Chapter 6

The following morning my wife and children left for a vacation in the mountains. I was going to be alone for ten days. I set about classifying my notes on the practices and beliefs of both indigenous and mestizo ayahuasqueros. This work took six days and revealed a number of constants across cultures.

Throughout Western Amazonia people drink ayahuasca at night, generally in complete darkness; beforehand, they abstain from sexual relations and fast, avoiding fats, alcohol, salt, sugar, and all other condiments.


An experienced person usually leads the hallucinatory session, directing the visions with songs.1

In many regions, apprentice ayahuasqueros isolate themselves in the forest for long months and ingest huge quantities of hallucinogens. Their diet during this period consists mainly of bananas and fish, both of which are particularly rich in serotonin. It also happens that the long-term consumption of hallucinogens diminishes the concentration of this neurotransmitter in the brain.


Most anthropologists are unaware of the biochemical aspect of this diet, however, and some go as far as to invent abstract explanations for what they call "irrational food taboos."2

As I classified my notes, I was looking out for new connections between shamanism and DNA. I had just received a letter from a friend who is a scientific journalist and who had read a preliminary version of my second chapter; he suggested that shamanism was perhaps "untranslatable into our logic for lack of corresponding concepts."3 I understood what he meant, and I was trying to see precisely if DNA, without being exactly equivalent, might be the concept that would best translate what ayahuasqueros were talking about.

These shamans insist with disarming consistency on the existence of animate essences (or spirits, or mothers) which are common to all life forms.


Among the Yaminahua of the Peruvian Amazon, for instance, Graham Townsley writes:

"The central image dominating the whole field of Yaminahua shamanic knowledge is that of yoshi - spirit or animate essence. In Yaminahua thought all things in the world are animated and given their particular qualities by yoshi.


Shamanic knowledge is, above all, knowledge of these entities, which are also the sources of all the powers that shamanism claims for itself... it is through the idea of yoshi that the fundamental sameness of the human and the non-human takes shape."4

When I was in Quirishari, I already knew that the "animist" belief, according to which all living beings are animated by the same principle, had been confirmed by the discovery of DNA.


I had learned in my high school biology classes that the molecule of life was the same for all species and that the generic information in a rose, a bacterium, or a human being was coded in a universal language of four letters. A, G, C, and T, which are four chemical compounds contained in the DNA double helix.

So the rather obvious relationship between DNA and the animate essences perceived by ayahuasqueros was not new to me.

The classification of my reading notes did not reveal any further correspondences.

On my seventh day of solitude, I decided to go to the nearest university library, because I wanted to follow up a last trail before getting down to writing: the trail of the life-creating twins that I had found in Yagua mythology.

As I browsed over the writings of authorities on mythology, I discovered with surprise that the theme of twin creator beings of celestial origin was extremely common in South America, and indeed throughout the world. The story that the Ashaninca tell about Avíreri and his sister, who created life by transformation, was just one among hundreds of variants on the theme of the "divine twins."


Another example is the Aztecs' plumed serpent. QuetzalcoatI, who symbolizes the "sacred energy of life," and his twin brother Tezcatlipoca, both of whom are children of the cosmic serpent Coatlicue.5

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 QuetzalcoatI can thus he interpreted either as "Plumed serpent' or 'Magnificent twin.'"6

A twin serpent, of cosmic origin, symbolizing the sacred energy of life? Among the A/tecs?

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 by 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 stuck.


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.


It 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 M6traux, 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, Nepal, 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 descend 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.

Until then, I had considered Eliade's work with suspicion, but suddenly I viewed it in a new light.8


I started flipping through his other writings in my possession and discovered: cosmic serpents. This time it was Australian Aborigines who considered that the creation of life was the work of a "cosmic personage related to universal fecundity, the Rainbow Snake," whose powers were symbolized by quartz crystals.


It so happens that the Desana of the Colombian Amazon also associate the cosmic anaconda, creator of life, with a quartz crystal:


How could it be that Australian Aborigines, separated from the rest of humanity for 40,000 years, tell the same story about the creation of life by a cosmic serpent associated with a quartz crystal as is told by ayahuasca-drinking Amazonians?

The connections that I was beginning to perceive were blowing away the scope of my investigation.


How could cosmic serpents from Australia possibly help my analysis of the uses of hallucinogens in Western Amazonia? Despite this doubt, I could not stop myself and charged ahead.

I seized the four volumes of Joseph Campbell's comparative work on world mythology. A German friend had given them to me at the beginning of my investigation, after I had told him about the book that I wanted to write. Initially, I had simply gone over the volume called Primitive mythology. I didn't much like the title, and the book neglected the Amazon Basin, not to mention hallucinogens.


At the time, I had placed Campbell's masterpiece at the back of one of my bookshelves and had not consulted it further. I began paging through Occidental mythology looking for snakes. To my surprise I found one in the title of the first chapter.


Turning the first page I came upon the following figure.

The Serpent Lord Enthroned." From Campbell (1964, p. 11).

This figure is taken from a Mesopotamian seal of c. 2200 B.C. and shows,

"the deity in human form, enthroned, with his caduceus emblem behind and a fire altar before."9

The symbol of this Serpent Lord was none other than a double helix. The similarity with the representation of DNA was unmistakable! I feverishly paged through Campbell's books and found twisted serpents in most images representing sacred scenes.


Campbell writes about this omnipresent snake symbolism:

"Throughout the material in the Primitive, Oriental and Occidental volumes of this work, myths and rites of the serpent frequently appear, and in a remarkably consistent symbolic sense. Wherever nature is revered as self-moving, and so inherently divine, the serpent is revered as symbolic of its divine life."10

In Campbell's work I discovered a stunning number of creator gods represented in the form of a cosmic serpent, not only in Amazonia, Mexico, and Australia, but in Sumer, Egypt, Persia, India, the Pacific, Crete, Greece, and Scandinavia.

To check these facts, I consulted my French-language Dictionary of symbols under "serpent."


I read:

"It makes light of the sexes, and of the opposition of contraries; it is female and male too, a twin to itself, like so many of the important creator gods who are always, in their first representation, cosmic serpents.... Thus, the visible snake appears as merely the brief incarnation of a Great Invisible Serpent, which is causal and timeless, a master of the vital principle and of all the forces of nature. It is a primary old god found at the beginning of all cosmogonies, before monotheism and reason toppled it".11

Campbell dwells on two crucial turning points for the cosmic serpent in world mythology.


The first occurs,

"in the context of the patriarchy of the Iron Age Hebrews of the first millennium B.C., [where] the mythology adopted from the earlier Neolithic and Bronze Age civilizations... became inverted, to render an argument just the opposite to that of its origin."

In the Judeo-Christian creation story told in the first book of the Bible, one finds elements which are common to so many of the worlds creation myths: the serpent, the tree, and the twin beings; but for the first time, the serpent,

"who had been revered in the Levant for at least seven thousand years before the composition of the Book of Genesis," plays the part of the villain.

Yahweh, who replaces it in the role of die creator, ends up defeating,

"the serpent of the cosmic sea. Leviathan."12

For Campbell, the second turning point occurs in Greek mythology, where Zeus was initially represented as a serpent; but around 500 B.C., the myths are changed, and Zeus becomes a serpent-killer.


He secures the reign of the patriarchal gods of Mount Olympus by defeating Typhon, the enormous serpent-monster who is the child of the earth goddess Gaia and die incarnation of the forces of nature.



"was so large that his head often knocked against the stars and his arms could extend from sunrise to sunset."

In order to defeat Typhon, Zeus can count only on the help of Athene, "Reason," because all the other Olympians have fled in terror to Egypt.13

"Zeus against Typhon." From Campbell (1964, p. 239).

At this point, I wrote in my notes:

"These patriarchal and exclusively masculine gods are incomplete as far as nature is concerned. DNA, like the cosmic serpent, is neither masculine nor feminine, even though its creatures are either one or the other, or both. Gaia, the Greek earth goddess, is as incomplete as Zeus. Like him, she is the result of the rational gaze, which separates before thinking, and is incapable of grasping the androgynous and double nature of the vital principle."

It was past 8 p.m. and I had not eaten. My head was spinning in the face of the enormity of what I thought I was discovering. I decided to pause. I took a beer out of the refrigerator and put on some violin music. Then I started pacing up and down my office.


What could all this possibly mean?

I turned on the tape recorder and tried answering my own question:

"One, Western culture has cut itself off from the serpent/life principle, in other words DNA, since it adopted an exclusively rational point of view. Two, the peoples who practice what we call 'shamanism' communicate with DNA. Three, paradoxically, the part of humanity that cut itself off from the serpent managed to discover its material existence in a laboratory some three thousand years later.

"People use different techniques in different places to gain access to knowledge of the vital principle. In their visions shamans manage to take their consciousness down to the molecular level. This is precisely what Reichel-Dolmatoff describes, in his running commentary into the tape recorder of his own ayahuasca-induced visions ('like microphotographs of plants; like those microscopic stained sections; sometimes like from a pathology textbook').14

'This is how they learn to combine brain hormones with monoamine oxidase inhibitors, or how they discover forty different sources of muscle paralyzers whereas science has only been able to imitate their molecules. When they say the recipe for curare was given to them by the beings who created life, they are talking literally- When they say their knowledge comes from beings they see in their hallucinations, their words mean exactly what they say.

"According to the shamans of the entire world, one establishes communication with spirits via music. For the ayahuasqueros, it is almost inconceivable to enter the world of spirits and remain silent. Angelika Gebhart-Sayer discusses the 'visual music' projected by the spirits in front of the shaman's eyes; It is made up of three-dimensional images that coalesce into sound and that the shaman imitates by emitting corresponding melodies.15


I should check whether DNA emits sound or not.

"Another way of testing this idea would be to drink ayahuasca and observe the microscopic images".

As I said this, it dawned on me that I could approach this experience by looking at the book of paintings by Pablo Amaringo, a retired Peruvian ayahuasquero with a photographic memory.

These paintings are published in a book called Ayahuasca visions: The religious iconography of a Peruvian shaman, by Luis Eduardo Luna and Pablo Amaringo.


In this book, Luna die anthropologist provides a mine of information on Amazonian shamanism, giving the context for fifty paintings of great beauty by Amaringo. The first time I saw these paintings, I was struck by their resemblance to my own ayahuasca-induced visions.


According to Amaringo:

"I only paint what I have seen, what I have experienced. I don't copy or take ideas for my paintings from any book." Luna says: "I have shown Pablo's paintings to several vegetalistas, and they have reacted with immediate interest and wonder - some have commented on how similar their own visions were to those depicted by Pablo, and some even recognize elements in them."16

On opening the book, I was stupefied to find all kinds of zigzag staircases, entwined vines, twisted snakes, and, above all, usually hidden in the margins, double helixes, like this one:


Several weeks later, I showed these paintings to a friend with a good understanding of molecular biology.


He reacted in the same way as the vegetalistas to whom Luna had shown them:

"Look, there's collagen.. .. And there, the axon's embryonic network with its neurites... 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."

Even without these explanations, I was in shock.


I quickly went over the index of Ayahuasca visions, but found no mention of either DNA, chromosomes, or double helixes.


Was it possible that no one had noticed the molecular aspect of the images?


Well, yes, because I myself had often admired them and showed them to people to explain what the hallucinatory sphere looked like, and I had not noticed them either.


My gaze had been as focalized as usual. I had not been able to see simultaneously molecular biology and shamanism, which our rational mind separates - but which could well overlap and correspond.

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 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.

At this point I remembered Michael Harner's story. Had he not said that this information was reserved for the dead and the dying? Suddenly, I was overcome with fear and felt the urge to share these ideas with someone else. I picked up the phone and called an old friend, who is also a writer. I quickly took him through the correspondences I had found during the day: the twins, the cosmic serpents, Eliades ladders, Camplwlls double helixes, as well as Amaringos.


Then I added:

"There is a last correlation that is slightly less clear than the others. The spirits one sees in hallucinations are three-dimensional, sound-emitting images, and they speak a language made of three-dimensional, sound-emitting images. In other words, they are made of their own language, like DNA."

There was a long silence on the other end of the line.

Then my friend said,

"Yes, and like DNA they replicate themselves to relay their information."

"Wait," I said, "I'm going to jot that down."

"Precisely," he said, "instead of talking to me, yon should be writing this down."18

I followed his advice, and it was in writing my notes on the relationship between the hallucinatory spirits made of language and DNA that I remembered the first verse of the first chapter of the Gospel according to John: "In the beginning was the logos" - the word, the verb, the language.

That night I had a hard time falling asleep.

The next day I had to attend a professional meeting that bore no relationship to my research. I took advantage of the train ride to put things into perspective. I was feeling strange. On the one hand, entire blocks of intuition were pushing me to believe that the connection between DNA and shamanism was real. On the other hand, I was aware that this vision contradicted certain academic ideas, and that the links I had found so far were insufficient to trouble a strictly rational point of view.

Nonetheless, gazing out the train window at a random sample of the the Western world, I could not avoid noticing a land of separation between human beings and all other species. We cut ourselves off by living in cement blocks, moving around in glass-and-metal bubbles, and spending a good part of our time watching other human beings on television.


Outside, the pale light of an April sun was shining down on a suburb. I opened a newspaper and all I could find were pictures of human beings and articles about their activities. There was not a single article about another species.

Sitting on the train, I measured the paradox confronting me. I was a resolutely Western individual, and yet I was starting to believe in ideas that were not receivable from a rational point of view. This meant that I was going to have to find out more about DNA. Up to this point, I had only found biological correspondences in shamanism. It remained to be seen whether the contrary was also true, and whether there were shamanic correspondences in biology.


More precisely, I needed to see whether shamanic notions about spirits corresponded to scientific notions about DNA. Basically I had only covered, at best, half the distance.

Even though my bookshelves were well stocked in anthropology and ecology, I owned no books about DNA or molecular biology; but I knew a colleague trained in both chemistry and literature who was going to be able to help me on that count.

After the meeting, toward the end of the afternoon, I went over to my colleagues house. He had generously allowed me to look through his books in his absence.

I entered his office, a big room with an entire wall occupied by bookshelves, turned on the light, and started browsing. The biology section contained, among others. The double helix by James Watson, the co-discoverer with Francis Crick of the structure of DNA.


I flipped through this book, looking at the pictures with interest, and put it aside.

A little further along on the same shelf, I came upon a book by Francis Crick entitled Life itself: Its origin and nature. I pulled it out and looked at its cover - and could not believe my eyes. It showed an image of the earth, seen from space, with a rather indistinct object coming from the cosmos and landing on it.

Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize-winning co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, was suggesting that the molecule of life was of extraterrestrial origin - in the same way that the "animist" peoples claimed that the vital principle was a serpent from the cosmos.


Cover of Crick (1981)

I had never heard of Crick's hypothesis, called "directed panspermia," but I knew that I had just found a new correspondence between science and the complex formed by shamanism and mythology.

I sat down in the armchair and plunged into Life itself: Its origin and nature.

Crick, writing In the early 1980s, criticizes the usual scientific theory on the origin of life, according to which a cell first appeared in the primitive soup through the random collisions of disorganized molecules.


For Crick, this theory presents a major drawback: It is based on ideas conceived in the nineteenth century, long before molecular biology revealed that the basic mechanisms of life are identical for all species and are extremely complex - and when one calculates the probability of chance producing such complexity, one ends up with inconceivably small numbers.

The DNA molecule, which excels at stocking and duplicating information, is incapable of building itself on its own. Proteins do this, but they are incapable of reproducing themselves without the information contained in the DNA. Life, therefore, is a seemingly inescapable synthesis of these two molecular systems. Moving beyond the famous question of the chicken and the egg.


Crick calculates the probability of the chance emergence of one single protein (which could then go on to build the first DNA molecule). In all living species, proteins are made up of exactly the same 20 amino acids, which are small molecules.


The average protein is a long chain made up of approximately 200 amino acids, chosen from those 20, and strung together in the right order. According to the laws of combinatorial, there is I chance in 20 multiplied by itself 200 times for a single specific protein to emerge fortuitously. This figure, which can be written 20200, and which is roughly equivalent to 10260, is enormously greater than the number of atoms in the observable universe (estimated at 1080).

These numbers are inconceivable for a human mind.


It is not possible to imagine all the atoms of the observable universe and even less a figure that is billions of billions of billions of billions of billions (etc.) times greater. However, since the beginning of life on earth, the number of amino acid chains that could have been synthesized by chance can only represent a minute fraction of all the possibilities.


According to Crick:

"The great majority of sequences can never have been synthesized at all, at any time. These calculations take account only of the amino acid sequence. They do not allow for the fact that many sequences would probably not fold up satisfactorily into a stable, compact shape. What fraction of all possible sequences would do this is not known, though it is surmised to be fairly small."

Crick concludes that the organized complexity found at the cellular level "cannot have arisen by pure chance."

The earth has existed for approximately 4.5 billion years. In the beginning it was merely a radioactive aggregate with a surface temperature reaching the melting point of metal. Not really a hospitable place for life.


Yet there are fossils of single-celled beings that are approximately 3.5 billion years old. The existence of a single cell necessarily implies the presence of DNA, with its 4-letter "alphabet" (A, G, C, T), and of proteins, with their 20-letter "alphabet" (the 20 amino acids), as well as a "translation mechanism" between the two - given that the instructions for the construction of proteins are coded in die language of DNA.


Crick writes:

"It is quite remarkable that such a mechanism exists at all and even more remarkable that every living cell, whether animal, plant or microbial, contains a version of it."19

Crick compares a protein to a paragraph made up of 200 letters lined up in the correct order.


If the chances are infinitesimal for one paragraph to emerge in a billion years from a terrestrial soup, the probability of the fortuitous appearance, during the same period, of two alphabets and one translation mechanism is even smaller.

When I looked up from Crick's book, it was dark outside. I was feeling both astonished and elated. Like a myopic detective bent over a magnifying glass while following a trail, I had fallen into a bottomless hole. For months I had been trying to untangle the enigma of the hallucinatory knowledge of Western Amazonia's indigenous people, stubbornly searching for the hidden passage in the apparent dead end.


I had only detected the DNA trail two weeks previously in Harner's book. Since then I had mainly developed the hypothesis along intuitive lines.


My goal was certainly not to build a new theory on the origin of life; but there I was - a poor anthropologist knowing barely how to swim, floating in a cosmic ocean filled with microscopic and bilingual serpents. I could see now that there might be links between science and shamanic, spiritual and mythological traditions, that seemed to have gone unnoticed, doubtless because of the fragmentation of Western knowledge.

With his book, Francis Crick provided a good example of this fragmentation. His mathematics were impeccable, and his reasoning crystalline; Crick was surely among twentieth-century rationality's finest. But he had not noticed that he was not the first to propose the idea of a snake-shaped vital principle of cosmic origin.


All the peoples in the world who talk of a cosmic serpent have been saving as much for millennia. He had not seen it because the rational gaze is forever focalized and can examine only one thing at a time. It separates things to understand them, including the truly complementary. It is the gaze of the specialist, who sees the fine grain of a necessarily restricted field of vision.


When Crick set about considering cosmogony from the serious perspective of molecular biology, he had long since put out of his analytical mind the myths of archaic peoples.

From my new point of view. Crick's scenario of "directed panspermia," in which a spaceship transports DNA in the form of frozen bacteria across the immensities of the cosmos, seemed less likely than the idea of an omniscient and terrifying cosmic serpent of unimaginable power.


After all, life as described by Crick was based on a miniature language that had not changed a letter in four billion years, while multiplying itself in an extreme diversity of species. The petals of a rose, Francis Cricks brain, and the coat of a virus are all built out of proteins made up of exactly the same 20 amino acids.


A phenomenon capable of such creativity was surely not going to travel in a spaceship resembling those propelled containers imagined by human beings in the twentieth century.



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 re-suppositions.

The puzzle to solve was: Who are we and where do we come from?

Lost in these thoughts, I started wondering about the cosmic serpent and its representation throughout the world. I walked over to the philosophy and religion sections in my colleague's library. Fairly rapidly I came across a book by Francis Huxley entitled The way of the sacred, filled with pictures of sacred images from around the world.


I found a good number of images containing serpents or dragons, and in particular two representations of the Rainbow Snake drawn by Australian Aborigines.


The first showed a pair of snakes zigzagging in the margins.



The second was a rock painting of the Rainbow Snake.


I looked at it more closely and saw two things: All around the serpent there were sorts of chromosomes, in their upside-down "U" shape, and underneath it there was a kind of ladder.


I rubbed my eyes, telling myself that I had to be imagining connections, but I could not get the ladder or the chromosomes to look like anything else.

Several weeks later I learned that U-shaped chromosomes were in "anaphase," one of the stages of cellular duplication, which is the central mechanism of the reproduction of life; and the first image of the zigzag snakes looks strikingly like chromosomes in the "early prophase," at the beginning of the same process.

However, I did not need this detail to feel certain now that the peoples who practice shamanism know about the hidden unity of nature, which molecular biology has confirmed, precisely because they have access to the reality of molecular biology.

It was at this point, in front of the picture of chromosomes painted by Australian Aborigines, that I sank into a fever of mind and soul that was to last for weeks, during which I floundered in dissonant mixes of myths and molecules.

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