Ayahuasca use in the Amazon is embedded within a wider tradition of plant science called vegetalismo, and the most important and revered of all plants is tobacco—specifically, mapacho (Nicotiana rustica), a variety that is up to 26 times stronger than that used in commercial cigarettes. The ritual traditions surrounding mapacho are far more ancient than ayahuasca. Some say it was the tobacco spirit that taught humans how to use ayahuasca.
Mapacho is considered the master plant of Amazonian healing traditions, the strongest of all the teacher plants. Like coca, another sacred plant, it is connected to all four elements (earth, air, fire, water), and thus can be combined with other plants to strengthen and activate their effects. Tobacco is a messenger spirit, connecting plants to humans, and humans to spirits. “Tobacco for protection, ayahuasca for learning, toé for power” goes the aphorism.
“Mapacho is called a planta maestra, but I personally call it “Medicina Rey en el mundo,” the King Medicine in the world. If there wasn’t tobacco, no curandero in the world could cure. No plant can be prepared without tobacco. Its curative effect can’t function without the blowing of tobacco smoke.”—Maestro tabaquero Ernesto Garcia Torres
Evidence suggests that humans have been growing N. rustica in South America for perhaps 8,000 years, making it one of the earliest cultivated plants. Its leaves contain more than eight percent nicotine (far stronger than the species used in commercial cigarettes), as well as psychoactive alkaloids that engender visionary states.
Across the New World, indigenous people honor the way tobacco brings clarity, strength, and protection. Tobacco is said to ground human energy, cleaning our physical and energetic bodies from blockages and traumatic imprints. It calms and strengthens, cultivating a sense of decisiveness and resilience. It’s ingested in many forms in order to heal, to learn, and to protect.
Whether it’s put in the ayahuasca brew, blown over the cup, or ritually smoked in ceremony, mapacho can connect humans with the spirits of other plants. It can also be drunk in liquid preparation, either in the context of a plant dieta or a one-off ceremony. Drinking mapacho is known to trigger intense purges and sensations of freezing cold or sweating. As well, it brings visions and teachings, particularly in the dreamlike state that follows ingestion. Mapacho is a strong teacher. Meet the tobacco spirit.
From my journal: In an early ceremony, ayahuasca tells me I need to have mapacho smoke blown on me. I relay this message to a ceremony assistant and wait in the swirling waves of energy. Suddenly I see a tall figure in white standing over me, blowing tobacco smoke over my body. The smoke is so soothing, so good–it’s just what I need. I look up, curious who is doing this, and see not a human but Mapacho himself, a stern male figure bathing me in a powerful energy that’s distinctly different from ayahuasca’s.
During the next few ceremonies I receive more messages: how the intensity of mapacho’s power parallels the intensity of the early trauma I endured—and how its strength matches the strength of my Will that allowed me to survive. I sense that mapacho has things to teach me, about power, about boundaries, about healing. So I embark on a series of plant dietas, 14 in all, with a tabaquero that begins and ends with mapacho dietas, and has mapacho infused (as messenger, as vehicle) with every plant I drink.
How Mapacho Is Used
Indigenous people of the Amazon have developed an incredible array of delivery mechanisms for tobacco. It’s smoked, sure, but this type of use was relatively rare in traditional contexts, limited to ceremonial use by curanderos. Much more frequent is the use of tobacco snuff (rapé, often spelled rapey or hapey in English, for obvious reasons), consisting of mapacho mixed with herbs and ash from various plants, originally administered through tubes of hollow bird bones.
Tobacco juice is drunk as a purgative and a visionary tutor, either in the context of dieta, or in a tobacco ceremony. Some chew the leaves, or apply tobacco enemas, or tobacco admixtures to the skin or eyes. Ambil, a thick tobacco syrup or paste, is taken with mambe (powdered coca), often in a ritual context; it’s said to ground and clear one’s thoughts, connecting one to spirit.
Mapacho and Ayahuasca
“Tobacco centers your mind, while ayahuasca produces visions and fantasies.”—Ernesto Garcia Torres
Mapacho plays an important role in ayahuasca ceremonies. The Shipibo people consider it as important as ayahuasca, as it serves as a bridge to connect healers to other plant spirits. An ayahuasquero will use it to clear and protect the space, to seal the energetic bodies of participants, and to protect his own energetic body. Blown on participants, the smoke is known to clean, calm and protect. In the practice of soplar, the ayahuasquero exhales tobacco smoke over the patient’s body, transmitting his own energy and strength and absorbing the negative energy of the patient.
Mapacho can be used in ayahuasca ceremony to clear blockages and trigger visions or purges, or to calm agitation and provide clarity. This versatility resembles the ability of regular tobacco to either calm or stimulate, depending on what the body needs. If the circumstances of your ceremony are amenable, you can smoke mapacho yourself, blowing the smoke gently onto your body for grounding, protection, cleaning, and clarity.
Mapacho smoke isn’t inhaled into the upper nasal passages the way cigarettes are–it’s just drawn into the mouth and blown out. It can be good to have an intention when smoking mapacho (this goes for both in ceremony and out)—something simple, like “connect me with your energy,” or “strengthen my experience,” or “help me see clearly.”
The tabaquero reads my pulse and tells me, “Your energy is good. You need mapacho para abrir, to open more.” He pours brown liquid from a battered old water bottle into a wooden cup and sings a prayer over it, blowing it top and bottom with smoke from a big cigaro. Drinking it, I note the faint taste of garlic, and a hint of gasoline.
This opening dieta brings up things from my core, things that I’ve ignored, yet are irrevocably true. My loneliness as a child. My love for R. A freezing sensation in my joints, icy coldness thawing in the heat of mapacho. Some moments I feel a deep, deep vibration in my body, an energy that I sense is shaking things loose at the cellular level. A few days into the dieta, mapacho is in my system, and he’s not leaving. He is a good protector and ally.
Magic of Mapacho
You cannot learn the medicine if you don’t smoke.—Maestro curandero G.P., Pucallpa, via Jacques Mabit
Mapacho links the material and supernatural worlds in a very real way, through the mysterious, barely tangible medium of smoke, which makes the breath visible. Smoking tobacco is a magical alchemical act created by the union of air and fire.
Tobacco smoke is said to be the ideal sustenance of the spirits, who crave its intensity. Only humans can offer them this precious substance, and this creates a powerful symbiotic relationship: sacred smoke in exchange for supernatural protection. In this way, tobacco connects the human world with the spirit world, amplifying our prayers.
In working with mapacho, we assimilate its strength, and it becomes an ally. It nourishes the physical and energetic bodies by warming them, cleaning and straightening the channels, removing obstacles and blocks. Its smoke envelopes and protects the body, bringing alertness and decisiveness.
“The tobacco remedy centers or strengthens the mind,” says maestro tabaquero Ernesto in an interview. “The plant itself is associated with a powerfully healing spirit, which antagonizes malevolent entities . . . The patient frees himself from physical ills, but also—for those that are able to understand this—from a lot of bad spirits.”
Mid-dieta, I wake up in the middle of the night with my head hurting, my teeth aching, and the sensation of something hard as steel in my mouth. Is this the memory of long-ago orthodontic pain releasing from my jaw, or the medicine hammering away at me? I dream I’m on a motorcycle, riding behind a man who’s driving over every single pothole and bump in the road. Clearly that driver is mapacho.
A few days later, I feel a torrent of energy rushing through my arms and hands, a vibrational tingling that’s faintly alarming in its force Sometimes I think my hands are going to vibrate right off, the power is so strong—a river of mapacho roaring through my channels.
Rustica vs Tabacum
Contrast mapacho’s role as Amazonian panacea to the modern use of tobacco. Commercial cigarettes are made using a different species of plant, first of all (Nicotiana tabacum), and are laden with cancer-creating chemical additives that can constitute up to a horrifying 20% of a cigarette’s dry weight (ironically, it’s unrolled tobacco that contains the most additives).
They are smoked without conscious intention, yet as Gayle HIghpine points out in this most interesting thread, they carry the intention of mega-companies to profit by enslaving people in addiction. Smoked in this context, tobacco is undeniably harmful, causing some seven million deaths a year worldwide.
The traditional use of mapacho embodies a different paradigm and suggests a different possibility: to approach tobacco with intention and respect for its power as protector, as purifier, as messenger. To use it with care and humility, and to connect with it in full consciousness as a potent amplifier of our prayers and intentions.
The plants reward in proportion to the awareness you bring to them. I see mapacho as Protector, as Clarifier, as Connector, a mighty plant spirit capable of taming some big dragons.