“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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.’
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.
- The Origins of Christmas Part 2: Shamanic Roots
- See more of Pablo Amaringo’s glorious art
- Browse the Consciousness Bookshelf