Jeremy Narby and The Cosmic Serpent

I was listening to public radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge (TTBOOK) program today, which featured a very interesting interview of anthropologist, author and researcher Jeremy Narby.

Facsimile of Jeremy Narby's book "The Cosmic Serpent".

Jeremy Narby’s Book "The Cosmic Serpent"

In the interview, Narby talks about his experience with the powerful hallucinogen ayahuasca in the course of his research’s interaction with the Ashaninca Indians of the Peruvian Amazon. He says the experience forced him to question the reductionist, materialist paradigm of Western knowledge. Narby has written a book based on his experience and research; the book is titled “The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge.”

The TTBOOK featured interview is titled Jeremy Narby on “The Cosmic Serpent”. You can listen to the interview or download it or read a transcript at the TTBOOK site.

Here is an excerpt of the interview conducted by TTBOOK’s Steve Paulson with an introduction by Jim Fleming.

    Jim Fleming: Twenty some years ago a young Marxist anthropologist named Jeremy Narby went down to the Peruvian Amazon to investigate the plight of indigenous people. His agenda was political. He wanted to help the Ashaninka Indians secure legal rights to the land they lived on. As timber companies and other developers moved in, what Narby didn’t know was that his experience with the Ashaninka would transform his own life, especially once he tried their powerful hallucinogen ayahuasca. As he tells Paulson the Ashaninka had an entirely different way of seeing the world.

    Jeremy Narby: Well, they essentially viewed plants and animals as people or as intentional beings with whom you could communicate in modified states of consciousness so this was off the radar of what was considered knowledge in universities at that point.

    Steve Paulson: So for you, an anthropologist with a PhD from Stanford, someone who came up and viewed, I presume with the values of materialism rationality this must have been really strange.

    Narby: Correct, but yeah I was a Marxist anthropologist and so yes, materialist, a humanist, a rationalist and I thought I knew what reality was in terms of atoms and molecules and so on. And yeah it flew in the face of my understanding of reality. But in fact as an anthropologist when Indians start saying strange things you think oh well I’m in business. This is what anthropologists expect so the point was, I thought, as an anthropologist was to try to make sense of it.

    Paulson: And of course there’s also the tradition of the participant-observer. And I guess in your case that meant taking ayahuasca.

    Narby: Well that’s right and actually the Ashaninka people themselves, I kept on beating around the bush. It was true that they had deep knowledge about plants and plant properties, these medicinal plants, all kinds of plants and this place is the world center of biodiversity. There are more plants and reptiles and amphibians and birds and mammals in this area that any other area in the world. They had names in their language for almost every species of plants and ascribed uses to about half of them. So I eventually started asking the Jesuit question. How do you know what you know? And after a few months one fellow said “Brother Jeremy, if you want to know the answer to that question you have to drink ayahuasca. And if you like I can show you sometime.” He said, “This is the television of the forest. It allows you to see images and learn things.”

    Paulson: So you, there was what an evening that was set aside for you to partake in the ayahuasca? This incredibly powerful hallucinogen.

    Narby: I just was curious and I thought I would try it out. I didn’t really take it all that seriously. You know they have dietary prescriptions and said you shouldn’t eat this, that and the other on the day of ingest and I hadn’t actually followed their advice and came to regret it but…

    Paulson: Because you end up throwing up.

    Narby: In their language ayahuasca is called kamarampi, from the verb kamarank which means “to vomit,” and it also contains maranki which is serpent so actually in their language it is “serpent vomit.”

    Paulson: (Laughs)

    Narby: And you know this is some strong stuff ladies and gentlemen. The result of taking ayahuasca that first time was that it changed my world view. It actually showed me my world view and showed me the limits of my world view. I suddenly found myself surrounded by these enormous florescent serpents that started speaking to me in a kind of telepathic language that went through my forehead and the first thing that they said was “You are just a tiny human being.” And I could see looking at them that they were right. And that my ordinary world view-rationalist, materialist, humanist-had limits starting with my presupposition that what my eyes were showing me didn’t exist. At which point I had to vomit in fact.

    Paulson: (Laughs)

    Paulson: There is another response, I guess what might have been a logical response is okay, you take this really powerful drug, you see these huge serpents, crazy stuff and then you know, you gain your normal consciousness and think okay yeah, you take ayahuasca and you’re going to see all kinds of weird hallucinations. It doesn’t have to change your world view.

    Narby: Well what then happened, this is like a three hour experience. At one point what I experienced, at least in my mind’s eye was flying out of my body miles above the planet. And then when the ayahuascero or shaman modified his melody I landed zoom back into my body and started seeing hundreds of thousands of images. Extremely intricate, beautiful images such as for example the veins of a human hand and the veins of a green leaf flashing back and forth extremely quickly. And it was just obvious that what was being shown to me at that point was the connection between the vegetal and the human. This is something that I’d never thought about. Well, the next day I went down to the river to kind of freshen up and I took the leaf of a green bush and held it up to the sun and then compared it to the skin on my hand and I could see that it was literally true. This was the first time in my life that I felt part of nature. I felt like oh, okay I’m like a plant except I can actually walk around like a moving plant. And the overall experience was like an antidote to the anthro-post centrism of anthropology. And also these are images that are so powerful, they make ordinary reality look dull. I mean they’re like 10 to 100 times more intense in terms of colors and emotional impact. And once you’ve seen them you can’t un-see them. That’s the thing. I knew from that experience that there was a level of reality that remains invisible to the ordinary gaze but that is somehow there. It’s raging with, well information and you know it’s terrifying.

    Paulson: Were you scared at all?

    Narby: Yeah, it’s terrifying. Huge florescent serpents that tell you you’re just a tiny little what’s a name and you know they’re right and minutes before you didn’t even think they existed. Yeah, it’s like hair-raising.

    Paulson: What did the people you were living with, talking with, what did they say about this?

    Narby: They say this is where they get their knowledge about the plants, animals, forest, the world we’re in, about the cosmos. There’s no limits to the information that you can get from this source. They say our eyes mislead us. They say plants and animals are humans like us. With our ordinary gaze we just see their outside envelope but inside them when you have taken ayahuasca or tobacco or one of these other plants that teach, then you see the real reality of things and that you see inside these other species. In their view, you can’t really know the world unless you work with these plants and these states of consciousness.

Narby’s experience and his reflections seem to indicate that knowledge originates from an unseen dimension of the mind, not necessarily from the perception of our bodily senses — something shamans have been teaching us for a very long time now. Indeed, in mysticism we speak of being taught from within, of impartations of truth from an inner aspect of our spirit being.

Listen to the complete version of this most fascinating, informative interview. 😉

If you would like to learn more about ayahuasca, you can explore a site dedicated to the subject at

Note: The page banner is a cut from an oil painting titled “Cosmic Serpent” by Marina Petro.


About Marc of Contemplative Pathways

Marc teaches contemplative meditation in the context of "contemporary mysticism" under the style of "Contemplative Pathways." His spiritual work is backed by a profound understanding of mystical teachings and the mystical life, that is rooted in fifty (50) years of personal study, practice and spiritual unfoldment (inner realization and spiritual experience).  In the course of his spiritual journey, he has received the gifts of mystical discernment and spiritual transmission. Marc has been conducting classes and meetings on contemporary mysticism and meditation at the San Francisco Bay Area for over fifteen years, usually in a classroom, lecture, seminar, workshop, online meeting, or group practice setting. He has facilitated study groups and workshops for centering/contemplative meditation practice meetings since the 1980s. Marc's teaching work meaningfully shifts consciousness in students through the process of spiritual transmission and mystical transformation.  He enables others to embark on the spiritual journey by understanding the Truth teaching and by living its principles in their daily lives. His methodology of instruction is divinely inspired and firmly rooted in pure, authentic mysticism.  Marc's approach to the subject of contemporary mysticism is essentially nondenominational, nonsectarian, culturally interfaith, transreligious, definitively unitive, and unequivocally nondualistic. Within the context of the great shift in consciousness presently occurring all over the planet, Marc’s work focuses on individual and collective spiritual instruction and transformation. He promotes the practice of contemplation or meditation as the vehicle for spiritual transcendence and ascension to the higher dimensions of mystical consciousness. His other contributions to worldwide spiritual awakening and the global contemplative movement include spiritual mentoring, spiritual direction, and spiritual healing work. Marc is firmly committed to the vision of a global spiritual awakening and the divine promise of humanity’s mystical illumination. His brand of mysticism is the only true contemporary mysticism born of 21st century illumination and spirituality.  
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2 Responses to Jeremy Narby and The Cosmic Serpent

  1. Marina Petro says:

    Marc…I couldn’t find a private email address for you so I am communicating here. What a surprise to find a cropped version of my painting “Cosmic Serpent” at your site here. The protocol for anyone desiring to use an artist’s image is to ask permission first and credit with the artist’s name and often website is usually, if not always, provided by the person inquiring about use. Many artists charge a fee for use. I would appreciate a reply from you….
    Marina Petro


    • Thank you for your note, Marina.

      I found the graphic image of your painting among the search results for cosmic serpent images using Google Search. The image was located on a third party’s Web site. (There were several same image results.) I admired it as a work of art, and I found it applicable to the subject matter of my blog for which the cropped image’s page banner version appears.

      I was of the impression and the understanding that a graphic image appearing or published in the Internet could be used or reposted in a Web site or page; provided, that: no adverse ownership or other legal rights are claimed over the image and/or credit is given to the owner or source of the image.

      Since the Google search results had disclosed your name and your “Cosmic Serpent” painting as the owner and source of the graphic image, I gave you and your painting full acknowledgment and complete credit in the very blog (on this page) where the cropped version appears as the page banner. For this particular reason, you may have noticed that I ended the blog expressly with the following unequivocal notation, and I quote: “Note: The page banner is a cut from an oil painting titled “Cosmic Serpent” by Marina Petro.

      If you object to the subject page banner despite the express acknowledgment and credit I have given you in the blog, kindly let me know, Marina, and I shall promptly take down the banner from the site, as I have no intentions of offending you or diminishing your art in any way.

      Regarding my email address, you will find active emailing links at the site’s bottom widgets. You may communicate your reply by email or by posting it here. I look forward to hearing from you, and I thank you again for posting your concerns.

      Blessings to you.


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