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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index


The New Temperance: The American Obsession with Sin and Vice.

Wagner, David. (1997).
Boulder, CO: Westview Press.


Wilbert, Johannes. (1987). Tobacco and Shamanism in South America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN: 0-300-05790-3 paperback 0-300-03879-8 hardcover Description: Paperback, xxii + 294 pages.

Contents: List of illustrations, acknowledgements, preface, 4 chapters, bibliography, index.

Note: Series: Psychoactive Plants of the World, Richard Evans Schultes and Robert F. Raffauf, editors.

Excerpt(s): Tobacco drinking occurs among the principal Panoan tribes and, as elsewhere, primarily in association with shamanism. The practice is reported from the Pano, where only shamans use it. Among the Panobo it is sometimes used by common men. The Shipibo distinguish between two different kinds of religious practitioners, one of whom, the seer, works primarily with tobacco. The second one is an ayahuasquero, who mixes tobacco with Banisteriopsis caapi. Shamans obtain their power at the time of their initiation "by drinking gradually increasing amounts of tobacco juice dissolved in water". It is also applied internally and externally as a medicine. Only under special circumstances do tobacco shamans mix Brugmansia stem pith into the tobacco juice. Ayahuasquero shamans prepare their magic drink by crushing tobacco leaves and mixing them thoroughly with saliva. (pages 38-39).

Finally, one may ponder the implication of the fact that norepinephrine is a neurohormone chemically related to the hallucinogen mescaline, with which it shares the same basic structure; both are derivatives of phenylethylamine. Then, there is the fact that nicotine is capable of releasing serotonin from the brain commensurate in amount with the concentration of nicotine present. This brain hormone, in turn, is closely related to the hallucinogens psilocybin and psilocin. Not surprisingly, therefore, the question has been raised whether this trigger-effect of nicotine on amines chemically related to plant hallucinogens may play a role in evoking hallucinogenetic effects in the tobacco user. As documented in the ethnographic sections of the book, there remains no doubt that through action on the central nervous system nicotine is apt to produce altered states of consciousness akin to hallucination. However, the general character of this ethnographic record makes it impossible to contribute meaningfully to the solution of a specific pharmacological problem of this kind. More appropriately, rather, it is hypothesized here for examination in the final chapter, that in the human body the action of nicotine on the central and peripheral nervous systems (including the sympathoadrenal system) produces physiological and psychological effects that have served (and still serve) the Indian to confirm basic tenets of shamanic ideology. (page 148)

Scattered throughout the literature on tobacco use in South America are references to shamanic practices that betray a keen awareness, on the part of the Indian, of the organoleptic effect of nicotine on the human body. Psycho-physiological symptoms of nicotine action together with certain botanical characteristics of the plant itself have served to confirm and legitimize a number of core tenets of a drug-free shamanic ideology, to which ancient Americans from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego came to adhere.

In this context it is well to recall that by the time Paleo-Indian hunters set foot in the New World, wild Nicotiana had long since become dispersed in the Americas and beyond. But despite the fact that the South American habitat of wild nicotianas coincided largely with the distribution area of hunters in the southern half of the subcontinent, Paleo-Indian shamans relied on endogenous and ascetic techniques of mystic ecstasy rather than on drug-induced trance. The absence of sacred tobacco use remained a characteristic trait of South American hunters and gatherers well into late historic times. (page 149).

Early chroniclers and missionaries to the New World were puzzled by the custom of native practitioners of seeking a deathlike state and of "going out of their minds" in order to communicate with the "devil". The phenomenon of the Indians' seeking refuge in the shaman, who, in service to his people, took death upon himself to be reborn a savior, was disquietingly reminiscent of the central doctrine of their own religion. What they and subsequent generations of religious and secular explorers failed to recognize was that this very psychotropic experience of the native curer constitutes the basis of a traditional theory of healing which stipulates that he who overcomes death by healing himself is capable of curing and revitalizing others.

To assist them on their wanderings between the reality of this world and that of the otherworld, South American shamans employ a variety of hallucinogenic drugs and tobacco. They have learned how to dose themselves appropriately for a safe round-trip journey and to appreciate tobacco, in the words of the chronicler, as a "very precious" herb indeed.

Whereas hallucinogens are particularly effective in providing the vivid imagery that illustrates the shaman's celestial journey, nicotine, the biphasic drug in tobacco, is exceptionally well suited to manifest the continuum of dying, which begins with initial nausea, heavy breathing, vomiting, and prostration (illness); continues with tremors, convulsion, or seizure (agony); and ends with peripheral paralysis of the respiratory muscle (death). Progressive blockade of impulse transmission at autonomic ganglia and central stimulation are the primary pharmacological conditions of this journey toward death whence, if appropriately dosed, the shaman is granted safe return thanks to the prompt biotransformation of nicotine in the body. (pages 156-157).

Nothing distinguishes the shaman more than the paranormal sight which permits him to see the hidden and foresee the future. During initiatory sickness the novice's normal eyes are "exchanged" for a shaman's eyes endowed with visionary power. Tobacco shamanism has taken note of the effects of nicotine on the eye, and here again, while opening the mind's eye is certainly the principal objective of ritual tobacco use, the verifiable physiological changes in the organ confirm the shaman's visionary claims and authenticate attendant religious beliefs.

Distinguished by such extravisual ability, tobacco shamans are appropriately referred to as seers by the Machigenga and the Shipibo. (pages 162-163.

Religious practitioners among South American Indians are clearly aware of this duality and consider hunger for food characteristic of man and hunger for tobacco typical of spirits. Not only the personal tutelary spirits residing in a shaman's body but a host of spirits living in the outside world depend upon tobacco for their sustenance and on man, the only producer of tobacco preparations, for their survival. They come to him to trade meat and vegetable food for tobacco or to receive tobacco as a gift. In any case, tobacco craving is regarded as symptomatic of the hunger sensation of Supernaturals and is transferred from the tobacco-using practitioner to the spirit world at large.

Lacking tobacco of their own, the Supernaturals are irresistibly attracted to man not just, let us say, because they enjoy the fragrance of tobacco smoke or the aroma of tobacco juice, but more basically to eat and survive. Unfortunately, a scrutiny of the ethnographic literature gives the impression that had the idea been less exotic for Western observers or had investigators succeeded in penetrating indigenous ideology more deeply than they ordinarily did, we might have learned more often about this existential reason, as it were, behind the sprits' predilection for tobacco. Scanty as the ethnographic record may be, tobacco as spirit food, nevertheless, has been documented for a good number of societies in lowland South America, which are widely spread and numerous enough to suggest that the concept is of long standing on the subcontinent and that tobacco must be added to the growing assortment of "Plants of the Gods". (pages 174-175)


This compilation by Thomas B. Roberts & Paula Jo Hruby, © 1995-2003 CSP

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