Blog Post 124 – Tobacco
[A note here: This is NOT a medical blog, and the information here should not be treated as medical information. I present only folkloric examples of practices historically done by certain people at certain times. Additionally, I am NOT condoning the use of cigarettes, snuff, or any other tobacco product, especially for minors. If you choose to put into practice anything you find here, you take responsibility for your own actions. Leave me out of it. Thank you!]
This particular magical herb/plant/ingredient is rather controversial. As a reformed smoker, I know the power of tobacco’s hold on a person—it’s not just the nicotine, but a whole range of psychological dependencies that develop when one is a smoker. What I’m looking at in this post, however, is not really tobacco as a commodity sold in convenience stores using cartoon animals, but instead the plant found in the Nicotiana genus. Tobacco is a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which includes other rather magical plants like belladonna, datura, and mandrake as well as common (yet mythically significant) edibles like the tomato, potato, and chili pepper. The plant is also a potent natural insecticide—or insect deterent, rather—and an infusion of tobacco leaves in water is often sprayed in organic garden to keep pests away.
Tobacco, like corn, is deeply significant to certain Native American tribes, who incorporate tobacco into ceremonies and offerings. Cherokee shamans, for example, would use sacred tobacco in ceremonies designed to combat “night-goers,” evil spirits or people who invaded the dreams of others. Tobacco smoke was also used as a curative for a number of ailments, and these uses filtered into non-Native practices over time (which we’ll see in just a moment).
When tobacco met European colonists, it experienced a boom in popularity that has kept it one of the top cash crops worldwide ever since—for better or for worse. It has been deeply wound up in the lives of most North Americans for centuries now, including in their folk medical and magical practices. One oft-repeated use of the leaf was as a treatment for insect stings and bites, as well as other types of wounds:
- Tobacco used as a poultice to soothe “abdominal pain…cuts, stings, bites, bruises, and even bullet wounds.” It is thought to “draw out poison” (Randolph, p. 98)
- “TOBACCO. The leaves are put on a wound to stop bleeding or to prevent infection” (Gainer, p.109)
- Tobacco, especially homegrown, is good for insect stings and bites (Foxfire 9, p. 66)
- Wet leaves are wrapped on feet to prevent infection of “full sores” (Cavendar, p. 118-9)
- Tobacco juice/tea used to wash wounds from snake/dog bites (Cavendar, p. 118-9)
- A personal informant told me that her grandmother used to put wads of chewing tobacco on cuts, bug bites, and stings to help heal them (informant “Darlene”)
The other chief folk medicinal use for tobacco was the application of smoke to sick or troubled persons. There were almost as many mentions of this method as there were of the poultice method. Here are a few:
- Tobacco smoke can be held in the mouth as a cure for a toothache (Cavendar, p. 118-19)
- Smoke was blown into an ear for an earache, accompanied by the rhyme “Hurt, Hurt, go away/go into a bale of hay” (Cavendar, p. 118-9)
- Tobacco smoke is blown into the clothes of colicky children to quiet them, or blown through a straw and “bubbled” in milk as a sedative (Randolph, p.98)
This method clearly derives (I think, anyway) from the Native American medical practices which Europeans adopted in the New World.
The use of tobacco has always had its controversies, of course. Some objected to it on aesthetic grounds, thinking the act of smoking vulgar and primitive. Others were disgusted by the smoke and smell associated with the burning leaves. Still others thought it a waste of money or even a diabolical entrapment for hapless Christians. One poem I found was circulated in the middle-Appalachians during the nineteenth century and covered all these points:
“Tobacco is an Indian weed,
The Devil himself sowed the seed;
Robs your pockets, burns your clothes,
And makes a chimney out of your nose” (Milne, p. 58)
The religious objections to tobacco were primarily on its use as a vice and an intoxicant. According to Foxfire 7, the Jehovah’s Witnesses had especial objections to it, and for quite intriguing reasons: “Smoking has always been completely out of vogue among Jehovah’s Witnesses…As the Society researched the derivations of tobacco and smoking, they found it to be associated with spiritism.” They also related tobacco to “drugs” used by “priests in pagan ceremony and worship” (Foxfire 7, p. 152-3).
When it comes to purely magical uses of tobacco, the information I found varied a good bit. Zora Neale Hurston mentions it as a cursing ingredient in a powerful separation spell. She also tells a very interesting story about a man who takes shelter in an abandoned house only to be joined by a mysterious old man who begins spitting tobacco across the fire at him. When the man attempts to fight the old fellow, he finds himself thrown across the room over and over again. In this context, there seems to be a subtle current relating the “old man” of the story to the Crossroads Man, Papa Legba, or perhaps the Devil (or maybe even all three from a certain perspective).
One article from 1890 indicated that tobacco was included in mojo bags made with the famous lucky rabbit’s foot.
Cat Yronwode recommends tobacco as an ingredient in court case and spirit contact work. In this latter capacity, I’ve see tobacco used as an offering to various spirits, particularly crossroads entities and spirits of the dead (Central American folk-saint/crossroads spirit Maximon frequently smokes cigarettes or cigars). Denise Alvarado’s Voodoo-Hoodoo Spellbook indicates that tobacco is frequently offered to Baron Samedi in the New Orleans Voodoo tradition.
I would also suggest that due to the calmative and drawing effects that tobacco exhibits in folk medicine, it makes a useful addition to house-cleansing and blessing incenses. A very small pinch added to another incense blend in a well-ventilated house should draw evil spirits out of your home and welcome friendly (and particularly, ancestral) spirits into it. If you or anyone you live with cannot abide tobacco smoke, however, consider burying a little cut tobacco leaf at the four corners of your property to produce a similar effect.
Lastly, if you choose to smoke tobacco in a ritual context, consider whispering prayers as you exhale smoke. It makes a fantastic visual focus point to see your requests and adoration slowly rising from your mouth and into the air. Again, I don’t condone smoking (especially not outside of a very occasional ritual setting), but if you do incorporate it into your practices, I hope that this suggestion helps.
That’s it for the devil-weed tobacco! I hope this proves useful to some of you out there. Please let me know if you have any other magical or folk remedy uses for tobacco leaf in the comments below.
As always, thanks for reading!
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