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Ritual & Pleasure

The ritual practices and simple pleasures of smoking dates back to the earliest known history of humankind. In numerous ancient cultures, smoking played a central role and had numerous meanings associated with it. Over the centuries, smoking has been used for religious rituals, medicine for its perceived healing properties and of course, for enjoyment and relaxation.

In modern society, we are well aware of the numerous dangers of recreationally smoking tobacco and other herbs. But in a historical context, their use takes on a host of meanings and is a most fascinating subject.    

Avid Puffers

The Greek historian Herodotus, also known as the “Father of History” in the Western world, provides us with one of the world’s earliest written accounts of smoking.

In his writings he mentions the Scythians, Ancient Iranians who would place hemp seeds on hot stones inside of a teepee like structure and inhale the fumes. He describes the pleasures they would experience, resulting in giggling and light-headedness. The ancient Mayans were also passionate about tobacco use. At first they chewed the leaf, but then they began to smoke it as well. When they spread out through Central America, they brought their tobacco with them and passed on their traditions to the Aztec Kingdom. The first pictorial evidence of smoking comes from Guatemalan pottery, dating back to around 800 A.D. The pieces depict the Maya rolling cigarettes made of whole tobacco leaves and smoking them.

When Columbus arrived in the Caribbean, he was gifted with numerous items by the natives including exotic fruit, knives and a fragrant dried leaf that he was not sure what to do with. He soon learned that it was meant for smoking. It was not long after Columbus returned to Europe that smoking began to spread across the continent. The first European smokers used a pipe, eventually switching to snuff. It wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that the rolled cigarette was invented by the Turkish and subsequently made its way to Europe. By the time World War I was in full swing, smoking had become hugely popular in many parts of the world.

Long before written and verifiable accounts of smoking, we know that ancient cultures inhaled smoke and herbs due to numerous discoveries of pipes by archaeologists.

Piping Down

Smoking tobacco and herbs goes much further back in history than the times of the Scythians. Evidence suggests the use of pipes was widespread throughout numerous cultures in ancient times.

Upon excavating a number of Egyptian mummies, archaeologists have found pipes and remnants of tobacco leaves, dating back to 2000 B.C., buried with them. Although they are not sure of the exact nature in which smoking was used in Egyptian culture, it likely had religious significance. North American Indians used pipes as far back as 1500 B.C., primarily for ceremonial purposes and symbolic gestures. They are particularly well known for their use of the peace pipe, smoked before making treaties to ensure peaceful thoughts and long-lasting bonds between people.

The Vikings throughout Scandinavia used pipes and the herb angelikarot was commonly smoked in Norway. In later years, chalk and iron pipes were mass-produced for sailors in Norway. King Christian the IVth of Denmark, very much against the idea of pipe smoking especially on ships, punished sailors who were caught doing so by keelhauling. A severe form of corporal punishment, the sailor would be tied to a rope, thrown overboard and dragged under the ship’s keel. Barnacles would often cut him up and if he were not pulled up soon enough, he would drown to death.

The early advancement of pipe technology can be attributed to natives of the western provinces of India.

Hookah Heaven

The hookah originated in India along the border of Pakistan and Gujarat nearly a thousand years ago.

Its design was simple, but highly effective for delivering smoke. They were usually made from a coconut shell base and tube. They were designed for smoking tobacco, opium and hashish. Their use spread throughout Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Arab parts of North Africa. When they made their way to Turkey, they became extremely popular with the upper class and intellectuals. Their design changed, they became larger and more complicated, and materials like glass and brass were incorporated into their construction. They would be painted with intricate designs to enhance their beauty. Their popularity grew with the advent of coffee shop society and the skill of hookah bar waiters became as specialized as chefs. Preparing different tobaccos, adding flavors and packing the pipe is to this day considered an art and can take some time to master.

Hookah bars are popular all over the world now and smoking from a hookah pipe is often considered a way to relax, take time to think and appreciate good company.

Old Habits

Today, we live in a world with 1.1 billion tobacco smokers. If the trend for picking up the habit continues, there will be 1.6 billion by 2025. We have access to data and statistics that unequivocally proves that smoking tobacco is harmful. Most recently, many major cities in the world have banned smoking in once untouchable places like bars and nightclubs.

The interesting thing is that most people who smoke are doing it for many of the same reasons our ancestors did thousands of years ago. Ask almost any smoker and they will tell you that there is a ritual, relaxation and pleasure to what they do. Old habits die hard and it certainly seems as if smoking will continue to be a part of civilization for centuries to come.