Tobacco Shamanism among the Warao

As a fitting conclusion to our consideration of tobacco as a divine—but addictive—inebriant, and by way of introduction to the psychedelic flora as a whole, let us look briefly at the tobacco ideology of the Warao, a Venezuelan Indian society that at least until the most recent times managed to escape the destructive effects of acculturation and maintain its highly successful traditional lifeway as riverine fishermen in the delta of the Orinoco. As Wilbert (1972:55-83) tells us, the Warao, of whom there are more than 10,000, use no other hallucinogen but tobacco. More than that, their astonishingly complex metaphysical universe is quite literally held together and sustained by tobacco smoke, through the agency of their shamans, who smoke incessantly to fulfill the primordial promise to the gods that there be abundant tobacco smoke as their proper and only food and as the shaman's means of communication with the Otherworld. The shaman's cigar is a long and slender cane tube, up to two feet in length, filled with powerful charges of tightly rolled leaves of black tobacco that is perfumed with a fragrant resin to make it attractive to the gods. In the course of shamanizing, shamans may smoke ten, twenty, thirty, and even more of these giant cigars, never exhaling but "eating" the smoke until it suffuses their entire system. So "lightened" by tobacco, the shamans ascend in their ecstatic trances to the zenith and travel to their respective master spirits on celestial bridges constructed of tobacco smoke, as are the houses to which they retire after death. A curing shaman's tobacco smoke is therapeutic, but in their negative role these shamans can also speed projectiles of sickness and death to their victims with the aid of powerful blasts from their reversed cigars.

For the novice shaman the most crucial undertaking of his life is his initiatory tobacco trance, when, after a long fast and instruction by the master shaman, speeded upward by the smoke of his sacred cigar, he at last embarks upon a journey that takes him to the ends of the Warao universe. Along the way he must travel on slippery paths across a yawning defile, evade the knives of demons, the snapping beaks and talons of raptorial birds, and the jaws of alligators and other terrifying creatures, until at the moment of greatest rapture, having successfully negotiated the final obstacle of clashing gates, he is wafted, "buoyant as a puff of cotton," toward his celestial encounter with the supreme spirit in the House of Tobacco Smoke.

Awakening from his tobacco trance, the novice shaman feels newborn, confident of the truth of the ancient traditions because they have been validated by his own ecstatic experience. The new shaman and the tobacco medicine powder that has lodged in his chest are still feeble and tender, but after a month of eating little, avoiding certain odors, and smoking incessantly, he grows strong, ready to take his place as one of the guardians of his community's physical and metaphysical integrity.

But like all shamans, he will always need tobacco and will experience great physical and psychological distress when tobacco is in short supply. Then his people will say, "Our shaman is sick, he craves tobacco."

In his book, Maya History and Religion (1970), the great English Maya scholar J. Eric S. Thompson devotes an entire chapter to the meaning and uses of the divine tobacco among the May a and their neighbors, from which I wish only to quote the summation (pp. 122-123) as peculiarly pertinent to all that was said above:

This review makes clear the extent to which the taking of tobacco in every form permeated Indian life in ancient Middle America. The attitude of noble, priest, and commoner was imbued at times with something approaching mysticism, as when tobacco was personified or even deified or when it was accepted as an ally fighting beside man to overcome fatigue or pain or to ward off so many ills of the human flesh. There is deep beauty there which we, in our materialistic world, bombarded with advertising on television and in print of some young man lighting a girl's cigarette as a prelude to conquest, are unable to share or even to perceive. The relationship is that of compline to a blast of the Beatles and their sad imitators.

Aside from the fact that in the meantime cigarette advertising has been banned from television and that one can think of lots worse than the Beatles to set against the Night Song, no one could have said it better.

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