n 1985 Jeremy Narby, a 25-year-old Frenchman, an anthropologist, visited the native community of the Ashaninkas, located between the Pichis and Perene River valleys, in Peru's Central Jungle.
He was interested in carrying out anthropological research to obtain a PhD in anthropology in an American university. At the beginning of his investigations he discovered that all the biological knowledge of the community was based on the interpretation of what the community shamans perceived during the intake of a drink called "Ayahuasca". These Amazon shamans were the Ayahuasqueros.
He did not know how to interpret this new concept and understand its true sense.
He wanted to deal with the topic in a sensible way to avoid falling into subjectivity, which in the long run would be self-defeating.
Considering that the Peruvian government at the time was interested in confiscating land from the natives arguing that their extractive activities meant an irrational employment of the forest and that the best alternative for the country's economic development was to fell trees and create plantations, Narby understood that his research was vital to defend the conception of the Amazon held by the natives within a system that had saved the forest for centuries.
At the same time this would help the Ashaninkas gain recognition of their territories by the Peruvian government.
During the contact between Narby and the community, there were doubts about the anthropologist's intentions.
Narby's interest in the Ashaninkas' botanical knowledge led him to collect some plant species and some people grew suspicious of his motives. They thought that the anthropologist was trying to make money based on their knowledge of plants.
Considering the natives' justified distrust due to many bad experiences they may have had with foreigners, Narby gave the samples back and they calmed down.
In everyday contact with different groups inside Ashaninka society, he met Ruperto, an Ayahuasquero who proposed him to drink Ayahuasca, in order to get closer to understanding the jungle. Ruperto gave him some indications and some days went by before the experience.
Narby, still doubtful, had not followed the Ayahuasquero's instructions previous to the ceremony.
Here we have a description based on notes taken by Narby the night after the Ayahuasca ceremony:
First, Ruperto sprayed us with perfumed water and smoked us with his tobacco. He then sat with us and began whistling a melody of surprising beauty.
I could already see kaleidoscopic images in front of my eyes, but I did not feel well. Despite Ruperto's melody, I stood up to go and vomit. Having eliminated the remains of the deer and fried yucca meal, I went back to my seat feeling relieved. Ruperto told me that, without doubt, I had also thrown up the Ayahuasca and that I could take it again if I wanted so. I agreed. He checked my pulse and declared me strong enough for a "regular" dose, which I swallowed.
Ruperto whistled again while I sat down on the dark platform. Images began to flood my head. In my notes, I describe them as "unusual or horrible: an agouti baring his teeth inside a bloody mouth, multicolour serpents, very brilliant and shining, a policeman that caused trouble, my father looking at me with a worried look".
I found myself trapped by what I perceived as two giant boas, approximately sixty centimetres high and twelve to fifteen metres long. I was absolutely terrified. "These enormous serpents are there, I have my eyes shut and I see a spectacular world of bright lights, and in the middle of my entangled thoughts the serpents begin to speak to me without words. They explain to me that I am only a human being. I feel my spirit break, and in the crack I see the bottomless arrogance of my a priori. It is deeply true that I am only a human being and that most of the time I have the sensation of understanding everything, while here I find myself in a more powerful reality that I do not understand in any way and that, due to my arrogance, I did not even suspect it existed. I feel like crying before the enormity of these revelations, but I get the idea that this self-compassion is a part of my arrogance. I feel so ashamed that I dare not feel ashamed again. Nevertheless, I must vomit again."
I got up totally disoriented, and sincerely asking the fluorescent serpents for pardon, I jumped over them as a drunken somnambulist and went to the tree next to the house, below the kitchen.
Although I now tell about this experience with words on paper, in that moment language itself seemed insufficient. This situation was profoundly torturing, as if my last bond with "reality" had been cut. Moreover, "reality" here seems to be a faraway and one-dimensional memory. However, I come to mentally understand my feelings, as a "poor and small human being who has lost his language and feels pity for himself."
I had never felt so deeply humble until that moment. Leaning on the tree, I regurgitated again. In Ashaninka language, Ayahuasca is called Kamarami, from the verb kamarank, "to vomit". I closed my eyes and only saw red. I saw inside my body, red.
"I regurgitate an electric red liquid, like blood, my throat is bad. I open my eyes and I feel presences by my side, an obscure presence on my left, about a metre away from my head, and a clear presence on my right, also a metre away. Since I am turning more to the left, I am not upset by the obscure presence because I am conscious of it. But I am startled when I become conscious of the clear presence, and turning to look at it, I do not truly get to see it with my eyes. I feel so bad and I have so little control of my sense that I do not have a real desire to see the clear presence. I am lucid enough to know that I am not vomiting blood. After a moment I ask myself what is to be done. I have so little control that I abandon myself to instructions that seem to come from outside me (from the obscure presence?): now it is time to stop vomiting, now it is time to spit, to blow your nose, to rinse your mouth, to avoid swallowing water. I am thirsty but my body stops me from drinking."
In a given moment, in the midst of these ablutions, I raised my head and I saw an Ashaninka woman, dressed with a long traditional cotton gown (Cushma), who stopped about seven metres away from me. She seemed to be levitating above the ground. I saw her in the darkness, which had become clear. Light resembled a film showing an "American night", namely, a scene filmed during the day but using a dark filter to make it look like night. Looking at this woman who watched me silently in this suddenly clear night, I was once again profoundly thunder-struck by the familiarity of these people with a reality that transformed all my axioms and which I totally ignored.
"I am still confounded when I consider I am done, and I even wash my face and go back in amazement to the fact that I have accepted doing all this complacently alone. I leave the tree, the kitchen, the two presences and the floating woman, and I return to the group. Ruperto asks: 'Did they tell you not to swallow water?' I respond: 'Yes.' 'Are you dizzy?'. 'Yes.' I settle down and he restarts his singing. I never heard such beautiful music, little fluid tremors, a high voice almost chirping. I follow it and take off. I fly in the air, hundreds of metres above the ground, and looking down, I see a white planet. All at once, the singing stops and I find myself on the ground telling me: 'It is not possible for him to stop now.' I only see confusing images with a certain erotic content, such as a woman with twenty breasts! He restarts his singing and I see a green leaf with its nervures, then a human hand with its lines, and so on without rest. It is impossible to remember it all"
Little by little, the images disappear. I was exhausted. A little after midnight, I fell asleep.
|Essay about the Book "The Cosmic Serpent"|
of Jeremy Narby by Patricia Burgos