Long ages ago a mysterious Wakan woman appeared on a hilltop before two Lakota hunters. One of them approached her with ardour and was reduced to ashes and bone. The other approached her reverently and was instructed to return to his camp and prepare his people for her coming. Under the supervision of Chief Standing Hollow Horn, the appropriate sacred lodge was constructed and she entered in their midst to teach them their most hallowed religious rituals. She spoke to them: "Behold this and always love it! It is lela wakan (very sacred), and you must treat it as such. No impure man should ever be allowed to see it, for within this bundle there is a sacred pipe. With this you will, during the winters to come, send your voices to Wakan Tanka, your Father and Grandfather."
She told them that as Father, Wakan Tanka was the manifest creator of the world, and as Grandfather, the invisible deity which remains aloof from time and space. She took the pipe from the bundle and, holding the stem towards the heavens, showed them how to use the sacred pipe whilst walking upon the earth. She told them that every step taken should be a prayer, for the earth was their Mother and Grandmother. The bowl of the pipe was made of her flesh and on it was carved the face of a buffalo calf, who represents all the four-legged ones living upon the earth. The wooden stem of the pipe speaks for all the vegetation that grows upon her gentle slopes, and the twelve feathers that hang from it are from Wanbli Galeshka, the spotted eagle whose plumes are the rays of the sun. She explained that thus the winged ones and all the peoples and things of the universe were joined to them when they smoked the sacred pipe . . . "when you pray with this pipe, you pray for and with everything".
Thus did White Buffalo Cow Woman instruct the Lakota and give to them the secrets of the seven sacred rites in which the pipe was to be used. And thus did they come to know that the pipe was a gift from Wakan Tanka, given so that they might gain wisdom. As receivers of this great boon, they were represented by a chief whose name indicated the arrival of man in a state of complete preparedness. Hehlokecha Najin signifies standing upright, erect like a man, as only a man naturally stands. The Hollow Horn symbolizes the tube of the narthex capable of receiving the Promethean fire; the horn itself represents the masculine creative forces. In this ancestral chief the virginal messenger of Wakan Tanka found a perfect receptacle who could receive as well as propagate the teachings of the sacred pipe, which were to become the spiritual heart of Lakota life.
This long-stemmed, elegant pipe was treated as sacred by other tribes of the Plains and Woodlands as well. Because of the emphasis in design upon the elaborate shaft, early European explorers gave it the Norman word calumet, which means 'reed' or 'tube'. It is by this name that the so-called peace-pipe is generally known and widely held to be the symbol of peace, reconciliation, humility, sacrifice and purification. It was believed that when two men smoked the calumet together, a series of mutual obligations were forged with the Great Spirit as witness. There was a widespread confidence that no man could ever lie while smoking it and that bargains, treaties or kinship formed during this rite were inviolable. This was the reason why broken treaties were a source of such profound moral outrage to the tribes as they suffered the effects of the repeated duplicity practised by the American government. Adorned with many objects and colours, the shaft and bowl of the calumet symbolize specific spiritual forces; the pipe in its entirety represents a veritable executive council of the powers of Wakan Tanka called upon to witness a sacred pact.
Early visitors to the North Atlantic Coast said that the Indians used calumets with stems three to six feet in length. The more usual stem was of ash and measured thirty to forty inches and, amongst Plains and Woodlands tribes, was wrapped with marvellous porcupine quill-work to which the women gave much laborious attention. The designs of spiritual guides and sacred totems were unfolded as the individually dyed segments of one continuous strand of quills were wrapped tightly round the stem. Frequently the bowl of the pipe would be fashioned of a red steatite found in famous pipe-stone quarries in the northern Plains. Named by Europeans after George Catlin, 'catlinite' was considered a gift from the Great Spirit who, taking the form of an eagle, broke out from the bosom of the Mother as her very own 'flesh'. Gathering all the tribes of the earth to that place, the Winged One told them that they themselves were made from this redstone and therefore must smoke to the Great Spirit through it. He said they must use this 'flesh' for nothing but pipes, and as it belonged to all mankind, no weapon or enmity could be brought to the quarry site where it was found.
Red and black steatite, pebbles, clay, horn, bone and wood were all used as material for the manufacture of a remarkable variety of pipes used in the Americas. The effigy pipes, which sometimes bore the totems of tribal clans, were often extremely beautiful. Flat-based monitor types, curved stems, elbow, ovoid, lens, disk and handle designs were popular, and there were special pipes for bridegrooms, shamans and dancers. Wherever a religious ceremony took place, the pipe became the altar and the bowl the place of offering. In some cases the bowl was very large, resembling a great earthen pot, and several long reed-like stems were attached to it from which a company of worshippers could simultaneously smoke. It is believed that this arrangement inspired the sociable design of the Turkish chibouk, which has one or more stems protruding out of a bell-shaped bowl.
Though the pipe was more highly developed in its cultural significance as well as its variety and beauty in the Americas, the practice of inhaling smoke through a tube was pursued from very ancient times in the Old World. A major difference was the fact that substances other than tobacco were used. Up to five hundred years ago hemp, narcotics of various sorts, dried dirt, charcoal, herbs, spices and ashes were used. Incense, resin and myrrh were burnt in Egypt five thousand years ago, and the fumes of barley meal and laurel were inhaled by the prophetess at Delphi, whose eyes became dilated as she fell into a trance. Scythians and Babylonians customarily threw hemp leaves on the fire when they met, causing them to become intoxicated, and the burning of hemp seeds amongst many people regularly produced a hilarity followed by torpor and deep slumber. But whilst this diffused inhalation was common, the more concentrated practice of drawing up smoke through a reed-tube spread and was often associated with the use of medicinal herbs. The ingenious method of cooling and cleansing the smoke by drawing it through water was invented in Africa by the Bushmen and Hottentots, who used sections of bamboo and water-filled gourds to smoke hemp. As this was diffused into South Asia, coconuts came to be used, inspiring the name narghile (coconut shell), by which the water-pipe is known in India. Thus the narghile and the Persian hookah were developed before the arrival of tobacco and, along with the elaborate variety of native African pipes and the simpler smoking tubes of Europe, provided a means of fulfilment to masses of people desirous of pleasure or cure.
Tobacco is truly an Indian weed, and the Maya and natives of the Antilles may have been the first to recognize the pleasure of smoking it. The derivation of its name is muddled, the Carib word tobago actually referring to the Y-shaped pipe used rather than to the herb smoked through it. Be that as it may, the yerba santa, as it was called by the Spanish explorers, was taken to Spain on the return of Columbus from his second voyage to the New World. Its popularity quickly spread because of its medicinal properties and it was soon prescribed as a panacea for almost every disease. Within a century it had been introduced to every 'civilized' country of the globe and the following century witnessed its almost universal cultivation. In 1559 Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to the king of Portugal, sent tobacco to Queen Catherine de Medicis, whose enthusiastic reception of the herb gave it great vogue in France, where it became known as nicotiana, the herbe de la reine. From Spain, tobacco was introduced to Germany and Spanish sailors carried it to the Philippines, from whence it went to China. By 1565 England had embraced tobacco, and Elizabethan 'fairy' pipes with clay bowls and twelve-inch stems became the fashion. They were regularly made at Broseley in Shropshire, and English pipe makers were incorporated by 1619.
By the beginning of the seventeenth century, tobacco had been transmitted through England to Sweden, Russia, Turkey and Egypt, thus ensuring its global conquest and provoking powerful negative reactions from those who saw tobacco as 'the Devil's oracle' and the pipe as his diabolical conduit. King James of England wrote of it as associated with "the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless", and Charles I opined that "the indulgence of the pipe was profanity to the pilgrim". It is an irony of history that the success of the British colonies in America was due largely to the tobacco trade and that the image of the English gentleman during the era of colonial expansion frequently included the pipe. Critics aside, the pipe became a symbol of individualism and of the aloof confidence which typified the European impact upon the world.
Because of the symbolic importance of the pipe, its manufacture is an art which preserves very definite standards and has inspired enormous human ingenuity. In the boring of the long calumet stems, some Indian tribes selected young ash shoots having a small pithy cavity running along the centre of their length. They then introduced a wood-boring grub into a hole carved out at one end, closing the aperture behind it. The shoots were then hung over the fire so that the grubs would be induced to follow the path of least resistance and eat their way through the marrow of the stem. When they emerged at the other end, they were ritually thanked and returned to the place where they had been found. In the Middle East and Asia, beautiful glass bowls filled with scented water were fashioned to embellish the water-pipe. Its tubes were sometimes wrapped in gold thread and encrusted with jewels which were almost matched in brilliance by the gorgeous porcelain bowls produced by European craftsmen. The marvellous evolution of pipe designs in Europe utilized all of the materials used in the Americas as well as ivory, porcelain, pottery, corn-cob, glass, bamboo root, amber, meerschaum and briar.
The story goes that a nineteenth century Corsican peasant copied a broken meerschaum in local briar wood and thus gave birth to what is often considered to be the most superior pipe in the world. Briar comes from the roots of the Mediterranean bruyere or white heathtree, which grows in arid wasteland atop rocky hills and along their dry slopes where the tree must battle for its life. It is these conditions that produce the extraordinary toughness and tightness of grain so desirable in a good pipe bowl. The growing period for such a burl may be as long as three hundred years, its digging and shaping is difficult, and there are nearly one hundred steps involved in its refinement into a fine briar pipe, but the standards in its manufacture have never been compromised. In a world increasingly obsessed with automation, the pipe remains a stronghold of craftsmanship and careful adherence to traditional care and concern for excellence. It is also a means by which a man can perform self-therapy, for there is that in the enjoyment and care of a pipe which makes the mind calm and stable.
The pipe draws out, like smoke, the lineaments of the personality so that they impress themselves more slowly and clearly upon the environment and upon others. It counteracts frenetic action which lacks a fundamental centering and reveals more of the inner character. Recognizing something of this effect, one seventeenth century writer formulated a gauge whereby the peculiarities in a man's personality might be discerned in the way he smoked his pipe. Emitting smoke from both corners of the mouth was supposed to be indicative of a crotchety but brainy fellow, whilst holding the pipe in one's teeth, lips and hand at once, was thought a token of personal pride. He who held his pipe absent-mindedly, after two or three puffs, revealed a vivacious temper, a tendency to change opinion quickly, ambition and a love of novelty. A drooping pipe, a clenched pipe, a slowly filled pipe, the constant checking of the pipe bowl to see if it is burning evenly, – all these traits were believed to be wonderful clues to understanding the real man. As the man within, so too his interaction with his pipe. The outer should thus fit the inner and the pipe should fit the man. No wonder many believed that the shape of one's face should determine the shape of one's pipe.
The smoking and care of a pipe easily become ritualistic and the paraphernalia used to ream, sweeten, clean, tap, spoon, rack, store, cut, tamper and humidify pipe and tobacco become sacrosanct hierophanies. Even so, and though the European cherishes his pipe as his wife, there are no rituals to match those which proliferated amongst American Indians. It has been said that the 'white man' took over tobacco and the pipe (in its modern guise) from the Indian, but no knowledge of the world that went with it, which included the idea that both were a divine gift capable of opening "a strange path that juts into this world and leads to the very ends of magic".
Even on a more mundane level, the ritual of pipe smoking was elaborately precise. The Karok of Northern California followed a regular procedure. Taking the pipe out of the sack, they ritually filled it with the left palm. Then they 'spoiled' it (blew the tobacco dust from palm) to the mountains with a prayer. They then lit the pipe with a stick or small coal and held it in a prescribed manner. After 'smacking in' a few times, they took the tobacco smoke into their lungs and removed the pipe from their mouth. This sequence was repeated until the pipe was placed back in its sack. Almost all men smoked at the same time and in the same way. They followed a pattern of sweating and eating in the morning and evening. Some men smoked in the daytime but most confined this sacred pleasure to the evening, after having sweated and bathed and taken supper with their wives and families. When they finished the meal, they washed out their mouths and retired with other men to the sweat-house, where pipes were passed around, and talking and singing continued until they slept.
Many taboos surrounded the Karok use of the pipe. One must never laugh with the pipe as it might crack, nor should one ever smoke whilst eliminating. There was a taboo against standing whilst smoking and, in fact, the favourite position for smoking was lying down. Sucking doctors placed their patients in a prone position whilst they used their pipe as a tubular entrance-way into the world of myth and medicine. Filling their own mouths with smoke, they used this to suck out the pain. The bowl of the pipe was placed on the affected parts of the patient's body, after which they would again fill their mouths with smoke and repeat the sucking cure. Amongst all tribes the shaman used a pipe in effecting cures and divining patterns as well as evoking the great powers of the universe. The pipe thus used in a ceremony was always filled with prayers to the six directions, holding the stem towards each of these powers whilst addressing it. In the Inipi purification ritual of the Lakota, a pinch of tobacco was offered first to the west with a prayer for help and then placed in the pipe. This was done sun-wise to all the directions each time the pipe was passed around.
Whilst the rest of the world may not share the Native American's religious and magical use of the pipe, there still exists the widely held notion that the use of the pipe has a philosophical influence upon the human mind. This assumption goes beyond the more easily discernible claims made in regard to calmness, stability and greater definition of character. The assertion here is that the pipe possesses the power to temper thought and promote a contemplative bent of mind. Lord Bulwer-Lytton eulogized: "A pipe! Is a great soother, a pleasant comforter. Blue devils fly before its honest breath. It ripens the brain, it opens the heart; and the man who smokes thinks and acts like a samaritan." Indeed, the pipe acts like a cloud-boat carrying the soul far out on a limitless ocean. It stills the lower mind that picks and worries whilst releasing the higher to another world where past and future blend in the contemplation of pure thought. As a savant once observed, "The pipe draws wisdom from the lips of the philosopher, and shuts up the mouth of the foolish." Perhaps, unconsciously, the powers associated with the pipe by the Indians have exerted their influence. To say this is to suggest that the pipe – because it is a pipe – does have potential power and that, combined with tobacco, it can put man in alignment with something within himself that is a reflection of something in the larger universe.
According to Lakota belief, all things in the universe are in all the grains of tobacco because all powers have been invoked as witness to the sacrificial filling of the pipe. All these grains are brought together at one point, which is the bowl or heart of the pipe. In this way the pipe becomes the universal macrocosm, and man, through complete identification of his own mind and heart with the offering in the heart of the pipe, becomes the conscious microcosm of the macrocosm. He who fills the pipe in this sacred manner identifies himself with the centre of the universe and his own centre. Surely it is because of this inherent potential possessed by the pipe that any man can experience a sense of stabilizing and centering himself in the act of smoking his pipe. As the fire burns, so the focal point of mind and soul is maintained. When it goes out, a sense of voidness results. In the words of one poet:
The smoke of the living fire rises and transports the offering to heaven but it is "in the shape of darkness; its ashes are passion; and goodness is that connection with it in which the offering is thrown". This goodness is the faculty in the sacrificer which is capable of apprehending the subtle flame of truth which escapes heavenward.
It is the possibility of releasing this spark of conscious unity with the Divine that lends meaning and power to the smoke that moves from the bowl through the canal of the stem into the mouth of the sacrificer before being breathed out. The canal of the pipe symbolizes the spinal column, and the breath moves from the heart within man along that stem to the heart of the universe. The lowest breaths offered in sacrifice are the samana and vyana, which disappear through the tobacco in the darkness of smoke. Then the prana and apana, the expired Breath of Life and the Inspiration Breath, are offered. They have the Fire of Wisdom between them. Perhaps an archaic knowledge of this prompted some of the old Lakota to construct ceremonial pipes with dual stems. By breathing in and breathing out, the hearts of the macrocosm and microcosm are merged until wisdom is lit up and the highest breath, Udana, the Word, is released.
The poet intuitively perceived a connection between the fire in the bowl of the pipe and the voice. They are awakened or stilled together, and when nothing is left but ashes, the stem is but a hollow reed filled with smoky residues. In its broadest senses the pipe is a tube, a musical instrument and a device for smoking. It is capable of conveying substances, producing sound and focussing the breath. If the stem of the pipe is symbolic of the spinal column, one may see it as that which conveys from the lower centres of power to the higher and back again. The heart (or bowl) is where the fire must be kept burning, and when the movement along the stem is smooth and effortless, it will continue to burn evenly and eventually arouse the universal keynote within that which can release the highest power of speech. To keep the fire burning evenly, the breath must be steady and the offering must be carefully placed within the heart. The correct herb possessing powers to calm and awaken must be used and it should be placed slowly, layer by layer, within the bowl. It should be tamped down evenly as it burns but not so as to block the passage of breath. This means that the offering should be very well chosen and placed in the heart without any taint of the stifling weight of egoity.
One could see the mouthpiece of the pipe as the soul's breathing-hole into the world. The rest of the pipe would be an extension down to the heart of the Mother Earth. One could also see the pipe as a conduit from the man of red clay to the universal heart. Both perspectives are valid and should be brought together, merged in consciousness, until one loses sight of whether they are matter or spirit . . . catlinite or fire. As the Osage sang: "O Hon-ga, I have a pipe which I made to be my body; if you also make it to be your body, you shall have a body that is free from all causes of death." The Lakota observed three phases in their sacred pipe ritual: the purification with the sacred herb, the expansion of the pipe (through invocation and prayer) to include the whole universe, and the bringing together of the whole universe in the sacrificial fire of the heart. Some of these ancient smokers must have been fully aware of the tremendous evocative significance of these highly symbolic ceremonies. White Buffalo Cow Woman told them that if they guarded its sanctity, the pipe would take them to the end of the four ages. This must mean that by the achievement of the highest potential magic to be realized through the sacred pipe, a man could obtain self-conscious godhood and the immortality of his own inner spiritual fire.
We who walk upon the earth without a sacred pipe or ritual can etch out their symbolism in our minds and plant the seeds of offering in our own hearts. If our motive is pure, the herb chosen will be beneficent. It will grow from the spiritual flesh of our Grandmother so that it can be lit up within us. She is the matrix-substance of all potential growth and she awaits the flame of the higher will, of Wanbli Galeshka, whose feathers are the rays of the sun. We can learn from the example of care and excellence which characterize the manufacture of pipes. We can prepare this altar of sacrifice within us slowly and with close attention to detail. Only the finest burl, seasoned over centuries of growth, will produce the heart-bowl that will take the heat and remain unclogged so that the breath can move freely between the higher and lower poles of our nature. By meditating upon the symbolism of the pipe, we can become a living altar of sacrifice and cause our every breath to ring like a note from Krishna's flute as it echoes the Great Breath of the Universal Heart. In this way, slowly and with profound thought, we may integrate the individuality with Totality and merge the spark into the Fire of the Great Unmanifest Spirit that rests eternally in the heart of the cosmos.