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Rapéh: Sacred Tobacco Medicine - its healing properties, and its role as an ancient Shamanic tool

Updated: Jul 15, 2021

Mention the word ‘Tobacco’ and you’re probably greeted by alluring images of rotting teeth on cigarette packets, discarded ends in the street, or nicotine patches for addiction.

However it’s well known that the difference between a poison and a medicine is dosage, context and frequency, and in the right hands, Tobacco snuff is a sacred and healing shamanic tool that has been used by the tribes of the Amazon basin for a millennium.

Rapé (‘ha-peh’) is one such snuff, playing an essential role in tribal culture and history. Contrary to some modern practices and beliefs, rapé is not sniffed, snorted or inhaled but ‘administered’ using a special blowpipe that is blown sharply into the nostrils – either by someone else (“Tepi”) or oneself (“Kuripe”).

The difference between cigarettes and rapé

Just as there are many types of plant in the Amazon rainforest, there are many varieties of the Tobacco leaf. The core of Rapé is the plant species Nicotiana rustica, often blended with tree ash. N. rustica is also known as ‘Mapacho’, “Corda” or “Moi” in tribal rituals, and is much stronger than the N. tabacum species found in conventional cigarettes.

Both are legal preparations and can have stimulating effects, but whereas cigarette tobacco is a proven harm, rapé is considered profoundly healing. Rapé is not suitable for smoking, and unlike cigarettes, does not contain any of the chemical additives implicated in many of the harmful effects of cigarette smoke.

The tobacco is first cut and dried over a low fire, before being blended with other plants. The ashes used in this finely ground and strained blend come from the bark of a variety of medicinal trees, with the recipe for the exact composition and ratio of ingredients often being the sacred and secret art of the shaman.

Ceremonial, medicinal and ritualistic uses

Traditionally, Rapé may be administered during a number of community rituals from initiation, social and puberty rites, to cashiri drinking festivals and healing ceremonies.

The blowpipe is often a large bone, with one end inserted into the receiving nostril. The intense blow of the ashen powder up through the nose immediately focuses the mind, quiets the chatter, and brings you into the present – hence its use in grounding and intention setting.

Energetically, it is said that rapé helps to re-align energy channels and facilitate connection with the higher self, as well as the world and universe at large.

On a chemical level, the nicotine content of rapé releases neurotransmitters including epinephrine, dopamine and acetylcholine, supporting increased focus, mood, presence and intuition.

In some circles it is also believed to stimulate and de-calcify the pineal gland (the ‘third eye’), which is involved in melatonin secretion, circadian time perception, and drug metabolism. Melatonin is important for brain plasticity, and protecting the nervous system from oxidative stress.

The Incas reportedly used tobacco snuff for ‘purging the head’, believing it to pave the way for detoxifying the body of excess mucus, toxins and bacteria as it enters deep into the nostrils. If the body is particularly congested, vomiting may be a welcome and cleansing side effect.

For the indigenous tribes of the Americas, sacred tobacco is still used medically for treating certain diseases, sores, wounds and as a defence against insects. It also has analgesic and narcotic properties that ease pain, hunger and thirst.

Tobacco as a Vision Quest

As well as there being certain blends for specific diseases such as flu, Tobacco can potentiate the healing abilities of other plant medicines, such as Ayahuasca. A rapé ceremony is often conducted before such a visionary quest to assist with the purging process, calm the nerves and focus the mind and intentions.

Tobacco has mind-altering properties itself and depending on the blend, may even have psychoactive properties. It contains harman and norharman, two alkaloids that are closely related to harmine and harmaline. These two beta-carbolines inhibit the enzyme monoamine oxidase, which give it anti-depressant and stimulatory effects, whilst the high nicotine content increases blood flow to the brain for delivery.

Dosing and blowing Rapéh

Generally, only a pea-sized amount of fine, ashen powder is used, to begin with. If you are inexperienced with rapé it is best to conduct the ceremony with an experienced giver using a Tepi.

There are many different types of blowing depending on the intentions required, however the most common form is a long blow of increasing intensity, sharply pushing the rapé further up the nostril for deep cleansing.