037：EPISODE 37 - North American otter pipe
North American otter pipe (200 BC to 100 AD). Stone; from Mound City, Ohio
Pick up a packet of cigarettes and you're confronted at once with predictions of inevitable impotence, disease and death. To smoke, we're told, is to be in danger, but no modern government health warning can begin to match the verve of the great 'Counterblaste to Tobacco' published by James 1 in 1604, just months after he'd come from Edinburgh to succeed Elizabeth. The newly arrived king denounced smoking as:
"A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomlesse."
Smoking, with its pleasures and its perils, has a long history. It's one that begins two thousand years ago in North America.
"They are power objects, and they're not symbolic, they're actually considered to be alive. For example, if it's a pipe that's made of the red pipestone, it's considered to be the blood and bones of buffalo." (Gabrielle Tayac)
"In the morning the first thing I do before I have breakfast is perhaps light my pipe, and the last thing I do before I go to bed at night is to have a few puffs of my pipe. And it's a great comfort and a friend - I live alone." (Tony Benn)
This week I'm looking at the pleasures that bound people together around two thousand years ago, in the centuries following the birth of Christ. In China and America, Europe and Mexico people shared many of the pleasures and pastimes, the obsessions and the intoxications, that continue to connect us across the millennia. In the last programme, we had alcohol and sex; today we are with smoking and altered states.
Although smoking now is largely seen as a fatal vice, two thousand years ago, in North America, pipe-smoking was a fundamental ceremonial and religious part of human life. Different groups of Native Americans lived across the continent - in ways much more varied than what's been caricatured since in the westerns. Those Americans living in Middle America - the lands around the mighty Mississippi and Ohio rivers, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes - were farmers. They had no cities but they did re-shape their vast landscape with extraordinary monuments. While the small farming and trading communities seem to have lived apart, they died together, joining forces to build enormous earthworks as gathering places for ceremonies and to bury their dead. And within them, were graves rich with weapons and decorative objects, crafted from exotic raw materials traded over huge distances. There were the teeth of grizzly bears from the Rocky Mountains, conch shells from the Gulf of Mexico, mica from the Appalachian Mountains, and copper from the Great Lakes. These spectacular sculpted burial mounds would later astonish visiting Europeans. One in particular is in present-day Ohio - popularly known as "Mound City" - an enclosed 13-acre site with 24 separate burial mounds. And in one of them there were around 200 stone pipes - one of which is our otter pipe.
The pipe I have here is about the size and shape of a kazoo, the children's toy music pipe that makes buzzing sounds when you blow through it. So it's not like any normal modern pipe with a long stem and a bowl at one end. This one is carved in reddish stone and has a flat base about four inches (10 cm) long, so it's almost exactly the colour and the size of a bourbon biscuit, and at one end is carved a small hole to serve as the mouth piece. The pipe bowl is halfway down, but it's no simple hollow for holding the tobacco, because it's in the shape of the upper half of a swimming otter, with its paws perched on the bank of a river, and it looks as though it's just popped up out of the water to look around. The stone is smooth, and to me it beautifully suggests the sleek wet fur of the animal. The otter looks along the pipe so that, as you smoke it, both you and the otter would be looking into each other's eyes. But in fact you are even closer to this animal than that suggests, because if I try to smoke it now and put it to my mouth, I discover that I am literally nose-to-nose with the otter. And that contact would have been even more striking than it is now, because the empty eye sockets would have been inlayed with fresh water pearls. This wonderfully crafted and evocative object pinpoints in history the world's earliest use of tobacco pipes. Sherlock Holmes probably didn't know it, but this is where the story of pipe-smoking begins.
Our pipe is about two thousand years old, which is the period from which we have the earliest evidence for tobacco use in North America. Tobacco was first cultivated in Central and South America, smoked wrapped in the leaves of other plants, and then enjoyed like a cigar. In the colder north, though, there were no wrapping leaves to be had through the long winters, so smokers had to find another way of containing their tobacco - and so they made pipes. The cigar/pipe divide seems very much to have been a result of climate.
Stone pipes are found consistently in the Ohio burial mounds. This indicates, I think, that they must have had some special place in the lives of the people that made and used them. Although archaeologists haven't yet understood their precise meaning, we can get an insight into how they may have been regarded. Here's the Native American historian Gabrielle Tayac:
"There's a whole cosmology and theology that go with pipes, that are extremely complex. They carry with them all of the meanings of religious teachings. They are definitely considered to be living beings that should be treated as such, rather than just objects, or even sacred objects, that particularly come alive and come into their own power when the bowl is united with the stem. There are rituals and initiations that go along with it, there are tremendous responsibilities that go along with being a pipe-carrier in particular places. I even hesitate to call them objects."
We know that two thousand years ago only select members of the community were buried in the mounds, and that many of these people must have played a part in rituals, because fragments of ceremonial costumes have been found with the bodies - headdresses made from bear, wolf and deer skulls. The animal world appears to have had a central role in the spiritual life of these people, and perhaps the animals on the pipes had a role in some kind of shamanic ritual that would connect the physical and the spiritual worlds. The tobacco smoked at the time was 'Nicotiana Rustica', and we know that it produces a heightened state of awareness, and even has a hallucinogenic effect. Our otter pipe is just one of a whole pipe menagerie: there are bowls which are shaped as wild cats, turtles, toads, squirrels, birds, fishes and even birds eating fishes. And given that you would be eyeball-to-eyeball with the creature sculpted on it, we can imagine the smoker entering into a kind of transcendent state in which the animal would come to life. Perhaps each animal served as spirit guide or totem to the person smoking; certainly for later Native American peoples, it's known that they might dream of an animal whose spirit would then protect them throughout their life. Here's Gabrielle Tayac again:
"Native people still use tobacco, it's a very sacred item. The usage of tobacco smoke, it's a way of transforming prayer and thought and community expression, and could either be smoked individually or passed around a community or a family, so that it's a way of unifying the mind and then sending up the power of the mind into the vast universe or to the creator or to the intercessors for the creator. When you talk about what is called the "peace pipe" at a treaty negotiation, that is more meaningful than to sign a document, so it's a way of sealing a deal not just legally but by giving a vow, and confirming that to the larger universe - so it's not just between humans, it's between humans and the greater powers that are there."
Even today in Native America smoking tobacco can still be a spiritual act - the smoke rises and mingles, bearing unified prayers skyward and, as it does so, it combines the hopes and wishes of the whole community. For Europeans, though, who discovered smoking very late, in the sixteenth century, smoking tobacco quickly became less about religion than about relaxation: it was first of all about enjoyment, and then about money.
When the British colonised Virginia, the growing tobacco market in Europe rapidly became of prime economic importance - Bremen and Bristol, Glasgow and Dieppe all grew rich on American tobacco. As Europeans explored deeper into the continent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, tobacco became an article of trade and currency in its own right. The European acquisition of tobacco, and European pipe-smoking, symbolise for many Native Americans the expropriation of their homeland.
From then on, in Europe and indeed in most of the world, smoking became an activity associated with pure pleasure, daily habit and considerable cool. For most of the twentieth century, film stars puffed away on screen, while their cinema audiences admired them through answering clouds of smoke. Smoking was not only sophisticated, it was intellectual and meditative, and Sherlock Holmes famously described one particularly testing case as "quite a three-pipe problem". And there was, of course, also the intensely enjoyable personal engagement with the physical object. Here's the politician Tony Benn:
"It's a beautiful object. I've never seen it before, and I do find it quite hard to imagine how you would smoke anything like that, but still I'm sure if you had to, you would ... Stanley Baldwin smoked a pipe, Harold Wilson smoked a pipe - it was a very normal thing to do, and of course the pipe of peace, and sitting round together, and friendship pipes associated with friendship, and so on. So they do have a meaning over and above the satisfaction of smoking. It's a sort of hobby in a way - you scrape it, and clean it and fill it and tap it and light it, and it goes out and you light it again, and if you are asked a question at a meeting - not that you can smoke in meetings any more - but if you were asked a question, light your pipe and say 'that's a very good question' - it gives you a little bit of time to think of the answer. But I wouldn't recommend anybody else to start smoking."
The overthrow of smoking in the western world in the last 30 years has been an extraordinary revolution; in Hollywood now, only the "baddies" smoke, and the audience not at all - anybody caught smoking would be hounded out of the cinema. James I would be delighted. As with the Warren Cup in the last programme, what is allowable as pleasure is constantly redefined; we can only guess what lies in store for alcohol!
If this story of the American pipe is about community, passion, heightened senses and an almost religious fervour, then those same characteristics might be as easily applied to sport ... in the next programme, I'll be with an extraordinary game that prompted a passionate following over two thousand years ago. It's not yet football, but it is the first known organised team sport ... and it began in Central America.