Chapter 7

First, I followed the mythological trail of the cosmic serpent, paying particular attention to its form.


I found that it was often double:


This Ancient Egyptian drawing does not represent a real animal, but a visual charade meaning "double serpent."

Quetzalcoatl, the Aztecs' plumed serpent, is not a real animal either. In living nature, snakes do not have arms or legs, and even less wings or feathers. A flying serpent is a contradiction in terms, a paradox, like a speaking mute. This is confirmed by the double etymology of the word -coatl, which means both "serpent" and twin.

The Ancient Egyptians also represented the cosmic serpent with human feet.


Here, too, the image suggests that the primordial divinity is double, both serpent and "non-serpent."

In the early 1980s, ayahuasquero Luis Tangoa, living in a Shipibo-Conibo village in the Peruvian Amazon, offered to explain certain esoteric notions to anthropologist Angelika Gebhart-Sayer.


Insisting that it was more appropriate to discuss these matters with images,1 he made several sketches of the cosmic anaconda Ronín, including this one:



It would be possible to give many examples of double serpents of cosmic origin associated with the creation of life on earth, but it is important to avoid too strict an interpretation of these images, which can have several meanings at once.


For instance, the wings of the serpent can signify both a paradoxical nature and a real ability to fly, in this case in the cosmos.


Sometimes the winged serpent takes the form of a dragon, the mythical and double animal par excellence, which lives in the water and spits fire.


According to the Dictionary of symbols, the dragon represents,

"the union of two opposed principles."

Its androgynous nature is symbolized most clearly by the Ouroboros, the serpent-dragon, which "incarnates sexual union in itself, permanently self-fertilizing, as shown by the tail stuck in its mouth" (below image).

In living nature snakes do not bite their own tails. Nevertheless, the Ouroboros appears in some of the most ancient representations of the world, such as the bronze disk from Benin shown below.


The Dictionary of symbols describes it as,

"doubtless the oldest African imago mundi, where its sinuous figure, associating opposites, encircles the primordial oceans in the middle of which floats the square of the earth below."2


Mythical serpents are often enormous.


In the image from Benin, the Ouroboros surrounds the entire earth; in Greek mythology, the monster-serpent Typhon touches the stars with its head; and the first paragraph of the first chapter of Chuang-Tzu, the presumed founder of philosophical Taoism, describes an extremely long fish, inhabiting the celestial lake, that transforms itself into a bird and mounts spiraling into the sky.


Chuang-Tzu says that the length of this cosmic fish-bird is,

"who knows how many thousand miles."3


Hindu mythology also provides an example of a serpent of immeasurable proportions, known as Sesha, the thousand-headed serpent that floats on the cosmic ocean while the twin creator beings Vishnu and Lakshmi recline in its coils.

Mythological serpents are almost invariably associated with water.4


In the following drawing based on descriptions by ayahuasquero Laureano Ancon, the anaconda Ronín surrounds the entire earth, conceived as a "disc that swims in great waters"; Ronín itself is "half-submerged" - the anaconda being an aquatic species (see top figure below image).

The cosmic serpent varies in size and nature. It can be small or large, single or double, and sometimes both at the same time (see bottom figure below image).


This picture was drawn by Luis Tangoa, who lives in the same village as Laureano Ancon. These two shamans would have had all the time in the world to reach an agreement about the appearance of the cosmic anaconda. Yet the former draws it as a single sperm and a two-headed snake, while the latter describes it as an anaconda of "normal" appearance that completely encircles the earth.

As the creator of life, the cosmic serpent is a master of metamorphosis. In the myths of the world where it plays a central part, it creates by transforming itself; it changes while remaining the same. So it is understandable that it should be represented differently at the same time.

I went on to look for the connection between the cosmic serpent - the master of transformation of serpentine form that lives in water and can be both extremely long and small, single and double - and DNA. I found that DNA corresponds exactly to this description.

If one stretches out the DNA contained in the nucleus of a human cell, one obtains a two-yard-long thread that is only ten atoms wide. This thread is a billion times longer than its own width.


Relatively speaking, it is as if your little finger stretched from Paris to Los Angeles.



A thread of DNA is much smaller than the visible light humans perceive.


Even the most powerful optical microscopes cannot reveal it, because DNA is approximately 120 times narrower than the smallest wavelength of visible light.5

The nucleus of a cell is equivalent in volume to 2-millionths of a pinhead. The two-yard thread of DNA packs into this minute volume by coiling up endlessly on itself, thereby reconciling extreme length and infinitesimal smallness, like mythical serpents.

The average human being is made up of 100 thousand billion cells, according to some estimates. This means that there are approximately 125 billion miles of DNA in a human body - corresponding to 70 round-trips between Saturn and the Sun. You could travel your entire life in a Boeing 747 flying at top speed and you would not even cover one hundredth of this distance.


Your personal DNA is long enough to wrap around the earth 5 million times.6

All the cells in the world contain DNA - be they animal, vegetal, or bacterial - and they are all filled with salt water, in which the concentration of salt is similar to that of the worldwide ocean. We cry and sweat what is essentially seawater. DNA bathes in water, which in turn plays a crucial role in establishing the double helix's shape.


As DNA's four bases (adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine) are insoluble in water, they tuck themselves into the center of the molecule where they associate in pairs to form the rungs of the ladder; then they twist up into a spiraled stack to avoid contact with the surrounding water molecules. DNA's twisted ladder shape is a direct consequence of the cell's watery environment.7


DNA goes together with water, just like mythical serpents do. The DNA molecule is a single long chain made up of two interwoven ribbons that are connected by the four bases.


These bases can only match up in specific pairs - A with T, G with C.


Any other pairing of the bases is impossible, because of the arrangement of their individual atoms:

A can bond only with T, G only with C.

This means that one of the two ribbons is the back-to-front duplicate of the other and that the genetic text is double:

It contains a main text on one of the ribbons, which is read in a precise direction by the transcription enzymes, and a backup text, which is inverted and most often not read.

from Watson (1968, p. 165).

The second ribbon plays two essential roles.


It allows the repair enzymes to reconstruct the main text in case of damage and, above all, it provides the mechanism for the duplication of the genetic message. It suffices to open the double helix as one might unzip a zipper, in order to obtain two separate and complementary ribbons that can then be rebuilt into double ribbons by the duplication enzymes.


As the latter can place only an A opposite a X and vice versa, and a G opposite a C, and vice versa, this leads to the formation of two twin double helixes, which are identical in every respect to the original. Twins are therefore central to life, just as ancient myths indicate, and they are associated with a serpentine form.

Without this copying mechanism, a cell would never be able to duplicate itself, and life would not exist.

DNA is the informational molecule of life, and its very essence consists in being both single and double, like the mythical serpents.

DNA and its duplication mechanisms are the same for all living creatures. The only thing that changes from one species to another is the order of the letters. This constancy goes back to the very origins of life on earth.


According to biologist Robert Pollack:

"The planet's surface has changed many times over, but DNA and the cellular machinery for its replication have remained constant. Schrodingers 'aperiodic crystal' understated DNA's stability: no stone, no mountain, no ocean, not even the sky above us, have been stable and constant for this long; nothing inanimate, no matter how complicated, has survived unchanged for a fraction of the time that DNA and its machinery of replication have coexisted."8

At the beginning of its existence, some 4.5 billion years ago, planet earth was an inhospitable place for life.


As a molten lava fireball, its surface was radioactive; its water was so hot it existed only in the form of incondensable vapor, and its atmosphere, devoid of any breathable oxygen, contained poisonous gases such as cyanide and formaldehyde.

Approximately 3.9 billion years ago, the earth's surface cooled sufficiently to form a thin crust on top of the molten magma. Strangely, life, and thus DNA, appeared relatively quickly thereafter. Scientists have found traces of biological activity in sedimentary rocks that are 3.85 billion years old, and fossil hunters have found actual bacterial fossils that are 3.5 billion years old.

During the first 2 billion years of life on earth, the planet was inhabited only by anaerobic bacteria, for which oxygen is a poison. These bacteria lived in water, and some of them learned to use the hydrogen contained in the H2O molecule while expelling the oxygen. This opened up new and more efficient metabolic pathways. The gradual enrichment of the atmosphere with oxygen allowed the appearance of a new kind of cell, capable of using oxygen and equipped with a nucleus for packing together its DNA.


These nucleated cells are at least thirty times more voluminous than bacterial cells. According to biologists Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan:

"The biological transition between bacteria and nucleated cells... is so sudden it cannot effectively be explained by gradual changes over time."

From that moment onward, life as we know it took shape.


Nucleated cells joined together to form the first multicellular beings, such as algae. The latter also produce oxygen by photosynthesis. Atmospheric oxygen increased to about 21 percent and then stabilized at this level approximately 500 million years ago - thankfully, because if oxygen were a few percent higher, living beings would combust spontaneously.


According to Margulis and Sagan, this state of affairs,

"gives the impression of a conscious decision to maintain balance between danger and opportunity, between risk and benefit."9

Around 550 million years ago, life exploded into a grand variety of multicellular species, algae and more complex plants and animals, living not only in water, but on land and in the air.


Of all the species living at that time, not one has survived to this day. According to certain estimates, almost all of the species that have ever lived on earth have already disappeared, and there are between 3 million and 50 million species living currently.10

DNA is a master of transformation, just like mythical serpents. The cell-based life DNA informs made the air we breathe, the landscape we see, and the mind-boggling diversity of living beings of which we are a part.


In 4 billion years, it has multiplied itself into an incalculable number of species, while remaining exactly the same.

"The DNA double helix represented as a pair of snakes.

By turning the picture upside down,

you can see that the molecule is completely symmetrical

each half of the double helix can serve as a template for the synthesis of its complementary half"

From Wills


Inside the nucleus, DNA coils and uncoils, writhes and wriggles. Scientists often compare the form and movements of this long molecule to those of a snake.


Molecular biologist Christopher Wills writes:

"The two chains of DNA resemble two snakes coiled around each other in some elaborate courtship ritual."11

To sum up, DNA is a snake-shaped master of transformation that lives in water and is both extremely long and small, single and double. Just like the cosmic serpent.

I knew that many shamanic peoples use images other than a "cosmic serpent" to discuss the creation of life, talking particularly of a rope, a vine, a ladder, or a stairway of celestial origin that links heaven and earth.

Mircea Eliade has shown that these different images form a common theme that he called the axis mundi, or axis of the world, and that he found in shamanic traditions the world over.


According to Eliade, the axis mundi gives access to the Otherworld and to shamanic knowledge; there is a "paradoxical passage," normally reserved for the dead, that shamans manage to use while living, and this passage is often guarded by a serpent or a dragon. For Eliade, shamanism is the set of techniques that allows one to negotiate this passage, reach the axis, acquire the knowledge associated with it, and bring it back - most often to heal people.12

Here, too, the connection with DNA is clear.


In the literature of molecular biology, DNA's shape is compared not only to two entwined serpents, but also, very precisely, to a rope, a vine, a ladder, or a stairway - the images varying from one author to another.


For instance, Maxim Frank-Kamenetskii considers that,

"in a DNA molecule the complementary strands twine around one another like two lianas."

Furthermore, scientists have recently begun to realize that many illnesses, including cancer, originate, and therefore may be solved, at the level of DNA.13

I set about exploring the different representations of the axis of the world, those images parallel to the cosmic serpent. The notion of an axis mundi is particularly common among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. The Ashaninca, for example, talk of a "sky-rope."


As Gerald Weiss writes:

"Among the Gampas there is a belief that at one time Earth and Sky were close together and connected by a cable. A vine called inkiteca (literally, "sky-rope"), with a peculiar stepped shape, was pointed out to the author as the cable that held Earth and Sky together."14

According to Weiss, this vine is the same as the one indicated at the beginning of the twentieth century by the Taulipang Indians to Theodor Koch-Grünberg. one of the first ethnographers.


In his work, Koch-Grünberg provided a skillful sketch of the Taulipang's vine.

"Liana (Bauliinia caulotretus) 'that goes from earth up to heaven.'"

From Koch-Grünberg (2917, Vol. 2, Drawing IV).


Strangely, the Taulipang live in Guyana, some three thousand miles from the Ashaninca, yet they associate exactly the same vine with the sky-rope.

One of the best-known variants of the axis mundi is the caduceus, formed by two snakes wrapped around an axis. Since the most ancient times, one finds this symbol connected to the art of healing, from India to the Mediterranean.


The Taoists of China represent the caduceus with the yin-yang, which symbolizes the coiling of two serpentine and complementary forms into a single androgynous vital principle:15


In the Western world, the caduceus continues to be used as the symbol of medicine, sometimes in modified form:16


Among the Shipibo-Conibo in the Peruvian Amazon, the axis mundi can be represented as a ladder. In the following drawing based on descriptions by ayahuasquero Jose Chucano Santos, the "sky-ladder" is surrounded by the cosmic anaconda Ronín (below image).

The ladder that gives access to shamanic knowledge is such a widespread theme that Alfred Metraux calls it the "symbol of the profession."


He also reports that, as far as Amazonian shamans are concerned, it is by contacting the "spirits of the ladder or of the rungs" that they learn to "master all the secrets of magic."


Metraux also points out that these shamans drink "an infusion prepared from a vine, the form of which suggests a ladder."17


Indeed, the ayahuasca vine is often compared to a ladder, or even to a double helix, as this photo taken by ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes indicates (below image).

Most of the connections I had found up to this point between the cosmic serpent and the axis of the world, and DNA, were related to form. This concurred with what Carlos Perez Shuma had told me: Nature talks in signs and, to understand its language, one has to pay attention to similarities in form.

"Banisteriopsis caapi, a liana that tends to grow in charming
double helices. is one of the primary ingredients in an entheogenic
[fiallucinogenic] potion known as . .. ayahuasca, yage", caapi....
Those who know it call it spirit vine'or 'ladder to the Milky Way.'
It is known also as ayahuasca ['vine of the soul']." (Howard
Rheingoldquote.) From Schultes andRaffauf (1992, p. 26).

He had also said that the spirits of nature communicate with human beings in hallucinations and dreams - in other words, in mental images.


This idea is common in "pre-rational" traditions. For instance, Heraclitus said of the Pythian oracle (from the Greek puthon, "serpent") that it,

"neither declares nor conceals, but gives a sign."18

I wanted to go further than mere formal connections, however, and I knew, thanks to the work of Mircea Eliade, that shamans almost everywhere speak a secret language, "the language of all nature," which allows them to communicate with the spirits.


I started looking for information about this phenomenon to see if there were any common elements in content between the language of the spirits of nature that shamans learn and the language of DNA.

Unfortunately, there are not many in-depth studies of shamanic language, no doubt because anthropologists have never really taken it seriously.19 I found an exception in Graham Townsley s recent work on the songs of Yaminahua ayahuasqueros in the Peruvian Amazon.

According to Townsley, Yaminahua shamans learn songs, called koshuiti, by imitating the spirits they see in their hallucinations, in order to communicate with them. The words of these songs are almost totally incomprehensible to those Yaminahua who are not shamans.


Townsley writes:

"Almost nothing in these songs is referred to by its normal name. The abstrusest metaphoric circumlocutions are used instead. For example, night becomes 'swift tapirs,' the forest becomes 'cultivated peanuts," fish are 'peccaries,' jaguars are 'baskets,' anacondas are 'hammocks' and so forth."

In each case, writes Townsley, the metaphorical logic can be explained by an obscure, but real, connection:

"Thus fish become 'white-collared peccaries' because of the resemblance of a fish's gill to the white dashes on this type of peccary's neck; jaguars become 'baskets' because the fibers of this particular type of loose-woven basket (wonati) form a pattern precisely similar to a jaguar's markings."

The shamans themselves understand very clearly the meaning of these metaphors and they call them tsai yoshtoyoshto, literally "language-twisting-twisting." Townsley translates this expression as "twisted language."

The word twist has the same root as two and twin. Twisted means, technically, "double and wrapped around itself."

Why do Yaminahua shamans talk in twisted language?


According to one of them:

"With my koshuiti I want to see - singing, I carefully examine things - twisted language brings me close but not too close - with normal words I would crash into things - with twisted ones I circle around them - I can see them clearly."

For Townsley, all shamanic relations with the spirits are,

"deliberately constructed in an elliptical and multi-referential fashion so as to mirror the refractory nature of the beings who are their objects."

He concludes:

"Yoshi are real beings who are both 'like and not like' the things they animate. They have no stable or unitary nature and thus, paradoxically, the 'seeing as' of 'twisted language' is the only way of adequately describing them. Metaphor here is not improper naming but the only proper naming possible."20

I went on to look for the connection between the language of spirits described by Yaminahua ayahuasqueros and the language of DNA.


I found that "double and entwined," or "twisting-twisting," or "yoshtoyoshto," corresponded perfectly to the latter.

The genetic information of a human being (for example), called "genome," is contained in 3 billion letters spread out along a single filament of DNA. In some places, this filament winds around itself to form 23 more compact segments known as "chromosomes."


We all inherit a complete set of chromosomes from each of our parents, and so we have 23 pairs of chromosomes. Each chromosome is made up of a very long thread of DNA which is already a double message to begin with - the main text on one ribbon, and the complementary duplicate on the other. Thus our cells all contain two complete genomes as well as their backup copies.


Our genetic message is doubly double and contains a total of 6 billion base pairs, or 12 billion letters.

The DNA contained in the nucleus of a human cell is two yards long, and the two ribbons that make up this filament wrap around each other several hundred million times.21

As far as its material aspect or its form is concerned, DNA is a doubly double text that wraps around itself. In other words, it is a "language-twisting-twisting."

The transcription enzymes read only the parts of the DNA text that code for the construction of proteins and enzymes. These passages, called "genes," represent only 3 percent of the human genome, according to various estimates.


The remaining 97 percent are not read; their function is unknown.

Scientists have found spread out among the non-coding parts of the text a great number of endlessly repeated sequences with no apparent meaning, and even palindromes, which are words or sentences that can be read in either direction. They have called this apparent gibberish, which constitutes the overwhelming majority of the genome, "junk DNA."22

In this "junk," one finds tens of thousands of passages like this: ACACACACACACACACACACACACACACACAC


There is even a 300-letter sequence that is repeated a total of half a million times. All told, repeat sequences make up a full third of the genome. Their meaning, so far, is unknown.

Molecular biologists Chris Calladine and Horace Drew sum up the situation:

"The vast majority of DNA in our bodies does things that we do not presently understand."23

Scattered among this ocean of nonsense, genes are like islands where the language of DNA becomes comprehensible.


Genes spell out the instructions for lining up amino acids into proteins. They do this with words of three letters. "CAG," for example, codes for amino acid glutamine in DNA language.

As all the words of the genetic code have three letters, and as DNA has a four-letter alphabet (A,G,C,T), the genetic code contains 4 X 4 X 4 = 64 possible words. These words all have a meaning and correspond either to one of the 20 amino acids used in the construction of proteins or to one of two punctuation marks ("start," "stop").


So there are 22 possible meanings for 64 words. This redundancy has led scientists to say that the genetic code is "degenerate." In fact, it simply has a wealth of synonyms - like a language where words as different as "jaguar" and "basket" have the same meaning.24

In reality, things are even more complex. Within genes, there are many non-coding segments called "introns." As soon as the transcription enzymes have transcribed a given gene, editing enzymes eliminate the introns with atomic precision and splice together the true coding segments, known as "exons."


Some genes consist of up to 98 percent introns - which means that they contain only 2 percent genetic information. The role of these introns remains mysterious.25

The proportion of introns and exons in the human genome is not yet known, because so far, only half of all the genes it contains have been identified, out of a total estimated at lOO.OOO.26

Along the DNA filament, "junk" and genes alternate; within genes, introns intermix with exons, which are themselves expressed in a language where almost every word has a synonym.

As far as both its content and its form are concerned, DNA is a doubly double language that wraps around itself.

Just like the twisted language of the spirits of nature.

What do these connections between DNA and the cosmic serpent, the axis of the world, and the language of the spirits of nature, mean?

The correspondences are too numerous to be explained by chance alone. If I were a member of a jury having to pronounce itself on the matter, I would have the conviction that the same reality is being described from different perspectives.



Take the cosmic serpent of the Ancient Egyptians, the "provider of attributes."


The signs that accompany it mean,

  • "one" ()

  • "several" ()

  • "spirit, double, vital force" ()

  • "place" ()

  • "wick of twisted flax" (),

  • "water" ()

Under the chin of the second serpent, there is an Egyptian cross meaning "key of life."27

The connections with DNA are obvious and work on all levels:

DNA is indeed shaped like a long, single and double serpent, or a wick of twisted flax; it is a double vital force that develops from one to several; its place is water.

What else could the Ancient Egyptians have meant when they talked of a double serpent, provider of attributes and key of life, if not what scientists call "DNA"?

Why are these metaphors so consistently and so frequently used unless they mean what they say?


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