When Smoking Was A Sign Of Demon Possession

“A custome lothsome to the eye, hateful to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomeless.” —James I, describing smoking in his anonymously published “A Counterblaste to Tobacco”

In A Nutshell

While tobacco is an extremely popular drug all over the world today, it did not enjoy an easy introduction to Europe. The first European smoker was perceived to be possessed by the devil and received jail time for his crime. And he fared much better than many.

The Whole Bushel

When Christopher Columbus famously accidentally discovered the American landmasses in 1492, he brought home plenty of slaves and native goods. One of those goods was a supply of tobacco which the natives had been smoking since, by some estimations, the time of Christ. The first one to sample smoking the new product was an a sailor named Rodrigo de Jerez.

Smoking turned out to be bad for de Jerez in a manner unrelated to his health when he got to his hometown of Ayamote, Spain. When people saw smoke exiting his nose and mouth, they concluded that it was evidence that he was possessed by Satan. So Rodrigo wasn’t just arrested, he was taken before an inquisition. He spent seven years in prison and when he reentered society it was one that had seemingly well-embraced smoking.

As infuriating as it might have been to know he was jailed for doing something that both quickly became not only legal but popular, he actually was a fairly lucky smoker. For centuries, absurdly oppressive laws would be made to attempt to abolish the horrid smoking habit. In Great Britain, tariffs were passed and King James I personally wrote pamphlets in 1601 claiming that smoking, among other things, caused brain damage. He forbade its growth in Britain and tried to make it prohibitively expensive to tariff (a measure overruled by Parliament since it was such a vital crop for His Majesty’s American Colonies). Pope Urban VIII let it be known in 1642 that he would excommunicate any Catholic that used tobacco or snuff in a church or other holy place. In Russia, a law was passed in 1634 which made smoking punishable by whipping and nostril slitting.

For all that, it was in China and Turkey where the measures went the farthest. In 1638, the Chinese government made being in possession of tobacco punishable by death by beheading. In Turkey, however, the extremist anti-tobacco Sultan Murad IV made smoking the weed punishable by hanging, beheading, or starvation and then added the seizure of all property on top of that. Such was the degree of his craze to stamp out the demon weed that he would disguise himself and visit cafes to personally scout out smokers to have killed and their families ruined. As if that wasn’t enough, he would then order the businesses where the smoking had taken place destroyed. Part of the reason behind Murad’s anti-tobacco crusade seems to be that a horrible fire broke out in Constantinople during celebrations for the birth of his son during his reign, although there was hardly proof that smokers were responsible for it.

Many of these draconian laws were repealed within a generation because smoking was so profitable to tax and because smokers like Peter the Great of Russia ascended to power. There are certain similarities between this controversy and the one that, as of 2014, continues to surround the drug marijuana. Perish the thought that someone gets their nostrils slit for lighting a blunt.

Show Me The Proof

Tobacco: A Reference Handbook, by Harold V. Cordry
Oaxaca Journal, by Oliver Sacks
For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health, by Jacob Sullum
Tobacco in History and Culture: An Encyclopedia, by Jordan Goodman
Smokeless Tobacco and Some Tobacco-specific N-nitrosamines, International Agency for Research on Cancer
My Life in Doha: Between Dream and Reality, by Rachel Hajar

  • Hillyard

    If you want make something popular, ban it!

  • oouchan

    Crazy! It’s a horrible habit, but possession?! Funny stuff.

  • KatharinaLafrance

    therefore we must have leave the habbit of smoke because its bad for the health.
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  • Terri Koski

    Interesting article. Hey, are we related? Koski isn’t really a common name, is it?