The European (Re)discovery of the Shamans

Carlo Ginzburg

In a book which appeared in Venice in 1565, later reprinted and translated many times, La Historia del mondo nuovo, the Milanese Girolamo Benzoni described what he had seen in the course of his 14 years of travelling in the ‘newly discovered islands and seas’ beyond the Ocean. About the island of Hispaniola, he related the following:

In this island, as also in other provinces of these new countries, there are some bushes, not very large, like reeds, that produce a leaf in shape like that of the walnut, though rather larger, which (where it is used) is held in great esteem by the natives, and very much prized by the slaves whom the Spaniards have brought from Ethiopia.

    When these leaves are in season, they pick them, tie them up in bundles, and suspend them near their fire-place till they are very dry; and when they wish to use them, they take a leaf of their grain [maize] and putting one of the others into it, they roll them round tight together; then they set fire to one end, and putting the other end into the mouth, they draw their breath up through it, wherefore the smoke goes into the mouth, the throat, the head, and they retain it as long as they can, for they find a pleasure in it, and so much do they fill themselves with this cruel smoke, that they lose their reason. And there are some who take so much of it, that they fall down as if they were dead, and remain me greater part of the day or night stupefied ... See what a pestiferous and wicked poison from the devil this must be. It has happened to me several times that, going through the provinces of Guatemala and Nicaragua, I have entered the house of an Indian who had taken this herb, which in the Mexican language is called tabacco.

Following in the footsteps of the Russian Formalists, Shklovsky above all, we have learned to look for estrangement in the gaze of a savage, of a child or perhaps even an animal: beings cut-off from the conventions of civil life, which they record with a bewildered or indifferent eye, thus indirectly pointing to their lack of meaning. Here we find ourselves confronted with a situation which is paradoxically reversed: the foreigner is the Milanese Girolamo Benzoni; those who perform the meaningless gesture of lighting a cigarette and smoking it are the savage Indians. In the flight of Girolamo Benzoni (‘and immediately perceiving the sharp fetid smell of this truly diabolical and stinking smoke, I was obliged to go away in haste, and seek some other place’) one is tempted to see a symbolic anticipation of the withdrawal of the non-smokers before the advance – which has perhaps already reached its outer limit – of the army of tobacco smokers.

The Milanese traveller’s is one of innumerable first-hand accounts of the encounter between Europeans and the disconcerting novelties of the Ocean beyond: animals, plants, customs. Today it’s fashionable to place these documents in a very general category, that of an encounter with the Other: an expression with a somewhat metaphysical flavour, though it does emphasise the intersection within these relationships of natural and cultural otherness. A few pages after Girolamo Benzoni’s invective against the effects of tobacco (‘See what a pestiferous and wicked poison from the devil this must be’) there follows a description of the way the plant was used by indigenous doctors. ‘Intoxicated’ by the smoke, the invalid, ‘on returning to his senses, told a thousand stories of his having been at the council of the gods and other high visions’. The doctors then ‘turn the invalid round three or four times, rubbing his back and loins well with their hands, making many grimaces at him, and holding a pebble or bone in then mouth all the time. These things the women keep as holy, believing that they aid childbirth.’ In the eyes of the Milanese traveller indigenous doctors were clearly witches – and the effects of the tobacco which they administered diabolical hallucinations.

A similar ambivalence is found in a book of a few years later, by Monardes, a doctor from Seville: Primera y segunda y tercera partes de la Historia Medicinal. On the one hand, exaltations of the ‘great powers of tobacco’, recently introduced to the gardens and orchards of Spain, to care for every sort of illness: asthma, consumption, stomach and uterine pains. On the other hand, scandalised descriptions of the use which the Indians, in their religious ceremonies, made of that miraculous herb. Monardes writes that the priests, before divining the future, became dazed by the tobacco smoke until they fell to the ground like dead men: then, returned to their senses, they responded to the queries which were put to them, interpreting ‘in their own way, or following the inspiration of the Devil’, the apparitions and illusions they had perceived in their cataleptic state. But the priests were not the only ones ‘to get drunk’ (emborracharse) with the tobacco smoke: the Indians would do the same thing, for pleasure or in order to see the future in the images which presented themselves to their minds. ‘The Devil, who is a deceiver and knows the power of the herbs,’ Monardes comments, ‘has taught the Indians the virtue of tobacco: and leads them into deceit through visions and apparitions which the tobacco procures.’

For Monardes, then, one of the characteristics of tobacco is the ability to procure the ‘visions and apparitions’ which the ancient doctors had attributed to deadly nightshade, anise or horseradish, but one can make a more detailed comparison by considering two other substances endowed with hallucinatory powers and largely consumed in the East Indies: bangue and anphion – marijuana and opium. On the subject of bangue (or Cannabis indica, as it was classified by European botanists) Monardes cites and relies on the Portuguese doctor Garcia da Orta, the author of Coloquios dos simples e drogas da India, a work in the form of a dialogue on the herbs and aromas of the East Indies: but he adds details and specifications based on direct observation. Garcia da Orta spoke generically about the diffusion of bangue and opium; Monardes claims that the latter is preferred by the poor whereas the rich prefer bangue, which is tastier and more aromatic. A few years before, the doctor of Burgos, Christoval Acosta, in his Tractado de las Drogas, y medicinas de las Indias Orientales, had traced a typology of the consumers of bangue: some take it in order to forget fatigue and to sleep peacefully; others in order to amuse themselves in sleep with dreams and multi-coloured illusions; others in order to get drunk; others for its aphrodisiac effects (something Monardes omits altogether); the great lords and captains to forget their worries. All of the testimonies emphasise the way the inhabitants of the East Indies have become accustomed to these narcotic substances. Five seeds of opium would kill one of us, Monardes recounts in amazement: sixty seeds give them health and rest.

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