The Ritualistic Use of Tobacco Amongst the Maya

Clearing the smoke from the past to better understand how Maya societies harnessed and worshipped the tobacco plant's many uses.

Balamkú cave in Chichén Itzá holds high numbers of Maya artifacts. The connection between the Maya and the Underworld being intertwined in the inner earth is not a new revelation, but what rituals were conducted and with what are still questions being asked. The botanical elements in the caves are still fairly unknown. However, through analyzing modern and past Maya, it understood that tobacco was burned in cave rituals to feed the souls of the underworld and deliver protection to those who live on earth.

The close relationship between Maya and tobacco is evident through its incorporation in ritual and mundane practices throughout time. It can facilitate experiences that push the human mind into the realm of gods are fundamental to spiritual development, deliver protect from Earth Gods and aid in healing. The use of tobacco extends well past the Maya but is one of the oldest recorded people to have used tobacco. Their beliefs and uses are exponentially important to better understand the relationship that shamanistic societies have with plants and the earth.

The Nicotiana genus belongs to the nightshade family and is native to Andean South America and spread through the continent on the back of religious practices and trade. Maya people and many others surrounding the Yucatan Peninsula have collected it from the surrounding environment, as it grows freely in Southern Mexico. Family sized gardens of tobacco are readily found near their homes. There is little evidence to suggest that tobacco was ever grown in large quantities, likely due to its soil depleting nature and spiritual importance not allowing it to be a commodity.
Nicotiana rustica L, also referred to as wild, black, or Aztec tobacco, is a sacred plant delivered from the gods, not to be confused with Nicotiana tabacum L, commonly known as Virginia tobacco. Wild tobacco flowers white, possesses a male spirit and leaves with nicotine contents reaching upwards of ten percent. Virginia tobacco is not commonly used in ritual practices. The pink flowering plant is offensive to the gods, possesses a female spirit and contains a much lower nicotine content, around 3 percent. It is not used for rituals but is sometimes used for casual smoking and is allowed to grow amongst the black tobacco, unless the land is demarcated specifically for sacred tobacco.
Most, if not all, shamanistic people incorporate mind altering plants and mushrooms into religious practices. These traditions likely followed humanity as they left Eastern Asia, considered the first peoples to ingest mushrooms containing a psilocybin and aiding in early spiritualism. As shamanistic communities spread, moving first east then south, transcendental states were better achieved by the great number of psychedelic and psychotropic flora with more intense results that those found in the Old World. People would utilize the properties to become more powerful and transform into their spirit self. In addition to psilocybin, early American humans utilized, mescaline derived from the san pedro and peyote cacti, psilocybin in many mushrooms, and dimethyltryptamine that exists in high concentrations in the yagé, as referred to in the northwest region of the Amazon basin. The experiences that are had on these substances are likely the reason that so many creation stories and mythology have massive amounts of parallels.

Tobacco is rarely considered to fall into the category of a mind-altering substance. However, within the leaf nicotine is found, which is psychotropic. When ingested in extreme quantities extasy and a trance like state can occur. For ritual and healing use, it is typically extracted by combining fresh leaves with an alcoholic liquid and administered nasally or rectally. Delivery through these methods increase rates of diffusion in the blood-brain membrane and can have notable side effects. For the Maya, these symptoms of consuming nicotine were due to the results of the plant having more godly powers than other, less spiritual plants.
The importance of tobacco is found in the Madrid Codex and the Temple of the Cross along with many other sacred texts that illustrated holy beings ingesting smoke. God L is a prominent ruler in the earth often depicted as an old man smoking a cigar or as a powerful jaguar deity alongside imagery of the Hero Twins and the Moon Goddess, who all play essential roles in the creation of the physical realm. God L often appears to be viewing the twins or to be in a position of strength while they quibble and play tricks. The confidence and strength depicted by God L, suggests that he is a powerful entity and holds much control over earthly activities. The earth is home to many other gods who control the rain, earthquakes, and maize crops. The sun god travels to and from the earth, traversing the naturally occurring tunnels, caves, lakes, and sinkholes, and requires nourishment through offerings to be able to return to the sky, thus connecting the realms of the earth and sky. God K is often depicted with a burning axe, flames and cigars, a direct representation of lightening. He has great influence over nourishing the earth, and with serpents. Maya gods have great duplicity to them and must be honored properly to ensure wellbeing. Tobacco is a medium that can be used to feed, respect and to deliver safety from Earth Gods.
Smoking tobacco in massive cigars up to thirty millimeters is still used in rituals in the Warao tribe of North Eastern Venezuela and provides an example of how tobacco is harness for its magical properties. The relationship is one that is worth noting. Their rituals provide a lens to view how the ancient Maya may have used the plant. The Waraos use tobacco in mundane and spiritual ways. Johannes Wilbert shares his experience in Flesh of the Gods: The Ritual Use of Hallucinogens with Warao shamans, who after fourteen years of familiarizing himself with the community, was able to witness the religious use and significance of tobacco. He was invited to witness the practice they use to introduce developing holy people of the tribe to the Supreme Spirits. The person hoping to encounter holy beings is isolated away from others, fast and deprive themselves of water. This deprivation is used to bring them closer to the combination of the worlds. Once the guiding shaman feels the other is ready, the huge cigar rolled with black dried tobacco and whole leaves for the outer portion is consumed. This results in an incapacitated state colored with hallucinations comparable to those of what is considered a traditional psychedelic experience. This state transmits and gifts the user with the messages from the sky. Their creation story is tightly woven with tobacco and the offering is necessary to please celestial beings. The Warao belief of the cosmos has themes that are comparable with those of the Maya.

The integrated systems of eroded limestone within the tropical jungles in the Chiapas and Yucatan provide Maya shamans access into the earth and bring them closer to the combinations of the worlds. Spiritual leaders travel to the underworld to present the gods with offerings and flesh sacrifices. During ceremony, a cigar will be left burning as the air comes in and out feeding the sacred herb directly to the earth. Offerings brought to the underworld consist of the burning of incense, including tobacco for its dense smoke. Artifacts and skeletons, both human and animal are readily found within caves and cenotes. Large boulders are observed in sacred spaces inside human made structures. This practice was used to create pathways to the earthbound gods.

Cigars may have very well been present in the rituals of the Maya. However, archeological evidence can only be found through residue and leftover traces of nicotine on preserved earthenware. Flasks in the Kislak Collection underwent metabolomic-based tests confirming the presence of nicotine. Since flasks are one of the most found artifacts left from classical and post-classical Maya, this confirms its widespread and most likely daily use. This is corroborated by the continued use of tobacco in modern Maya, who still tote snuff for personal use within similar gourd like structures.

Smoke is a key element in the religious practice of native cultures that existed throughout modern-day Mexico. Wild tobacco, when burned, creates dense fragrant smoke. Being offended by the vapors resulted in spiritual and physical attacks for disrespecting a plant infused with the godly essence. Clouds, to the Maya, were made from smoke that had been offered to the gods of the underworld. If proper offerings were not made to the Earth Gods, the rainy season would be lack luster and resulted in poor plant growth. Gods use smoke as a protecting and lifegiving agent. In rituals smoke is used as a food for beings on other planes as it could transcend throughout the cosmos. If rituals were conducted without adequate amounts of offering, it could end in the calling of the soul to the underworld with no hopes of returning to the earthly plane.
The Maya, in the past and current era, use snuff through eating or sucking on the dried herb. The mixture is prepared with leaves collected from N. rustica L. After collection, the leaves are left out of the sun in a cool spot to dry, deveined, ground and mixed with an alkalizing agent, and then stored in a small storage container commonly referred to as a home, gourd, or flask. To consume the freshly ground green tobacco the user places a pinch of it tucked away in their mouth for long periods. Saliva production increases and nicotine diffuses through mouth tissue and again in the stomach. The first observable side effect is discomfort and restriction of the nasal passages. Once in the bloodstream, the user experiences and increased heart rate, dizziness, tingling of the body specifically around the upper regions of the head and face, and ends in calmness and mental clarity.
Tobacco is incorporated in many rituals and offers strengths from the Earth Gods. The imagery found in glyphs involving Earth Gods define what it guards against including, serpents, earthquakes, lightening, long journeys, and bodily harm. Continuous use of snuff allows for the development of invisible green lines on the palm that serve as armor in the physical and spiritual realm. For the same reason, tobacco grows freely around homes and gardens to ward off evil witches and insure proper growth of food crops. If life threatening trauma occurs near an opening of the earth, tobacco must be burnt there to heal the physical wounds, protect from the spirit being swept to the underworld and protect spirits in their afterlife.

Healing powers of the plant are both based in spiritual belief and tangible results. The uncomfortable physiological effects are considered to have healing properties. The worsening of symptoms and physical discomfort are seen as a side effect of an internal battle against illness. The healing sessions inside a steam lodge would include tobacco burning with other healing herbs to fight the spirits responsible for sickness. Observable positive effects are reduced skin temperature, improved memory, heightened mental clarity and staving hunger. Burning tobacco aids in wards off predators and disease carrying mosquitos.
Maya artifacts, glyphs and current practices involving Nicotiana rustica L and Nicotiana tabacum L provide not only importance to their culture but could provide insights to other civilizations that incorporate the plant. Tobacco’s evolutionary tie to South America begs the question as to how it gained importance far from its home being observed in some reports by natives as far away as Roanoke. The spread of tobacco prior to its introduction to the global economy is still widely unknown, but the same vast reach may represent past continental cultural exchange.

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Calakmul, Campeche, Mexico