Holy Smoke: Tobacco as an Entheogen

          Psychotropic plants are often incorporated into religious practices.  Tribal and First Nations cultures especially often have sacred plants that are part of their religious heritage.  Anthropologists refer to these consciousness-altering botanicals as “entheogens” which loosely translates to “creating God inside us.”

Beta Waves by Hugo Gambo. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

          Tobacco has been used for generations as an entheogen throughout the Americas, especially in any practice that incorporates shamanism.  The active ingredient nicotine accelerates both physical and mental processes.  In Western culture, we are familiar with its use as a mental stimulant and “wake-up” drug that facilitates concentration and focus, and increases feelings of positivity.  This quality is why smoking became the pastime of philosophers, scholars and gentlemen, and why smoking remains a common habit in any profession that requires long hours of wakefulness and mental focus.

Gamma Waves by Hugo Gambo. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

          In high doses, nicotine can also induce visions and ecstatic experiences.  It accomplishes this by increasing the frequency of beta waves produced by the brain.  In extremely high doses, or accompanied with high levels of physical activity or the right combination of olfactory agents it can accelerate brain wave frequency into the gamma spectrum, which is where divine ecstasy, satori, and many other transcendent mystical experiences take place.

          Tobacco can be inhaled (which, of course, is the form most familiar to most of the world in modern times), absorbed through the skin, chewed, or drunk as a tea.  This article will detail how some cultures and religions use (or have used) tobacco as an entheogen.

Central and South American Shamanism

Tobacco flower, leaves and buds by William Rafti of the William Rafti Institute. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

           Michael J. Harner’s collection of essays Hallucinogens and Shamanism[1] detail how South American shamans used tobacco frequently in shamanic practices that derived from their First Nations and tribal roots.  In “The Sound of Rushing Water,”[2] he tells us that among the Jivaro of the Ecuadorian Amazon, most illnesses are believed to be caused by ill magic.  A shaman trained in the art of bewitching undergoes a test five years after he has received his first spirit helper, or tsentsak, to see if it is still strong enough to kill successfully.  If the test fails, he drinks large quantities of natemä and pirípirí (hallucinogenic compounds derived from vines and natural vegetation of the Amazon, one of which is almost certainly either yagé or ayahuasca,) as well as large quantities of tobacco juice, while he rests in bed as he hides his weakness from his enemies until his strength is restored.  This is believed to increase his powers and his personal spiritual prowess.  Most Jivaro shamans, whether healers or bewitchers, regularly take in copious quantities of imbibed tobacco juice in order to keep their bodies suitable for habitation by their helper-spirits.  Harner observes that the nicotine flowing through such a shaman’s body would likely be enough to kill most North Americans.

          Also published in Hallucinogens and Shamanism, Gerald Weiss tells us that shamans among the Campa of eastern Peru maintain and increase their powers “solely by the continual and heroic consumption of drugs; primarily tobacco, particularly in the form of a concentrated syrup, and ayahuasca.” [3]  It is believed to be the source of the shaman’s ability to see and communicate with the spirits and to cure and/or diagnose illness.  A song within their ayahuasca ceremony to honour a particular beneficial spirit, Koákiti, is translated as follows:

Urarina shaman B Dean, a South American urban shaman. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Tobacco, tobacco, pure tobacco

It comes from River’s Beginning

Koákiti, the hawk, brings it to you

Its flowers are flying, tobacco

It comes to your (or our) aid, tobacco

Tobacco, tobacco, pure tobacco

Koákiti, the hawk, its owner[4]


          The shaman then offers the wisdom of the spirits, who speak through him to guide and advise the tribe in a ceremony that appears to the Western mindset (as described by Weiss) somewhat like a “worship service” and somewhat like a “séance.”

          In her essay on the use of ayahuasca and other psychotropic drugs in urban slums by urban shamans, Marlene Dobkin de Rios writes that sometimes a narcotic-like tobacco, “possibly Nicotiana tabacum[5] may sometimes be used in an exorcistic ritual to prepare a patient exposed to cross-cultural, Western ideas about medicine, to be open to receive shamanic healing when they otherwise may struggle with doubts; doubts which the shamans believe to be detrimental to the healing process.  These doubts may be substantiated in Western research medicine, which has acknowledged the effect of mind-body healing and has observed the placebo effect.  Typically the patient is told that s/he will be visited with a vision of a snake or, in particular, a boa, and that this is a sign of the beginning of healing.   Tobacco smoke is sometimes blown over the body of a patient as well to banish ill spirits and thus illness.

          In “The Mushrooms of Language,” a paper primarily concerned with the use of hallucinatory mushrooms among the Mazatecs of the city of Huautla de Jiménez, Henry Munn tells us that tobacco plays an important role in a healing ceremony that is also a shamanic initiation.  The dying man who is to be initiated is shown a table, tobacco, and a cross as signs of the shaman’s work.  This represents a cross-cultural Catholic influence.  The eating of psilocybin mushrooms is referred to as a “Mass.”  The table symbolizes a working altar to officiate at; the cross is a symbol of intersecting paths, a change of life and an ordeal, death and resurrection; and the tobacco, called San Pedro (Saint Peter) “is believed to have powerful magical and remedial values.”[6]  The Mazatecs would also blow tobacco smoke over a patient’s body to affect a healing.

North American First Nations

A ceremonial drum of the Royal Military College of Canada showing a medicine wheel design. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

          The cultures of the North American First Nations are, of course, diverse and widespread, and to say that any one belief is indicative of any particular Nation is a misleading oversimplification at best.  In general, however, First Nations believe that tobacco is one of the four Sacred Medicines, and is associated in the Medicine Wheel with the direction of east and the element of fire.  The other three are sweetgrass (north, air,) cedar (south, water,) and sage (west, earth.)

          All four of the Sacred Medicines are utilized in smudging, which is a process of burning bundles of sacred substances to cleanse negative energy, feelings or thoughts.  “Smudge sticks” are usually burned in abalone shells or other fireproof containers of natural materials, and the smoke is wafted around the person or area that needs to be cleansed with a feather (often an eagle feather, which is protected by Canadian and American law for aboriginal use) or smudge fan.

          Each of the medicines is thought to serve a different spiritual purpose.  Tobacco absorbs prayers and carries them to the spirit world.  It is used to seal an oath; if a promise is made in exchange for a gift of tobacco, which is accepted, that promise or oath must be honoured.  This is why it became a common trade good among the First Nations, often carried in a pouch about one’s neck.  It is also used to make offering to the Creator and to the ancestors and the spirits of the land, and it is thought to be the special gift of the Creator.

A Lakota (Sioux) chanunpa pipestem, without the pipe bowl, displayed at the United States Library of Congress. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

          Tobacco is one of the traditional components of a peace pipe mixture.  The pipe is lit and passed around a medicine wheel to each participant, who takes a draw on it and passes it along, spinning the pipe once clockwise as s/he does so.  This ceremony is intended as a bonding experience and sharing in the pipe is a promise that participants have come together for a peaceful and respectful purpose.

         Largely due to a movement to stamp out habitual smoking among First Nations peoples, there is extensive debate in published sources as to whether or not it is traditional or sacred to smoke tobacco, or whether it should be smoked only in sacred ceremony.  In my general experience, it seems that smoking is culturally accepted or at least tolerated, though many Native people do not smoke habitually; and commercial tobacco, which is chock-full of dangerous chemicals, is not preferred for ceremonial use, and is only accepted as an emergency substitute for better quality tobaccos.  However, this could be a local attitude and not representative of other First Nations communities.[7]

Afro-American Faiths

          Numerous faiths have arisen in the Americas that have been derived from the traditional faiths of transported Africans.  These religious traditions mingled with the Catholicism of the colonials, especially when the colonial Christians outlawed the practice of traditional African faiths; as well as the beliefs of the First Nations peoples of these regions.  The results of this odd synthesis are the modern faiths we call “Afro-American;” the most common of which are Voodoo and Santeria.

         Voodoo[8] is essentially a survival of the traditional central African faith we call Yoruba, but given a “Catholic facelift” and intermingled with First Nations beliefs.  Deities of Yoruba are recognizable in Voodoo, only their names and roles are often slightly different and they are usually equated with a Catholic saint, so that the objects and symbols used to venerate particular saints could conceal the worship of the deities they were truly meant to represent.  For example, Erzuli, goddess of love and sexuality, is derived from Oya, fertility and chaos goddess of Africa, who like most of Her ancient sister goddesses is the mistress of both love and war; and She is equated with Mother Mary and also Mary Magdelene.  Santeria is a similar synthesis, but with more influence from Caribbean cultures.

Depiction of Baron Samedi. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

          Because tobacco is sacred to many First Nations cultures, and because it was considered valuable and expensive to the Christian colonists, the use of tobacco is an integral part of Voodoo worship.  Different deity-spirits, called loa, are thought to have specific preferences towards tobacco, or even types of tobacco.  For example, Baron Samedi, loa of death and of enjoying life, is thought to like fine (and even bad) cigars; Erzuli prefers rich and dark tobaccos in the form of cigars or cigarettes; and Papa Legba, father of the pantheon and opener of the gates to the spirit world, likes expensive cigars and fine tobaccos preferably, but He will accept the best you can afford.  In any Voodoo ceremony you must ask Papa Legba’s permission to open the gates to the spirit world, and you must invite your ancestors and the beloved dead to join you.  This is accomplished by the use of particular drum rhythms and by showing the honoured dead, the ghede, a good time.  Tobacco is smoked, alcohol (often rum) is drunk, and there is a great deal of dancing and partying, which is meant to entice the spirits to the event.

          In both Voodoo and Santeria, spirits and especially deities are called upon to possess the bodies of their worshippers.  In Voodoo, the worshipper so possessed is referred to as a cheval, or “horse.”  The spirits who ride them may make particular demands of the bodies they inhabit, which usually involves partaking of some worldly pleasures that bodiless spirits could not otherwise participate in.  This can involve eating particular foods, drinking (especially rum and wine,) sexual activity, or smoking preferred tobacco products.  The cheval does this in their stead and the spirits vicariously enjoy the experience.  In this way, these activities are similar to material offerings made to ancestral and divine spirits in cultures all over the world.  My own experience as a cheval suggests to me that the use of tobacco in this context increases and enhances the ecstatic trance necessary for invocation and “possession.”

         Blown tobacco smoke is also used in related magical practice to remove curses and clear negative energy, much in the same way that smudging is used by North American First Nations.

American Folk Magic

Hoodoo Money Spell. Source: publicdomainpictures.net

          A practically-oriented synthesis of magical practice in European folk magic, Voodoo, First Nations traditions and Protestant Christianity in the American Midwest led to the development of Hoodoo.  This is not a religion but a system of magical practice.  The use of tobacco in Hoodoo and the “conjure community” is primarily as an offering.  It is offered in raw form, blown over areas and bodies to remove negative energy and hexes, or smoked and shared in similar ways to Voodoo practitioners (blowing smoke on a statue or image representing a spirit, for example) but since Hoodoo does not usually involve possession trance in and of itself, it is not smoked by practitioners on behalf of a possessing deity.

New Religious Movements in North America

          Though the New Age, Neo-Pagan, and Goddess Spirituality movements began in Europe, there are variations that have developed along their own path in North America.  Although the vast majority of these movements are opposed to smoking due to the health risks associated with habitual smoking, even in these communities, tobacco finds use as an entheogen.

         Most who would consider themselves to be part of the New Age community have incorporated smudging into their sacred practices; indeed, I would say it is likely the most commonly-used cleansing ritual, and is considered acceptable in most cases regardless of personal faith and spirituality.[9]  There is some debate in the community as to whether or not this represents cultural respect or cultural appropriation.  Often, New Age and First Nations communities and gatherings coincide; indeed, many First Nations people refer to the New Age community as the “Rainbow People,” which comes from several First Nations prophecies, the most widely known of which was given by Black Elk.[10]

         Goddess Spirituality is focused on honouring the cultural practices of all women, and so both First Nations women and Voodoo Queens, as well as conjure-women, female shamans of South America, and practitioners of other Afro-American faiths have brought their traditional ritual tobacco use into the sacred ceremonies of the women’s spirituality movement.

          In the Neo-Pagan religious community, overlap with the conjure community has resulted in the use of smoked tobacco in Neo-Pagan shamanic practices and hedge witchcraft, as well as the same sorts of incorporated (or appropriated) uses seen in Goddess Spirituality.  Once quite rare as an aspect of Neo-Pagan practice, this is now seen much more frequently.


          As a widely-available and effective entheogen, tobacco has made its way into most non-Christian spiritual traditions with American Continental origins, especially those that involve shamanic practices, ancestor and spirit-worship, and mystical trance-states.  It has probably been used and cultivated by North, Central and South American peoples since their beginnings, and certainly we can trace both its use and cultivation back hundreds of years.  The dangers of habitual smoking, especially in the case of commercial tobaccos, should not be underestimated by any means, but tobacco has also long held a special purpose in aiding humanity of the Americas in seeking the divine.


[1] Harner, Michael J., ed. Hallucinogens and Shamanism.  1973, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, USA.

[2] Harner, Michael J.  “The Sound of Rushing Water,” from  Hallucinogens and Shamanism (ibid).

[3] Weiss, Gerald.  “Shamanism and Priesthood in the Light of the Campa Ayahuasca Ceremony,” from  Hallucinogens and Shamanism (ibid).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dobkin de Rios, Marlene.  “Curing with Ayahuasca in an Urban Slum,” from Hallucinogens and Shamanism (ibid).

[6] Munn, Henry.  “The Mushrooms of Language,” from Hallucinogens and Shamanism (ibid).  Not to be confused with the San Pedro cactus, also used as an entheogen in the region.

[7] I am fortunate to live in close proximity to the Westbank First Nation, which is one of the largest First Nations in North America today.

[8] My observations regarding Voodoo are the results of my direct experience in New Orleans-style Voodoo, and largely come from an introductory course offered by Witchdoctor Utu at the Canadian National Pagan Conference in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on May 22, 2010, as well as my subsequent research and practice.

[9] This is based in my personal observations after 22 years of active involvement in the Canadian New Age community, and should therefore be taken as entirely subjective.

[10] Black Elk.  Black Elk Speaks: being the life story of a holy man of the Oglala Sioux (as told to John G. Neihardt.)  Originally published 1932. PDF available at http://stuff.samassaveneessa.info/docs/BlackElkSpeaks.pdf.

4 thoughts on “Holy Smoke: Tobacco as an Entheogen

  1. This was an awesome read until you get to the part about the “afro-american” faiths. A LOT of your info, especially the origins of voodoo, is flat out wrong. This is largely to do with how secretive these traditions are and the fact that there is very little reliable info available about them online that isn’t misinformation.

    • Are you a Voudoun? If so, please tell me in what specific ways I am mistaken, because I am in active contact with at least one Witchdoctor in the New Orleans tradition and a Voodoo Priestess from New York.

  2. Also, what you’re calling American folk magic, if anything should be labeled Afro-American folk magic. Hoodoo/Conjure is a collective of folk traditions from North America that typically have a lineage tracing back to slavery and before that, very specific Congo spiritual practices. Although less “religious” as other Afro-Disaporic traditions like Lucumi (Santeria) and Voodoo, it still preserves a very distinct set of practices that though veiled under Christianity, still follow a very Kongo spiritual process.
    All of these traditions can be grouped under “Afro-Diasporic traditions”, and most have in some way incorporated practices of Native Americans and often elements of Christianity to extremely varying degrees (as you mentioned).

    • This seems to me like an unnecessary splitting of hairs in what was, for me, a desire to be respectful of all such traditions without generalizing. Especially when I clearly cited the Afro-American or Afro-Diasporic traditions as one of its most significant ancestors. But okay, I’ll grant you that. I don’t mind being corrected if I’m mistaken, but I prefer that people who do so identify themselves and what qualifies them in their expertise (ie. conjure-worker, professor of anthropology) and cite their sources. Thanks for your thoughts!

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