Gods and Men as Tobacco Addicts

I do not wish to imply that tobacco was universally employed to trigger alternate states of consciousness. On the contrary, it probably served a greater variety of sacred purposes than any other plant in the New World, among its most important and virtually universal functions being that of divine sustenance for the gods, mainly in the form of smoke; it also served as an indispensable adjunct of shamanic curing, primarily as a supernaturally charged fumigant but sometimes also as a panacea. Yet there seems to have been at least an element of incipient intoxication in shamanistic smoking in many Indian societies of North and South America, and real tobacco intoxication, to the point of a radical altering of consciousness or psychedelic trance, was certainly of considerable importance in the ecstatic complex of the New World as a whole. This element, together with what we know today of the chemical activity of Nicotiana, justifies assigning tobacco—as the Indians themselves did—to the psychedelic flora, but with this important difference: in contrast to the plants that we usually call hallucinogens, of which not a single species has been known to be addictive, tobacco may be so. There seems to be no scientific reason to doubt, and more than enough evidence to suggest (including observations among and testimony by South American Indians) that tobacco is not just psychologically habituating, as some have maintained, but that it does in fact result in physical dependency—i.e., is addictive in the true sense of the word, a fact that many Indian populations recognized and codified in their mythologies, even to the point of assigning to their gods the same physical and psychological craving for tobacco they observed in their shamans, themselves archetypically the mythmakers. Anthropologist Johannes Wilbert (personal communication) notes that various North and South American Indian societies share a tradition that in giving tobacco to the people the supernaturals failed to hold any back for themselves ("not even one pipe," the Fox quote the Gentle Manitou). Inasmuch as the gods crave tobacco as their essential spirit food (usually though not always or everywhere in the form of smoke), by this act of generosity they could be said to have placed themselves in a position of dependency, subject to manipulation by religious practitioners. However, since the people likewise depend on the good will of the supernaturals, the relationship was one of reciprocity and interdependency, differing fundamentally from Judeo-Christian concepts. Because of the similarity of tobacco rituals and beliefs in widely separated areas of aboriginal North and South America, Wilbert thinks they diffused long ago from a common point of origin along with the first plants themselves.

Edward Brecher et at. (1972) having adequately dealt with the problem of tobacco addiction in the context of contemporary American society (pp. 209-244), there is no need to dwell on it here. What concerns us, rather, is the traditional use of Nicotiana as a ritual and very sacred inebriant, concerning which some Indians were, and are, well aware of its tendency to addict, even if they did not phrase it in quite those terms.

The genus Nicotiana belongs, with Datura ("Jimsonweed") and such important food plants as the tomato and potato, to the nightshade or potato family (Solanaceae), which also includes a number of important narcotic genera, such as Atropa (A. belladonna). There may be as many as 45 different species of tobacco, most of them the result of cultivation, but only a few achieved wide pre-European dissemination. The most prominent of these are N. tabacum, which may have originated as a cultivated hybrid of two other species in the eastern valleys of the Bolivian Andes, spreading from there across northern South America into the West Indies and to lowland Mexico, and N. rustica, another cultivated hybrid that is found from the Andes to Canada, rivaling maize in its pre-European distribution. In the Great Basin of western North America, particularly in California and the adjacent Nevada and Arizona desert, three other species, N. bigelovi Watson, N. attenuata, and N. trigonophylla, were the important tobaccos in native ritual. N. glauca Graham, the so-called "tree tobacco" that is found growing all over the foothills on the Pacific coast of California, is a comparatively recent import from South America that was apparently never employed by California Indians in aboriginal times (Zigmond, 1941).

Although other alkaloids may contribute to the psychedelic aspects of Nicotiana intoxication, the most important active principle is nicotine, a pyridine alkaloid that occurs in the aboriginal species in much higher concentrations (up to four times) than in modern cigarette tobacco. It is nicotine that produces the craving for tobacco in confirmed smokers, as it does among Indians who use it in great amounts for ritual rather than pleasure. The nicotine content of TV. rustica is significantly greater than that of N. tabacum, which, along with the fact that N. rustica is also the hardier of the two species and requires less attention in cultivation, probably accounts for its far more extensive geographical and cultural distribution. In any event, being more powerful, N. rustica was much more widely employed in metaphysical and therapeutic contexts. It was the sacred picietl of Aztec ritual and medicine, also the divine tobacco of the Indians of the eastern Woodlands and also, probably, the petum of aboriginal Brazil. Today, secular smoking of commercial tobacco for pleasure, wholly unknown in the Americas in pre-European times, is probably general among most Indian populations, excepting those in the remote interior of South America. Nevertheless, the aboriginal Indian tobaccos have nowhere passed into secular use. Even many relatively acculturated Indians who participate to one or another degree in the national economy still make a distinction between white man's tobacco and their own. Commercial cigarettes or cigars may be freely smoked at any time (and are sometimes even used ceremonially), but the powerful N. rustica continues to be everywhere reserved for traditional metaphysical and therapeutic purposes. This differentiation is also emphasized in the terms applied to the traditional species. For example, the Huichols of Mexico refer to N. rustica as "the proper tobacco of the shaman," while the Seneca of New York call it oyengwe onwe, "real tobacco." At the same time, it seems that some Indians, the Huichols included, are aware that N. rustica is not without danger; among the Huichols there are even reports of imbibers of tobacco infusion falling ill with what is apparently nicotine poisoning. There are also stories of peyote pilgrims dying after a tobacco purification ordeal in the course of the quest for peyote. Considering the very high nicotine content of N. rustica, occasional accidents of this sort are certainly possible.

The importance of tobacco in Huichol shamanism is especially interesting because it is yet another example of the functional and symbolic coexistence of tobacco with a sacred hallucinogen, in this case peyote. The shaman to whom tobacco is said to belong is not only the actual shaman of a particular group but also the principal deity, the "First Shaman," Our Grandfather, the deified fire, who established tobacco as well as the peyote ritual, and to whom N. rustica is ceremonially sacrificed, not only in the peyote rites but in all other ceremonies. Furthermore, tobacco smoke is as essential to shamanic curing among the Huichols as it is everywhere else in American Indian shamanism. Huichol shamans "with a bad heart"—i.e. in their malevolent role, as sorcerers—also use tobacco to speed "arrows of sickness" to their victims, a phenomenon of which we will hear again shortly. My Huichol informants say that evil shamans have their own special tobacco, which may or may not be true in the literal sense, but which in any case reminds one of a Carib Indian tradition of a mythological contest between a good and a bad shaman. At one point the good shaman challenges his rival to reveal all the kinds of tobacco he has, and when the other fails to enumerate more than ten, shows him up by magically producing many more varieties of his own (Koch-Grunberg, 1923:213-214).

Tobacco also enters into the contest between the Young Lords or Hero Twins in the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiche Maya of highland Guatemala, and the rulers of the Underworld. The latter challenge their visitors from the Upperworld to keep two cigars lit through the night. The Hero Twins pass the test by placing fireflies at the tips of their cold cigars, only pretending to smoke incessantly, and relighting their still fresh cigars in the morning, a feat that mystifies the rulers of the dead. As a matter of fact, the Tzotzil Maya of Chiapas, Mexico, still believe that tobacco shields one from the evil beings of the Underworld and from death, and the Lacandon Maya of the Usumacinta region even now offer the first tobacco harvested to their gods in the form of cigars (Thompson, 1970). Similar practices and traditions abound all over the Americas.

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