Updated: Dec 31, 2019
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 Rapé
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.
Although the first blow can feel overwhelming for someone that is not used to the sensation, it should quickly be followed by a second blow in the alternate nostril, to harmonise the hemispheres. The first nostril on the left symbolises death, with the second on the right signifying rebirth.
After the experience, it is best to remain calm, whilst inhaling and exhaling slowly through the mouth, enabling grounding and focus. Try not to allow the mind to put the experience into words or give into the drama, but to centre on intentions of clarity, healing and insight as the process unfolds.
The end of the process is often marked by the expulsion of phlegm and administering Sananga to the eyes, for clarity and vision. Sananga is a potent, translucent liquid made from the shredded root of an Amazonian shrub, Tabernaemontana Sananh, whose extracts are anti-inflammatory and protective against parasites.
Like most shamanic medicines, the prescription is highly individual and it may take a little experimentation before finding the perfect dose that works for you. Prolonged usage also leads to increased tolerance, with incremental amounts of powder being required with increasing frequency.
Set and Setting
To prepare for rapé, you should be in a calm and respectful environment, with the time and ability to centre yourself beforehand. While the initial reaction is no longer than a few minutes, the high lingers for much longer.
Indigenous tribes know to treat each medicinal plant as sacrament, often saying prayer and setting well-considered intentions in a ceremonial space. Incense, chumpi stones, gentle music and the presence of nature all assist in creating a meditative space for healing energetically, physically and emotionally.
To get the most out of a ceremony, all sacred medicine should be handled with respect, meaning good intentions, a healthy dieta and not combining the experience with substances like alcohol.
The purging process
Most medicinal plants encompass a purging of energy, toxins or fluids from the body. It is important to allow loosened mucus from the throat and nasal passages to flow freely and be emptied with a strong blow, only after a few minutes of deep breathing and concentration.
Stay hydrated and drink water, non-caffeinated tea, or fruit juice to assist the cleansing process. Naturally sweet fruit juices may help with grounding if you feel dizzy after a session.
Traditionally, the sacred process of preparation may take weeks, with the chief of the tribe, the ‘pajero’, often working under a strict diet and in a trance-like state whilst pounding and mixing the ingredients together.
Each tribe in the Amazon basin from the Katukina to the Matses, has their own specific blend and purpose, and it is reported that many elders speak of the importance of joining forces both with other tribes and wider nations, to persist into a more sustainable future for people and planet.
In a time when we are increasingly connected through technology, yet disconnected from our earthly roots, it’s only recently that tribes have begun to share the healing properties of their sacred medicines with their forgetful foreign cousins; offering the chance for such knowledge and its applications to continue to be handed down for generations to come.
Post Written by
Nia Davies from yugenial.com