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Taking the sacred out of the shamanic?
on 27 June 2008
In The Cosmic Serpent anthropologist Jeremy Narby sets himself the enormous undertaking of attempting to provide a rational, scientific explanation for the realm of the non-rational and the spiritual - how Amazonian shamans (known as ayahuasqueros) obtain their valuable knowledge of plants. Narby's central thesis in the book is as follows:
1.Snakes are important in shamanic work in many indigenous cultures and especially appear regularly in hallucinations caused by the powerful plant-based drug ayahuasca.
2.Snakes and DNA look very similar.
3.Therefore what the ayahuasqueros call 'maninkari' or spirits, and cite as the source of their knowledge is actually DNA. By using ayahuasca, ayahuasqueros are in fact able to connect their consciousness to the biomolecular level of their DNA and use it to communicate with 'the global network of DNA-based life' (p.111) so accessing the knowledge that is stored in the DNA double-helix of all life-forms throughout the planet.
Narby's first person narrative and enormous enthusiasm for his subject is accessible and engaging, and I found the first four chapters of the book compelling as he analyses how unlikely it is that the sophisticated botanical knowledge of the indigenous Amazonian peoples could have been discovered simply by chance. He argues convincingly that plant-based substances such as curare and ayahuasca are so extremely complex to produce that the knowledge of how to create them cannot have been derived from simple trial and error but must have come from somewhere beyond everyday human consciousness.
The rest of the book is spent outlining and exploring his working hypothesis concerning the relationship between shamanically derived knowledge, snakes and DNA. However, at times it seems he is too obsessed with his own theories to be able to step back and take a wider and more balanced perspective. Firstly, he fails to seriously engage with the importance of animal spirits other than snakes in shamanic practices around the world - spirits such as deer, horse and different species of birds - merely dismissing these as the result of DNA being a 'master of transformation' (p.116). He also chooses to ignore alternative reasons for the importance of snakes in many indigenous cultures, such as their connection with life, sexuality and birth because of their phallic appearance, their connection with the Underworld and re-birth as they shed their skin, or their connection with the lines of energy that run through the land, known as 'ley lines' or 'song lines'. Throughout the book Narby concentrates only on one element of an Amazonian shaman's work, that of obtaining knowledge of plant healing, but ignores the many other roles they would routinely carry out such as hunting down and return missing or stolen fragments of people's souls, or psychopomping - guiding the soul of a person who has recently died safely to the afterlife. How can the biomolecular realm of DNA provide knowledge and power in activities such as these? In addition, Narby doesn't explore how if DNA is the source of all shamanically derived knowledge then in what ways do shamans from other cultures that do not use plant-based hallucinogens communicate with DNA to obtain the knowledge and power to heal people?
Taken to its logical conclusion, Narby's hypothesis is an attack on the essence of shamanic practice, that of working with the sacred. If the shaman's knowledge comes not from the sacred - from the spirits - but from his or her own DNA communicating with the DNA of plants, trees, animals etc then that knowledge can be said to 'belong' to him or her rather than being a gift from the spiritual realm for the good of all. As such, the shaman's knowledge becomes a commodity to be sold on the open market - something that Narby even goes to the extent of suggesting: "If the hypothesis presented in this book is correct, it means that they [indigenous people] have not only a precious understanding of specific plants and remedies, but an unsuspected source of biomolecular knowledge, which is financially invaluable ... " (p.146). To be fair to Narby, I can see that this attitude probably comes from the highest of motives: before writing this book he was (and I believe still is) working with the Swiss organisation Nouvelle Planète securing the legal recognition of indigenous territories in the Amazon. As such, it is understandable that he might want indigenous people to gain access to greater economic power by any means possible. But it does reveal that he simply does not 'get it' - nor has he truly listened to the ayahuasqueros who he has interviewed for his book. As one, Carlos Perez Shuma, tells him: "I hold on to those words and to the ones that say that truth is not for sale, that wisdom is for you, but it is for sharing. Translating this, it means it is bad to make a business of it." (p.35)
The Cosmic Serpent is an important book in that it has brought an awareness of the validity of shamanic practices to a potentially new and large audience: readers of 'Popular Science' publications rather than the usual 'Mind, Body and Spirit' folk. There is a sense of compromise throughout it though, as if Narby may not always be letting us in on what he really thinks about the true source of shamanically derived knowledge, mindful of the need to position his argument so that mainstream readers may take it with at least some degree of seriousness. In the conclusion he says that he has chosen not to describe in detail the impact that working on the book has had on his spirituality. I would have very much liked him to have written about that and I hope that one day he will.