- Kambô, Rapé and Sananga: A Reset on Body, Mind and Vision - February 18, 2020
On the road opened by the expansion of ayahuasca in urban centers, other native plants, substances, and knowledge of the Amazon rainforest came to circulate in this global neoshamanic circuit. Among these, three stand out: kambô, rapé (snuff), and sananga. My contact with these medicines occurred in their region of origin; more precisely, in the far west of the Brazilian Amazon, near the border with Peru.
Kambô, also known as the “frog vaccine,” is the cutaneous secretion of the frog Philomedusa bicolor, native to the Amazon rainforest. Originally, the use of kambô is associated with the native concept of “taking out panema.” Panema can be translated as “bad luck,” especially in hunting, but also in love.
The secretion is applied as follows: Early in the morning (recommended even before sunrise), the one who will receive the application should be fasting and drink only water or caiçuma (fermented cassava drink that facilitates vomiting). The person doing the application will then use a specific type of vine (known in this part of Brazil as cipó titica), setting it on fire it so that it is red-hot. With the embers at the tip of this vine, small burns are made in the form of small “points” on the skin. The burned skin is removed, and the secretion, previously hydrated with water, is superficially inserted at these points. The number of points can vary greatly. From just one or two points, to over three hundred, as reported by the Noke Koi people, who are frequent users of kambô. Most commonly, however, these points number anywhere from three to, at most, twenty, especially among non-Indians.
The first reaction is an increase in blood pressure and heartbeat. The face is usually swollen, especially the lips, which gives a very unusual appearance. Next, the blood pressure seems to fall sharply. Some people even faint. The expected effect is that the person vomits bile, yellowish or greenish; but not all vomit. There is a rest period that can range from a few hours to a few days, and then the effect is usually of a feeling of great physical well being.
I met kambô in the late 1990s; not through an indigenous person, but through former rubber tapper Francisco Gomes Muniz, an Amazonian mestizo with extensive forest experience.
I met kambô in the late 1990s; not through an indigenous person, but through former rubber tapper Francisco Gomes Muniz, an Amazonian mestizo with extensive forest experience. Through a set of happy coincidences, Francisco discovered an intriguing parallel between the native concept of misfortune in love (panema) as a consequence of “clogging the heart” and the contemporary medical concept of clogged arteries that can be treated by a doctor with catheterization. Following this concept, Francisco started applying kambô to people with various health complaints, and, in most cases, improvement or total cure was reported. Since then, the use of kambô has been cited as a direct cause of cure or amelioration of a growing body of diseases by the patients themselves, but without its effectiveness having been proven in terms of modern medical science. However, it is important to note that caution is necessary in evaluating these claims.
If, on the one hand, kambô can indeed heal assorted diseases, there is also an increase in reports of deaths associated directly or indirectly with its use. Although the Noke Koi have said that, historically, kambô has never caused a death, with its use expanding each year beyond the geographical boundaries where it was confined for centuries or millennia, the news of deaths related to its use is increasing. There is not enough research to indicate why this may be happening. Perhaps it is only due to the increased sample size and exposure to people with unknown health histories. One empirically-based warning is that kambô can be dangerous for people with a history of heart problems. Another point is that the dosage does not follow very objective criteria. The person applying the kambo will use their intuition to determine the dose of each patient. An experienced applicator is also able to moderate the effect of the vaccine by using water at the application site. Often, people who offer this medicine in large centers are not sufficiently trained in these subtleties.
Traditional use brings yet another noteworthy component: The natives who make traditional use of kambô attach great importance to those who apply it. In the native concept, the substance is only part of what is applied; the other part refers to the qualities of the applicator being a good hunter, a good worker or, eventually, a good healer, who wants to pass on these qualities to the recipient. In the native conception, the substance is a vehicle for such qualities to be transmitted, and imprinted, on the recipient’s body.
On the internet, the reader can find some scientific works about kambô; see
The rapé snuff native to this Amazon region is basically tobacco (Nicotiana rustica) dried in the sun, ground and sifted, and added to other plants in recipes that vary between peoples, and even among them, depending on who prepares it. The Yawanawá rapé, with which I had the most contact, is usually produced only with tobacco and tsunô; the latter being a tree identified by some as the “pau-pereira” (Platycyamus regnellii).
The tobacco is dried in the sun and then ground to powder. The tsuno bark is turned to ash and burned in a clay vase. Then, it is sifted, and the tsunô is added. The proportions used in the mixture may vary according to who prepares it. The function of the tsunô is to make the smell of tobacco less nauseating and to facilitate its later elimination. But, if used in large quantities, it makes the snuff very “hot.” Other mixtures can be used to alter the smell to make it more pleasing; one is the bark of the scented cumaru (Dipteryx odorata), among others.
Depending on the intensity of the application, the experience can range from mild discomfort to vomiting and fainting.
The effect of rapé may vary greatly, especially depending how intensely it is blown into the nasal passages. It is possible to self-apply with a device called a curipe, a small v-shaped pipe, with one end being inserted into the nose and the other into the mouth. Blowing on that device, the person can apply the snuff to himself. However, the strongest application usually depends on someone else blowing the snuff through a larger pipe called a tipi. This device has a larger opening for the mouth and a smaller opening for the nose. Among the natives, as much importance is placed on the act of application as on the snuff itself. A well-made snuff is valued, but the application is also an act of transmission. Depending on the intensity of the application, the experience can range from mild discomfort to vomiting and fainting. There is a feeling of increased pressure that can cause the person to release whistles that are associated with shamanic healing.
Although I had previous contact with the snuff, my deeper contact with its use and meaning came from the sessions I had with the Yawanawá people. The first thing that the Yawanawá taught me about their use was that the malaise generated from snuff use simulates the effect of some diseases, which would teach me how to deal with these diseases.
In the more or less systematic use we made of rapé during the session, in a demarcated period called a “diet,” the use of snuff was briefly associated with two purposes, paradoxically opposed to each other. My Yawanawá masters have taught me that snuff could be used to “clear thoughts or feelings,” whether the result of a dream, some daily adversity, or generated by the human tendency to ruminate and brood; thoughts that only hurt us.
The second purpose would be just the opposite of this: reinforcing good thinking and asking for its realization. That is, in the Yawanawá conception, the use of rapé is associated with thought. The power of the rapé is attached to what the thought itself fixed upon when receiving the rapé. The rapé, or rather, its effect once taken, is therefore used as a form of request. The blows are directed to what the recipient wants.
I draw attention here to the fact that the same rapé can be used either to “cut” or “clear” a bad thought or to reinforce a good one. Such a statement can serve as a warning for the user to maintain clarity in their reasons for using rapé. After all, an unclear intention, in the indigenous world, could bring exactly the opposite effect of the desired one. A brief comment may perhaps be made here that the word shinã, which designates “thinking” among the Yawanawá people, may also mean “feeling.”
There are other forms of use and different types of snuff for each people, but in this brief article, I limit myself to writing what is closest to my personal experience and what may be of interest to the nonindigenous adherents of these medicines. Excessive use of snuff can result in nasal irritation and headaches. The proper or inappropriate dosage varies for each person.
Sananga addresses the notion of visual acuity, a desired attribute in hunting. The strong reaction promoted by sananga, in indigenous terms, has the ability to remove “bad eyesight” and establish “good eyesight.”
Sananga is a shrub plant. (I found it with the classification Tabernaemontana sananho, but I would hesitate to say that it is the same plant, because there is a real confusion of nomenclatures in the Amazon region). Its roots are macerated in water and then filtered. Its application in the form of drops in the eyes causes an intense burning that can last from two to ten minutes. After the burning has passed, one usually reports that one’s vision has become sharper. The concept of vision can be thought of not only in its narrow sense, but also in expanded form, as native concepts suggest.
An old shaman of the Shawadawá people tried to tell me, as my eyes filled with tears from the effect of the sananga, in his terms, “bad eyesight” was mostly a byproduct of “bad feelings” and “bad thoughts” that made one see only “bad things” and not good ones; that is, opportunities. Yawarani, an old Yawanawá shaman, who died in February 2018, once told me that the heart is what really sees. This understanding comes from the correspondence between the indigenous notions of body, mind, and vision. Thought is shinã, while the heart, called uinti, is xinã raka: the one who distributes the thought. Veru is the eyes, but it can also be the wider sense of sight, and it actually resides in the heart; so Yawarani told me.
In trying to translate my own experience with these medicines into concepts more intelligible to Westerners, I like to compare the effect of these medicines, kambô, rapé, and sananga, to a reset on different levels.
In trying to translate my own experience with these medicines into concepts more intelligible to Westerners, I like to compare the effect of these medicines, kambô, rapé, and sananga, to a reset on different levels. If we think of the body, and the human mind, as a computer, we can easily grasp that the computer sometimes lags, usually due to too much information, which limits its processing capacity. A “CTR + ALT + DEL” may be required to restore its functions.
Somehow still inexplicable to me, such medicines seem to have this ability: to erase some functions so that they are restarted to their full potential. If we persist in the comparison, we will also know that it is not possible to use the “reboot” or “CTR + ALT + DEL” key too often; otherwise, you may damage the device.
I did not find material on the internet in English dealing with sananga. This link deals with its use among the Huni Kuin. There are many sites selling the product and some with recommendations for use from a neoshamanic perspective, but I did find a scientific paper dealing with the antibacterial effect of sananga; see here.
A more or less safe approach to differentiating indigenous from urban use would be to talk about the sacred and ritualistic aspect of its use, but there is just the opposite: Non-Indians have adopted ritual formalism as a guarantee of the proper use of these medicines; this formalism, most of the time, is not observed in the villages.
I like to think of the idea I have heard, and still hear, emphatically, from the initiated Indians: the notion of purpose. Having clarity on why an action should be done should be the first question, and, if there is not clear intent, it would be better not to do it, regardless of any ritual formalism that might be used. I also think it is necessary to observe what will be introduced into this system after it is “reset.” It seems to make no sense that, after using rapé, the subject is found to have the same thought patterns as before; the same goes for other medicines. This may be a quandry for all of us. What can we introduce that is new and different into our systems after the medicine?
In the absence of a definitive explanation, I think it is important to have a time set aside and devoted to these medicines, so that they are not confused with the banality of our daily stimuli and inattention.
In the absence of a definitive explanation, I think it is important to have a time set aside and devoted to these medicines, so that they are not confused with the banality of our daily stimuli and inattention. Contact with a more or less natural environment with stimuli other than our cell phones, cars, and computers seems like a good first step.
It seems that such medicines are here to stay and are unlikely to be confined to the villages again. Urban circles with more or less varied purposes use them, perhaps precisely to try to escape the web of meanings that bind us to an often leveling and trivializing reality. Perhaps it is up to these same people to allocate a proper place for medicines in order to avoid the risk that they themselves will be trivialized in the “free market” of sensation. You can find anthropological texts discussing the circulation of substances in the neoshamamic context here and here.
The globalization of such substances brings out some paradoxes. The first of these may refer to the very issue of environmental pressure to provide to a booming market, which is especially worrying in the case of kambô. Another point is its use outside its original contexts, often resulting in ritualization from a neoshamanic or New Age perspective, in which other, new meanings begin to circulate via these substances. There are also inherent health risks, often unknown to new users. Finally, there remains the prohibitionist trope about “drugs” that may be evoked against the use of such traditional substances.
Art by Mariom Luna.
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