June 30, 2015

Agony and Ecstasy in the Amazon: Excerpt from 'Broad Street'

Never tell a Matsigenka shaman his tobacco snuff is anything but katsi, “extremely painful.”

I learned this lesson the way I learned most of my lessons during fieldwork and in life generally—the hard way. Many years ago, in a village at the headwaters of the Manu River in the Peruvian Amazon, my friend Shumarapage initiated me into the pungent delights of seri[1], a fine green powder of tobacco and ash that Matsigenka men blast up one another’s nostrils to dispel fatigue, treat colds, build bonds of friendship, share shamanic powers, or just get plain smashed.

"Tobacco is the shaman’s soul. The more 'painful' or 'pungent' (katsi) the tobacco, the more powerful the shaman."

That first time, Shumarapage punished me with an intentional overdose. “Just one more puff,” he kept saying, until ten hits later I was lying in a puddle of green snot and vomit while a crowd of men, raucous on manioc beer, laughed all around me (the Matsigenka have a rather harsh sense of humor). Among the Matsigenka, such an episode is nothing to be ashamed of: on the contrary, guests are expected to overindulge as a sign of appreciation. And so despite this traumatic initiation, I soon came to savor the sharp sting of tobacco, crave the euphoric rush of nicotine, even appreciate the purifying bouts of retching that sometimes follow an overindulgence. 

Matsigenka men usually share tobacco at dusk, as the cooking fires begin to flicker against the black wall of the surrounding forest and crickets, frogs, and nocturnal birds tune up for an all-night symphony. A pair of men, usually brothers-in-law or other close kinsmen, sit facing one another on a dingy cane mat in the sandy plaza between thatched houses where women cook, gossip, nurture and laugh while children sleep or play.


The men are often grimy and tired, having just arrived from their slash-and-burn gardens or a hunting foray. They may chat softly for a few minutes about the day’s toils and revelations—peccaries plundering the manioc crop, tapir tracks along the stream—or they may be too tired, and so remain silent. One of them reaches into a coarsely woven net bag slung across his chest and removes the shell of a giant snail (Megalobulimus sp.), known as pompori in Matsigenka, which can be as white and polished as porcelain from years of use. He extracts a cloth wad from the shell’s orifice, careful not to spill any of the precious green powder stored inside. He raps the shell with his knuckles, tilting it slightly downward so the powder sifts down from the coiled innards towards the mouth.

"Green tobacco powder is mixed with the ash obtained from burning the bark of an exceedingly rare tree species known simply as seritaki, 'tobacco bark'.[2]"

The tobacco’s owner brandishes his seritonki, or “tobacco bone,” an L-shaped tube made from two leg bones of the curassow, a pheasant-sized game bird with silky black feathers and a hooked, bright red beak. The bones are secured with sticky brown resin and twists of handspun cotton. Then follows a brief but animated conversation as the two men decide who will go first—which is to say, who will start out on the receiving end of the seritonki


“You first!” says the tobacco’s owner. 


“No, you first!” says the other man. “Your tobacco is very painful! I’ll never get used to it.”

“You first!” insists the tobacco’s owner. It’s like watching two gentlemen bicker over who will hold the door.

“All right, I’ll go ahead, but just two nostrils’ full,” the second man acquiesces. He rubs his nose and scratches his head in anticipation.  


The man holding the shell dips the barrel of the tobacco bone—fine hatchmarks or circular striations distinguish the nostril side from the smooth end used for blowing—into the powder several times, scraping up a sizable dose. Then he taps the far end of the bone on the rim of the shell, first one side, then backhand on the opposite rim. The shell rings like a silver bell: 


Ting-ting-ting-ting! Ting-ting-ting!

The staccato ringing of bone on shell is the aural hallmark of the tobacco session, a sound with Pavlovian powers to evoke a craving not so much for the substance alone as for the whole ritualized encounter surrounding its consumption. Some men ring the shell with virtuosic intensity, announcing to all within earshot that tobacco is to be had; but the tapping has a practical function too, making the snuff settle into the L-shaped juncture where the two bones are bonded.


"The staccato ringing of bone on shell is the aural hallmark of the tobacco session."

The one holding the loaded tobacco bone leans forward, bringing the striated barrel close to his companion’s face. The man about to receive tobacco closes his eyes tightly, scrunches up his nose, holds his breath, and guides the marked tip of the bone into one nostril. The first man then puckers his lips and puffs on the unmarked in short blasts to blow the dose of snuff first into one nostril, then the next, back and forth in quick succession, as his companion tilts his head slightly from side to side to receive the tobacco. As with shell tapping, each man has his own distinctive style for delivering and receiving the snuff; some men exhale forcefully in short grunts, others blow long solid blasts or gentle puffs; some receive a few hits in one nostril before switching, others go back and forth quickly, others pause to squint deliberately between nostrils-full; some tilt, some grimace, some nod, some sway. The giver continues puffing back and forth between nostrils until he is out of breath and satisfied that all remnants of snuff in the tube are buried deep in the sinuses of his companion.  


When the first dose (what the Matsigenka call a single “nostril-full”—panakitero—though it is in fact several) is complete, the recipient recoils from the tobacco bone—sometimes grimacing and hacking, sometimes sneezing and rubbing his head, sometimes wiping away tears and crying out as the nicotine burns and stings its way into his mucus membranes. And yet despite the pain, rarely if ever does he pull away after the promised “two nostrils’ full”: Matsigenka etiquette is full of subtle demurring, self-deprecation and understatement.  


"Despite the pain, rarely if ever does he pull away after the promised 'two nostrils’ full'."

They repeat the cycle again and again, scooping snuff, ringing bone on shell, blasting tobacco, until the recipient finally whimpers, “Intaga!” Enough. And then the two switch roles, as the man holding the tobacco bone turns the barrel on himself and packs doses of snuff for the other man to blow up his nose in return. 

Soon both are nearly prostrate in nicotine intoxication, with watery eyes, slack faces, sweaty palms, a staggering gait (if they’re even able to walk), and nostrils running copiously with bright green, snuff-laden mucus. 


It is not a pretty sight. But to be in that state—to have felt the giddy anticipation, heard the enticing ring of the bone, received the intimate forceful blasts, felt the burning, and to lie reeling afterwards from the short-lived rush—is indescribable: euphoric, transcendent, divine. Best of all, when the brief prostration passes, the user rises with a refreshing lightness and nimbleness of body and mind, utterly free of exhaustion and frustration from whatever toils have preceded. This, I guess, is the reason Matsigenka men so diligently return to their pompori shells night after night: to sweep away the fatigue of their hard, physical lives. After my own painful initiation—and after learning to judge my tolerance and (mostly) avoid unpleasant overdoses—I too came to crave tobacco snuff as a way of clearing away mental and physical fatigue after long, hot, scratchy days of pressing plants, hauling supplies, trekking with hunters, taping interviews, and swatting gnats.

But Matsigenka men do not take the sharing of tobacco lightly. A man’s tobacco is a concrete manifestation of his spiritual powers, and sharing tobacco implies the sharing or transfer of these powers.  Indeed, the word for shaman in the Matsigenka language is seripigari, literally, “the one intoxicated by tobacco.”[3] The Matsigenka are circumspect to the point of self-deprecation regarding such matters: no self-respecting shaman would ever openly claim to be one. Instead, those who boast of their shamanic powers are tacitly assumed to be sorcerers, who use spiritual powers for selfish, evil ends.


The most powerful shamans (like the best hunters) are usually the ones who most vehemently deny any such prowess: the Matsigenka universe is a delicate tapestry of reticence, nuance, and insinuation. And yet anyone who regularly consumes tobacco and other psychoactive plants (especially ayahuasca) is, by definition, a shaman, since nicotine intoxication is synonymous with shamanic trance. Shamanism, it would seem, is a matter of degree rather than kind, and although none but the most insecure or inept would openly admit as much, all those involved in sharing tobacco and ayahuasca are scaling the rungs of shamanic initiation. Not even the sky is the limit: the greatest shamans ascend beyond the heavens to mingle with immortal spirit beings, the very gods of creation who defend and perpetuate the universe through their ceaseless war against the forces of chaos and evil. 

"The word for shaman in the Matsigenka language is seripigari, literally, 'the one intoxicated by tobacco'."

As a material substance that stores and transmits spiritual power, tobacco is the shaman’s soul. The more “painful” or “pungent” (katsi) the tobacco, the more powerful the shaman. Nicotine addiction, a physiological reality, also has a spiritual component: The Matsigenka say a man’s shamanic spirit guide craves tobacco the way a hummingbird craves nectar. 


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Read the full article at Medium.

Excerpted from "Agony and Ecstasy in the Amazon: Tobacco, pain and the hummingbird shamans of Peru" Broad Street, vol 2, 'Bedeviled': 5-20 (2015).

Read another excerpt from "Agony and Ecstasy" on this blog.

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Read more about Matsigenka plants and shamanism from this blog:

"Dream tobacco"

"The return of the secret shaman"

"The ant, the shaman and the scientist" 

"The hunter in the rye"


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      References and notes:
     [1] Shepard, G.H. 1998. Psychoactive plants and ethnopsychiatric medicines of the Matsigenka. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 30(4):321-332.
     [2] Biologist colleague Douglas Yu collected a botanical voucher and eventually we identified it as belonging to an obscure family of trees, Lepidobotriaceae, distantly related to the sour-tasting herb known as wood sorrel (Oxalis). Our collection was the first specimen of this botanical group ever found in Peru, which was previously known only from Africa and Central America. Why they use this uncommon tree, among the thousands of species available in their lush rainforest environment, is a mystery.
     [3] Baer, G. 1992. The one intoxicated by tobacco: Matsigenka shamanism. In: Portals of Power: Shamanism in South America. J. Matteson-Langdon and G. Baer, eds. Pp. 79-100. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

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