The Cosmic Serpent


The Cosmic SerpentDNA and the Origins of Knowledge, 2nd Printing (Originally published in 1998), New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 2003.

The Cosmic Serpent by Jeremy Narby is an extraordinary and refreshing book. Written from the perspective of an anthropologist, the book unveils many myths in that science when it goes out ‘to meet the other’, and return to declare the peoples it met as schizophrenic, retarded or ‘possessed by the devil.’

But the author also reports how ethnology changed over time and become more objective in its look on cultures that are markedly different from our own.

Anthropologists discovered that their gaze was a tool of domination and that their discipline was not only a child of colonialism, it also served the colonial cause through its own practices. The unbiased and supra-cultural language of the observer was actually a colonial discourse and a form of domination./14

From the early twentieth century onward, anthropologists progressively extended the use of this Siberian term and found shamans in Indonesia, Uganda, the Arctic, and Amazonia. Some played drums, others drank plant decoctions and sang; some claimed to cure, others cast spells. They were unanimously considered neurotic, epileptic, psychotic, hysterical or schizophrenic./15

The change came abruptly. In 1949, Claude Lévi-Strauss stated in a key essay that the shaman, far from being mentally ill, was in fact a kind of psychotherapist—the difference being that the psychoanalyst listens, whereas the shaman speaks. For Lévi-Strauss, the shaman is first of all a creator of order, who cures people by transforming their incoherent and arbitrary pains into an ordered and intelligible form./15

In this context of a critical review of Western science meeting tribal cultures, Narby reveals a very important secret about tobacco, and unveils the myths behind the current worldwide propaganda against tobacco, with its alleged cancerogenous effects.

Narby, who has done research on tobacco over several years, has published in this book a good part of the research results, and gives further references in the footnotes. His research indicates that it’s not tobacco that causes cancer, but additives and preservatives that are put in cigarettes in the process of industrial fabrication. He writes:

There are fundamental differences between the shamanic use of tobacco and the consumption of industrial cigarettes. The botanical variety used in the Amazon contains up to eighteen times more nicotine than the plants used in Virginia-type cigarettes. Amazonian tobacco is grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides and contains none of the ingredients added to cigarettes, such as aluminum oxide, potassium nitrate, ammonium phosphate, polyvinyl acetate, and a hundred or so others, which make up approximately 10 percent of the smokable matter. During combustion, a cigarette emits some 4000 substances, most of which are toxic. Some of these substances are even radioactive, making cigarettes the largest single source of radiation in the daily life of an average smoker. According to one study, the average smoker absorbs the equivalent of the radiation dosages from 250 chest X-rays per year. Cigarette smoke is directly implicated in more than 24 serious illnesses, including 17 forms of cancer. In the Amazon, on the other hand, tobacco is considered a remedy. The Ashaninca word for healer or shaman is sheripiári—literally, the person who uses tobacco. The oldest Ashaninca men I knew were all sheripiári. They were so old that they did not know their own age, which only their deeply wrinkled skin suggested, and they were remarkably alert and healthy. Intrigued by these disparities, I looked through the data banks for comparative studies between the toxicity of the Amazonian variety (Nicotinia rustica) and the variety used by the manufacturers of cigarettes, cigars, rolling tobacco, and pipe tobacco (Nicotinia tabacum). I found nothing. The question, it seemed, had not been / asked. I also looked for studies on the cancer rate among shamans who use massive and regular doses of nicotine: again, nothing. So I decided to write to the main authority on the matter, Johannes Wilbert, author of the book Tobacco and Shamanism in South America, to put my questions to him. He replied: There is certainly evidence that Western tobacco products contain many different harmful agents which are probably not present in organically grown plants. I have not heard of shamans developing cancers but that may, of course, be a function of several things like lack of Western diagnosis, natural life span of indigenous people, magico-religious restriction of tobacco used in tribal societies. It seems clear that nicotine does not cause cancer, given that it is active in the brain and that cigarettes do not cause cancer in the brain, but in the lungs, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, rectum, kidneys, and bladder, the organs reached by the carcinogenic tars, which are also swallowed. /120-121

Jeremy Narby
Jeremy Narby

But this general outline of shamanism and how the modern world came to discover it is only a by-product of the book, so to speak. The real topic is a very specific problem that Narby had well defined in advance. He wanted to prove his hypothesis that the visions and encounters psychedelic substances trigger are actually visions of the DNA, or the photons that irradiate from it. He defines his research topic, first negatively, by demonstrating why this link between entheogenic substances and the DNA could not be discovered before by modern science:

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 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./71

This meant that the gaze of the Western specialist was too narrow to see the two pieces that fit together to resolve the puzzle. The distance between molecular biology and shamanism/mythology was an optical illusion produced by the rational gaze that separates things ahead of time, and as objectivism fails to objectify its objectifying relationship, it also finds it difficult to consider its presuppositions./78-79

Jeremy Narby in Interview
Jeremy Narby in Interview

The outline of Narby’s research is the most daring I have encountered in my shamanism research so far, and despite his well-written book, it seems that his theory was not picked up by the scientific community so far. Narby had previously noted a decrease of interest in the subject, but his vision about a paradigm change in science is hopeful in case that his hypothesis can be confirmed by more in-depth research in the future:

From the middle of the 1970s onward, the connection between DNA and hallucinogens disappears from the scientific literature. It would no doubt be interesting to reconsider it in the light of the new knowledge established by molecular biology./125

If my hypothesis is correct, and if ayahuasqueros perceive DNA-emitted photons in their visions, it ought to be possible to find a link between these photons and consciousness. I started looking for it in the biophoton literature. Researchers working in this new field mainly consider biophoton emission as a cellular language or a form of nonsubstantial biocommunication between cells and organisms. Over the last fifteen years, they have conducted enough reproducible experiments to believe that cells use these waves to direct their own internal reactions as well as to communicate among themselves and even between organisms. For instance, photon emission provides a communication mechanism that could explain how billions of individual plankton organisms cooperative in swarms, behaving like super-organisms. /127-128

In addition, Narby made the discovery that quartz played a decisive role in the biophoton research he went through for proving his hypothesis:

One thing had struck me as I went over the biophoton literature. Almost all of the experiments conducted to measure biophotons involved the use of quartz. As early as 1923, Alexander Gurvich noticed that cells separated by a quartz screen mutually / influenced each other’s multiplication processes, which was not the case with a metal screen. He deducted that cells emit electromagnetic waves with which they communicate. It took more than half a century to develop a photomultiplier capable of measuring this ultra-weak radiation: the container of this device is also made of quartz. Quartz is a crystal, which means it has an extremely regular arrangement of atoms that vibrate at a very stable frequency. These characteristics make it an excellent receptor and emitter of electromagnetic waves, which is why quartz is abundantly used in radios, watches, and most electronic technologies./128-129

Now, succinctly speaking, what Narby wants to show is that what the shamans perceive as ‘spirits’ are in reality biophotons emitted by the cells of the human body:

What if these spirits were none other than the biophotons emitted by all the cells of the world and were picked up, amplified, and transmitted by shamans’ quartz crystals, Gurvich’s quartz screens, and the quartz containers of biophoton researchers? This would mean that spirits are beings of pure light—as has always been claimed. /129

I will leave it here with my review and let you discover this exciting book that is often quoted in shamanism literature. However, I have not yet found an author who either corroborated the theory, or else falsified it. So much the more the book should be read and its daring hypothesis shared with as many minds as possible, so that a scientific agreement can be found to either corroborate or falsify this very interesting theory or hypothesis.

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