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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy
Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

The Cosmic Serpent:
DNA and the Origins of Knowledge

Narby, Jeremy (1999)
New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam

ISBN: 0-87477-964-2 paperback

Description: Paperback, xiv + 257 pages.

Contents: 11 chapters, notes, bibliography, acknowledgments, permissions and credits, index, bibliographic index.

Note: French title: Serpent Cosmique. "The author wrestled the text from French into English with the assistance of Jon Christiansen." (page vi)

Chapter 1: Forest Television
The first time an Ashaninca man told me that the had learned the medicinal properties of plants by drinking a hallucinogenic brew, I thought he was joking. We were in the forest squatting next to a bush whose leaves, he claimed, could cure the bite of a deadly snake. "One learns these things by drinking ayahuasca," he said. But he was not smiling. (page 1)

Chapter 3: The Mother of the Mother of Tobacco Is a Snake
I left with the strange feeling that the problem had more to do with my incapacity to understand what people said, rather than the inadequacy of their explanations. they always used such simple words.

Chapter 6: Seeing Correspondences
In many regions, apprentice ayahuasqueros isolate themselves in the forest for long months and ingest huge quantities of hallucinogens. Their diet during this period consists mainly of bananas and fish, both of which are particularly rich in serotonin. It also happens that the long-term consumption of hallucinogens diminishes the concentration of this neurotransmitter in the brain. Most anthropologists are unaware of the biochemical aspect of this diet, however, and some go so far as to invent abstract explanations for what they call "irrational food taboos." (page 60)

I was sitting in the main reading room, surrounded by students, and browsing over Claude Levi-Strauss's latest book, when I jumped. I had just read the following passage: "In Aztec, the word coatl means both 'serpent' and 'twin.' The name Quetzalcoatl can thus be interpreted either as 'Plumed serpent" or "Magnificent twin.'" A twin serpent, of cosmic origin, symbolizing the sacred energy of life? Among the Aztecs?

It was the middle of the afternoon. I needed to do some thinking. I left the library and started driving home. On the road back, I could not stop thinking about what I had just read. Staring out of the window, I wondered what all these twin beings in the creation myths of indigenous people could possibly mean.

When I arrived home, I went for a walk in the woods to clarify my thoughts. I started recapitulating from the beginning: I was trying to keep one eye on DNA and the other on shamanism to discover the common ground between the two. I reviewed the correspondences that I had found so far. Then I walked in silence, because I was struck. Ruminating over this mental block I recalled Carlos Perez Shuma's words: "Look at the FORM."

That morning, at the library, I had looked up DNA in several encyclopedias and had noted in passing that the shape of the double helix was most often described as a ladder, or a twisted rope ladder, or a spiral staircase. I was during the following split second, asking myself whether there were any ladders in shamanism, that the revelation occurred: "THE LADDERS! The shamans' ladders, 'symbols of the profession' according to Metraux, present in shamanic themes around the world according to Eliade!"

I rushed back to my office and plunged into Mircea Eliade's book Shamanism: Archaic techniques of ecstasy and discovered that there were "countless examples' of shamanic ladders on all five continents, here a "spiral ladder," there a "stairway" or "braided ropes." In Australia, Tibet, Ancient Egypt, Africa, North and South America, "the symbolism of the rope, like that of the ladder, necessarily implies communication between sky and earth. It is by means of a rope or a ladder (as, too, by a vine, a bridge, a chain of arrows, etc.) that the gods descended to earth and men go up to the sky." Eliade even cites an example from the Old Testament, where Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching up to heaven, "with the angels of God ascending and descending on it." According to Eliade, the shamanic ladder is the earliest version of the idea of an axis of the world, which connects the different levels of the cosmos, and is found in numerous creation myths in the form of a tree. (pages 62 - 63)

I was staggered. It seemed that no one had noticed the possible links between the "myths" of "primitive peoples" and molecular biology. No one had seen that the double helix had symbolized the life principle for thousands of years around the world. On the contrary, everything was upside down. It was said that the hallucinations could in no way constitute a source of knowledge, that Indians had found their useful molecules by chance experimentation, and that their "myths" were precisely myths, bearing no relationship to the real knowledge discovered in laboratories. (page 71)

Chapter 8: Through the Eyes of an Ant
During my first ayahuasca experience I saw a pair of enormous and terrifying snakes. they conveyed an idea that bowled me over and later encouraged mo to reconsider my self-image. They taught me that I was just a human being. To others, this may not seem like a great revelation' but at the time, it was exactly what the young anthopologist I was needed to learn. Above all, it was a thought that i could not have had by myself, precisely because of my anthopocentric presuppositions.

I also felt very clearly that the speed and the coherence of certain sequences of images could not have come from the chaotic storage room of my memory. For example, I saw in a dizzying visual parade the superimposing of the veins of the human hand on those of a green leaf. The message was crystal clear: We are made of the same fabric as the vegetal world. I had never really thought of this so concretely. The day after the ayahuasca session, I felt like a new being, united with nature, proud to be human and to belong to the grandiose web of life surrounding the planet. Once again, this was a totally new and constructive perspective for the materialistic humanist that I was. (page 112)

Chapter 9: Receptors and Transmitters
Ayahuasca is the most botanically and chemically complex hallucinogen. I can be thought of as a psychoactive cocktail, containing different additives depending on the region, the practitioner, and the desired effects. Scientists who have studied its composition agree that dimethyltryptamine is its main active ingredient. This highly hallucinogenic substance seems also to be produced in small quantities by the human brain. However, since the end of the 1960s, dimythyltryptamine has been at the top of the controlled substances list, along with synthetic compounds such as heroin and LSD. This means not only that it is illegal for the average person, but that scientific studies on its effects are discourage, and rare. (page 122)

Chapter 11: "What Took You So Long?"
Shamanism resembles an academic discipline (such as anthropology or molecular biology); with its practitioners, fundamental researchers, specialists, and schools of thought. It is a way of apprehending the world that evolves constantly. One thing is certain: Both indigenous and mestizo shamans consider people like the Shipibo-Conibo, the Tukano, the Kamsa, and the Huitoto as the equivalents to universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and the Sorbonne; they are the highest reference in matters of knowledge. In this sense, ayahuasca-based shamanism is an essentially indigenous phenomenon. It belongs to the indigenous people of Western Amazonia, who hold the keys to a way of knowing that they have practiced without interruption for at least five thousand years. In comparison, the universities of the Western world are less than nine hundred years old.

The shamanism of which the indigenous people of the Amazon are guardians represents knowledge accumulated over thousands of years in the most biologically diverse place on earth. Certainly, shamans say they acquire their knowledge directly from the spirits, but they grow up in cultures where shamanic visions are stored in myths. In this way mythology informs shamanism: The invisible, life-creating maninkari spirits are the ones whose feats Ashaninca mythology relates, and it is also the maninkari who talk to Ashaninca shamans in their visions tell them how to heal. (pages 154 - 155)

According to my hypothesis, shamans take their consciousness down to the molecular level and gain access to bimolecular information. But what actually goes on in the brain/mind of an ayhuasquero when this poccurs? What is the nature of a shaman's communication with the animate essences of nature? The clear answer is that more research is needed in consciousness, shamanism, molecular biology, and their interrealtedness. (page 160)

This compilation by Thomas B. Roberts & Paula Jo Hruby, © 1995-2002 CSP

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