In 1995 Jeremy Narby dropped une bombe with the publication of Le Serpent Cosmique. Available in English as The Cosmic Serpent since 1998, it is the story of an academic investigation that became an astral awakening. A Stanford-trained anthropologist, Narby had been working with indigenous people in the Amazon in the 1980s when, curious about the source of their sophisticated ecological knowledge, he took part in an ayahuasca ceremony.
Ayahuasca, a bitter and powerfully hallucinogenic concoction crafted from rainforest plants, allows shamans access to realms where they gain knowledge directly from plants themselves. As an anthropologist, Narby was ready to understand this metaphorically. Instead, he learned that it is the literal truth.
Wry and thoughtful in the European academic tradition (he is Swiss), Narby firmly accepts the western scientific paradigm as a means for investigating reality. Unlike many American investigators of the worlds he had stumbled into, Narby’s impulse was to reconcile these ways of knowing, rather than to reject one or the other.
So he had to become an expert in both. The Cosmic Serpent, the fruit of this effort, is an intellectual journey through parallel avenues of human knowledge in search of common ground.
When he finally finds it, it is a revelation that, if true, will change the course of human history. But he delivers it carefully: “My investigation has led me to formulate the following working hypothesis: In their visions, shamans take their vision down to the molecular level and gain access to information related to DNA, which they call “inanimate essences” or “spirits.”
Narby had discovered that molecular biologists and shamans were looking at the same thing.
When he presented his conclusions to indigenous leaders and shamans, “I was worried,” Narby says, “that shamans would say ‘who are you to do this?’” But he found overwhelming agreement and support. “In the Amazon it is not news that the knowledge is real. These hallucinating Indians know real things about nature.”
“I have become persona grata,” he says, bemused, “The Cosmic Serpent has opened doors.”
But on the other side of the equation things are a little more complicated. Because western science rejects the possibility of both nonhuman intelligence and the subjective acquisition of objective knowledge, the scientific establishment has ignored his work. Interested scientists have had to be careful with this heretical material. According to Narby, his work “has been read with interest by some biologists, but under the covers with the flashlight on.”
“Still,” he goes on, “I’ve been surprised by the openness of molecular biologists — they know there are mysterious things going on. The raging, deliberate activity at the level of cells and proteins—signaling, folding, duplication, correction—can’t be explained by what they know. The old dogma isn’t useful at this point, so the suggestion of something different is not at all unwelcome.”
One molecular biologist who has looked at this “something different” is Dr. Pia Malnoe, director of a Swiss Federal Research Station at Changins. Intrigued, she traveled to the Amazon with Narby to engage this indigenous technology.
Working with the shaman Juan Flores in the difficult conditions of the Amazon Rainforest, Malnoe drank the vile brew and soon, she says, “I had the feeling that I was completely aligned, and in complete peace with my self.” She found that she could pose questions—some very personal, but others about her work on transgenic plants—and she received clear answers.
Malnoe concluded that “The way shamans get their knowledge is not very different from the way scientists get their knowledge. It has the same origin,” she believes, “but shamans and scientists use different methods.” Like other scientists who have begun on this path, Malnoe does not discuss it widely with her colleagues. “It’s very mysterious,” she says ” I don’t pretend at all to understand what is going on.”
For his part, Narby, who carefully avoids speaking for either biologists or shamans, is working on further investigations of the territory he has uncovered. Even though he does employ shamanic techniques in his work, he views this as a means rather than an end.
“I investigate the subject and then tell the story of the investigation,” he told me. “I taste the medicine and then think about the questions. I’d rather let shamans and scientists talk about what they know and use my personal experiences to think about how to build the narrative. I would rather smoke the stuff than talk about it.”
His book has sold steadily (30,000 copies in the US, 25,000 in France, translated into 7 languages), and many of these copies are in the hands of those who do talk about it. A sudden interest in ayahuasca among Western seekers has overtaken Narby’s work even though his trip lasts for just three-and-half of its 250 pages.
This underground has been growing quietly, upwelling only occasionally into the mass consciousness. An unresolved New Mexico court battle regarding the legality of this sacrament is one example, as is the recent wave of publications on the matter.
Although Narby is encouraged by broad-based Western interest, he is characteristically taciturn when it comes to the form some of that interest has taken: “Once you know how to use the plants you don’t start bragging. You keep it to yourself and stun the world with your ideas.”