xviii. The Secret of Life

In 1985, Swiss anthropologist Jeremy Narby spent time with the Ashaninka Indians of the Peruvian Amazon studying their lifestyle. He became intrigued as to how they came about their vast pharmaceutical knowledge, which included the properties of thousands of plants. They told him it was given directly to the ayahuasqueros, the drinkers of ayahuasca (a powerful psychedelic brew, with the active ingredient DMT) by the spirits of the plants. He did not believe a word of it until he was cured of severe backache simply by ingesting a prescribed natural brew. So he agreed, finally, to try ayahuasca for himself. This resulted in a psychedelic experience in which he saw twin snakes, giant boas, which he felt were objectively real and very important for some reason.

After many months of intense research, Narby felt that the twin serpents signified DNA's double helix, encountered by shamans in trances, along with other DNA motifs such as the sky-rope, vine and ladder. He concluded that the DNA of all life forms shares a collective consciousness that enables cross communication. Such ideas are made possible through an understanding of signal nonlocality on a quantum level, and since compelling evidence now exists for life having evolved in interstellar clouds - the concept of panspermia - might Narby's theory be extended to include biological life elsewhere in the galaxy? Could this provide some answers as to why Cygnus was seen as important by our most ancient ancestors?

Francis Crick (right) with his model of the DNA double helix.

Francis Crick, the Nobel-prize winning discoverer of the structure of DNA, heavily supported the concept of what he called Direct Panspermia, in which he proposed that life on earth was deliberately seeded by an advanced civilization, a concept first intimated in the writings of Anaxagoras, a Greek philosopher who thrived c. 450 BC, and now being confirmed for the first time by science. Thus it is interesting to note that Crick admitted secretly not only to taking small quantities of LSD, but also to first seeing the famous DNA double helix structure when high on the drug. If so, then were shamanic journeys during Palaeolithic times, where the initiate would journey to the stars using the sky-rope, vine or ladder, reflective in some way of his belief that life originated elsewhere, and that after death we would return from whence we came?

All over the world there was once a belief that life came from deep space. Earlier we saw how the Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran believed that the human soul passed beyond the North Star, identified here as Deneb in Cygnus, where it would join a sky-boat that would take it across the celestial river, arguably the Milky Way, to one of the countless 'worlds of light', home to their dead kinsmen. In these blissful realms, governed by 'great spirits of light', they would encounter their purified souls as well as their own 'dmutha or over-soul'.

Then there is the work of cultural historian William Sullivan, who highlighted the Andean belief that: 'In this world we are exiled from our homeland in the world above [hanaq pacha]', which is 'up there', in the northern night sky, once again in the direction of Cygnus (even though Peru is in the Southern Hemisphere). He compared this native concept with those of the seminomadic Naskapi of Labrador in Canada, who 'speak of the possibility of contact between worlds along the Milky Way, which they call "ghost trail," or "dead person's path."'

Sullivan pointed out that for these indigenous peoples, 'the souls of the living originated in the sky, where they "rest in the firmament until they become reincarnated."' Similar ideas on the transmigration of the soul lay at the heart of almost all ancient religions, such as that of Dynastic Egypt, inspiring the belief in a celestial heaven, somewhere that was accessible not just to spirits or souls of the dead, but also shamans who, as we have seen, believed that they could enter the sky-world via a 'hole', door or gate beyond the northerly placed cosmic axis.

In the Indonesian archipelago, several island cultures are said to be directly descended from sky-beings. The Posso-Todjo Toradja, for example, say that they are the children of Lasaeo, the 'sun-lord', who married a Toradja woman. Eventually, he 'returned to the sky', and his people departed from Pamona and founded a line of chiefs at Waibinta Luwu. In Formasa (modern Taiwan), the Tsalisen say that their ancestors came out of the moon, while the Kayan and Kenyah say that sky-beings made the first man and woman in the form of stone images. The Totemboan say that To'ar, a 'sun-lord', married their daughter Lintjambene, while her son Si Marendor was said to have been half sky-born and half made of stone.

Chinese mythology records now some of the earliest kings of China were said to have been sons of star-gods, while the kings of Sumer and Akkad in ancient Iraq bore a star symbol after their names indicating that they were the product of a divine union with sky-beings. Beyond this is the view shared by ancient peoples all over the world that even though we might have been born on earth, and are the descendants of the first human couple, our true self, our soul, originates elsewhere, and upon its release at death it will be free to return from whence it came. This recalls the magico-religious beliefs of the shamanic-based societies of Asia who considered that the souls of children sat in the upper branches of the World Tree where they await a shaman to draw them into incarnation, or even the European folk belief in storks, or swans, bringing new born babies into the world.

These examples are given simply to demonstrate how across the world indigenous cultures have believed that their entire existence is as a result of life on earth having been seeded from elsewhere whatever way their creation myths might have interpreted such information. Many other examples might be cited, such as the Native American peoples who point towards a star and say it is their original homeland, or the African tribes, including the Dogon of Mali that likewise claim to be descendants of sky-beings.

Not all of them say that life and death was associated with the direction of Cygnus, but some certainly do, and this belief would appear to stem back to Palaeolithic times. So did these people come to learn something significant about Cygnus deep underground, where they performed their innermost ceremonies and painted their most sacred art, perhaps under the influence of psychedelic substances?