Laura Triana

Smoke, Snuff, and the Cosmos

Tobacco in Amerindian Rituals

Before tobacco entered the European markets as a luxury good, particularly among the elites of the 16th century, it already had a thousand-year long history among the Amerindian communities, which is not yet widely known. This is the first of two entries which will explore how the uses of tobacco have changed over the course of history as it travelled from the Americas to the Dutch docks and the rest of the world. In the present entry we will focus on the original Amerindian uses of the plant.


Codex Borbonicus, P. 16 - Based on the pre-Columbian architype this picture depicts the origin of the world: how man and woman wear a tobacco gourd or " yetecomatl"  and sprinkling " picietl"  on the ground to inaugurate the creation. (Reusing this file)  Source: Wikimedia

The tobacco plant or Nicodiana tabacum could already be found in the Andean region from about 2800 B.C. Since that time, the product has been used in many forms, traditionally by smoking it, but also by sniffing, chewing, and even rubbing it on the skin, for medicinal or ritual purposes. For instance, Mayas, Mexicas, Aztecs and other Mesoamerican groups shared various usages of the plant, despite their differences in language and geographical spread. One can find two main uses of tobacco within these Mesoamerican cultures: the “smoking tubes,” or pipes, often enjoyed along with chocolate drinks, and pulverized tobacco enhanced with lime powder (an alkaloid made from ashes and/or seashells) that was ingested or applied topically (Coe & Coe, 1996).

For the Mesoamericans the sensory experience of smoking had mystical and therapeutic associations. Visually, the pipes were made from reeds, painted, gilded and covered with charcoal and clay dust, which upon drying revealed flowers or animal figures that were meaningful to them, like eagles or fish. The olfactory experience of the spicy tobacco leaves was enhanced by adding aromatic essences, such as liquidambar, pine resin, bitumen from the sea and flower extracts, which could induce an altered state. Picietl, or pulverized tobacco, on the other hand, was produced by mixing dried and crushed tobacco leaves with lime powder, which heightened the effect of the nicotine, so that it was used for more medicinal purposes: to treat wounds, head- and toothaches, insect infestations, skin rashes, snake bites and parasites (Norton, 2008).

The smoking of tobacco and its use in pulverized form had vital functions within the Mesoamerican cosmologies. Thus, rituals that they performed to secure harvests and in the context of births and weddings involved the consumption of powdered tobacco. This resulted in entranced states which allowed them to access divine wisdom and enabled them to discover, among other insights, the causes of diseases and the appropriate treatment. The Mesoamericans believed that tobacco contained a power connected to solar heat, so that it warmed the body and the soul and aided their recovery. Therefore, they made offerings to the fire deity Xiuhtecutli by sprinkling pulque (fermented agave), copal (an incense made from the aromatic copal tree) and picietl.

Mesoamericans moreover believed that tobacco created interpersonal bonds. As such it was used during the merchant’s festivals that brought the nobility, commoners and deities together. Likewise, it was part of departure and return ceremonies that the elders prepared for merchants going on long journeys, and it was used as a present to overcome social distance or enmities, and diplomatically to welcome foreign dignitaries, usually combined with chocolate and Ahuitzol (the rite of pouring water on the lords’ hands).

In ways such as these, tobacco helped define and articulate ritual and social relationships prior to the time of the transatlantic trade and the interaction with the Europeans, which came to change its uses, meanings and associations forever.