Book Reviews · Consciousness

The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge

The first time an Ashaninca man told me that he had learned the medicinal properties of plants by drinking a hallucinogenic brew, I thought he was joking. …But he was not smiling.”

The Cosmic SerpentThe Cosmic Serpent is a fascinating exploration of the links between DNA and molecular biology by anthropologist Jeremy Narby. While doing fieldwork in the Amazon Pichis Valley, the Quirishari told him that their incredible knowledge of plants and biochemistry was given to them by the plants while under the influence of ayahuasca. Narby was sceptical at first, but then became increasingly drawn into a quest to understand how this was possible. The book recounts this quest as a compelling investigation that pushes him to the limits of rationality and forces him to question his scientific training.

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His quest began when a shaman called Roberto Gomez told him, “You know, brother Jeremy, to understand what interests you, you must drink ayahuasca.” He didn’t really take it seriously, but agreed to try, and found himself confronted by two florescent snakes who gave him a hard time for being human:

These enormous snakes are there, my eyes are closed and I see a spectacular world of brilliant lights, and in the middle of these hazy thoughts, the snakes start talking to me without words. They explain that I am just a human being. I feel my mind crack, and in the fissures, I see the bottomless arrogance of my presuppositions. It is profoundly true that I am just a human being, and, most of the time, I have the impression of understanding everything, whereas here I find myself in a more powerful reality that I do not understand at all and that, in my arrogance, I did not even suspect existed. I feel like crying in view of the enormity of these revelations. Then it dawns on me that this self-pity is part of my arrogance. I feel so ashamed that I no longer dare feel ashamed. Nevertheless, I have to throw up again.”

He was deeply humbled and apologised to the snakes for stepping over them as he went outside to be sick. The experience (and there’s more of it in the book) led to his hypothesis that the human mind is capable of communicating directly with the intelligence at the heart of life – DNA. This wasn’t a straightforward process because first he had to confront his own assumptions and training. He desperately wanted to understand what the shamans were trying to show him, but couldn’t take it seriously because he didn’t believe it.

Vision of the Snakes Pablo Amaringo
Vision of the Snakes by Pablo Amaringo

Western science can’t take ‘hallucinations’ seriously because they’re seen as illusions. If you have hallucinations then you’re psychotic, or imagining things. Hallucinations aren’t ‘real’. Consciousness is seen as originating in the brain, so anything you see must come from your own brain. The entheogens fit into receptors in the brain which unlock images stored in the subconscious. The idea that there could be a connection between a plant and a human mind is absurd. How could a plant communicate in symbols and images the way we do? It’s impossible!

It’s this view of consciousness that creates a massive blind spot and makes it hard for us to understand the claims of shamans. What’s experienced under entheogens goes way beyond anything you could dream up or imagine. The beings encountered appear to have their own reality. It’s also important to remember that the ‘scientific’ world doesn’t really understand how entheogens work in practice and haven’t studied it in depth. So the Western scientific position on this starts to look more like assumption, prejudice, or blind faith.

Narby describes the process of learning how to ‘defocalise’ and shift his thinking away from the limited ‘rational’ approach in his search for an answer to this problem. The breakthrough came when he when made the connection between DNA and serpents, and realised the source of the hallucinations could be internal and external at the same time.

Serpent Mythologies

Serpents are everywhere in ancient mythology. Creator gods in the form of serpents are found in the Amazon, Mexico, Australia, Sumer, Egypt, Persia, India, the Pacific, Crete, Greece, and Scandinavia. They’re often depicted as two serpents entwined, such as the caduceus, or they have two heads or a dual nature. For example, the ancient Egyptian cosmic serpent – ‘the provider of attributes’ – has two heads, as seen in this illustration from the book:CosmicSerpentproviderofattribute-1

This double or twin quality is depicted in various ways to show the paradoxical nature of the serpent. For example, the dragon lives in water and breathes fire, and so represents the union of opposites. Some mythical serpents are huge, such as Sesha, the thousand-headed serpent that floats in the cosmic ocean with Vishnu and Lakshmi (the twin creator beings) reclining in its coils.

Many ancient myths tell of a huge terrifying serpent or dragon that guards the axis of knowledge (often depicted as a ladder, vine, cord, or tree). In fact, the same basic elements are repeated in mythologies around the world: serpents, water, ladders, ropes, trees, staircases, vines, and twin creator beings.

Cosmic serpents are also associated with creation myths. This is where we find endless examples of twins and trickster figures, such as the Ashaninca story of Avireri and his twin sister. Although Avireri isn’t a serpent, he is a divine twin and he creates through transformation using music. One day he gets drunk and his sister pushes him down a hole. She pretends to pull him out by lowering a thread, then a cord, then a rope, but none of them are long enough. Finally, Avireri escapes by digging into the underworld to a place called ‘river’s end’ where he becomes wrapped in a vine. From there, he continues to create and sustain the earth.

In Aztec mythology we find Quetzalcoatl and his twin brother Tezcatlipoca, who are both children of the cosmic serpent Coatlicue. The word coatl means both serpent and twin, and Quetzalcoatl means either ‘plumed serpent’ or ‘magnificent twin’. There are many more examples, too many to list here.

An interesting historical side note: With the rise of monotheism the meaning of the ancient neolithic mythologies was inverted and distorted. This can be seen in the Bible which still contains many of the old symbols: the serpent, the tree, and the twin beings. But now the meaning is negative and the serpent is the bad guy. Yahweh has defeated the Leviathan. We can also see it in the myth of Zeus killing the Typhon – the new patriarchal gods, or male sun gods, slaying the ancient gods.

The old gods were more complete within themselves. The cosmic serpent is androgynous, neither male nor female. In making the new gods, the patriarchy split the function of the old gods in two, so the new gods aren’t entirely whole. This is clear in the Eden story. Originally, the twin beings in the garden were one. Adam was an hermaphrodite who was split to make Adam and Eve. The Bible distorts the biological truth of life coming from the goddess (female), and inverts it with the idea of Eve being created from Adam’s rib. It actually says she comes from his ‘side’ and that’s been interpreted to mean his rib, but it really means Eve is one side of Adam, i.e. half of him – his twin. The serpent in the Eden story is now the bad guy, rather than the source of all life.

Even more interesting side note: the name ‘Eve’ in Aramaic (chava or hava) is very similar to the word for snake, and in Arabic, Eve is hawwa which means ‘snake’ or ‘giver of life.’

Ondas de la Ayahuasca by Pablo Amaringo
Ondas de la Ayahuasca by Pablo Amaringo

DNA and the Serpent

DNA is often described as a ladder, a twisted rope or spiral staircase. Shamans also use these symbols and talk of ladders, braided ropes, vines, or bridges that connect heaven to earth. The Shamanic ladder is the earliest version of the ‘axis of the world’ or World Tree that connects different levels of reality. Usually you have to be dead to climb this axis and enter the Otherworld, but a shaman does it by using entheogens and music. Are they really accessing DNA when they do this?

One of the striking parts of The Cosmic Serpent, is the section where Narby describes what happened when he showed some paintings by Peruvian shamans to a molecular biologist. The paintings are by Luis Eduardo Luna and Pablo Amaringo and are filled with brightly coloured snakes, zigzags, vines and mysterious beings. Narby’s biologist friend instantly recognised the molecular structure of DNA hidden within the artwork:

Those are triple helixes… And that’s DNA from afar, looking like a telephone cord. This looks like chromosomes at a specific phase… There’s the spread-out form of DNA, and right next to it are DNA spools in their nucleosome structure.”

It seems that shamans can take their consciousness down to the molecular level and watch DNA replicating itself. They have direct access to the reality of molecular biology, and have done for thousands of years. Western science is only just starting to catch up.

There are many parallels between the serpent myths and DNA. Each human cell contains DNA about 2 metres long, so there’s about 125 billion miles of DNA in your body – enough to wrap around the earth 5 million times. One thread of DNA is tiny – 120 times narrower than the smallest wavelength of visible light. So DNA is massive and tiny at the same time, like the mythical serpents. DNA is also connected with water. All cells contain salt water which helps the DNA to twist into the double helix shape. It does this to protect itself because the four bases (A, G, C, and T) are insoluble in water so they twist up inside the cell to stay out of touch with the water molecules.

DNA has maintained its basic structure for billions of years, despite constantly copying and changing itself. The serpent too creates by transforming itself and yet always stays the same. To copy itself, the DNA molecule uncoils and unzips so it can make an identical copy – like twins.

Seeing the Light

All living things emit biophotons and DNA is the source of this light. The DNA bases are hexagonal but they each have a slightly different shape. T and C are hexagonal, while A and G have a 9 atom structure – a hexagon next to a pentagon. These stack on top of each other to give a slightly irregular structure, except for certain repeat sequences (like ACACACA, etc.) when it becomes more regular, like a quartz crystal.

It’s the aperiodic crystal structure that allows DNA to emit light, or biophotons, and sound. The light is transmitted in a narrow band of visible light and is ultra-weak but very coherent, like a laser. The coherent light is the source of the luminescent images seen during trance visions, and researchers have shown that plants can use biophoton emissions as a kind of ‘cellular language’ to talk to each other.

So it looks like shamans really are communicating with the plants via biophoton emissions. The biosphere is constantly interacting with us, trying to guide us and share its vast knowledge and wisdom. The earth is surrounded by and teeming with DNA in a global network. Before life began, this planet was a barren rock. The earliest life started around 3.85 billion years ago, then over time it slowly transformed the planet. DNA made the air we breathe, the landscape and all the creatures. It terraformed the earth and created us. The serpent is our creator – our first god and the origin of life and knowledge – and it lives inside us.

The Cosmic Serpent is one of those books that turns your mind inside out. Jeremy Narby draws together shamanism, ancient mythology, molecular biology and neurology to show that specific biological information can be directly transmitted through DNA into our consciousness. This fascinating book will completely change your view of what it’s possible to know and how that knowledge can be achieved. I can’t recommend it enough.

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26 thoughts on “The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge

  1. Post Scriptum – i do feel that the main line why this book is essential reading is not because Narby is completely coherent in his writing, he is not, he draws analogies, that from my perspective are interesting (mythology of serpent etc.) however not really needed at the point. What I did find relevant in the book is the underlying thesis not seen in the first account – nature is alive with intelligence! This statement is revolutionary against descartian and newtonian mechanistic view of the universe as a giant clock. Well, in fact, a clock it is, however what a clock. Gears that do come together are overdrives within overdrives of pure bio and elemental pattern, and to say that this does not reflect intelligence, is absurd, to say the least. Hence, for me, the sole objective of this book, is his own thinking, while looking his lecture from not long ago, where he sums it up, that pattern is all over in biology, and even more – it is intelligent, yet scientists are still clinging to the notion of mechanicistic reductionary positivism…

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    1. This idea of intelligence is key to it, yes – and consciousness. Nature has consciousness and intelligence. The trouble some scientists have with this comes down to thinking that consciousness and intelligence in nature is the same as in us. If you say a tree is conscious, they would say that’s absurd, how does it think, it doesn’t have a brain! But consciousness doesn’t necessarily mean ‘conscious thought’ as in human thinking. It’s really a lack of imagination that seems to cause this blind spot.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments Bostjan.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly Jessica. Consciousness doesn’t need to be an experience of having a brain as developed in larger mammal species and human beings. The system theory has a theory of intelligence where system ability to create meaningful pattern is a sign of intelligence arising as a by product of it. However, the fundamental reductionist approach to the matter is still prevalent today, although i ask myself for how long and the cost?

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  2. This book is one of those that crack opened my mind, when reading it. I would suggest it is a must read for all those that would want to further down their own understanding of how life communicates itself with itself. The way Narby follows the thread that he openes, while on ayahuasca road, is a fine one in between being discerning and open, analytical yet seeing the big picture. In my view, he completely succeeded in bringing down his own vision of how our world actually works at some level. A must read by all standards.

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  3. After rereading your post, I was reminded of the story of one of the Buddha’s great feats on becoming enlightened, it was said that he “tamed the Nagas” (water serpents, notably in plurality) I always associated this in more literal terms with him shifting the energetic polarity of certain negatively charged underground water channels, through prayer. Perhaps this also could have been an esoteric reference to the serpent energy within the DNA, a mythological allusion to the literal fact that they are suspended in the water of the cellular structure and that he overcame the dualised nature of the serpents to make them singular (joining the rungs on the DNA ladder.)

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  4. Hi Jessica, Peter and cabrogal! Hope you all have been well…

    Jessica, this was a really nice article. While I fully agree with cabrogal on one level, on another level, it is nice to see the attempt to fuse and synthesize the world views. There are pros and cons to the whole process. One one hand there is always distortion and it will only confuse those who are already in a confused state. On the other hand, there is that one in a million person who will see the links and get some amazing new insight and do something none of us thought was possible. So, I would err on the side of caution and say stuff just on the off chance that the one in a million person sees it.

    Now, as to DNA…I’ve had LSD experiences where I was able to probe down deeper and deeper into my visual hallucinations. One time, I found a visual level that looked very much like the DNA double helix. It was all very neon and moving around in a way I cannot put into words. It didn’t at all look like the silly little rendered molecular models shown in the video above. It was more like it was made of neon light moving and spiraling all over itself. But it had that characteristic shape of DNA. I stared harder and harder at the helix and then I was peering into the grooves of it. You’ll never believe what I saw…

    I saw the dream world. I saw stuff that looked normal, just like in our dreams. i was looking out over a landscape. It was a hillside on a sunny day. There were plants and trees and clouds. The wind was blowing them. It was very small, but in focus quite well. Inside of this spiral-moving neon glowing helix thing deep in my LSD-induced hallucinations. My thought at the time was something to the effect “OMG, DNA is a DOORWAY to the other worlds!’.

    As cabrogal said, we do need something to hang our hat on, and the scientific vocabulary I had learned to that point proved useful. In addition, I had the vocabulary of yoga to help me make sense of what I was seeing. I knew the concept “anima” where we can shrink in our perceptions, as described in the Yoga Sutras.

    Really, I don’t know what else one can do but try to describe these visions as best as one can. Jessica is right: calling it a “hallucination” and then just ignoring it as unreality is not right. Something is going on and the Western traditions have, in net, not given this stuff the attention it deserves. People get all excited about photos of Pluto, but very few people care what is possible with our own minds. It’s all very ironic to me.

    Well, it is nice to see everyone gathered here! You know I always wish you all my very best!

    Don

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Don, thanks for stopping by and thanks for sharing your experience. We’ll never understand anything until we understand our own minds, but as you say, that seems to be the least interesting thing to so many people. Such a shame.

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      1. Sign of the times. Everything waxes and wanes. How do the Grateful Dead say it? “Some times your cards aren’t worth a dime, if you don’t lay ’em down”. Seems like good advice in this situation.

        You’ve really been on quite a roll, Jessica. Even tho I haven’t had time to comment much, I’ve been lurking about. Thanks for posting such wonderful material!

        Best,

        Don

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I’m not sure people are uninterested in what’s possible with their own minds. In fact reading blogs has given me the view there’s heaps of people out there desperate to find ways to discuss it.

      But over recent centuries subjective experiences have not only become increasingly disreputable – even pathologised – we’ve also lost a lot of the vocabulary needed to discuss them. The only thing that’s ‘real’ now is what can be objectively measured and defined. Everything else is either fairy stories or symptoms.

      It seems to me the self-help and actualisation movement has responded, in part, not by reinventing a discourse on subjectivity but by trying to pretend what they’re flogging is as objective (and therefore ‘credible’) as genetics, neurology or physics. They’ve bought into the paradigm that’s causing the problem.

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      1. Hi cabrogal! Great to hear from you!

        Yes, I agree with your point. There is a kind of schizophrenia out there about this stuff. A big part of it is the blind leading the blind, or leaders and followers, or however you wish to say it. People sense what they think is the “accepted authority” and then try to emulate it. No matter it is just a shoddy parody. No matter the authority is simply false.

        Also, some people just want to make money and will prostitute themselves in what they perceive to be the most effective manner to accomplish their aims. Wolf in sheep’s clothing kind of thing.

        Ever so slowly I have come to peace with all this. It is samsara. The eternal wheel goes round and round, round and round. Most are hypnotized by the round and round, round and round. Those who are not seem to just get on with whatever business God has put before them.

        So nice to be talking to you again. I’ll look forward to more in the future.

        Best wishes

        Don

        Liked by 1 person

  5. From your review it would seem that Narby’s book is a very good example of the sort of thing that gives both science and spirituality a bad name whenever someone tries to synthesize the two disciplines.

    Yes, science can tell us very little about spiritual experiences – chemically induced or not – and people like Dawkins who attempt to fold religion into science can do so only by abusing both (especially the former).

    But equally, those who try to fold science into spiritual beliefs or use one to justify the other also abuse both fields, especially science. Quantum theory, relativity, evolution and genetics are particularly prone to that sort of abuse and it would seem Narby’s book is an example of that sorry genre.

    Very little of the ‘science’ cited above would be recognised as such by specialists in the relevant fields, but seen as ‘fringe’ or ‘junk’ science at best and pseudo-science by most. And while I do believe shamanic practices can give extraordinary insights into relationships and interactions – including those that would be considered ‘natural’ by most urban dwellers – I would be very surprised indeed were someone from a traditional shamanic lineage to claim such practices could teach them microbiology.

    Much of the problem in the thinking propagated by Narby and his ilk seems to come from hypertrophied pattern recognition and literal interpretations of metaphors.

    I think it rather sad when people try to use their poor understanding of science to justify their apparently weak grasp of a spiritual tradition – especially traditions from a cultures other than their own. It’s worse than sad when they appropriate and distort both those ways of knowing for commercial gain.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks cabrogal, you’ve made some fair points. I think I haven’t done the book justice – perhaps I’ve been a little overzealous because I find it so interesting. Narby doesn’t mention spirituality or consciousness in the book. He’s keen to distance himself from all that and a lot of the book is about his process of trying to reconcile the scientific method he learned with what he was discovering. Maybe the ayahuasca went to his head and he was too willing to believe in it. Or maybe there is something to it and we just need to find a way to approach it that doesn’t trample over the traditions of others.

      There’s way too much misappropriation of shamanic culture and lots of people willing to misuse it, I agree. But equally, just because ‘fringe’ science isn’t mainstream doesn’t mean it’s not relevant or necessary. We just need to be careful not to make assumptions about how things work according to the ‘accepted view’.

      I didn’t mean to imply that shamans understand molecular biology literally in the way a scientist would. They approach it in a totally different way and the plants seem to communicate in images and metaphor and symbols which have to be interpreted. There in lies the problem, I suppose.

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      1. If I ever get my hands on some ayahuasca I’ll be pretty disappointed if it doesn’t go to my head.

        I think what we’re seeing, at least in part, is the old dilemma that comes from trying to communicate mystical insights. You’ve gotta find some kind of cultural hook to hang your words off so what you say will reflect your pre-existing belief system more than the experience itself.

        But I can’t help thinking there’s something more squalid at work here too.

        Look at the Amaringo pictures. Do you see any helix anywhere, much less a double or triple one? What I see in the second is a representation of wavy vines crossing each other – hardly surprising considering the title and where ayahuasca comes from. I can see foregrounded red and blue vines crossing over backgrounded orange and purple ones but no sign they twist around each other nor that they’re connected in a kind of ‘ladder’. And I think even if I’d completed my Masters in molecular biology I’d have a hard time picking out anything that looked remotely like a chromosome or nucleosome. Maybe if I drop some acid first …

        But when I look out my window I can see a power-laden double helix twisting towards me. It’s the cable running from the electricity pole to my house. Does that mean my DNA is in communication with Ausgrid infrastructure or does it just mean that (as any rope-maker could tell you) by twisting fibres together you get something stronger and more resilient than the sum of its parts? So you see multiple helixes all over the place in nature and engineering if you look.

        I’m with Peter on this. My intuition (utterly unsupported by science but also uncontradicted by it to the best of my knowledge) is that consciousness is inherent in the universe itself. But I have no feeling it’s somehow more immanent in DNA than it is in dog droppings, much less that the DNA has any need to ‘communicate’ consciousness to the rest of me via it’s (ahem) ‘aperiodic crystal structure’ generating (sigh) ‘coherent laser light’ that for some reason generates illuminated trance visions in my visual cortex (last I checked the vision centres of my brain ran off electrochemical reactions, not lasers).

        I’ve read Buhler’s claims that his experiments show that biophotons mediate cellular communication and can see more holes in his interpretation than in a prion-ridden sheep’s brain. And you’ve gotta wonder why our bodies would go to all that energy intensive trouble with sluggish synapses, biologically expensive neurotransmitters and sodium-potassium ion pumps if it could just grow a few cellular optical fibres and manage its internal communication at lightspeed.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. To be fair, it wasn’t these specific paintings that Narby was referring to – I just chose these cos I like them.

          I have no idea how any of this works, I’m just curious about it. I do think it is possible for an individual to perceive things at microscopic levels of consciousness (whether they use psychotropics or other techniques), but I don’t know what the mechanism for that is. Just like I don’t know what the mechanism for consciousness itself is. (‘Mechanism’ is probably the wrong word, but anyway…) DNA and light is a hypothesis that needs testing. There might be something in it, or I might be getting excited over nothing. We’ll see.

          I wish I knew more about Hindu philosophy and cosmology because then I could talk more coherently about this – consciousness and the bindu and siddhis, etc. Don DeGracia has been running an interesting series on his blog all about consciousness and quantum physics. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it – https://dondeg.wordpress.com

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  6. Thanks Jessica.

    Five million times? Wow. This is one for Qi. I must follow up on some of these statements about DNA. I seem to have fallen behind the times.

    I wonder, though, whether we shouldn’t be speaking about the consciousness of DNA, or the wider consciousness of which we and DNA are local centres, and not the consciousness of some particular two mile stretch of DNA communicating via light emitting crystals, which is all a bit implausible to me. What would be plausible is a level (or hypostase?) of consciousness on which these kinds of experiences of consciousness are to be found and on which they operate. The shaman may be just accessing the depths of their long-forgotten pre-reptilian consciousness. Perhaps at that level the world is experienced just like a shaman’s image of his dreams. Or something like that.

    The two headed snake as a symbol for the Provider of Attributes seems perfect. No dualism, no attributes. They knew a thing or two those ancient Egyptians. . .

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    1. Yes, the question does arise – where does DNA come from in the first place? The nature of consciousness seems a good place to look for an answer, but I doubt we’d be able to nail it down in any scientific sense. Mainly because we can’t get outside of consciousness to look at it and figure out what it is.

      Then again, I wouldn’t be too keen to reduce it down to reptilian structures in the brain either. The shamans are interacting with all sorts of beings, not just serpents, and the knowledge seems to go beyond the basic instinctual survival stuff you’d get from those ancient memories.

      I don’t know, of course. But it’s a fascinating area.

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