Serpent Symbolism, Part II
Alice C. Linsley
(For Serpent Symbolism, Part I go here.)
Shamans of the Amazon drink or inhale the hallucinogenic ayahuasca, the principal ingredient of which is a serpent shaped vine. The effects of the ayahuasca drink appear in thirty to forty minutes and last approximately four hours. While under the influence of ayahuasca, they see serpents who teach them the medicinal and sorcery uses of other plants. The shaman is said to be able to see galaxies and planets, distant relatives, lost objects, the identity of an unfaithful spouse’s lover, the cause of a patient’s sickness and travel through time and space.
Aya and huasca are Quechua words meaning “soul” and “vine”. In Spanish the vine is called “soga de alma” – vine of the soul and also "soga de muerto" - vine of the dead. Ayahuasca is a mixture of 2 or 3 plant ingredients, sometimes more. The hallucinogenic ingredient is tetrahydroharmine (DMT), which when ingested is neutralized by the oxidizing action of peripheral monoamine oxidase-A (MAO-A), an enzyme in the lining of the stomach. Shamans circumvent the MAO inhibitor by inhaling or smoking the plant or by mixing the DMT with an MAO inhibitor that prevents the breakdown of DMT in the digestive tract.
According to the shamans, the cosmic serpent taught their ancestors which plants to mix to overcome the body’s natural protection. Combining ingredients allows the DMT in the ayahuasca to produce its hallucinogenic effect when orally ingested. The vine also contains harmaline which can cause vomiting and diarrhea, but it doesn’t have an affect on shamans who develop a tolerance to its emetic and purgative effects over time. However they do not develop a tolerance for ayahuasca’s hallucinogenic effects.
In his book The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge (1999), Jeremy Narby tells of his fieldwork with the Ashaninca and Quirishari of the Peruvian Amazon. Through use of the hallucinogen ayahuasca, derived from a serpent shaped vine (shown on left), Narby encountered the metaphysical reality presented in Genesis 3: the beguiling cosmic serpent who "was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say...?"
Narby explains, “I began my investigation with the enigma of ‘plant communication.’ I went on to accept the idea that hallucinations could be the source of verifiable information. And I ended up with a hypothesis suggesting that a human mind can communicate in defocalized consciousness with the global network of DNA-based life. All this contradicts principles of Western knowledge.
Nevertheless, my hypothesis is testable. A test would consist of seeing whether institutionally respected biologists could find biomolecular information in the hallucinatory world of ayahuasqueros… My hypothesis suggests that what scientists call DNA corresponds to the animate essences that shamans say communicate with them and animate all life forms. Modern biology, however, is founded on the notion that nature is not animated by an intelligence and therefore cannot communicate.” (p. 132)
My hypothesis is based on the idea that DNA in particular and nature in general are minded. (p. 145)
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 occurs? 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 interrelatedness. (p. 160)
Narby concludes: “All things considered, wisdom requires not only the investigation of many things, but contemplation of the mystery.”
To me the most interesting part is Chapter 6. Here we read:
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. (pp. 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. (p. 71)
Eliade and others have studied shamanic techniques of ecstasy among primitive peoples. (See also I.M. Lewis’ Ecstatic Religion, 1971.) Narby argues that shamans receive information from DNA in the form of visions. His conclusion is that nature is speaking. The illogic of this view never seems to occur to him. If this is nature speaking, then why must the shaman neutralize the natural enzyme MAO-A in order to gain knowledge? This is contrary to the biblical understanding in which knowledge and wisdom are not gained by a self-induced ecstatic state.
Consider the staretz, a spiritual adviser to whom priests, monks and laymen turn for spiritual wisdom and guidance. These men and women do not seek to steal knowledge by trances. Instead by constant prayer, communion with God in Christ, and study of Scripture, they gradually and steadily grow in holiness. They become, not the mouthpieces of serpents, but of angels.
(To read about the difference between priests and shamans, go here.)