Sacred Tobacco

Sinchi, Sinchi, Negrito: Medicinal Use of Tobacco

The reductionist mechanisms of positivist-rationalist thought lead to the profanation of the spiritual dimension of all authentic healing acts and, especially in the case of tobacco, they transform this remedy into poison. Tobacco, “powerful mediator between humans and gods”, may play an essential curative role, particularly in psychotherapeutic processes and in the search for answers to the pressing existential questions of modernity.
The Amazonian ethnic groups hold fundamental empirical practice and ancient knowledge on the adequate use of tobacco that remains to this day. For the last twenty-five years and through our practice as doctors, we have explored the traditional use of tobacco among the peoples of the upper Peruvian Amazon, including participative observation, and following the guidelines of tobacco masters, who are the specialists in the native use of tobacco.

 
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History

In the Amazon, the tobacco plant Nicotiana rustica has accompanied the inhabitants of the Americas since the dawn of time, some eighteen thousand years, according to Hendrik Kelner (2005). It is estimated that it has been cultivated and used in different ways for thousands of years, between six and eight thousand. It even seems to have been the first regularly cultivated plant in the Americas. It grows easily when the soil has been turned over a little, on roadsides or near burials, showing that in certain villages there might be a relation between the plant and the world of the dead.
There are diverging opinions about its origin and denomination. While some researchers locate its origin in Ecuador and Peru, due to the finding of wild plants genetically described as predecessors of the current Nicotiana tabacum and Nicotiana rustica, other attribute its origin in Central America and support a later pan-American distribution.
There are sixty-four tobacco species, 60% of which are found in South America, others in Asia and Africa, but with almost no use. Only a dozen species contain enough nicotine to be effective in human beings.
Also, there are different theories regarding its name. Silvia Del Amo (1988) states that in Spain and Italy the words tabacco, atabaca, altabaca and other analogue forms from the Arabic tabbak denominated medicinal plants, with soporific or hallucinogenic effect. However, tobacco could also derive from Tobago, name of the Caribbean islands and of a fork-shaped pipe cane used by Central American and Caribbean natives to inhale and smoke. Cave paintings found in the Dominican Republic show Taino characters with this bifurcated element, one of whose ends is placed in the nose.
The word cikar was used by the Maya for the act of smoking, which was incorporated to their ritual and religious practices as confirmed by the friezes representing smoking characters. Among the native names given to tobacco we find petun (Guarani); tamun (Araucano, Mapuche, in Chile and Argentina), bahana (Waraos, Venezuela), piciétl (Nahuatl); other psychoactive substances which were inhaled on their own or together with tobacco are cohiba (Haiti) and cohoba (México). The name “tobacco” is early mentioned by the chroniclers of the time, such as Gonzalo Fernández Oviedo y Valdés in his 1534 Historia general y natural de las Indias.(1534)

 

Traditional Therapeutic use of Tobacco

In San Martín, located in northeastern Peru, the rustic cigarette or mapacho accompanies the peasants to the farm, warming them in the humid daybreak and protecting them from the threat of poisonous insects and snakes, which dislike smoke. This protective use is also described in the first chronicles of the sixteenth century, which report that when going to war the indians smoked puros made of tobacco leaves to “obviate the vapors and other inconveniences that may appear along the way” (Bernard, 2002). Tobacco smoke envelops the body of the person as a protective veil, pervading its smell and awakening a state of alertness. For ritual purposes, blowing the mapacho ikarado on the main energetic points extends this protective action to the energetic body, cleaning and preserving against negative energies or entities. According to ethnologist Jean-Pierre Chaumeil (1998: 65, 93), the Yagua call it the “path of the souls” and attribute it with the capacity of granting lightness to the shaman. The aqueous maceration of tobacco also serves as insect repellent, and is used in protection baths. Ampiri, the residue of tobacco combustion, is a strong poison that kills larvae if applied topically and so it is used to treat myiasis and even snake bites. Therefore, there is a visible, simple, daily use and another medicinal, specialized and ritualized one. It is upon this second one that we wish to elaborate.

In the Amazon, the act of smoking tobacco has presently two connotations: the peasant’s habit when going to the farm and the curative or ceremonial use. The first one never involves an addictive or compulsive use of mapacho, since it is a simple habit with hygienic aims (repel insects, relax after a day’s work…).

Within the curative-religious context, the act of smoking always follows a previous use of solid or liquid preparations. In our opinion, this chronological order of ingestion shows a deep respect of the order of life proper. In fact, all vital processes are originated in the “feminine” realm to move towards the “masculine” one. All human beings are born from a woman, immersed in the feminine elements of flesh or solid matter (earth element) and the amniotic liquid (water element). At birth, human beings leave their mother’s body to become accessible to the father and be able to breathe (air element) and see (light-sun-fire element). In Spanish, “dar a (la) luz” (“to give birth”) literally means “to give (to the) light”. The ordered development of these stages in the perceptible world symbolizes a transcendent law that governs all human becoming.

"Dieting" and purging

Regarding its ability to mediate with the inspiring powers of the invisible world, it is presumably possible to embody the messages o revelations from the other world into everyday life and hence transform one’s existence. The spirit descends towards the material dimension to enrich it and uplift it progressively. When the procedure is reverted, matter is directed towards a disembodiment that ultimately means death. As in the Icarus myth, the modern subject aspires to access knowledge for the sake of possession and mental enjoyment, and burns the wings of spirituality while his or her ego is inflated. In other words, it is the same as building a house by starting with the roof. It is, then, a Promethean gesture with fatal consequences, which the ancient Greeks have described in their myths.

Because of this, detoxification by smoked tobacco may also be carried out through purges with aqueous extract of tobacco, thus reverting the transgressive process. Vomiting is an expression of “giving back” what the patient has improperly seized. By restoring what was wrongfully appropriated, the convenient order is reestablished. In fact, when vomiting, the subject must lower the head (God calls the Jews “people of stiff neck” in reference to their pride and rigidity), a posture that shows humility, a request for forgiveness and recognition of one’s transgressive act.

It is worth noting that tobacco “juice” purges are effective not only for tobacco addiction but also in general for any dependence involving the same mechanism of misappropriation. Moreover, in a ritual context, vomiting also encompasses the purging of “toxic” thoughts and feelings resultant of that misappropriation procedure that stores feelings of grudge, nostalgia, rage, envy, revenge… The modern “religion” of possession halts the circulation of the vital flow. Tobacco purges restore it.

In addition, “eating” tobacco refers to tobacco being first and essentially ingested orally or gastrically. And it is also worthy of notice that this type of ingestion refers both to liquid extracts of the plant and to smoked tobacco. The tabaquero does not inhale the tobacco smoke but swallows it, directing it towards the stomach, where the energetic forces reside.

 

Tobacco Song

I am going to release the world-in-the-song, and releasing, I am advancing;after unfastening it, they say, I am going to convert my rolled-up tobacco,the rolled-up-tobacco-physician into medicine.The scent of my rolled-up tobacco I will entirely transform into medicine …(Beginning of a song by Shipibo healer Gilberto Mahua

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Lakota Song - Thankful Song

Wakan tanka tunkasila
Pe’la mi’ya ye’lo he
C’anupa wakan ca
Miya’ku welo he
Pe’la mi’ya ye’lo he
Wi’co zo’ni wa’mayan ku ye’lo
Pe’la mi’ya ye
Pe’la mi’ya ye’lo he
Wakan tanka tunkasila
Pe’la mi’ya ye’lo he
C’anupa wakan ca
Miya’ku welo he
Pe’la mi’ya ye’lo he
Wi’co zo’ni wa’mayan ku ye’lo
Pe’la mi’ya ye
Pe’la mi’ya ye’lo he

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