one who carved them. The Eskimo people also describe the extensive use of carved figures and totem poles to help illustrate the history of their people . Whether or not carvings and this kind of transformation was used with Eastern White Cedar is not clear from the stories I reviewed.
Cedar Connected to the Element of Fire and the Sun. It is no secret that cedar has a strong connection to fire; this is consistent between material in the Western esoteric traditions and the Native Lore. In a Tsimshian legend, “Walks All Over the Sky,” the sky was dark until one of the Sky chief’s children made a mask out of cedar that was in the shape of a ring. He lit the mask on fire and then walked from east to west. When he slept after his journey each day, sparks flew from his mouth and these were the stars. So in this way, Cedar is connected with the sun itself. In another legend, Cedar is used by Coyote, a trickster, to create a torch in several stories—this torch is usually attached to his tail and is used to light his path, often burning things on the way. Coyote is often found with fire in these tales, either doing tricks or learning to use them.
Cedar as a Cleansing, Protective, and “the great medicine.” Talking sticks can be made out of many woods in the Americas; a Cedar talking stick represents cleansing; likewise, Cedar is used extensively in ceremonial work in lodges and other ceremonies for purification. In one such Hopi birth ritual, a newborn is repeatedly washed in cedar tea and rubbed in cornmeal before being presented to the community. In another story from the Yuchi people, in the process of the world being created, a large monster comes and kills many Yuchis. They sever its head, but it resurrects with its head intact and again kills people. They sever its head again, placing it on an unnamed tree so the body couldn’t reach the head. The tree is found dead, the head was back on the monster, and the monster was killing. Finally, they kill the monster again, sever its head, and stick it on a cedar tree—the cedar is found alive with the blood of the dead monster head. The Yuchi call the cedar the “great medicine.”
Cedar as a Transforming Agent. In stories from the Sia and Apache, the Deer places her fawns next to a cedar fire that is cracking and popping and where the cedar sparks burns the spots on her fawns. Fox, in one story, and Coyote, in the other, are envious of the Deer’s beautiful offspring and build large cedar fires and end up burning up their young.
Conifers have the promise of spring. In the Senaca Legend “How the Conifers Show The Promise of Spring” White Pine and his tribe stand against the winter as the eternal promise of spring. They drink a magical oil that allows them to keep the tribe green throughout the winter—and one of the tribe is Cedar.
Cedar as a Magical Wood for Instruments of Power. Cedar was the wood for magical flutes of many kinds—one flute was made from the wood of a “storm struck” cedar and was a very powerful flute for wooing women (The Story of Mink) . In a Sioux tale, a man is lead by a woodpecker to a hollow cedar branch and is taught how to make a flute, which is also used as a love flute to woo the chief’s daughter. In an Iroquois tale, Okteondon, who is a great hunter, receives a hunting flute that allows him to play the flute and know what game to hunt and where to find it. Once, he leaves his flute at home and he is magically trapped by an evil woman on a cliff; when Okteondon is injured, the mouthpiece of the flute is covered in blood. The Cedar tree comes to Okteondon in a dream and shows him how to use a cedar twig to grow a great cedar to climb out of the cliff.
My Experiences with Cedar
My first experiences with the Eastern White Cedar were when I was looking to purchase a house in Michigan five years ago. It did not grow abundantly in the areas where I lived before (Indiana, Western PA). As I was examining a swampy area on a property, I came across this beautiful fallen tree with peeling bark, intricate leaf patterns, and tiny cones. The tree was returning to that swamp in graceful fashion, and even after it had fallen, had a presence about it that was powerful. I sat with the tree for a moment, inspecting its beautiful reddish trunk and soft green evergreen fronds, and wanted to know more about the mystery tree. When I finally found the right property to purchase, a line of Eastern White Cedars (clearly planted there by someone) greeted me. Back in the last 1/3 of an acre, however, a giant pile of cut cedars (many with trunks intact) also were present—and the land was angry about the cutting. As I learned more about the property and discovered its history, I learned that about an acre of the cedars were cut because the previous owners “didn’t like the trees.” I dug the logs out of the brush pile out as best I could, used them for fence posts, carving, natural building, chicken coops, and more. As I used the wood and left other piles of it to return to the land, the anger in the land over the previous cuttings subsided, and my relationship with the cedars grew exponentially. This taught me an important lesson about the Eastern White Cedar—and all trees—we need to build, and rebuild, our relationships with them. They will not just automatically like us because we call ourselves druids.
Heat Trap for Garden: Cedar is one of those trees that seems warm all times of the year. I have found them, in permaculture design terms, to make a wonderful heat trap to catch and store energy—I have a line of Eastern White Cedars north of my organic veggie garden. They trap the sun with their thick foliage, and they warm up the beds closest to them. I can usually plant in the closest beds to those Cedars several weeks earlier than the other beds—I was planting carrots next to the cedars while there was still 12” of snow on the beds on the other side of the garden.
Crafting: Wand crafting and woodworking is another way that I have worked with Eastern White Cedar. The wood is very soft and workable, and for a new woodworker, quite forgiving. I made myself shower curtains and curtain rods for my home from some of the cedar I found discarded on my property. The other thing I made were wands—cedar wands seem to possess great fire energy, energy of making and doing, masculine energy of projection. I used both branches and roots for this work, and the branches seem to contain more solar energy, while the roots more telluric energy. All are easy to work with hand tools (wood carvers, saws, sandpaper).
Fire Starting: Outdoor fires are much easier to start if you have an Eastern White Cedar nearby. First, the bark itself is a fantastic kindling—I often will peel off and make a small “nest” of cedar bark that I can throw a spark into (using traditional methods) or light with a match (using more conventional methods). The nice thing about using cedar bark as kindling is that it is nearly always dry on at least one face of the tree. The other aid that Eastern White Cedar gives us in terms of fire is the high amount of volatile oils present in the fronds, branches, and wood. Cedar fronds—even ones that are picked right from the tree—will generally burn with ease. If you can find some dry branches and fronds, put them on your fire as it is getting going and the fire will roar, crackle, and pop, and be extremely hot. Like all things that burn that hot, they do not burn long, so you’ll want to keep that in mind when feeding the fire. As a reminder, any evergreen trees should be burned in outdoor fires only as the saps can buildup in dangerous ways in a chimney and cause a chimney fire.
Smudge Sticks: Druids in my community also make smudge sticks from Cedar. The trick to these is that the smudge sticks tend to crackle and pop unless you let the cedar dry out a bit first. I have found that if I wait six months, the cedar smudges burn beautifully and don’t give too much of a firework display. I add white sage, rosemary, and mugwort to my smudge sticks from my garden. Good protective and clearing energies indeed!
This article has only scratched the surface of the traditional lore and my experiences with the Eastern White Cedar. Many ways that we might cultivate a relationship with trees as part of our druidic practices, and while the information above can get you started, there is no substitute for direct experience and developing your own relationship with each tree species and each individual tree.
One of the most simple things we can do to further our connection with trees is simply be with the trees and enter a meditative state—see what happens when we stand or sit next to the tree, when we meditate with a hand placed upon the tree, if we place our back against the tree, or we hug the tree (with the tree’s permission, of course). Visit the tree in different seasons, see how the trees energies subtly shift as we move between solstice and equinox.