The oldest documents that speak of the smoking of tobacco come from
the Maya, people who lived in Central America. The Mayan culture, and
later the Mayan Empire flourished 2000 years before our era, and survived
until the tenth century of our time.
Despite the enormous efforts of the Conquista, many writen documents
and tablets remained which illustrat in the specific artistic convention
of the time, the ways of life and beliefs of the people.
For the Maya people, tobacco was not only used for leisure and
recreation, but predominantly was a prayer-like connection with the gods.
The Mayans believed that humankind was created from the blood of the gods,
and in return the people must offer blood to them as often as possible, be
it their own blood, or the blood of others. Apart from tearing the hearts
out of their live offerings, the Mayans also injured themselves –
they would drag sharp thorns through a pierce tongue, or skinned
themselves as a sacrifice, etc. In this blood they dipped a rag or piece
of paper and then set it alight. The rising smoke from this was the
offering and feeding of the gods. Hence, the smoking of tobacco took on a
religious symbolism. On a tablet from Palenque, which is shown below, a
chaplain from a Maya tribe is depicted ceremonially smoking a cigar. Take
notice of his unusually ornamented head - a wreath of tobacco leaves
complementing his ceremonial dress.
The smoking of tobacco also played a role in rest and relaxation, as
is illustrated in the tablet above of a member of royalty contemplating
his personal valuables. It is difficult to imagine a more convincing
example of addiction to tobacco.
However, for the Aztecs, tobacco played a gloomier role. The bloody
sacrifices offered to god Tezcatlipoc, for which thousands were killed,
always occurred in connection with the smoking of large quantities of
tobacco. Many central American tribes used tobacco smoke to bring out the
‘wild fury’ in their warriors - the readiness to fight
was achieved by the generous fumigation with tobacco smoke. Even today,
all the armies of the world take care to ensure that their soldiers always
have a constant supply of tobacco (and vodka).
It is interesting that certain Indian tribes of South America, who
were not interested in growing plants and occupied themselves mainly with
hunting and gathering, did in fact harvest tobacco. In fact they even took
time from their hunting to tent to the plants. Obviously, activities that
lead to pleasure were ultimately more important than feeding themselves.
Maya priest smoking cigar.