Known by many names around the world, in the Peruvian jungle commonly called mapacho or sacred tobacco, bot. Nicotiana rustica is a very potent species of tobacco that holds a special place in the hearts of the Amazon people. Westerners may find the concept of tobacco being a medicine extremely difficult to grasp, but for the South American traditional healers called tabaqueros N.rustica is not only a valid and culturally approved natural remedy, but often the only plant they would agree to use in their medicinal practice. To understand their unbiased relationship with tobacco, we need to take a look at a much bigger picture – from indigenous, intimate and intentional use of tobacco to the catastrophic misuse of its energy that resulted in a mass addiction on a global scale. Let’s talk about the spirit of tobacco.
Tobacco has been our companion for a very long time. It’s been with humans for over 7,000 years. The history of tobacco use dates back to as early as 5000 BC in the Americas in shamanistic rituals and ceremonies (link). A short visit to the Peruvian jungle and a brief conversation with any of the local curanderos tabaqueros (tobacco healers) will render a lot of questions. Why is tobacco so praised, respected and loved in this region of the world? What is it that makes it so special? What is it that makes it seen as one of the most powerful plant allies in the traditional healing? Can it really heal? At the same time, a conundrum arises – why, in the western world, tobacco is now only associated with illnesses and death? To answer those questions we need to understand the broader context of tobacco use throughout the time and to do this, for a brief moment, we need to travel outside of the jungle.
A very brief history of a global tobacco misuse
Tobacco was first introduced to Europeans in 1492 when Columbus landed in the Americas and discovered it from native Americans. It didn’t take long before tobacco spread rapidly among the Spanish colonists and its cultivation has started. The colonists developed a strong and rather puzzling dependence on this plant and this hard-to-give-up relationship has flooded Europe almost instantly in the 16th century. What is worth noting is the fact, that tobacco arrived in Europe praised as a powerful cure for many major illnesses, literally seen as a panacea and has been kept initially as a secret cure by many healers and practitioners. However, this secret didn’t live long and tobacco use among masses has boomed almost instantly. It also didn’t take long for the authorities to notice the incapacitating properties of the plant and the huge potential to profit from its addictive properties. King James I of England was the first to tax tobacco while King Louis XIV was the first to make its distribution and sale a state-run monopoly. The spirit of tobacco, wild and free on the other side of the planet, has been forced captive, commercialised, misused and trapped in a hostile environment it never belonged to.
In the centuries to come and outside of its native environment, tobacco has been brutally reduced to an intoxicating stimulant, mutilated and stripped from its indigenous purpose and meaning, reduced to a possessive vice, seen as a profitable plague and as a result of all of the above-mentioned combined – severely stigmatised. The healing properties of tobacco have obviously never been introduced to people outside of the Americas and its sacred purpose has also been discarded with time. It is worth to mention that the commercial tobacco we use today, bot. Nicotiana tabacum is not the same type of tobacco as sacred tobacco, bot. Nicotiana rustica, but both are extremely potent and when exploited recklessly can turn against their disrespectful user instantly. This is what happened in Europe and North America shortly after tobacco was commercially introduced there. Not understanding the essence of this plant and exploiting its potency resulted in the inevitable – the unstoppable mass addiction of global proportions.
Today, outside of its native environment, so pretty much all over the world, commercial tobacco use is seen as an addictive, damaging and cancerogenic habit. The scientific facts support this claim greatly. Commercial tobacco kills up to half of its users which is more than 8 million people each year. More than 7 million of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco smoking while around 1.2 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke.
So how to even converse with these facts and promote healing modalities of tobacco? It might be seen as an almost impossible task, but stay with me, I’ll give it a try.
Nicotiana Rustica – the untamed tobacco
To begin, we need to understand that most of the tobacco problematic status in the West comes from exploitation and severe misuse. We need to understand plants and compounds they carry for what they exactly are. We need to acknowledge their qualities and always respect their potency. Much like the alcohol, yet another highly addictive and extremely abused substance, can be used in a medicinal environment to disinfect and sterilise the wound, the wild tobacco, in shamanic and healing context, can be used by the facilitator to disinfect the ceremonial space where healing is about to be performed and to sterilise participant’s energy to help them to heal their internal and external wounds. But it can never be abused. We will revisit this statement many times in this article.
Nicotiana rustica is a very potent type of tobacco. It grows naturally and wildly and it is very difficult to be tamed. It is impressively resistant to chemicals and artificial and genetic modification. That’s why it was never really a target for imperious commercialisation. It contains a very high concentration of nicotine and therefore is a subject for even greater respect and should always be used with utmost care. To understand the broader frames of using tobacco in a shamanic and healing context we need to abandon the western view of tobacco completely and agree to accept only the indigenous view and how they cure, use and handle it to serve numerous practical, social and spiritual purposes. First of all, the plant has to be respected and carefully studied before it’s used. Indigenous cultures such as Shuar in Ecuador, or Shipibo in Peru, have established a deep connection and created a very meaningful relationship with this plant and have used it in a very strict healing context for millennia without any damage to their societies. Even in this context, tobacco’s potency and addictive properties should not be ignored and tobacco should always be used with care.
tobacco as a medicine
The first thing you will notice when you get to places like Pucallpa or Iquitos in Peru, the last bastions of civilisation in the remote areas of the Amazon basin, is how few cigarette smoking people you’ll encounter. You will soon realise tobacco “smoking” is certainly not a public or recreational habit in this climatically demanding areas, and it’s limited to a few exceptions that likely prove the rule. People simply refrain from smoking here. You might find difficult to buy commercial tobacco of your choice and if you are lucky to find a store with your favourite sticks or rolling tobacco be prepared for astronomical prices.
However, a quick expedition to a nearby mercado in Pucallpa or Iquitos will result in an overwhelming discovery of wild tobacco products in all possible forms and shapes. Fermented tobacco logs, dried tobacco snuff powders called rapé in one hundred variations and flavours, small and large tobacco sticks wrapped in a thick white paper or, for connoisseurs, banana leaves, tobacco paste, called ambil, and even tobacco syrups and juices – if there is something tobacco can be turned into, you will find it here. Tobacco snuff mixed with other plants, such as San Pedro cactus, is also a commonly available local product. A naive tourist may see it as a tobacco heaven to finally feed their nicotine addictions, but there can be nothing farther from the truth for what the purpose of those local products is. In all available forms, this is a healing tobacco meant to be only used as such. Local prices of tobacco are extremely low, making it alongside coca leaves, the cheapest and most available indigenous plant medicine in South America.
the indigenous relationship to tobacco
People from the jungle, like Shipibo (Peru) or Shuar (Ecuador) believe strongly that every plant and organism on the planet has a spirit and is able to communicate with us. Those spirits manifest in our reality and invite us to exchange our energies and to learn from each other. According to indigenous beliefs every organism and every plant represent unique energies and have unique purpose here on Earth. They are all around us to support us on our quest to live in peace and harmony with ourselves and our environment. No plant is excluded from being useful. Master Plant Teachers, such as Ayahuasca, Mapacho, Noya Rao or Huachuma are seen as the greatest allies and used as powerful connectors to the realm of nature, helping us to recognise our true form and teaching us how to understand our purpose here on Earth and strengthening our relationship with our environment.
Tobacco might be seen by a foreign eye, as a “weaker” plant especially in comparison to Ayahuasca or Huachuma. After all, it is not a psychoactive plant per se and it doesn’t produce strong hallucinogenic visions, but in the indigenous mythology of plant allies, tobacco holds a very special place. It’s almost seen as a great-great-grandfather of all the other plants. It’s been always seen as a teacher and a protector and for many it is considered one of the most powerful plants to exist, even more powerful than the mighty Ayahuasca brew.
In the jungle, tobacco comes in many forms and shapes and serves multiple purposes. Curing tobacco in this region is considered an art. It’s a labor-intensive task and take weeks of attention to produce tobacco products of the best quality. There are many different techniques of curing the spirit of tobacco. Mapacho logs are usually cured over smoky fires, the leaves are bathed with wild honey, vanilla bean tea, or other liquids. The logs are compressed and leave to ferment for a few weeks. One mistake and the whole work will be turned to nothing. It requires a lot of experience and patience to master, but the reward is always appreciated, each and every log will have its own distinctive spirit and flavour.
Tobacco has always been a very practical ally for the jungle people in the most important practice of them all – the art of survival. The wide range of applications for tobacco made it one of the most universal and effective plant-based tools used for practical, ceremonial, social and spiritual purposes:
- practical – repellant, fertiliser
- stimulating – to alter senses while hunting, to establish a deeper connection with the environment
- social – used in rituals and rites of passage
- medicinal – to clear throat and sinuses and used in the shamanic context
- spiritual – to protect from dark energies, to cleanse ceremonial space and to connect to the world of plants and spirits
Tobacco smoke is an effective bug repellent, a life-saving agent in a swampy environment where malaria has always been a real danger for many. Covering fragile skin with a thin layer of mapacho juice and puffing tobacco smoke into and around your hair and clothes before venturing into the wild will keep most of the nasty bugs and small animals at bay. When delving into the jungle nobody is omitted from a thick shower of mapacho smoke, not even small children and tiny infants. I remember vividly being asked by one of the mothers of the Shipibo family I stayed with to blow mapacho smoke over her 6 months old baby she carried on her back. Instinctively, I resisted for a brief moment, but then gently and carefully blew the thick smoke over the baby’s head and clothes, making sure no smoke is inhaled. I was thanked and we ventured into the forest together. This practical and very common ritual is often seen as a matter of life or death, so no wonder tobacco is perceived as people’s best friend in the jungle. Also, tobacco snuff called rapé has been and is still used to sharpen senses by hunters and is believed to help track prey more effectively. Tobacco by-products are also used to fertilise soil and kill parasites.
When it comes to the intimate spiritual and shamanic relationship with tobacco the indigenous tribes believe the plant has been offered to them as a guide by nature herself to help them to understand the deeper connection with the realm of plants, animals and spirits. Tobacco helped people to understand the endless connections in the plant kingdom, showing them the advantages and the dangers and telling them which plants to use to treat various illnesses. An expedition to the jungle with a local tribe member results in a mind-blowing journey through the ancient pharmacy and a never-ending stream of “Mira! This plant heals this illnesses” statements. From cataract to cancer, if there is a disease you can name you will be taken to a plant that either cures or at least eases the effects of that called illness. No, this isn’t a romantic exaggeration. This is how profound their connection to nature is. The jungle talks directly to and through those people. The spirit of tobacco is said to have played a huge part in establishing this connection.
Curanderos believe that Mapacho is the most important emissary of mother nature. According to them the recipe for Ayahuasca brew, for this matter, was discovered when a spirit of tobacco came to people in visions and told them which plants to combine to make a hallucinogenic brew happen. Tobacco is also present in many puberty rites of passage for young boys and young girls in several Amazonian ethnic groups, like Shuar in Ecuador or Guajiro in Venezuela. In those rituals, the youths go through the “tests of tobacco”, drink tobacco juice, induce purges and receive visions that will be later evaluated by elders for their eventual qualification as future healers.
Curanderos Tabaqueros and their role in indigenous society
This cultural relationship with tobacco has been always so strong and so intimate in the Amazonian region, that a group of medicinal people who only use tobacco in their work was formed. Curanderos Tabaqueros, the tobacco healers, are skilled in the art of tobacco cure and use various tobacco products and forms purposefully to perform a direct physical and energetic cleanse. They will use the plant on its own and occasionally in conjunction with other plant medicines to scan a person body and perform healing. They will smoke tobacco to receive visions and healing ikaros. They will use tobacco to “scan” a person’s body and energy and look for sources of sickness. They offer tobacco ceremonies, during which tobacco in one or many form is used, sometimes simultaneously, to help a person to navigate through the healing process in order to release emotional and physical tension, detoxify and even remove parasites through tobacco-induced purging. A role of tobacco healer has always been seen as a very respected and socially required position to maintain the collective mental and physical health of a tribe. They would be seen as doctors, psychotherapist, physiotherapist and wise men who can treat a person for various illnesses during a single tobacco ceremony.
Such indigenous tobacco ceremony, which is a form of traditional medical treatment, is a powerful ritual of cleansing, both on a physical and emotional level. Tobacco is also a very effective purgative. Depending on the practice, tobacco form, illnesses and intention a person may receive cleansing by smoke, may be asked to inhale tobacco snuff or juice through the nostrils or if deeper detoxification is required may be asked to drink tobacco juice with plenty of water to produce extreme vomiting. Tobacco purge may be a very challenging experience for many, therefore it is not advised and not recommended to do without former research and serious preparation and only when supervised by extremely experienced curanderos. Tobacco will also be used in all forms by young adepts of shamanic work when they undergo their samás.
The importance of samá – dieting with plants
A future plant healer prepares for his or her role by walking a long path of sacrifices and self-discipline in a process called samá, the plant dieta. In Shipibo tradition a healer must undergo a strict, integrative “diet” with plants of their choice, through which they will renounce from sexual activities and broader aspects of socialising and stay relatively isolated from their tribe to learn the arcana of plant-based medicinal work and to understand “the language of plants”. A samá aims to integrate a person with plants to understand plants’ various energies and learn about their broad healing modalities and practical application. In a way, they “become one” with a plant they are called to work with. During their samá they learn how to talk to plant spirits and will receive directions for future work. They will be called differently depending which plant they agreed to work with, an ayahuascero is a name for a healer who uses ayahuasca brew, where a tabaquero is the one who works with tobacco, however they are all called curanderos – the healers. No one becomes a curandero in a week or a month, not even in a year. It may take over a decade to get properly trained by plants and elders to be finally ready to begin work, and the rest of their lives will be spend to constantly master what was received. The best curanderos start young, as young as ten sometimes and continue their initial studies into twenties. As part of this intimate process of merging with plants, their main tool of work – healing songs, called ikaros, are also received. Samá is a path of commitment and devotion and requires a tremendous amount of time, and equal amount of self-discipline to conclude. Becoming a curandero is a decision for life that comes with a bouquet of sacrifices that should be understood, accepted and respected.
As you may imagine, this isn’t a role for someone who misuses the plant and its energy, but for a person who is willing to explore the qualities that are associated with a particular plant and agrees to translate those qualities into their healing work. Working with plants is not about “using” plants but learning from them and co-working together to allow healing. Being a plant curandero is about representing nature and its remedies and protecting people from the sickness. A devoted and serious tobacco healer is a person who understands the potency of their plant ally and learns how to “dance” with its energies to help a person heal. If he or she shows tendencies to overuse or misuse that energy, the spirit will likely consume them whole rendering their work as healers impossible.
In my view, a person who is strongly addicted to tobacco (or any substance for that matter) will not be able to perform the role of a healer until he or she battles their addictive demons first. On a personal note, working with sacred tobacco and understanding this part helped me tremendously to break my addictive patterns. Tobacco provided me with a message that to work with plants all toxic addictions have to be removed first. That resulted in strengthening my will over time and working hard on my self-discipline and as a result, helped me profoundly to remove commercial cigarettes, alongside alcohol, from my space completely. Today I would only use sacred tobacco and only respectfully in a ceremonial space and even then, only in necessary and healthy moderation.
understanding various forms of tobacco – the sacred tobacco elemental compass
Not only tobacco comes in many various forms, but interestingly it can be aligned with four major elements. Depending on the element and the energy it holds, tobacco will expand on its energy and potential purpose, but at the same time it will condense in that form to support specific instances of a healing process more effectively. An example of this would be rapé snuff that connects to the element of earth and, because of this helps a person to ground and will often be used for this purpose.
A skilled Tabaquero will intuitively know which form of tobacco to use at any given moment of a ceremony. Sometimes all four forms of tobacco will be invited and used, sometimes only one or two. Tabaqueros know how to translate the qualities associated with the tobacco spirit; guidance, protection, healing and grounding, directly to their work and are expected to always represent those qualities with their actions. This makes them not only a powerful healers, but also humble human beings. Their connection with the plant allows them to naturally and fluently navigate through different parts of the ceremony, using different forms of tobacco, while being present and watching carefully over the space.
For those interested in understanding the elemental compass for sacred tobacco and the relationship between tobacco forms and corresponding elements and how does this translate to qualities and purpose in a ceremonial space please see the image I created below.
AIR – Guidance
Tobacco forms: smoke, smudge
Qualities associated with this form: Awareness, guidance, direction, cleansing
Purpose: To clean, prepare and open ceremonial space, to cleanse space and participants’ fields for work, to clean tools and accessories, clothes, instruments and medicine, to prepare participants for the journey, to plant the seed of direction, to call upon four directions.
Practical purpose: Also used by indigenous tribes to impregnate clothes and skin with tobacco smell before venturing into the jungle to prevent bug and insect bites.
FIRE – Protection
Tobacco forms: tobacco smoked in a pipe and tobacco sticks, incense, mixed with other herbs, smoke
Qualities associated with this form: Protection, safety, inducing visions, cleansing
Purpose: To protect the space (physical, mental and spiritual) from the bad influence and dark spirits, to induce deep connection with plants and enter the state of trance, to connect to spirits, to connect to self, to stay protected in the process.
Practical purpose: To repel houses from bugs and insects
WATER – Healing
Tobacco forms: Liquid, juice, paste (called ambil), fermented leaves
Qualities: Inducing deep healing processes, inducing purification and purges, allowing deep visions and lucid dreaming, altering awareness
Purpose: To induce deep healing on the emotional and physical levels, to induce emotional end physical purgation, to support healing processes without interrupting them, to allow the emotional release, to boost the physical and mental energy up in difficult moments.
Practical purpose: To cleanse sinuses, gums and throat from dirt and bacterias, to receive an adrenaline boost, to awake the body and lift the spirit up
EARTH – Connection and Integration
Tobacco forms: Powder, snuff (called rapé), dried leaves
Qualities: Connection, attention, awareness, presence, grounding, stability
Purpose: To come back to self and to integrate the experience, to reconnect to the tribe and the environment, to provoke a change, to be proactive, to stay in peace, to ground the body, to temporarily alter senses, to raise the awareness of the body, to clear the mind from unneeded thoughts, to support personal safety.
Practical purpose: To produce natural low levels of adrenaline, to sharpen senses when hunting, to clean nose and throat from infections.
the experience of tobacco
When tobacco is administered to a person by a curandero, a small amount of tobacco snuff is blown into the nasal cavities using special pipes called tepi (a pipe that allows a person to self-administer tobacco snuff is called kuripe). If liquid is used, a person is asked to hold a small amount of tobacco liquid on the palm of their hand and when ready gently snort it right into their nose. When consumed like this tobacco releases its energy almost instantly and lets a person go through a few distinct phases.
- Invitation. Before tobacco is administered it is wise to connect to the plant and the spirit, relax your body, breathe deeply and allow the energy of the plant to build-up. You can warm tobacco liquid up with your breath and if snuff is had by a tepi pipe, a curandero will say a prayer. It is advised to relax the body and mind and breathe normally. A person can also set up a small intention or ask tobacco spirit for guidance, protection or help.
- The tobacco enters the body and releases its energy. Depending on a person and the amount of tobacco, the experience may vary from a mild, relaxing or refreshing sensation to a strong, cathartic and even temporarily overwhelming one. When administered tobacco works almost instantly and it will stimulate the body to release a boost of natural adrenaline for a short duration of time. This will also alter a person’s senses slightly. Usually the mind “shuts down” and a person comes to the body to accommodate the experience. A pressure to tighten the muscles may be had, but it’s great to go against that impulse, relax the body and listen to its signaling.
- The energy of tobacco travels through the body targeting the physical and mental blocks and helps us to identify them. It might be a place of a punctual discomfort in the body or even an emotional heaviness that tobacco will address. In this brief moment a person reaches a state of cleaner body awareness, so it’s a great moment to feel and listed to what your body has to tell you.
- Release. Some healers suggest using this moment to release any unneeded tension of physical, mental or emotional nature. Releasing sound or shaking the body might be helpful. Eyes usually begin to water uncontrollably and clean, as the energy of tobacco is released in the sinuses area. The release may also come in the form of a physical purge, it doesn’t need to be violent thought. A release comes in many form and sometimes it might be simply an honest cry, or even a sensation of blissfulness. Remember, the body knows.
- Condensing the experience. It is now time to go deeper into the body and feel the effects of the plant. Switching off the ‘busy’ mind allows a person to scan their bodies more effectively. It is advised not to rush and stay in this space to deepen the effects. A curandero may use this moment to heal a person energetically with ikaros. He or she may also use the tobacco smoke to cleanse.
- Grounding. Now it’s time to relax the body completely. My Maestra Juana from Peru would use this moment to work on the body as she is also a skilled bone-setter and deep-tissue masseur. If tobacco is used in combination with other native plant medicines like Ayahuasca and a difficult process was experienced, tobacco can help a person to come back to the body and restart the work again restoring the body awareness. If a purge was had, the body will usually feel very refreshed and restored.
thank you tobacco, my friend
Sacred tobacco has been with me for over a decade and contributed greatly not only to my understanding of the indigenous plant medicinal work and ancient traditions, but it also helped me profoundly to overcome my greatest weaknesses and addictions and contributed to my present, much healthier definition of self-care.
I feel like I only scratched the surface and there is so much more to tell, but with this extended article I heartily hope I can at least inspire people to give tobacco a second chance for a better understanding of what it represents and how it should be approached. Keeping tobacco so close to my heart for all those years, I now know that I will do my best to continue promoting a respectful and mature, traditional use of this plant.
Let’s honour its beauty and power and only use it in a conscious and intentional manner to support our humane need to heal, stay connected to our tribes and our environments and progress safely and peacefully in alignment with mother nature.
Medical Disclaimer: Please be advised that this article is created for educational and informational purposes only. This article presents and discusses the use of plants in indigenous traditions and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
Karol Liver is a plant medicine researcher, art curator and educator, with over fifteen years of combined experience in teaching, lecturing and personal development-oriented work. His current research and personal development focus mainly on the indigenous medicinal practices and healing traditions using plant entheogens for a better understanding of their therapeutic, practical and universal application.