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Magico-Religious Use of Tobacco among South American Indians PDF Print E-mail
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Books - Cannabis and Culture
Written by Johannes Wibert   

Despite the great scholarly attention tobacco has received from a variety of disciplines, no effort has, heretofore, been made to assess its magico-religious significance among South American Indians. The paper examines the prevalence and distribution of techniques of tobacco consumption in indigenous South America (i.e., smoking, drinking, licking, chewing, and snuffing). As a psychotropic agent, tobacco achieved an extensive distribution throughout large parts of the continent. Its use was mainly magico-religious, and only in recent historic times have the manner and ideological foundations of its use shifted increasingly from the magico-religious to the profane.









Few plants have attracted more scholarly attention, or from a greater variety of disciplines, than tobacco. As early as the eighteenth century, Schloezer (1775-1781) suggested that in order to deal adequately with tobacco, its historian had to consider it from religious, therapeutic, medicinal, sociological, economic, commercial and financial points of view. To these Putnam (1938:47-48) added archaeology, philology, linguistics, ethnography, chemistry, and theology. Today, of course, no writer on the subject could afford to ignore the important input of such fields as botany and pharmacology, not to mention geography. Indeed, even this would not exhaust the entire spectrum of professional interest in this most nearly universal of psychodynamic substances employed by man.

The present paper will limit itself to the magico-religious dimension, specifically among South American Indians. Inasmuch as what may appear to the casual observer to be purely medicinal or pharmaceutical use of tobacco more often than not involves a vital magico-religious component (and vice versa), I will also touch occasionally on ethnomedicinal beliefs and practices.

Tobacco (Nicotiana spp.) is a native of the New World, derived from a variety of different species. Of particular interest to us are the two principal cultivated species — Nicotiana tabacum and N. rustica — that achieved greater dissemination throughout Indian America as ritual narcostimulants than any of the others. N. tabacum, a hybrid formed from N. tomentosum and N. sylvestris, probably had its origin in the eastern valleys of the Bolivian Andes. It remained closely associated with Arawakan, Cariban, and Tupian tropical forest planters, in the flood plains of the Amazon, in Guayana, and in the West Indies. It may also have spread through portions of coastal Brazil, although like the Brazilian highlands this area of the continent was never typically a part of tobacco dissemination. At the time of European Discovery, the northernmost extension of Nicotiana tabacum did not reach beyond the tropical lowlands of Mexico.

By contrast, Nicotiana rustica, the hardier of the two cultivated species, diffused far beyond tropical America almost to the very limits of New World agriculture. It was the Indian tobacco of the eastern woodlands of North America, the piciétl of the Aztecs, and probably also the penin of Brazil. In fact, in its dispersal Nicotiana rust/ca rivalled even maize, and along with such cultigens as cotton and the Lagenaria gourd extpnded farthest into the North American continent. Possibly a hybrid between the progenitors of Nicotiana paniculata and N. undulata, Nicotiana rust/ca most likely originated on the western slopes of the Andes in the border region between Ecuador and Peru, where the Mochica and Cafiari cultures once flourished.

Since man's historic interest in tobacco focused exclusively on the narcotic properties of its principal alkaloid, nicotine, one might conjecture that Nicotiana rust/ca outdistanced N. tabacum mainly because of the considerably higher nicotine content of the former. This came to be of special significance in connection with the widespread practice of ritual smoking, especially in South America. Still another consideration may be that after planting, N. rust/ca requires far less attention than N. tabacum, a characteristic that surely facilitated its rapid adoption from one tribe to another (Goodspeed 1942; Sauer 1950 : 522-523 ; 1969: 128-129).

In light of the extensive distribution area of both kinds of tobacco in the Americas, it is safe to say that the Indians made use of the plant thousands of years before Columbus. Likewise, on the basis of its close association with indigenous ideology and ritual at the time of the Conquest and since, it is reasonable to assume that the use of tobacco was always largely confined to magico-religious purposes. Thus the extraordinary geographical distribution of domesticated tobacco in pre-European times and the exclusively ritual use of the plant in Indian America can both be seen as evidence for the great antiquity of the plant as an integral element of American Indian culture.

In the early centuries after Discovery and even more in recent times, tobacco experienced an ever greater tribal and territorial expansion through North and South America, so that today there is virtually no native population, from Canada to Patagonia, that does not know or use tobacco. Especially in northern South America, on the one hand, and the extreme southern area on the other, this phenomenal expansion was increasingly accompanied by the secularization of its once wholly ritual functions. Clearly this profanization was largely due to European influence. The Europeans, to whom tobacco was, of course, completely unknown before the first voyage of Columbus, were slow to recognize the plant as anything more than a new ornamental with certain medicinal properties. Its profound religious significance remained largely concealed to them, and if they referred to it as "divine" or "holy" it was mainly as a euphemism, not because they had somehow assimilated Indian attitudes. Likewise, the miraculous properties that were early ascribed to tobacco by the Europeans were based on its allegedly curative powers as a panacea. Once that had proved to be a fallacy, a purely hedonistic interest in its effects obviously provided sufficient impetus for its swift assimilation into European culture and its wide geographical dissemination throughout the Old World.

Among the Indians, however, secular or hedonistic use continued to be the exception rather than the rule. No doubt there were sporadic instances, for one of the earliest chroniclers, Benzoni (1565: 96-98) found the Indians of Haiti smoking cigars "simply because it gave them pleasure." On the other hand, we are told, the priests and doctors among them also smoked ritually to procure dream visions and to consult with their zemi deities concerning the sick. As Purchase (1626:57-59), another early writer, put it, they esteemed tobacco not only "for sanetie also for sanctitie" (Plate 1).
Probably there were other indigenous groups that came to use tobacco for pleasure in the early Colonial period. Notwithstanding these exceptions, however, it can be stated as a general rule that "during the period from first Discovery to about 1700, over most of the tobacco area, use was, it seems, exclusively or chiefly magico-religious and/or medicinal" (Cooper 1949 : 526-527). And indeed, the further we travel away from civilization into the early distribution area of tobacco in the tropical forest, the more we find tobacco still to be closely associated with its ancient ritual meanings. Here at least the native species continue to be employed mainly in a magico-religious context. Smoking for pleasure does occur, but when it does it is commonly restricted to the white man's imported "Virginia tobacco," as it is often called, while the tobacco cultivated by the Indians themselves is reserved for ceremonial occasions.

To summarize, from the combined chronological and spatial evidence bearing on the nearuniversality and cultural functions of tobacco among South American Indians, we conclude the following:

1. In prehistoric and early historic times tobacco achieved a fairly extensive distribution throughout large parts of the tropical forest, the Andes, and the Caribbean, mainly as a psychotropic agent. As such it constituted an integral element of the intellectual culture and ritual practices of tribal South America. Among many Central and North Andean groups tobacco was also or even primarily employed hygienically and therapeutically.

2. During recent historic times, and especially since 1700, tobacco diffused practically throughout the remainder of the continent, down to its extreme southernmost region, the Tierra del Fuego, while at the same time the manner and ideological foundations of its use shifted increasingly from the magico-religious to the profane.

The Indians of South America employ tobacco in many different ways, of which smoking (in cigarettes, cigars, or pipes) is the most common. Of techniques other than smoking, the best known are drinking, licking, chewing, and snuffing. Which of these is the oldest is difficult to say. However, inasmuch as we lack archaeological or historic evidence for smoking in either area of original tobacco domestication, Sauer (1969:48) may well be right when he suggests that "tobacco may have been used first as a ceremonial drink, next in chewing and snuff, and perhaps last, by smoking."

Tobacco is sometimes used in combination or association with true botanical hallucinogens, such as Coca Datura, Banisteriopsis caapi (ayahuasca) or (especially in Peru) such psychotropic cacti as Trichocereus pachanoi. Often it serves its primary sacred function as the supernatural purifying, mortifying, and revitalizing agent during life-crises ceremonies, particularly during the long and arduous initiatory training of neophyte shamans who subsequently begin to use other psychotropic plants as well (e.g. Banisteriopsis caapi) (Plate 2).

Finally, tobacco is one of several vehicles for ecstasy in South American shamanism; it may be taken in combination with other plants to induce narcotic trance states or it may, as it does among the Warao of the Orinoco Delta, represent the sole psychoactive agent employed by shamans to transport themselves into the realm of the metaphysical. Unfortunately, largely due to the aforementioned failure to comprehend the profound ideological and ritual significance of tobacco, we lack to this day a systematic study of its magico-religious use in South America. Nevertheless, at least some insight into this complex area of inquiry may be had even from its sketchy treatment in the ethnographic literature.


As Cooper (1949:534) has shown, there exist in South America two major distribution areas of tobacco use in liquid form — the Montana region and Guyana. In both areas tobacco infusions are of great magico-religious significance. Among the Jivaro of the Montana ritual tobacco drinking became especially elaborated and formalized. These Indians prepare the liquid by either boiling the leaves in water or by spitting the chewed leaves into their hands or into a container before further macerating them in spittle or water. In Guyana, such Indians as the Barama River Caribs or the Akawaio simply squeeze and steep the leaves in water.

Tobacco juice may be either drunk or taken through the nose. Among the Jivaro the application varies according to sex: women in the main drink it, whereas men inhale it through the nostrils. Some tribes of the tributaries of the Upper Amazon (Jivaro, Witoto, Bora, Campa, and Piro) boil down tobacco leaves in water to a concentrate. An even thicker paste (am-bi!) is made by adding some thickened casava starch to the soaked and mashed tobacco leaves. In pre-Columbian times this was also the practice amonttribes of the Venezuelan Andes and adjacent Colombia. I saw the Ica of the Sierra Nevada still employing small calabashes for this purpose; similarly, the Kogi continue to adhere to this old custom. Interestingly enough, a specially prepared tobacco paste known as chim6 is also still taken "by a large segment of the modern, non-Indian population- of western Venezuela (Kamen-Kaye 1971:1). In general, however, Indian tobacco concentrates are sufficiently liquid to be drunk in most instances. Licking of liquid tobacco from one or two fingers or from a short stick that is dunked into the syrup is also known. Sometimes ambil and coca are taken together. Whatever the manner of preparation or ingestion, however, the liquid tobacco quickly puts the user into a state of somnolence. The effect of the nicotine is usually felt soon after drinking two or three doses: the face turns pale and the body starts to tremble. Vomiting may occur at this stage, a physiological reaction considered indispensable in initiation and certain life crises rituals, when the body has to be purged of all impurities. Repeated drinking of large doses of tobacco juice or syrup eventually brings on extreme nausea, especially in women, and produces the desired comatose state with its intensive dream-visions.

Among the narcotic plants cultivated by the Jivaro of Ecuador, tobacco occupies first place. The Indians consume most of their tobacco in liquid form, although occasionally it is also smoked in the form of big cigars. As a narcotic beverage tobacco fulfils a very specific magico-religious function in the Jivaro ideational universe, a role that is clearly differentiated from that ascribed to the hallucinogenic ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis) beverage or to Datura.

The Jivaro imbibe tobacco juice on many different occasions and for different purposes. But the common objective they all share is magicoreligious. This is true to some degree even when tobacco juice is taken prophylactically against general symptoms of indisposition, colds, or chills In case of the latter, the shaman holds his sacred rock crystal into the calabash filled with tobacco water and utters a blessing over it before the patient drinks the medicine. Similarly, when used as a remedy for snake bites, the therapeutic value of tobacco juice is mainly magical. When imbibed in large quantities or, for that matter, even when applied externally as body paint, tobacco infusions are believed to fortify a person against evil spirits. Not only does it invigorate his own body but the magical power of tobacco also radiates outward from the drinker and predisposes in his favor the elements of his entire environment.

Finally, as with other psychotropic beverages, the Jivaro consume tobacco water in order to acquire an arutam soul (Hamer 1973:136) and to be enlightened by a particular spirit concerning their fortune in warfare and life in general. This spirit can appear to them under the influence of the customary ritual hallucinogens. Young men in particular often leave their villages in small bands to retire into the solitude to a special "dreaming-hut" that has been constructed for that purpose away from the village in the immediate vicinity of a water fall. For several days the young men restrict themselves to a diet of tobacco, daily drinking it in considerable quantities. In the mornings they exchange their dream experiences and interpret their visions. Only after several days do they rejoin the community as a whole, physically emaciated but psychically reinvigorated.

The Witoto Indians of Colombia also perform group ceremonies of tobacco licking, when the council of warriors and elders meets to discuss hunting, warfare, and those that have offended the ethical standards of the community. The men are seated on the ground around a vessel filled with tobacco syrup, from time to time dipping their index and middle fingers into the concentrate and licking it off. By their participation in the ceremony the men seal any agreements reached during the session (KochGriinberg 1923:329). Padre Gabriel (1944:58) confirms that in 1936 this same population considered the tobacco concentrate to be sacred. Wrongdoers had to lick it standing up and subsequently had to leave the house. During the ceremony "god" would come to provide nourishment for the good and remedies for the sick. In former times gifts of tobacco concentrate and coca were given on the occasion of such life-crises ceremonies as childbirth and marriage (Whiffen 1915).

Tobacco juice that is intended for use during any of the major Jivaro festivals must be especially macerated with saliva. The juice is absolutely indispensable for the nuptial feast for women, the initiation feast for men, and the great victory feast. Preparations for these feasts are invariably elaborate. For instance, only after general preparations and food taboo restrictions that may last for as much as two or three years has the time for the four-day tobacco feast for women finally arrived. The principal purpose of this fertility rite is the initiation of the Jivaro girl into womanhood through the intercession of the tobacco spirit. In the course of a series of elaborate ceremonies of dancing, chanting and the frequent drinking of tobacco water, this spirit enters the woman's body to confer upon her a magic power. Her body impregnated and sometimes externally anointed with the liquid tobacco, the life-giving force radiates out from the young woman, permeating her present and future crops as well as animals. At night she converses with the Great Earth Mother, experiences dream-visions of flourishing gardens and growing flocks, and receives the supernatural promise of fertility and longevity.

An equivalent feast of initiation for boys follows upon an equally prolonged period of preparation, partial fasting, and tobacco drinking. The general purpose of the ceremony — to guarantee an abundant life and fertility — is the same as that for girls. However, there is a difference in the administration of tobacco, in that boys not only take it in liquid form but also swallow it as smoke. The latter is accomplished by the ritual leader, who blows the smoke from a bamboo tube into the mouth of the youngster. Another technique is for the leader to take the lighted end of a cigar into his mouth and blow the smoke through it into the mouth of the initiate, until the entire cigar has been consumed. Immediately after the smoke swallowing, which occurs about six to eight times daily on each of two successive days, the novice has to drink tobacco juice prepared with much saliva by the ritual leader.

Great quantities of tobacco juice are also drunk on the occasion of the Jivaro victory feast, especially during the ceremony of the washing of the trophy head. This ceremony is performed to protect the slayer and his kin from revengeful evil spirits and to endow him with life-giving forces through his tsansa (the shrunken trophy head).

Among the tribes of the Peruvian and Ecuadorean Montaria, the shaman drinks tobacco whenever he seeks to communicate with the spirit world. Any shaman may use his power negatively or positively, in that he has the ability not only to cure his kinsmen but cause sickness to enemies by magical means. "Dark" shamans preparing to shoot a magic projectile that will bring sickness or misfortune to the victim must diet for several days on tobacco water. The juice is also efficacious in producing the actual magical pathogen from the practitioner's body and in manipulating the "thorns" that cause illness. However, in his positive or "light" role the shaman also takes large quantities of tobacco water through the nose in order to summon the tobacco spirit and ask him to diagnose and treat sicknesses caused by hostile sorcerers, evil spirits, or other supernatural agencies (e.g. Karsten on the Jivaro 1920, 1935).

Among the Campa, another Montaria tribe, the sheripiari, or "tobacco shaman," prepares concentrated tobacco juice of the consistency of syrup. He drinks the syrup (and also beverages of Banisteriopsis caapi and Datura) to achieve ecstatic trance states, in the course of which he negotiates with the spirit forces to procure health and sustenance for his kinsmen and to retrieve souls that might have strayed or been stolen by demons ("rape of the soul"). The tobacco syrup allows him to alleviate the suffering of those that have been struck by the sickness projectiles of dark shamans, forest spirits, and demonic bees and ants. In his tobacco narcosis the healer is able to diagnose such sicknesses and to treat the patient by anointing him with tobacco concentrate and by blowing on the affected area.

Those who would take on the enormous responsibility of becoming shamans in future years must begin to take tobacco syrup when still tender adolescents. Later, as novices, on the day of their initiation into the company of spirits, future shamans of the Campa are first given an infusion of Banisteriopsis, followed by a large quantity of tobacco concentrate. Elick (1969 : 206-207) quotes the experience of one such neophyte shaman as follows:

Suddenly the room became very brightly lit and after a while Tsori [novice's name] felt that he was slowly withdrawing from his body through the crown of his head. He watched the sheripiari [shaman] and his body for a while then found himself walking through the semi-dark forest. He heard a noise and looking in its direction he saw a great jaguar bounding toward him through the trees, but felt no real fear. The jaguar grabbed him tightly with his claws and acted as though it were going to close its mouth over his face and neck. Just at this point the jaguar disappeared and a young woman stood there holding his shoulders with her hands. This was the "Mother of Tobacco," the principal tobacco spirit. He had been told this would happen if he were acceptable as a shaman. Suddenly he was in the hut again, seated on the ground, with the young woman before him. She repeated over and over a new and different song that he realized would thereafter be his own. He sang the song with her until he had it perfectly memorized. This was the only time the new shaman saw the Mother of Tobacco. After this his own tobacco spirit would come to him.

The next night the novice embarked upon a second ecstatic journey to receive the spirit stones of light and/or dark shamanism. The Campa shaman also owns a third sacred stone to which he feeds a daily portion of tobacco syrup. This sacred rock metamorphoses into a jaguar "daughter" when the shaman blows on it. He himself is capable of changing into a jaguar with the assistance of his spirit wife or female spirit helper, who lives in the tubular bamboo tobacco syrup container.

In order to summon their supernatural tobacco wives, daughters and nieces, neophyte shamans must imbibe great quantities of tobacco juice. But as they become more experienced, shamans only need to lick the stopper of their tobacco containers in order to accomplish comparable ends. Female shamans employ the same methods as their male counterparts to summon their tutelary "daughters" and "sons" (Elick 1969).

In Guyana, especially among Cariban tribes, the drinking of tobacco juice is fundamental to shamanic healing practices and the ecstatic trance experience. Here as elsewhere "a man must die before he becomes a shaman" (Wavell, Butt, and Epton 1966:43). For the apprentice preparing to become a so-called tobacco shaman, the initiatory crisis is brought on by prolonged fasting and tobacco drinking. Only thus will he be enabled to gain entrance to the spirit world and use tobacco as do its supernatural denizens. Tobacco belongs to the order of mountain spirits; wild tobacco is searched out and gathered by Akawaio shamans high up in the hills by virtue of their special powers. Since the mountain tobacco was originally received from a spirit only shamans are permitted to use it. This recalls the Jivaro shaman, who also seeks out patches of semi-wild tobacco for ritual purposes.

In order to summon the "old man" tobacco spirit for a healing séance, the shaman first consumes a large quantity of tobacco juice:

The tobacco spirit then comes and can be heard making characteristic whistlings : `pwee, wee, wee.' He is thought of as an old man. The whistling is shortly followed by the noise of a spirit coming to drink the juice, through the medium of the shaman, who has a cupful by him. A succession of spirits comes during the seance, each in turn seeking to drink the tobacco juice, and everytime when one arrives for this purpose there is a loud and elaborate gurgling, sucking and spitting noise, which denotes the fact that the spirit which is possessing the shaman is sipping its share of tobacco. The tobacco spirit has the power to entice other spirits because no spirit can resist the attraction of tobacco, just as, the Akawaio confess, they themselves are unable to resist it either. Once a spirit has drunk tobacco juice then it is 'glad' and satisfied and can be induced to help the shaman by allowing itself to be interrogated (Wavell, Butt, and Epton 1966:54).

To enter into the ecstatic trance state the shaman takes tobacco through the nostrils. On his supernatural journey he finds himself accompanied by his spirit wife and helper, the clairvoyant bird-woman. Together they join the company of spirits who might assist the shaman in curing the patient. The shaman's flight is made possible through the combined effort of the tobacco spirit and the spirit-bird helper (the swallow-tailed kite), who provide the shaman with magic wings. Upon returning from his cosmic journey, the shaman returns his wings to the bird spirit and once more adopts his everyday human form.

There are also practicing female shamans among Guyana Indians who employ tobacco as a medium of communication with the spirit world. Lacking, however, in this northeastern area of the tobacco drinking complex are the communal tobacco drinking rituals found elsewhere in South America.


The chewing of tobacco has a rather sporadic distribution among South American Indians. It is found mainly in central Guyana and the Caribbean, in the Upper Amazon region, and among several tribes of the Gran Chaco. It was formerly a custom also among the ancient Chibcha and Goajiro of Colombia. As Zerries (1964:99-100) and other writers have pointed out, the scattered distribution of the practice and its occurrence mainly among "marginal" and "submarginal" populations are indications of the great antiquity of this custom.

In tobacco chewing the narcotic juice is swallowed and the nicotine absorbed into the system through the lining of the stomach. Users commonly mix the minced or rolled tobacco leaves with such alkalinic substances as wood ashes, black-niter earth, or pulverized shell. These are either simply added to a pinch of chopped tobacco leaves or sprinkled into a roll made of green or dried tobacco which the chewer holds in his mouth, usually in front of the lower or upper gum:

Before using them [the tobacco leaves], they put them in a cuia [pot] with a little water; then, near the fire, they mix the leaves with ashes until they are dry again. Generally they take three leaves, beat them to remove the ashes and then roll them one over another. If the leaves are very long, they double them over several times, until they make a big long sausage which they put under their lower lip (Biocca 1970:135).

The psychotropic effect of chewing tobacco appears to vary from light to severe. Among the Yanoama of the Upper Orinoco, for example, men and women chew with great frequency and for prolonged periods of time, but I have never noted any acute tobacco intoxication to result from this practice. On the other hand, a Tukano shaman was observed by Nimuendajfl (1952:104) falling over backwards with shaking knees after sucking on a wad of cut tobacco that he had placed in each cheek.

In what might be the first recorded observation of tobacco chewing in the New World, Amerigo Vespucci reported in a letter of 1504 to his friend Piero Soderini that the Indians of Margarita Island "each had his cheeks bulging with a certain green herb ... and each carried hanging from his neck two dried gourds, one of which was full of the very herb that he kept in his mouth; the other full of a certain white flour like powdered chalk" (Brooks 1937: 189).1 The mystified explorer was soon to learn that on this island where water is scarce the Indian fishing folk chewed to quench their thirst (Plate 3).

Among the Yanoama of Guyana, where both sexes, adults as well as children, chew (or better, suck) tobacco almost incessantly, the practice appears to be largely hedonistic. However, dying Indians also receive a final roll of tobacco under their lower lip so that Thunder and the spirits of the Other world will recognize them. But even apart from this obviously ritual practice, there is ample evidence that elsewhere magico-religious ideas are closely associated with the chewing of tobacco. Even where masticated tobacco is medicinally applied, it is often intended to ward off the evil spirits that had caused the patient's illness. Patients among the Páez of Colombia also provide their shamans with chewing tobacco and coca which, when taken together, produce dream visions that reveal future events, and especially the patient's likely fate (Bernal Villa 1954:237). These shamans employ chewed tobacco to blow away the rainbow, so that children may not be afflicted with scabies. Among some tribes — the Tukano, for example — tobacco chewing is mainly practiced by the dark shaman who seeks to be possessed by the spirit helpers that supplied him with his magic sickness projectiles (Nimuendajt 1948:723).


The inhaling of narcotics is a peculiarly New World custom that spread to the Old World only in post-Hispanic times, specifically with powdered tobacco. In the Americas, the snuffing of pulverized tobacco was largely restricted to the western regions, especially the humid Amazon Valley. Powdered tobacco as a magic repellent against hostile demons and disease spirits is also employed by the shamans of the Tukano of the Bolivian Andes, who blow the narcotic powder at their supernatural adversaries (Hissink-Hahn 1961). (Rare occurrences of tobacco snuffing have also been reported from Mexico and North America; in Mexico, also, at the time of the Conquest, pulverized piciétl [Nicotiana rustica] was externally applied to the patient's body rather than inhaled.)

In South America, tobacco snuffing is mainly practiced on the Guaporé, by Arawakan tribes of the Montana, and by Panoan-speakers of the Jurua-Purfis. However, the distribution area also reaches out toward the south, to include Quechua-speakers of central and southern Peru as well as Aymara groups of Bolivia. Outside this main region the snuffing of tobacco seems to have been restricted to only a few tribes of the Orinoco basin and the West Indies (Zerries 1964 : 96).

Powerful hallucinogenic snuffs were (and still are) prepared in' many areas of South America from such species as Virola and Anadenanthera (Schultes 1972: 24-31), but as Schultes noted in an earlier paper (1967: 292), powdered tobacco was certainly a widely used narcotic. There are also several cases on record where tobacco snuff is mixed with coca, Erythroxylon coca or Anadenanthera peregrina, but generally speaking tobacco was either used by itself or side by side, rather than mixed, with other psychotropic snuffing preparations.

The fairly extensive distribution of tobacco snuffing and its typical association with ecstatic and divinatory shamanistic techniques again suggest considerable antiquity for this custom. In any event, it is likely to antedate the rise of the Andean civilizations rather than to have originated with them and to have subsequently diffused to the less complex populations of the Montana.

In early contact times Peruvian Indians are reported to have sometimes prepared tobacco snuff from the roots rather than the leaves. Generally, however, the snuff is made by pulverizing the dried leaves. Plant ashes are occasionally mixed with the powdered tobacco, possibly for the same pharmacological reason that ashes are mixed with Anadenanthera or Virola snuff and lime is taken with coca. Some peoples snuff tobacco without the use of special snuffing instruments, others use single or bifurcated tubes to suck the narcotic powder into their own noses or to blow it into the nostrils of others. These techniques and instruments closely resemble those employed in the use of Anadenanthera and other hallucinogenic snuffs (Plate 4).

Like tobacco juice, snuff is sometimes taken prophylactically, for reasons of hygiene, or to forge alliances during peace-making ceremonies. But its main function is in connection with shamanizing, when the practitioner blows it into the patient's nose as a magic remedy, or administers it to participants in ceremonies. Otomac shamans are reported to have taken tobacco snuff (possibly mixed with Anadenanthera) in order to experience prophetic dream-visions in the company of the supernaturals. The tobacco snuff of the Tukano included six different ingredients, mainly the bark ashes of several trees but not parick (Anadenanthera). It will be recalled that among these Indians the chewing of tobacco is a mark of dark shamans. Snuffing, however, is practiced only in connection with the ceremony of the sacred musical instruments. The sacred trumpet that is sounded during a girl's initiation ceremony to ward off demons and invisible "immortals" can only be blown by men and boys over seven years of age who have been initiated into the use of tobacco snuffing.

The snuff is taken within the compound where the sacred instrument is kept hidden from the girls and the women. It is here also that men enter into ecstatic trance communication with the protective spirits of the sacred instruments, thereby assisting in assuring magical protection for the pubescent girls and the women. The boys are traditionally initiated into this fertility complex when their voices change and when, in the course of format puberty observances, they are secluded from the community in order to be admitted to the secrets of the sacred trumpet under the influence of the narcotic tobacco snuff (Nimuendajfi 1948 : 718).

Among the tribes of the Guaporé tobacco snuff is commonly used with Anadenanthera powder, either in combination or sequentially. Shamans blow it into their patient's nose and take it themselves by means of two to three foot long bamboo tubes. The snuffing tube is sometimes decorated at its mouth with the head of a bird. This avian head may be provided with a pair of eyes which, among the Aikana, for example, facilitate the shaman's vision in the supernatural sphere. Tupari shamans communicate in their trances with ancestral shamans who appear to them "up there" as half-man, half-animal (Caspar 1952 : 237; 1953 : 158).


As mentioned earlier, smoking is the most common and most widespread mode of tobacco use. The dried leaves are either smoked as cigars and cigarettes or in a pipe. According to Cooper (1949: 527-528), "In earlier times, shortly after and sometime before the period of Discovery — and in large measure at present as well — cigars-cigarettes prevailed over the great northern focal area of the continent and adjacent Antilles and Middle America, pipes over a roughly crescent-shaped belt peripheral thereto on the southeast, south, southwest, and west, a tobaccoless zone peripheral in turn to the pipe zone."

Both cigars and pipe smoking were the first forms of tobacco use witnessed by the Europeans. Two sailors whom Columbus had sent to scout the island of Haiti found the natives there smoking tobacco rolled in dried leaves of maize. Benzoni (1565:81), whose experiences go back to 1541- 1555, reports the following:

When these [tobacco] leaves are in season, they pick them, tie them up in bundles and suspend them near their fireplace till they are very dry; and when they wish to use them, they take a leaf of their grain (maize) and putting one of the others into it, they roll them round tight together; then they set fire to one end, and putting the other end into the mouth, they draw their breath up through it, wherefore the smoke goes into the mouth, the throat, the head, and they retain it as long as they can, for they find a pleasure in it, and so much do they fill themselves with this cruel smoke, that they lose their reason. And there are some who take so much of it, that they fall down as if they were dead, and remain the greater part of the day or night stupefied. Some men are found who are content with imbibing only enough of this smoke to make them giddy, and no more.

Other islanders took smoke through the nose. Of this "very pernicious" custom of inhaling smoke from burning tobacco leaves through the nostrils by means of a straight or forked tube, Oviedo (1526) says that the Indians persisted until they became stupefied.

While it was the physical effects of tobacco smoking that struck the Europeans first and foremost, Benzoni (1565:82) did note some of its magico-religious functions:

In La Espanola and the other islands, when their doctors wanted to cure a sick man, they went to the place where they were to administer the smoke, and when he was thoroughly intoxicated by it, the cure was mostly effected. On returning to his senses, he told a thousand stories of his having been at the council of the gods, and other high visions (Plate 5).

Shamanic healing with tobacco smoke continues to be an almost universal technique through the South American tobacco area and beyond. This is related to the belief that the shaman's breath is charged with magic energy which is reinforced through tobacco smoke. The very "power of the shaman is often linked with his breath or tobacco smoke, both of which possess cleansing and reinvigorating properties which play an important part in healing and in other magic practices" (Zerries 1969:314). "Receive the power of the spirit," exclaims the Tupi shaman when he blows over his people (De Léry 1592:281). The Mbyi-guarani call the smoke of tobacco "life-giving mist," because they consider it to be the source of vitality, an attribute of the god of spring, the patron of shamans (Cadogan 1958 : 93).

Generally speaking, the blowing of tobacco smoke by the light shaman, whether over patients and others in different kinds of life-crises situations, or over objects, foodstuffs, gardens, rivers and the forest, invariably has as its principal purpose the purification of what is unclean or contaminated, the reinvigoration of the weak, and the warding off of evil of whatever kind or form.

Thus, the light shaman of the Warao presides over an ancient cult of fertility. In his dream or tobacco-induced ecstatic trance, he travels to the House of Tobacco Smoke in the eastern part of the universe. The celestial bridge of tobacco smoke, which he frequents and maintains between his community and the abode of the Bird-Spirit of the East, is a channel of energy that guarantees health and abundance of life on earth. Protected by a light shaman, no harm can befall the people, even if someone were to be "shot" by the sickness projectile of a hostile shaman. A shaman who feeds his tutelary spirits properly with tobacco smoke can count on their assistance in curing such magically induced disease. When he places his hand on the affected body part of his patient, the spirit helpers diagnose the nature of the arrow of sickness. The healer then sucks it out, inhales great quantities of tobacco smoke, and lets the magic arrow travel through his arm and through an exit hole into his hand, where it is "born" for the patient and all his kin to see.

Dark shamans, on the other hand, reverse the life-conferring energy of the light shaman's blowing of tobacco smoke, for they blow to debilitate and to kill. For example, the dark shaman of the Warao lights a cigar which contains his spirit "sons." While smoking, he chants his destructive song, and with this the ends of a snare of tobacco smoke that he carries wound up in his breast slowly begin to emerge from the corners of his mouth. When these ends arrive at their intended destination, the shaman pulls heavily on his cigar, turns it around and, holding the burning end in his closed mouth, blows into it. Out come ribbons of smoke, and these then transport the magic projectile to the victim. The instant the arrow enters the body, the snare of tobacco smoke closes and the magic projectile travels to the heart to kill (Plate 6, 7).

Not only the shaman but also the ordinary individual can count on the power of the smoke when it comes from his own mouth. I was often told by my Warao friends that I should not smoke on the river or in the forest if I wanted to avoid attracting the spirits. Guyana Caribs, such as the Akawaio, use tobacco in ritual shamanic and personal blowing "because it has an exceptionally strong and powerful spirit"; hence they resort to smoke blowing especially to protect themselves on their way through the forest (Butt 1956). With great piety the Tukano direct private invocations to some animal spirit by uttering a spell and combining it with tobacco smoke. "In all invocations tobacco smoke is the principal medium because the request (or threat, as the case may be) is directly transmitted through the smoke.... Invocation, combined with the use of tobacco is probably the ritual attitude that is most frequently observed by the individual" (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971: 153, 155).

Within the ideational framework of many indigenous cultures in South America, the concept of life-giving energy associated with tobacco smoke, and with tobacco in general, can be taken quite literally. In the religious symbolism of the Tukano, for example, tobacco has seminal characteristics:

In the act of smoking there is a complex symbolism in which the act of nursing is combined with a phallic symbol, the cigar, and a uterine symbol, burning, and ashes, the latter being the "residue." On the other hand, smoke is bogd, an element of fertilizing energy that rises from below in an upward direction to unite the Milky Way with the great universal bogd. The tiny seeds of the tobacdo plant also have seminal meaning. When the forked cigar holder is used, the sexual symbolism is clear: sticking it into the earth like a world axis, the phallic union between the various planes of above and below is achieved (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971: 152).

Indeed, the most pervasive connotation of tobacco is the concept of fertility in the broadest sense of the word. Fertility is the objective pursued by man through this medium of communication between himself and the supernatural sphere, be it by means of a simple invocation, a curing séance, initiation ceremony, vision quest, or ecstatic trance. The question arises, of course, how tobacco in its various forms came to acquire such a pervasive role. A purely pharmacological explanation would probably be easier than a religious one. However, despite the general paucity of ethnographic data on the metaphysical meaning of tobacco, some general observations are possible.


It has become obvious that whatever the form in which it is taken, tobacco plays a central role in South American shamanism and religion. Like the sacred mushrooms, peyote, morning glories, Datura, ayahuasca, the various psychotomimetic snuffs, and a whole series of other New World hallucinogens, tobacco was and is employed by Indians to achieve shamanic trance states, in purification, and in supernatural curing. The chewing of tobacco appears to be the least potent mode of tobacco consumption to achieve these aims, while drinking and snuffing are clearly more effective. Smoking, however, outranks them all, in distribution as well as physiological and metaphysical functions. This may have several reasons. As a vaporous carrier of the nicotine alkaloid, smoke was easily assimilated into pre-existent beliefs about the exhalatory powers of the shaman. Smoke makes his breath visible, and with it the benevolent, or, as the case may be, malevolent, charges that emanate from the shaman. In addition, tobacco smoke, corresponding to the merging of air and fire, acquired the rich antithetical symbolic complex of incense as a medium between earth and heaven through fire.

The non-material smoke is the ideal and most appropriate food of spirits. Taken in liquid form, as, for example, among the Jivaro, Conibo, and Guyana Caribs, tobacco enables one to propitiate and visit the world of spirits and induce it to bestow blessings upon man. Tobacco in smoke form, however, once discovered was quickly recognized as a most immediate and direct way to the spirits and hence became the preferred sacrificial gift to the supernaturals in many parts of the New World. The gods and spirits, it is widely held, crave tobacco smoke so intensely that they are unable to resist it. Since there is no tobacco smoke other than that produced by man through fire, the supernaturals in a very real sense depend on him for their favorite food and sustenance. What seems to have occurred here is the attribution to the gods and other supernaturals of the same near addiction to tobacco that is characteristic of many shamans. Just as the tobacco shaman of the Warao requires tobacco smoke with tremendous physiological and psychological urgency, and is literally sick without it, so the gods await their gift of tobacco smoke with the craving of the addict, and will enter into mutually beneficial relationships with man so long as he is able to provide the drug. Foodstuffs like mead, beer, manioc gruel, moriche flour, etc., are simply not adequate substitutes.

This projection onto the supernaturals of the shaman's tobacco habit in no sense represents a profanization of the gods, however. On the contrary, the essential shamanic quality of the supernaturals (e.g., their craving for tobacco) lies precisely in their origin: the gods and other denizens of the metaphysical sphere are themselves shamans of former times who upon death became transformed into pure spirit.

If tobacco is a life-giving essence for man in the indirect sense by allowing him access to the protective powers of the spirit world, it serves the same life-assuring purpose for the gods themselves in a direct way. Because it is their food and sustenance, they are forced into a dependency relationship with man as their chief provider. In the Mundurucii tobacco myth, even the Mother of Tobacco, who created tobacco smoke sui generis and carried it in a calabash from which she periodically sucked her vital sustenance, died as soon as she ran out of the life-giving smoke (Kruse 1951-1952 : 918).

This relationship of man as provider of nourishment for the spirits has been documented for many tribes in South America, from Brazil to the Caribbean, and from the Atlantic coast to the Montana. The spirits of the Guyana Indians are said to be "crazy" for smoke, and the shamans control and manipulate them through offerings and regular feedings of tobacco. This is true, above all, of smoke, but it applies as well to its other forms, particularly as a liquid and as snuff, which seem to have preceded the discovery of smoking. The supernatural Tobacco Woman of the Akawaio, for example, is persuaded by a shaman to offer "a drink of tobacco juice ... to Imawali, representing the chief order of nature spirits," for the purpose of dissuading other supernaturals of the forest and of vegetation from causing sickness to a fellow tribesman (Butt 1956-1957:170). The Waiwai shaman feeds tobacco smoke to a magic stone as a means of summoning his own helping spirits, whose sustenance is tobacco (Fock 1963: 126). And again, much of the Warao Indian's life is spent in propitiating a number of Supreme Spirits, referred to as Grandfathers, and a female spirit called Mother of the Forest, who together inhabit the world mountains at the cardinal and inter-cardinal points of the universe and who require nourishment from the people in the form of tobacco smoke. Like the Balam gods of the four directions in the Maya universe, the Warao gods consume enormous cigars and are well disposed toward mankind so long as men propitiate them with tobacco, moriche flour, honey, fish and crabs. But the spirits keep only the tobacco for themselves, for tobacco is their appropriate food. If neglected in this vital aspect, they spread sickness and death among the people by means of their magic projectiles (i.e., behave like dark shamans of an especially powerful kind).

The shaman-priest of the Warao carries out the feeding of the gods by holding the long cigar vertically and pointing it in the direction of the Supreme Spirits, all the while deeply inhaling with hyperventilation and swallowing the smoke (Plate 8). Smoke offerings are also made to the sacred rattle, as the spirit stones within it require tobacco smoke as well. As in the case of the Tupinambi of Brazil, the Warao rattle is a head-spirit that can be consulted in the fashion of an oracle. However, instead of blowing tobacco smoke into the rattle as do the Warao, the Tupinambi burn tobacco leaves inside the rattle and hold communion with their spirit by inhaling the smoke that emerges through the head-spirit's various orifices (Métraux 1928 : 67 ; Wilbert 1972).

A related idea seems to be that of the Mundurucd, whose shaman inhales clouds of tobacco smoke blown on him by fellow practitioners through reversed cigars. In the resulting trance the shaman feeds the Mother of Game Animals with sweet manioc gruel (Murphy 1958 : 40). In a similar context of hunting magic many other Brazilian tribes propitiate their Master (or "Owner") of Animals (Barbosa Rodrigues 1890:9, 12).

I have previously referred to the Campa of the Peruvian Montana whose shaman must feed the sacred rock a daily diet of tobacco syrup. Harner (1973: 163) reports that among the Jivaro the shaman seeks to reassure himself, by means of periodic tobacco feedings, of the benevolence of his spirit helpers who appear to him under the influence of Banisteriopsis (ayahuasca) in "a variety of zoomorphic forms hovering over him, perching on his shoulders, sticking out of his skin, and helping to suck the patient's body." Every four hours he drinks tobacco water in order to keep these spirits fed, so that they may remain his willing helpers and not desert him.

To sum up, on the basis of such widespread evidence we can assume that tobacco was generally considered the proper nourishment of the super-naturals among South American Indians. The supernaturals need man to provide this food for them and hence are anxious to establish and maintain a good reciprocal relationship with him. For his part, man is needful of supérnatural protection for his life, his health, and his goods, and only the supernaturals are capable of providing for these needs. Both sides are therefore anxious that, as the Guarani put it, it "comes to an understanding" (Cadogan 1965:212), and they avail themselves of the services of the shaman to accomplish their respective but interdependent ends. It is in this light that tobacco can clearly be seen in its role as medium between the natural and supernatural worlds. On the one hand, tobacco transports man into the realm of the spirits, where he can learn how "to see" things that are beyond his physical field of vision. He can participate in a life of bliss, devoid of the suffering, starvation, and death of his own world. On the other hand, the spirits and their sphere are attracted through tobacco to the physical earth, where some of the transcendent blessings of their metaphysical world are conferred upon man. No wonder that the Indians considered themselves fortunate, in their humble position as mortals, nevertheless to be able to offer something of value to the immortals! No wonder that in the indigenous world tobacco was considered too sacred for secular or purely hedonistic use.

In South America, then, tobacco served as the bond of communion between the natural and supernatural worlds, functioning, as it were, as the actualizing principle between the two. Without the shaman and his tobacco ceremonies mankind and the spirit world remain separated from each other and may perish. Today, in many tribes, under the varied pressures of acculturation and the disintegration of traditional values, the Indians have increasingly stopped providing tobacco for their supernaturals, and the spirits have indeed faded away. One day, predicted a Cubeo woman, the Indians too will die of hunger and starvation and then "only tobacco would remain" (Goldman 1940:243).

It is this pervasive metaphysical dimension of tobacco that the early European explorers, locked into their own narrow field of vision, were bound to miss and that, sad to say, has largely continued to elude us ever since.

1. Some scholars suspect, however, that Vespucci's account, published by Waldseemiiller in 1507, actually referred to coca chewing rather than tobacco.


Listed in these references are only works that have been quoted in the text. However, in preparing to write this paper, the author, together with a group of UCLA students, consulted approximately 600 works on South American Indians and on the subject of tobacco in general. I feel greatly indebted to these men and women for their enthusiastic assistance. The library research was coordinated by Diane Olsen.

1890 Poranduba amazonense. Rio de Janeiro.

1565 Historia del mundo nuovo. Venice.

1954 Medicina y magia entre los Paeces. Revista Colombiana de Antropologia 2 (2):219-264. Bogota.

1970 Yanodma. The narrative of a white girl kidnapped by Amazonian Indians. New York.

1937 Tobacco: its history illustrated by the books, manuscripts and engravings in the library of George Arents, Jr. ( 1507-1615), volume one. New York.

1956 Ritual blowing. Taling as a causation and cure of illness: among the Akawaio. Timehri 35:37-52. Georgetown.
1956-1957 The shaman's legal role. Revista do Museu Paulista, 16:151-186. Sao Paulo.

1965 A search for the origin of Ojeo, Ye-jhartl or Tupichtla. Anthropos 60: 207-219.
1958 The eternal pind6 palm and other plants in Mbyd-Guarani myth and legend. Miscellanea Paul Rivet Octogenario Dicata 2:87-96. Mexico.

1952 Die Tupari, ihre Chicha-Braumethode und ihre Gemeinschaftsarbeit. Zeitschrift far Ethnologie 77 (2): 254-260.
1953 "Ein Kulturareal im Hinterland der Fliisse Guaporé und Machado (Westbrazilien)." Dissertation, University of Hamburg.

1949 Stimulants and Narcotics. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 143, Handbook of South American Indians 5: 525-558. Washington.

1592 Americae tertia pars. Frankfurt.

1969 "An ethnography of the Pichis Valley Campa of eastern Peru." Dissertation, University of California. Los Angeles.

1963 Waiwai. Religion and society of an Amazonian tribe. Nationalmuseets Skrifter, Etnografisk Raekke, 8. Copenhagen.

1944 Los indios Kaimito (Familia Witoto). Amazonia: Colombiana Americanista 2 (4-8):56-58.

1940 Cosmological thoughts of the Cubeo Indians. Journal of American Folklore 53 (210):242-247.

1942 The South American genetic groups of the genus Nicotiana and their distribution. Proceedings Eighth American Scientific Congress 3.

1973 The Jivaro. People of the sacred waterfalls. New York.

1961 Die Tacana; Ergebnisse der Frobenius-Expedition nach Bolivien 1952 bis 1954. 1, Erzdhlungsgut. Stuttgart.

1971 Chim6: an unusual form of tobacco in Venezuela. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University. Cambridge, Mass..

1920 Beitrage zur Sittengeschichte der siidamerikanischen Indianer. Drei Abhandlungen. Abo.
1935 The headhunters of the western Amazonas; the life and culture of the Jivaro Indians of eastern Ecuador and Peru. Societas Scientiarum Fennica. Commentationes Humanarum Litterarum 29 (1). HelsinkiHelsingfors.

1923 Zwei Jahre bei den Indianern Nordwest-Brasiliens. Stuttgart.

1951-1952 Karusakaybd, der Vater der Mundurukfi. Anthropos 46:915-932; 47:992-1018.

1928 La civilisation matérielle des Tribus Tupi-Guarani. Paris.

1958 Mundurucii religion. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 49. Berkeley.

1948 The Tucuna. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 143, Handbook of South American Indians, 3:713-727. Washington.
1952 The Tucuna. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 45. Berkeley.

1526 Historia de la con quista y poblacién de la Provincia de Venezuela. 1940. New York.

1626 His pilgrimage, five volumes. London.

1938 Books, manuscripts, and drawings relating to tobacco from the collection of George Arents, Jr. Washington.

1971 Amazonian cosmos: the sexual and religious symbolism of the Tukano Indians. University of Chicago Press: Chicago-London.

1950 Cultivated plants of South America and Central America. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 143, Handbook of South American Indians, 6:487-543. Washington.
1969 Agricultural origins and dispersals: the domestication of animals and foodstuffs. Cambridge, Mass.

1775-1781 Briefwechsel meist statitischen Inhalts. Göttingen.

1967 "The botanical origin of South American snuffs," in Ethnopharmacological search for psychoactive drugs, 291-306. Edited by D. Efron. U.S. Public Health Service Publication, No. 1645. Washington, D.C. : U.S. Govt. Printing Office.
1972 "An overview of hallucinogens in the western hemisphere," in Flesh of the gods: the ritual use of hallucinogens, 3-54. Edited by P. T. Furst. New York.

1507 Cosmographiae introductio. St. Die.

1966 Trances. London.

1915 The north-west Amazonas: notes on some months spent among cannibal tribes. London-New York.

1972 "Tobacco and shamanistic ecstasy among the Warao Indians of Venezuela," in Flesh of the gods: the ritual use of hallucinogens, 55-83. Edited by P. T. Furst. New York.

1964 Waika. Frankfurt.
1969 "Primitive South America and the West Indies," in Pre-Columbian American religions, 230-358. Edited by E. O. James. History of Religion Series. New York.


Our valuable member Johannes Wibert has been with us since Tuesday, 21 February 2012.