The Ancient Art of Rapé (Sacred Tobacco)

Rapé snuff has enjoyed a strong tradition amongst the native people of the Amazon and is considered an essential and powerful remedy.

On one of my many trips to the Amazon, I had the privilege of conversing at length with Wawacuru Curushiña (Enchanted Macaw), an elder of the Shawandawa tribe. This tribe, one of the mere fifteen remaining ethnic groups in the Jurua Valley, has dwelled in the western regions of Brazil for generations.

The wisdom of these ancient cultures is predominantly transmitted orally, particularly by the elderly. I count myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to engage with Wawacuru. After our initial greetings, we delved into numerous facets of tribal life. However, she was primarily interested in imparting knowledge about the art of creating rapé and its medicinal applications.

Rapé is a traditional snuff medicine of the Amazon, typically made with tobacco and ash derived from specific tree species like Tsunu or Samaúma. In its simplest form, rapé consists of just two ingredients. For more detail on its composition and use, you can explore our article 'What is Rapé (Rapeh)?'. A medicinal rapé contains additional specific herbs, chosen by a medicine maker according to the desired effect.

Shavings of Tabernaemontana sananho
Ash is prepared for making rapé
Making Sananga in the Amazon
Nicotiana tabacum Plant
Rapé is taken with a Kuripe pipe or given to another with a Tipi pipe. The Kuripe is V-shaped; one end goes in the mouth and the other in the nose. A short, sharp blow follows after placing rapé into the Kuripe, and rapé is fired deep into the nose. In some tribes, the word Haux is sounded out three times afterward; this roughly translates as 'it is so' or 'let it be.'

Wawacuru told me that rapé is a medicine that heals many ailments. She shared that "rapé is good for headaches, body pain, and increasing vigor." Emotionally it can "lift your mood, impart inspiration and even remove sorrows and sadness." She said that rapé is "a medicine that increases your strength, elevates your mood, and supports your spiritual connection."
Historically rapé was made only by the wisest men of the tribe, and the origin stories of rapé are as old as the practice of the black earth. The history of rapé production and the production of rich black soil is related. Black earth production required clearing an area of jungle, burning the trees, reducing them to black ash, and then adding the ashes to the soil. 

While the younger men of the tribe made the earth, the older, wiser men (Pajes) experimented with the different plant and tree ashes for the production of rapé. Over time the Pajes (medicine men) discovered the various medicinal properties of each tree and plant and used them to create medicinal rapés.

In the clearings prepared with black earth were planted the seeds of yucca, papaya, plantain, pineapple, and many other plants that thrived and matured quickly.

The sacred and powerful tobacco plant would often establish itself in the clearings, offering protection to the naked jungle floor with its board leaves. It was the perfect ally, shading the soil from the glaring sun and torrential Amazonian rains.

Once the master plant had matured, its leaves naturally dried by the elements the medicine men would collect them to make rapé. The leaves were pulverized into a fine powder and combined with the different wood ashes. If the rapé were for a specific sickness, the Paje would add medicinal herbs, and usually, he sang prayers during production. 

Wawacuru went on to tell me of at least 15 types of wood ash that the ancients used to make their rapés. Some of the fifteen are Tsunu, Paricá, Murici, Mulateiro, and Imbauba, derived from trees of the same name. Each of these ancient trees has accumulated years of energy from the sun, and all have a sandy and textured bark that, when burned, becomes excellent ash similar to talcum powder.

Many of the rapés in daily use today contain only tobacco and ash, with each ethnic group having their preference for ash. For example, the Katukina Tribe favors Mulateiro, whereas the Yawanawa Tribe uses Tsunu.

A rapé of tobacco and ash are a powerful remedy in themselves and can create a robust purgative effect for those who are new to taking it.

Even stronger remedies came with the addition of the dried foliage of shrubs and trees. Each ingredient added medicinal and magical powers: for example, certain plants remove headaches, ease muscular pains, or even imbue the forces needed for successful hunting. Some plants were extraordinary, allowing a connection to the spirit world where you could speak with your ancestors.

Sansarah, Cacau, Mugwort, Ayawaska are among the more than 30 medicinal plants used to give medicinal/spiritual characteristics to each rapé.

Each rapé is unique, from tribe to tribe, Paje to Paje. The ash and herbs are selected to shape the character towards its intended purpose. The main categories of rapés are general (fortifying), medicinal (healing), and opening (spiritual).

As I said goodbye to Wawacuru, I could not help feeling a little saddened by the constant advance of so-called civilization. Many tribal homelands are now under threat from corporations hungry to carry out oil exploration or raise cattle. The activists who stand up are often threatened or found dead under mysterious circumstances.

Wawacuru Curushiña (Enchanted Macaw), an elder of the Shawandawa tribe

I believe it is vital that we learn to balance the old and new. Discarding the old ways in favor of the new ultimately can lead to blindness; valuable answers remain in the jungle, answers we may collectively need in the future.

Written by Milton Narvaez and Simon Scott

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