The following article is excerpted from Overtones and Undercurrents by Ralph Metzner, published by Inner Traditions.
Western participants in ayahuasca ceremonies often report powerful healing and visionary experiences with serpent imagery, which is also portrayed in the art inspired by ayahuasca. In his breakthrough integration of modern science with shamanic knowledge systems, The Cosmic Serpent, Jeremy Narby proposed that the DNA molecule, which has the form of a double helix, might be the molecular counterpart to the hallucinated serpents of ayahuasca visions. “Not only among Amazonian shamans, but throughout the world, in Asia, the Mediterranean, Australia, serpent images are used to represent the basic life force and regarded as a source of knowledge—the wisdom of the serpent” (Narby 1998, 29–30).
While the DNA double helix may well be the source of serpent visions in ayahuasca at the molecular level, another source at the ordinary botanical level could be that the ayahuasca potion is a concoction of the bark of the snakelike vine Banisteriopsis caapi and the leafy DMT-containing plant Psychotria viridis. Snakes and serpentine forms are frequently, if not universally, encountered in ayahuasca experiences. In the anthology of ayahuasca studies that I compiled, The Ayahuasca Experience, four or five of the twenty-five or so experience accounts mention serpent imagery, including my own.
When I started to work with ayahuasca myself I had ample opportunity to experience the healing and visionary power of this Amazonian hallucinogenic plant concoction and its serpentine connections. Here is an account of my introduction to the ayahuasca serpents from an experience I had with my friend Terence McKenna, when I was in my fifties.
There were shapes and images of plants, animals, humans, ethereal temples and cities, flying craft, and floating structures. Particular images would emerge from the continuous flux and then be absorbed back into it. As the images of forms and objects receded back into the swaying fabric of visions, I realized I was seeing them as if projected on the twisting coils of an enormous serpent with glittering silvery and green designs on its skin. I could not see either the head or the tail of the serpent, which gave me a rough sense of its size: it encompassed the entire two-story building. Curiously, the sight of this gigantic serpent did not evoke the slightest fear; on the contrary, my emotional response was one of awe and humility at the magnificence of this being and its spiritual power. I was reminded of Pablo Amaringo’s ayahuasca paintings, which depict the giant serpent seen in the visions as the “mother spirit,” on which smaller spirits can ride and travel through the world. In the Amazonian shamanic worldview they recognize three different serpent mamas—of the air, of the river, and of the forest. In my experience, which took place in Northern California, there seemed to be one gigantic serpent mother, coiling and rippling through the entire length and breadth of the valley in which we were situated.
Then I met another serpent in my visions, more “normal” in its dimensions: in fact it was about the same size as me. It entered my body through my mouth and started to slowly wind its way through my stomach and intestines over the next two or three hours. When it got to the gut, there was some cramping, and incredibly loud sounds of gurgling and digesting were coming from my viscera. I became aware of the morphic resonance between a serpent and the intestines: the form of the snake is more or less a long intestinal tract, with a head end at the mouth and tail end at the anus . . . The gut is serpentine, with its twists and coils and its peristaltic movement. So the serpent, in winding its way through my intestinal tract was “teaching” my intestines how to be more powerful and effective. (Metzner 2014, 120–21)
In a dream vision I had sometime after this first experience, I began to realize that there are basically these two kinds of biophysical serpentine structures in the body: one is the intestinal gut serpent, coiling and winding through the abdomen from the mouth to the anus. Connected with the oldest evolutionary layer of the brain, the intestinal serpent functions to break down ingested food stuff and to excrete and purge waste matter. The other serpentine structure in the human body is the pair of electromagnetic energy currents moving up, across, and along the central axis. In the symbolic terminology of the Indian system of tantra yoga, there are said to be two channels through which the kundalini energy with its twin serpentine currents rises upward, coiling around the central axis: a solar current (pingala) and a lunar current (ida). Intentionally and consciously balancing these is a central practice of this tradition.
It is interesting to reflect on the fact that the perceptions, during an ayahuasca experience, of these seemingly outrageously intimate intrusions into our deepest guts, including sometimes massive purging without feeling sick or if so only temporarily, are being mediated by the brain stem and the enteric nervous system, the network of 100 million neurons lining the inside and outside of the intestines. This enteric nerve network and the associated brain stem is the oldest layer of the brain in evolutionary terms, the brain that we share with our reptilian ancestors. Reptilian consciousness is nonsymbolic and nonemotional but involves deep primal sensing. One of the meanings of the “raising the serpent” metaphor alludes to connecting the deep primal sensing of the reptilian brain stem with the more evolved kind of awareness in the limbic system associated with mammals, and the human symbolic understandings mediated in the cortical layers.
After I had been working with ayahuasca for several years and had also been experiencing guided prenatal regression therapy, without medicines, I recognized yet another aspect of these many-layered memory circuits. The experience of being completely surrounded or contained in the coils of a gigantic moving serpent—of which you can’t see the head or the tail and that is “as big as the house you’re in”—could be a somatic memory of the prenatal fetus, who resides in the maternal womb surrounded by the mother’s coiling, peristaltic intestines. The Amazonian shamans say, “The mother of ayahuasca is a snake.” This is the giant mother serpent that provides both shelter and nourishment as well as information about the world through the telepathic rapport between the mother and fetus.
An experience with entheogenic or visionary substances is always a function of several interacting factors: the specific medicine ingested, the set or intention or purpose of the “trip,” the personal history of the individual, and the setting or ritual context of the experience. The following account describes the experience of a woman in an ayahuasca ceremony that was focused on healing and divination but not necessarily on serpentine imagery. She brought to the experience her own meditation experiences with Shiva the Hindu god of yogis, who is usually represented in paintings and bronze sculptures with serpents coiling around his shoulders and in his hair.
About twenty minutes into the journey I saw an image of the ayahuasca vine and then the most amazing thing happened. I was practicing staying centered in my heart, not my head, as it was a vital point of the divination. To help me focus I placed my hands over my heart center and continuously said a silent mantra, “Shiva in my heart, Shiva in my heart.” After concentrating on that for some minutes the visions began in earnest and it was more than a vision because I felt it so strongly. A king cobra rose up from the base of my spine and upward, expanding its hood like an umbrella over my head, protecting me. The cobra was beautiful with amber and gold colors, and its pink tongue tickled my face off and on during the night. I felt happy and balanced. When I asked the cobra, “How long will you stay?” he answered, “I have always been with you and now that you are aware of me I will be able to be more present in your life.” He said that when I opened my eyes I would be looking out of his eyes. He was very stern and yet compassionate.
The cobra pointed out to me the muscular armoring on my shoulders. I have experienced chronic pain in my shoulders and neck for many years. I saw that the armor was beautifully carved and pounded with intricate patterns. I had had it for so long that I made a real art piece of it! I realized it had to do with family responsibilities that I took on at age seven and continued to carry for the next forty years. I visualized myself taking off the armor and giving it to Shiva who was standing at my feet. It felt good and I had considerable relief from the shoulder pain.
Art: Martina Hoffman