The angel in the gourd: Ritual, therapeutic, and protective uses of tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) among the Tzeltal and Tzotzil Maya of Chiapas, Mexico

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Abstract

In this article, I document contemporary highland Maya use of traditional tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) preparations among the highland Maya (Tzeltal-Tzotzil) of Chiapas, Mexico. Among the Ancient Maya, Nicotiana was considered a sacred plant, closely associated with deities of earth and sky, and used for both visionary and therapeutic ends. The contemporary Tzeltal and Tzotzil Maya of Highland Chiapas are bearers of this ethnobotanical inheritance, preserving a rich and varied tradition of Nicotiana use and folklore. The entire tobacco plant is viewed as a primordial medicine and a powerful botanical "helper" or "protector." Depending on the condition to be treated, whole Nicotiana leaves used are used alone or in combination with other herbs in the preparation of various medicinal plasters and teas. In its most common form, fresh or "green" leaves are ground with slaked lime to produce an intoxicating oral snuff that serves as both a protective and therapeutic agent. Despite its historical and cultural significance, traditional tobacco use is declining in favor of smoked tobaccos. The article closes with a discussion of the social transformations responsible for this decline, reviewing research that suggests tobacco powder snuffs may be less dangerous to health than smoked tobaccos, despite their addictive potential.

LanguageEnglish
Pages5-30
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of Ethnobiology
Volume30
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2010
Externally publishedYes

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tobacco use
gourds
Nicotiana tabacum
nicotine
religious behavior
tobacco
Mexico
Nicotiana
therapeutics
highlands
plaster
calcium hydroxide
helper
tea
folklore
leaves
herbs
mouth
powders
medicine

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abstract = "In this article, I document contemporary highland Maya use of traditional tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) preparations among the highland Maya (Tzeltal-Tzotzil) of Chiapas, Mexico. Among the Ancient Maya, Nicotiana was considered a sacred plant, closely associated with deities of earth and sky, and used for both visionary and therapeutic ends. The contemporary Tzeltal and Tzotzil Maya of Highland Chiapas are bearers of this ethnobotanical inheritance, preserving a rich and varied tradition of Nicotiana use and folklore. The entire tobacco plant is viewed as a primordial medicine and a powerful botanical {"}helper{"} or {"}protector.{"} Depending on the condition to be treated, whole Nicotiana leaves used are used alone or in combination with other herbs in the preparation of various medicinal plasters and teas. In its most common form, fresh or {"}green{"} leaves are ground with slaked lime to produce an intoxicating oral snuff that serves as both a protective and therapeutic agent. Despite its historical and cultural significance, traditional tobacco use is declining in favor of smoked tobaccos. The article closes with a discussion of the social transformations responsible for this decline, reviewing research that suggests tobacco powder snuffs may be less dangerous to health than smoked tobaccos, despite their addictive potential.",
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