Mapacho – the natural local tobacco unique to the Amazon – is one of the minorities of the estimated 100,000 plant species of the region which, in western terms, has been classified. Its Latin name is nicotiana rustica. It contains up to 18% nicotine and no tar. Nicotiana tobacum, a variety that is used in the production of all commercial cigarettes, contains just 1% nicotine and around 30% tar.
The physiological action of nicotine is well understood and is focused in the brain, where nicotinic receptors are formed, accounting for its addictive nature. All smoking-related diseases have been ascribed to the action of carcinogenic tars or the plethora of chemical additives used in western cigarette production. But there is no evidence that nicotine is itself damaging and the shamans insist upon its therapeutic and spiritual properties. Ingested in large quantities, it induces a state of profound trance – something not possible with western tobacco, with its relatively low nicotine content.
Amazonian shamans may specialize in treating patients with Ayahuasca, with San Pedro (huachuma), with toé, or with a combination of sacred plant medicines, but in every case, the use of mapacho is considered essential, whilst ‘tabaqueros’ – or shamans who utilize exclusively the healing properties of mapacho, are highly respected.
Smoke plays a very important role in the world of shamanism and is considered a medicine in itself. Shipibos generally have used smoke therapeutically since the most ancient times to treat different types of disease. They used mapacho smoke; smoke from the dried leaves of achiote (or annatto), a small indigenous tree with aromatic, red flowers; the smoke of the comején (or Amazonian termite) obtained by burning the termite nests; smoke obtained from dried palm leaves traditionally used as the principal roofing material; and likewise, the smoke of burning cotton, cows’ horns, palo santo (or the sacred tree), or of the copal tree (also known as the ‘locust tree’) – amongst other materials, depending on the spiritual needs of the participants in any given ceremony.
In the Shipibo culture, mapacho smoke is important to both the shaman and the participant. First, mapacho smoke is blown throughout and around the space or area in which it is to be performed in order to deter bad spirits from approaching. The shaman will then blow mapacho smoke over the head, hands, and whole body of each participant which helps to cleanse the negative energy from his or her system. Finally, it is recommended that each participant does the same, blowing mapacho smoke over his or her own body and immediate surroundings, using a mapacho cigarette especially ‘icaroed’ or blessed by the shaman.
Smoke rituals are practiced for spiritual purification and to help in the extraction of negative energies either internal (perhaps caused by repeated bad thought patterns) or external (possibly absorbed by a rival, or even a partner). As well as keeping evil spirits away, this procedure positively attracts the good spirits, who, the shamans insist, have an almost insatiable desire for mapacho.
Mapacho smoke is also used by the shaman to visualize and interpret messages from the Mother of Tobacco, by studying the different patterns, or symbols, that form in the smoke which he exhales with a specific intention. This is one more way in which the shaman receives information from the spirits, generally concerning, in this case, the diagnosis of his patients. These rituals complement any treatment with the principal plants – Ayahuasca and San Pedro.
In ancient times, the Merayas used these various types of smoke ritualistically to purify the body, mind, and spirit of their patients or dieteros. Such rituals were also used by the Merayas to purify their own spirits so that they could travel through cosmic space, or other dimensions and also, for example, to make themselves invisible.
RAPÉ (TOBACCO SNUFF) RITUALS
The rapé, or tobacco snuff (also known as repocati raopoto in Shipibo), is one of the many ancestral medicines created by native Amazonian tribes. The base of the rapé is mapacho, but it also includes a great variety of carefully selected plants, depending on the functions that the medicine is aimed to have, such as protection, energy activation, removal of blockages, heart-opening, connection, etc. It should be noted that each tribe, or shaman, has its own particular recipe that often remains secret, and makes this medicine stand out in one, or another property.
Just like the preparation of the Ayahuasca brew, the elaboration of the rapé medicine is a sacred ritual in itself, during which the shaman protects the space and works with the help of the spirits to strengthen the healing properties of medicine. The connection with the spirits of the plants is even more important than their active ingredients, meaning that this medicine should not be prepared by someone inexperienced, even if he or she has the recipe.
In the Shipibo culture, this medicine was prepared by the Merayas, who scrupulously guarded their recipes, and when they passed away, many have taken with them those secrets. This is why today, many Shipibos do not associate tobacco snuff with their culture. However, thanks to the written legacy of Maestro Heberto’s grandfather (Yosi Ocha), at the Peruvian Institute of Shamanism and Natural Medicine, we prepare the rapé medicine according to the authentic tradition of the Meraya maestros.
The tobacco snuff can be administered by a shaman in a ceremonial or ritual context, and it can also be applied by oneself. The importance of receiving this medicine from the shaman lies in the intention that he puts into it and the healing energy transmitted through his breath. Maestro Heberto applies the rapé taking into account the individual needs of each participant, in accordance with the diagnostic previously carried out. In addition, during ceremonies, the doses are usually higher and can help patients who have a hard time letting go of control or find it difficult to purge.
The rapé is blown in each nostril with a special pipe made out of wood or animal bone. The person that receives the rapé should take a few deep breaths to relax and then hold the breath, leaving the mouth slightly open, so that the air that enters can flow smoothly. It is important to honor the medicine you are about to receive, open your heart, and allow the healing process to take place. For an inexperienced user, the first blow can be quite overwhelming – it can cause cough, sweating, tears, and occasionally even vomiting – but it is important to concentrate and receive the second blow as quickly as possible, in order to balance the energy in both brain hemispheres.
On a physical level, it is known that tobacco is an excellent bactericide, so the application of rapé helps clean the nostrils and relieve allergies and headaches. Furthermore, it helps to strengthen the immune system and improves the function of the pineal gland. If the patient’s body is too loaded with toxins, the rapé can cause vomiting, which leads to a thorough cleansing.
On a subtle level, the tobacco snuff balances the energy channels, harmonizes the masculine and feminine energies, and allows both brain hemispheres to work in unity. It also quickly induces a meditative state, providing focus, clarity, and mental silence, allowing one to connect with the present moment. Its impact on the sixth chakra, or third eye, heightens intuition and prepares us to work with visionary medicines. During rituals and ceremonies, the rapé works at the transpersonal level, balancing the energies of all participants and strengthening the circle, leading the whole group to resonate at the same vibration.
LIQUID TOBACCO RITUALS
The ritual of inhaling the liquid made of mapacho, or “repocati rao”, has been transmitted from generation to generation in the Shipibo culture. This medicine is prepared by soaking mapacho in a small quantity of water and leaving it to macerate until it turns into a dense dark tint. During this process, the water absorbs all the properties of tobacco, especially the concentration of nicotine, which is very water-soluble.
Back in the day, this ritual was performed in every household and it was especially used for children – grandmothers were mainly responsible for healing their youngsters and they used to do it with the tobacco liquid, as well as with huito, ajosacha and mucura. They normally performed this ritual in the morning hours, and then the children had to bathe in the river and drink its water while diving and swimming. This way, the grandmothers would ensure that their grandchildren would grow strong and healthy, be active and dynamic, and develop intelligence and concentration. Likewise, mapacho liquid was used to cure diseases such as sinusitis, fight insomnia, and relieve hoarseness, but it was also recommended for women to improve their ability to visualize the patterns of “kené” – traditional Shipibo designs.
Shamans use this medicine to heal depression, stress, and various emotional conditions, such as anger, fear, and a strong temper. The inhaled tobacco liquid helps to expulse phlegm, which is considered to be the materialization of sadness and accumulated trauma. It also opens the mind and strengthens intuition.
Maestro Heberto usually performs this ritual prior to an Ayahuasca ceremony to prepare the body and spirit of the participant to receive the healing. The liquid is applied to the nostrils with a dropper. The initial sensation can be quite uncomfortable – one may experience dizziness or hiccups, which is actually a good sign that the medicine has begun to work. As it removes layers of blocked energies, the patient starts noticing an opening of the mind, mental clarity, and an overall increase in energy and strength.
Several applications are made during one ritual. The first three are necessary for all the participants since they correspond to the three doors of the three main healing channels – love, medicine, and protection. After that, the patient can choose if he wants another dose, which is quite often the case. At the end of the ritual, as instructed by the grandmothers, it is important to connect with the spirit of water, ideally by bathing in the river (alternatively, having a shower), and drinking lots of water to eliminate the toxins and bad energies that have been steered up by the tobacco liquid ritual.