“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made…”
— [Genesis 3:1]
Where does life come from? It’s a question that has plagued man since the first spark of consciousness emerged. To seek it, people have looked to the sky, opened up sacred books, peered through microscopes, ingested plants, starved and cut themselves, joined cults… Yet despite the disparities between the perspectives thrown up by such activities, there runs a thick seam of parallels. Perhaps the world is just inherently symbolic- or perhaps the structure of the human mind is such that everyone perceives and paints the world in similar colours. If so, it is possible that modern systems of knowledge are merely rediscovering what forgotten cultures knew long ago.
Take the snake, for example. A symbol of deception, trickery, poison, chicanery: he who betrayed us and banished us from the idyllic Eden. In the West, the snake is a tool of the devil, the ungrateful and nasty figure in European folk tales, the nefarious engine of Cleopatra’s suicide. Yet it also allowed mankind to reproduce, propagate and dominate; its role in the creation stories of countless cultures mean it is also seen as a symbol of renewal and rebirth.
But why should this limbless, slithering reptile represent the beginning of life? In Aborigine, Mayan, Egyptian, Aztec and several Amazonian cultures, serpents are often depicted as a pair, forming a double helix and signifying infinity. Spiralling ladders and twins have also been similarly employed in other cultural imaginings. The double helix structures, often a twisted rope, implies communication between the sky and the earth, and it is the means of transport used by the Gods to travel between the earth and the sky.
Curiously, these images bear a striking resemblance to what Crick, Watson and the underrated Rosemary unearthed in 1952: the DNA molecule. Despite the fact that they were lauded for their ‘discovery’, what if they had merely re-interpreted what others had known for millions of years, only in their own specific system of knowledge?
Enter Jeremy Narby: anthropologist by trade and ayahuascero by choice, he travelled to the Peruvian Amazon to write an ethnography about the Ashaninca people. What resulted, The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, found that their creation myth was also based on a pair of spiralling snakes, and they explained to Narby that he would have to take ayahuasca in a shamanic ceremony in order to understand their perception and interpretation of the world.
Ayahuasca, Caapi or Yage to any beatniks still breathing, is a compound drug, formed of dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, from shrubs of the Psychotria genus (although the chemical is also present in human spinal fluid) and banisteriopsis caapi, a vine that grows around tree trunks in a spiral that resembles—yes—a double helix.
Narby’s subsequent experiences of ayahuasca ceremonies motivated him to reject the objectivity so beloved of anthropology and other sciences and embrace a more holistic theory of the synchronicities between modern Western science and ancient shamanic theories. He argued that both molecular biologists and shamans would concur on one point: that there is a hidden unity that underlies all forms of life, and it is only at this level that one can heal. However, his theory was heavily criticized, not least by mainstream science. In the West, scientists tend to fetishize absolutes and reject mysteries and uncertainty. Furthermore, archaic knowledge systems (or ‘shamanic flights of fancy’) are regarded as gloriously irrelevant and loopy as a Merry Prankster babbling gibberish in a bathtub high on acid.
This is for two reasons: firstly, Western science has tended to privilege visual or sensory phenomena above intuition or mere ‘feeling’. Secondly, even in those forms of science that admit that truth lies at a deeper level than what we can perceive, deductive logic reigns supreme. Most scientists, in an attempt to reject the ‘divine plan’ put forth by religions, subscribe to an idea of evolution as unconscious and arbitrary.
Yet, as Narby pointed out, DNA is problematic because it simultaneously represents mutation and continuity, transformations and transference. For example, enzymes edit the RNA transcript of the DNA script by sending a constant stream of messages to cells, between which they must choose: die, stay alive, divide, don’t divide. Given that the Latin word for intelligence, intelegere, means “to choose between”, the cells’ subsequent decisions actually represent a form of intelligence. Even if this intelligence is of an emergent rather than a top-down form, and evidences no ‘plan’ as such, it is right to say that we are formed of a living language, a code in constant flux.
What level could such structures be perceived at? As Western science tends to regard hallucinations as the product of a dysfunctional mind, rather than as an interpretation of reality in some form, it refuses to recognise shamanic visions as a form of knowledge. Yet in many cultures, hallucinatory trance is seen as a way of communing with the world, in which normally imperceptible information is transmitted. The claims of shamans that they are actually able to ‘see’ DNA seems preposterous to scientists, given that DNA is 120 times narrower than even the smallest wavelength of visible light.
But how, then, are there such synchronicities between the images of double helixes, chromosome shapes and splitting spirals in ancient Aborigine, Egyptian and Amazonian artworks, and the scientific depictions of DNA? Shamans claim that they are able to access a level of consciousness where they communicate with the ‘animate essences’ or ‘spirits’ of things, and they attribute their botanical and medical knowledge to the trances in which they do this. Narby investigated how this might be possible, and discovered that scientists in the 1980s found that all cells emit photons at a rate of 100 photons per second, per square centimetre, making it within the wavelength perceptible to human eyes. Naturally, those photons were emitted from DNA.
If the shamans are correct in saying that they actually communicate with DNA in trance states, it would account for the curious luminescence of hallucinatory visions; all living things are permeated with a bright light that comes directly from the DNA-emitted photons, allowing the shamans to ‘read’ the essences of plants and other living things. The shamans claims that as the form of the banisteria caapi mimics that of DNA itself, it opens up the consciousness of those who ingest it, allowing them to communicate with DNA itself. Absurd as the suggestion may sound, it is this that has allowed numerous cultures to perceive the essential unity the underlies all life forms, and depict it in the form of serpents or entwined ladders, or ropes. Even scientists themselves often describe the movement of the DNA molecule as ‘snakelike’, and are only gradually beginning to understanding the medical knowledge of the shamans in their own terms now. Narby thus arrived at the conclusion that one part of humanity had detached itself from the serpent life principle, in adopting an exclusively rational point of view. Ironically, that part of humanity which has detached itself from the serpent life principle managed to discover it in a laboratory three thousand years later. It seems the scientists can’t see the wood for their petri dishes.
About the Author
- Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.
Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.
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He argued that both molecular biologists and shamans would concur on one point: that there is a hidden unity that underlies all forms of life, and it is only at this level that one can heal.