Rapé – pronounced ha-PAY – is a preparation of powdered medicinal herbs, often with a tobacco base, that is taken through the nose. This practice of consuming powdered plant medicines through the nose is pre-Columbian and was first observed among the Brazilian indigenous tribes. In Europe, herbal snuff was introduced by the doctor and botanist Francisco Hernández de Boncalo in 1577 and the elites often took snuff as a headache treatment. During the 18th century inhaling snuff became fashionable among the European aristocracy.
Video Thumbnail Credit: Geenss Archenti Flores
Today, indigenous tribes in the Amazon basin continue to use rapé in all aspects of life, from formal ritual use in rites of puberty, initiation, cashiri drinkings festivals, social gatherings and healing ceremonies, to simply tuning into Nature and the healing power of sacred plant medicines alone or with friends.
The Katukina, Yawanawa, Kaxinawa, Nukini, Kuntanawa, Apurina, Ashaninka, and Matses produce their own specific kinds of rapé blends and have different ways of preparing the herbal snuff, different techniques of administering it, and different songs that are sung during the rapé rituals. The ritual use of rapé is also making its way around the world, introduced to the West through ayahuasca ceremonies by traveling shamans and by visitors who have spent time in the jungle with the Indians.
The Ritual Use of Rapé Among Indigenous Tribes of the Amazon Basin
From the indigenous point of view, rapé is a sacred shamanic snuff medicine with profound healing effects. Rapé is made from different medicinal plants for different purposes – to induce visions, to have energy, to enhance the senses with the aromatic fragrance of the plants used in the blend. Given that there are myriad medicinal plants you can blend into rapé, there are as many rapé recipes in existence, and these recipes are often closely guarded by the tribes.
Sharing rapé – or “passando rapé” – is a traditionally a ritualistic practice among the Indians that may include specific chants to activate the force of the rapé and to confer the healing power of the forest upon the rapé recipient.
In the video below, you can hear a traditional chant being chanted by Huni Kui shaman Ninawa Pai da Mata, as various people receive rapé at a gathering hosted by the Kuntanawa tribe.
The Art of Making Sacred Rapé
It’s a laborious process to make rapé, and rapé production is typically done in a ceremonial context, from gathering the sacred plants to cooking and processing the medicine. Traditionally, the person making the rapé blend needs to be an experienced shaman with thorough knowledge about the medicinal plants of the forest. In addition to having broad knowledge of the medicinal plants of the Amazon rainforest – one of the most biodiverse regions in the world – the shaman also needs to know precisely which part of each plant can be used. For example, the root bark of a plant can have a different purpose and effect than the leaves or the seeds of the same plant.
This sacred preparation of medicinal rapé is a process that may take weeks. Usually, the shaman of the tribe – the Pajé – works under a strict diet and in a trance-state when endlessly pounding and mixing the rapé herbs. The other members of the tribe are responsible for the collection of rapé plants. The plants will either be sun-dried or roasted and are filtered several times through a fine cloth and then mixed with other ingredients to obtain the final batch.
In earlier times, the Pajé used the final batch in a ceremony on his own. Nowadays, the whole tribe takes part in this magical ceremonial event. Only recently, the tribes share their sacred medicine with foreign friends, passing on the knowledge and application for the next generations. Still, many of the blend compositions remain a secret of the tribe.
The Healing Properties of Medicinal Rapé
Rapé can be mixed also with other mind altering plants, like coca, jurema, or yopo and can potentiate the healing capacity of other plants, like ayahuasca. Furthermore, rapé helps releasing emotional, physical, and spiritual illnesses and eases negativity and confusion, enabling a thorough grounding of the mind. Likewise, shamans use rapé to re-align with their energy channels and with their higher self, and to intensify their connection with the world and the universe. In addition, rapé paves the way to detoxify the body and cleans out all excessive mucus, toxins and bacteria.
Medicinal rapé is also used as a cure for certain diseases, sores, wounds, and as a defense against insects and also as an analgesic and narcotic substance that eases fatigue, pain, hunger, and thirst. There are even special rapé blends that are made to counteract influenza and other diseases. Tobacco-based rapé contains nicotine, so its use increases the brain blood flow and affects the release of several stimulatory neurotransmitter leading to antidepressant and stimulatory effects – thereby heightening your focus, presence, and intuition and opening the body to higher communication and holistic thinking and understanding.
The art of making rapé has been passed onto non-indigenous people, so that you can even find rapé-making enthusiasts and groups in parts of Brazil outside the Amazon. The use of rapé has also been adopted by the Santo Daime communities as well. Outside of Brazil, rapé is often offered by Western facilitators of ayahuasca ceremonies. While there is a great deal of debate among the tribes and between the elders and younger generation over the extent that this knowledge ought to be shared with outsiders, appreciation of the sacred art of making and taking rapé is growing in the global shamanic community.