Rapéh: The Tobacco Medicine

Rapéh: The Tobacco Medicine
This article was commissioned by Planet Kambo, providing a dedicated team of experienced practitioners trained in the application of Kambo – a secretion from the Amazonian giant monkey frog. It is believed that Kambo, used in combination with Rapéh, activates a radical physical, emotional and mental cleansing process.


Once associated with Breakfast At Tiffany’s, ‘Tobacco’ today conjures up images of rotting teeth on cigarette packets, discarded butt-ends littering side streets, and fashionable nicotine patches for addiction. However it’s well established that the difference between a killer and a cure is context, dose and frequency; and in the right hands, ‘Tabaco‘ is considered a sacred and healing shamanic tool that has been used in the Amazon basin for millennia.

Rapéh (‘ha-peh’) is one such example of the right snuff stuff, playing an essential role in indigenous culture and history. Contrary to some modern practices, Rapéh is not traditionally sniffed, snorted or inhaled but ‘administered’ using a blowpipe (often made of wood or bone) that is blown sharply into the nostrils – either by someone else (“Tepi”) or via self-administration (“Kuripe”).

Rapéh is traditionally used during a variety of community rituals from initiation, social and puberty rites, to Cashiri drinking festivals and communal healing ceremonies. The intense blow of the ashen powder through the nose immediately focuses the mind, quiets the chatter, and brings you into the present – hence its use in grounding and intention setting practices before something like a Kambo cleanse or an Ayahuasca ceremony. For those interested in Rapéh ceremonies (without Kambo) you can join the London Psychedelic Society’s decentralised Dandelion Platform.


Snuffing Out Cigarettes

As an ecosystem, the Amazon is one of the most biodiverse places on earth, and there are many varieties of the Tobacco leaf. The core of Rapéh is the plant species Nicotiana rustica, often blended with tree ash. N. rustica which is also known as ‘Mapacho’, “Corda” or “Moi” in Rapéh rituals. This is much stronger than the N. tabacum species found in conventional cigarettes.

Both are legal preparations and can have stimulating effects, but whereas cigarette tobacco is harmful, Rapéh is considered healing in certain contexts. Rapéh is not suitable for smoking, and unlike cigarettes, it does not contain many of the chemical additives implicated in carcinogenesis. The Tobacco leaf is first cut and dried over a low fire, before being blended with other plants. The ashes used in this finely ground and strained blend come from the bark of a variety of medicinal trees, with the recipe for the exact composition and ratio of ingredients often being the sacred and secret art of the Shaman.


Ritual, Ceremony and Community

On a chemical level, the nicotine content of Rapéh releases neurotransmitters including epinephrine, dopamine and acetylcholine, supporting increased focus, mood, presence and intuition. Energetically, it is said that Rapéh helps to re-align energy channels and facilitate connection with the higher-self, as well as the wider ecosystem and universe at large. In some circles it is also believed to stimulate the pineal gland (the ‘third eye’), which may be involved in melatonin secretion, circadian time perception, and drug metabolism. Melatonin is important for brain plasticity, and protecting the nervous system from oxidative stress.

The Incas reportedly used Tobacco snuff for ‘purging the head’, believing it to pave the way for detoxifying the body of excess mucus, toxins and bacteria as it enters deep into the nostrils. If the body is particularly congested, vomiting may be a welcome and cleansing side effect. For the indigenous tribes of the Americas, sacred Tobacco is still used medically for treating certain diseases, sores, wounds and as a defence against insects. It also has analgesic and narcotic properties that ease pain, hunger and thirst.

As well as certain blends for specific diseases such as flu, Tobacco can potentiate the healing abilities of other plant medicines, such as Ayahuasca. A Rapéh ceremony is often conducted before such a visionary quest to assist with the purging process, calm the nerves and focus the mind on its intentions. Tobacco has mind-altering properties itself and depending on the blend, it may even have psychoactive properties. It contains Harman and Norharman, two alkaloids that are closely related to Harmine and Harmaline. These two Beta-carbolines inhibit the enzyme monoamine oxidase, which give it anti-depressant and stimulatory effects, while the high nicotine content increases blood flow to the brain for delivery.


Tepi And Kuripe

When dosing and blowing Rapéh, generally only a pea-sized amount of fine, ashen powder is used to begin with. If you are inexperienced with Rapéh it is best to conduct the ceremony with an experienced provider using a Tepi. There are many different types of blowing technique depending on the aim, however the most common form is a long blow of increasing intensity, sharply pushing the Rapéh further up the nostril for deep cleansing.

Although the first blow can feel overwhelming for someone that is not used to the sensation, it should quickly be followed by a second blow in the alternate nostril, to harmonise the hemispheres. In some practices, the first nostril on the left symbolises death, with the second on the right signifying rebirth. After the experience, it is best to remain calm, while inhaling and exhaling slowly through the mouth, enabling grounding and focus. Try not to allow the mind to put the experience into words or to give into the drama – instead centre on intentions of clarity, healing and insight as the process unfolds.

The end of the ceremony is often marked by the expulsion of phlegm and the administration of Sananga to the eyes, for clarity and vision. Sananga is a potent, translucent liquid made from the shredded root of an Amazonian shrub, Tabernaemontana Sananh, whose extracts are anti-inflammatory and protective against parasites. Like most shamanic medicines, the prescription is highly individual and it may take a little experimentation before finding the dose that works for you. Prolonged usage also leads to increased tolerance, with incremental amounts of powder being required with increased frequency of use. The ritualistic and ceremonial nature of application is designed to reduce habituation and dependency.


Purging Set And Setting

To prepare for Rapéh, you should be in a calm and respectful environment, with the time and ability to centre yourself beforehand. While the initial reaction is no longer than a few minutes, the effects linger for much longer. The origins of its use treats each medicinal plant as sacrament, often saying prayer and setting well-considered intentions in a ceremonial space. Incense, chumpi stones, gentle music and the presence of nature all assist in creating a meditative space for energetic, physical and emotional alignment.

To get the most out of a ceremony, all sacred medicine should be handled with respect, meaning well considered motives, a healthy dieta and not combining the experience with substances like alcohol. Most medicinal plants stimulate a purging of energy, toxins or fluids from the body. It is important to allow loosened mucus from the throat and nasal passages to flow freely and be emptied with a strong blow, only after a few minutes of deep breathing and concentration. Stay hydrated and drink water, non-caffeinated tea, or fruit juice to assist the cleansing process. Naturally sweet fruit juices may help with grounding if you feel dizzy after a session.

Traditionally, the process of preparation is considered sacred and may take weeks, with the chief of the tribe, the ‘pajero’, often working under a strict diet and in a trance-like state while pounding and mixing ingredients. Each tribe in the Amazon basin from the Katukina to the Matses, has their own specific blend and purpose, and it is reported that many elders speak of the importance of joining forces both with other tribes and wider nations, to encourage the adoption of intentional and eco-centric perspectives that foster cohesive and sustainable futures.

This is balanced against the stresses and strains of an increasingly commercialised and extractive environment of mass production and consumption. However in a time when we are increasingly connected to technology, yet disconnected from our earthly roots, it’s relatively recently that tribes have begun to share the healing properties of their sacred medicines with the rest of their forgetful foreign family; offering the chance for such knowledge and its applications to continue to be handed down for the generations to come.