from The Three Halves of Ino Moxo

"The viracocha—that is to say, the whites—long ago lived in a lagoon,” ponders Don Juan Tuesta, with eyes closed, in the full of an ayawaskha night. Somebody who is not Don Juan Tuesta, but is Don Juan Tuesta, has occupied his body, overflows it without containment, and comes out through his dreamwalker mouth.

Near the virakocha lived the Campa—in other words the Ashaninka. On a certain day, a Campa heard barking noises coming from the lagoon. "Well, I'll fish that dog,” and to do that he took some bananas with him. But since bananas are food for human beings, the dog was offended and refused to eat them. In turn, all of the virakocha came out of the lagoon and began to pursue, then kill, the Campa. They killed all of the Campa. The lagoon dried out. A single Campa survived, a sorcerer, one of those sorcerers called shirimpiáre: a Campa who used tobacco. Because you should know that not all sorcerers use tobacco, only shirimpiáre do. The other sorcerers have other spaces and a different name; they are called katziboréri. The surviving shirimpiáre invoked Tziho, the buzzard, and said, "Come, help me—the virakocha have killed all my brothers." "Where?" asked Tziho. "Everywhere," the Campa shirimpiáre answered, "but mainly in the Great Pajonal." You should know that the Great Pajonal, Don Juan Tuesta tells me, is the territory of the Campa nation, more than one hundred thousand square kilometers of pure flat jungle, an infinite plateau in the middle of the great forests and rivers that adjoin the High Amazon jungle, in the direction of Cusco. It was there, in the Great Pajonal, that the Campa resisted the Inka conquerors, repelled the Spanish conquerors...

The witch doctor

The witch doctor succeeds for the same reason the rest of us (doctors) succeed. Each patient carries his own doctor inside him. They come to us not knowing this truth. We are at our best when we give the doctor who resides within each patient a chance to go to work. 


-Albert Schweitzer, German physician, theologian, philosopher, and musician


Magico-Religious Use of Tobacco among South American Indians

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.


John Fire Lame Deer


I am no wino but I’m no saint either. A medicine man shouldn’t be a saint. He should experience and feel all the ups and downs, the despair and joy, the magic and the reality, the courage and the fear… He should be able to sink as low as a bug, or soar as high as an eagle. Unless he can experience both, he is no good as a medicine man… You can’t be so stuck up, so inhuman that you want to be pure, your soul wrapped up in a plastic bag, all the time. You have to be God and the devil, both of them. Being a good medicine man means being right in the midst of the turmoil, not shielding yourself from it. It means experiencing life in all its phases. It means not being afraid of cutting up and playing the fool now and then. That’s sacred too.

All of these experiences..

All of these experiences we have in life, even when they seem hard, are truly gifts from the universe. All of these experiences shape us, mold us, and point us towards our true nature. Without the difficult, the beautiful would never be sweet. Know that all passes. And so each moment, each experience, is to be fully lived and loved and accepted. And in this way there is no bad, no sadness, no suffering, only the joy of living, through all its peaks and valleys and twists and turns. Life can be loved for all it is. 

Paracelsus quotes

Medicine is not only a science; it is also an art. It does not consist of compounding pills and plasters; it deals with the very processes of life, which must be understood before they may be guided.

. . .

The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician. Therefore the physician must start from nature, with an open mind.

. . .

From time immemorial artistic insights have been revealed to artists in their sleep and in dreams, so that at all times they ardently desired them.

. . .

From time immemorial artistic insights have been revealed to artists in their sleep and in dreams, so that at all times they ardently desired them.

. . .

Dreams must be heeded and accepted. For a great many of them come true.

. . .

Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.

. . .

Many have said of Alchemy, that it is for the making of gold and silver. For me such is not the aim, but to consider only what virtue and power may lie in medicines.

. . .

Life is like music, it must be composed by ear, feeling and instinct, not by rule. Nevertheless one had better know the rules, for they sometimes guide in doubtful cases, though not often.

. . .

Medicine rests upon four pillars - philosophy, astronomy, alchemy, and ethics.

. . .

Thoughts are free and subject to no rule. On them rests the freedom of man, and they tower above the light of nature...create a new heaven, a new firmament, a new source of energy from which new arts flow.

. . .

The interpretation of dreams is a great art.

. . .

Dreams are not without meaning wherever they may come from-from fantasy, from the elements, or from other inspiration.

. . .

For it is we who must pray for our daily bread, and if He grants it to us, it is only through our labour, our skill and preparation.

. . .

The dreams which reveal the supernatural are promises and messages that God sends us directly: they are nothing but His angels, His ministering spirits , who usually appear to us when we are in a great predicament.

. . .

We do not know it because we are fooling away our time with outward and perishing things, and are asleep in regard to that which is real within ourself.

. . .

Man is a microcosm, or a little world, because he is an extract from all the stars and planets of the whole firmament, from the earth and the elements; and so he is their quintessence.

. . .

What the eyes perceive in herbs or stones or trees is not yet a remedy; the eyes see only the dross.

. . .

If we want to make a statement about a man's nature on the basis of his physiognomy, we must take everything into account; it is in his distress that a man is tested, for then his nature is revealed.

. . .

Once a disease has entered the body, all parts which are healthy must fight it: not one alone, but all. Because a disease might mean their common death. Nature knows this; and Nature attacks the disease with whatever help she can muster.

. . .

Often the remedy is deemed the highest good because it helps so many.

. . .

When a man undertakes to create something, he establishes a new heaven, as it were, and from it the work that he desires to create flows into him... For such is the immensity of man that he is greater than heaven and earth.

. . .

But is not He who created it for the sake of the sick body more than the remedy? And is not He who cures the soul, which is more than the body, greater?

. . .

From time immemorial artistic insights have been revealed to artists in their sleep and in dreams, so that at all times they ardently desired them.

. . .

Be not another, if you can be yourself.

. . .

He who knows nothing, loves nothing. He who can do nothing understands nothing. He who understands nothing is worthless. But he who understands also loves, notices, sees … The more knowledge is inherent in a thing, the greater the love.… Anyone who imagines that all fruits ripen at the same time as the strawberries knows nothing about grapes.


Makiritare creation myth

The woman and the man dreamed that God was dreaming about them.

    God was singing and clacking his maracas as he dreamed his dream in a cloud of tobacco smoke, feeling happy but shaken by doubt and mystery.

    The Makiritare Indians know that if God dreams about eating, he gives fertility and food.  If God dreams about life, he is born and gives birth.

    In their dream about God’s dream, the woman and the man were inside a great shining egg, singing and dancing and kicking up a fuss because they were crazy to be born.  In God’s dream happiness was stronger than doubt and mystery.  So dreaming, God created them with a song:

    ‘I break this egg and the woman is born and the man is born.  And together they will live and die.  But they will be born again.  They will be born and die again and be born again.  They will never stop being born, because death is an lie.


Francisco Patencio's telling of the Cahuilla (Agua Caliente or Palm Springs Indian) Creation Myth from Stories and Legends of the Palm Springs Indians

Part One: The Creation

    In the beginning there was nothing but nights, and other Indian words call them the two nights—man and woman. They tried to create, to produce a child, but the child was lost before time for its birth. For four times the same happened. Then with a flash of lightning (num yum a wit) came strong twin boys. 
    The name of the first one was Mo-Cot, and the name of the second was Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit, meaning creator. These were the first people. They were sitting in the air. There was no earth, no water, no light, nothing but darkness; so they could not see each other, but they could hear each other. They did not call each other “brother,” but “my man.” 
    Now this Mo-Cot, he asked, “What are we going to do, my man ?“ 
    Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit answered, “You should know, my man.” 
    Mo-Cot said, “We must create now.” 
    Then Mo-Cot created first tobacco. And Mo-Cot-tern-ma-ya-wit invented the pipe and gave it two names: man and woman. This pipe they filled with the tobacco, and not having light of fire or anything of that kind, they drew on the pipe with their mouths, and fire and smoke came into it. 
    Then Mo-Cot asked Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit, “Which are we going to have the oldest direction ?“ 
    Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit answered, “North.” 
    Mo-Cot said, “I am sitting on the north side, so I am the oldest.” But Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit said, “No, I am oldest.” 
    Now when Mo-Cot blew the smoke of the tobacco first toward the north, then west, then south, Mo-Cot and Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya wit were sitting close together in the air, and Mo-Cot, holding the pipe high above his head, said, “The pipe is low, my man.” 
    Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit believed that the pipe was held low, and groped for it. Not finding it he reached up and discovered that his brother Mo-Cot was holding it high. 
    Then Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit smoked the pipe. He blew the smoke to the north, the west and the south. When he had finished he handed the pipe back to Mo-Cot and said, “I am up, my man.” But Mo-Cot did not believe him, and putting his hand low, he took the pipe. 
    Together they made a who ya no hut. This is like a bishop’s staff, which is carried in the church today. This they tried to stand up, but it could not stand, because there was nothing for it to stand on. So they put a tem em la wit (bedrock) to steady the who ya no hut, and yet it would not be steady, for it was growing up all of the time. 
    Now this was the first beginning of the earth. It was the foundation-stone, and is in the middle of the world today. Then they created two kinds of snakes to hold it, but they could not hold it. 
    They made a big pile of stones and put them around the who-ya-no-hut, and yet it was not steady; so they created great spiders, black ones and white ones (not the spiders of today, but the ones that live in the ends of the world), to weave threads to help hold it steady. 
    The men climbed up on the who ya no hut to reach the point at the top, and half-way up Mo-Cot.tem-ma-ya-wit saw smoke and steam coming up from below, and he asked Mo-Cot, “What is that, my man ?“ 
    And Mo-Cot answered, “You ought to know, my man. That is what is left from our birth, the sack we were in, and from that will come sickness, disease and death.” So they went on up to the top. 
    Then Mo-Cot said they were going to make the earth. So they made the earth, but it would not hold together. Then the two kinds of spiders wove their webs among the earth, and caused it to hold together. 
    The earth first made grew so fast that it ran to the north like water. Then it went west and south and east, but yet it weaved backward and forward and would not stay still, because of nothing holding it. 
    Then they made two winds—one a whirlwind and one a cyclone, to blow and smooth and level the earth. At the same time they went north to turn up the end of the earth, and they stood up on the end of the earth to help steady it; also the west, the south and the east. 
    Yet they could not make it stand still, it was so strong. So they created two kinds of ants—un wit em (red ants) and kao wit em (black ants); but not like the ants of today. Then they went all over the earth, but they could not steady it. 
    So then they made pal no cit, the water ocean. Then they turned up the edges of the earth, so the water could not run over, and the earth became steady, as we see it today. 
    Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit asked Mo-Cot, “How are we going to make no cot em (people) like ourselves?” 
    Mo-Cot answered, We have made the earth, two kinds: fam av sil (meaning moist earth) and pal lis ma wit (meaning damp earth). Also the u le wit  (meaning the white clay and also the black clay, the yellow clay and the red clay). Of this earth which we have made will we make the people." 
    Then round and about them came a humming and a singing to soothe them, by the Two Nights their parents. This humming and soothing is around and about us in the night forever, to make sleep in the all the earth's children. 
    They smoked the tobacco and created Ow il (a dog). they gave him some tobacco also, but the smoke hurt his eyes, and he has never been able to see so well by day as at night since. 
    Then they created is el (the coyote), meaning "quick and selfish." Then they made Moot (the owl), and so soon as he was finished he could see in the dark, and he said "o--o--0." The coyote jumped quick and took it and set it aside. 
   Coyote became very busy, helping with all of the created animals, and though he was one of the older brothers, he always told everyone that he was the youngest brother. 
    So of this earth they began to fashion people, but because of the darkness Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit began making them too fast.  Mo-Cot could not see either, but he could feel, and worked carefully, and he made people in the shape they are today. 
    Then they stopped making people, and wanted to see what they looked like--they needed light. So they blew with their lips and blew some stars into the sky, but there was so little light from the stars that they could not see well enough; so then they tried to make more light, but could not. They called on all the animals they had created to come and help, and yet there was no more light. 
    Then Mo-Cot and Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit put their mouths together and blew out the sun, but it bobbed uyp and down and all around. They tried to grasp and hold it, so that they could see, but they could not catch it. Then it sank into the earth. Next morning the sun came up from the earth and went back into the night, and all the days afterward. 
    Then Mo-Cot and Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit saw all the people that they had made, and they called them No cot em and Ta ba tem, which mean, “those that have been created.” 
    Now, after they had looked well at their creations, Mo-Cot said to his brother Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit, “My oldest man, your work is an no com,” which meant that his creation was not good. Which was because some of the faces were double, looking both ways at once, one on the back of the head as well as on the front; and the hands and feet were all webbed, like ducks’; and so Mo-Cot told him. 
    But Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit said it was all right, for in going they could look forward and backward at the same time, without -having to turn around—that there was no use to turn around, it took too much time. 
    Mo-Cot said, “See, my creations look better with one face, and if anything happens they can turn around and look. Any of mine can lie to sleep three ways, but yours have only one place to lie. And another thing, the hands and feet look very bad with a web across them, that they have no way to split.” 
    Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit said his hands were better, because in holding them together they could scoop up with one hand more than Mo-Cot’s could with both. And Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit said too that there should be no sickness among them, that there would be no oldest, for if they got old they could go into the water and come out young again. 
    Mo-Cot said, “There will be sickness come, they will die, and they will get old, and young ones will come, but when sickness comes we will have those among them to cure sickness.” 
    Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit said, “There will be no sickness among them. If you do not believe my words, I will go back to where I came from, and take all the creation with me.” 
      Mo-Cot answered that if there were no sickness or death among the people, the earth, being small, would soon be filled up with too many of them, because of more being raised all the time. And another thing, what are they going to eat? 
    Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit said that it would be growing all the time, and that they were going to eat that; that it would sprout up as they were eating it. 
    And so the first brothers quarrelled, and all brothers have quarrelled ever since. 
    Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit said that there should be no sickness or death or he would go down where he came from and take with him all that had been made. 
    Mo-Cot told him, “You can take along with you all that you have made, but of mine you are not to take it.” 
    Then Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit was thinking to destroy the world, the earth, the sky, the water, and every thing, by taking it along with him; but Mo-Cot said, “No, you won’t. You take along what you have made, what belongs to you, but not anything that I have made will you take with you.” 
    Now the earth was smooth and level, and so they quarrelled, and Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit went down with all his creations. 
    Then there came an awful time. The sky blackened, and fire flew, and lightning. The earth rocked and rumbled. Earth quakes split the earth every way: Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit trying to destroy it, and Mc-Cot holding, holding down hard as he could, trying to save and protect it and his creations. Then came some thing worse than all: the smooth land was no more, the earth broke all in pieces, when up rose the mountains, which are here today. 
    But, try as he could, Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit could not overpower his brother Mo-Cot, who held fast one place and then another, and pushed hard until Mo-Cot-tem-ma-ya-wit gave it up. 
    Now, after every thing had settled and become quiet again, the people could see well, and they saw that they were of different color. For the white clay had made white people, and the black clay had made black people, and the yellow clay had made yellow people, and the red clay had made red people, and each color of people went together. 
    Then it was that the white-clay people were not pleased about being the only ones without color. They cried to be dark, like the rest. They put different clay on themselves, but it was no good. It came right off after a while. 
    Then the people called to Mo-Cot that the people were going away. The white people went first, and Mo-Cot said, “Let them go. They are different. They will always be different.” 
    Then Mo-Cot saw in the daylight that the colored people were fast going from him. He reached quickly behind him and grasped the red people. These were the people that he kept with him. His creation children left him, and so it has been to this day, that the children go on away, instead of staying with the parents. As things were done in the first beginning, so they have done ever since.

Quotes from Ernesto Garcia Torres

Little by little we learn, as a curandero, that we don't learn more, we learn that we know nothing, and from a space of nothingness, true healing can occur.

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When patients talk to us, we are present, but our essence is in another world, the world of nothingness, the world of connection.  Our mind is empty, our hearts are empty; they are clean, and they are connected.

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Jesus is in your heart - an energetic power

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When a curandero dies, his energy always cures.

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All plants are medicinal plants, not just in Peru.  A curandero can bless plants and they will cure.

Excerpts from "Don't Sleep There Are Snakes" by Daniel Everett

The [Pirahas] made it clear that if I had not actually seen this guy [Jesus] (and not in any metaphorical sense, but literally), they weren't interested in any stories I  had to tell about him.  Period.  This is because, as I now knew, the Pirahas believe only what they see.

. . . . .

Their [Pirahas] own beliefs were not in the fantastic and miraculous but in spirits that were in fact creatures that did normal kinds of things (whether or not I thought they were real).  There was no sense of sin among the Pirahas, no need to "fix" mankind or even themselves.  There was acceptance for things the way they are, by and large.  No fear of death.  Their faith was in themselves.  

. . . . .

They [Pirahas] don't believe in heaven above us, or a hell below us, or that any abstract cause is worth dying for.

...they have independently discovered the usefulness of living one day at a time.  The Pirahas simply make the immediate their focus of concentration, and thereby, at a single stroke, they eliminate huge sources of worry, fear, and despair that plague so many of us in Western societies.

Truth to the Pirahas is catching a fish, rowing a canoe, laughing with your children, loving your brother, dying of malaria.