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Comments on Snake Venom
Anti-venom at Gobekli Tepe
Most of the feedback I got on the Snake Cult of Consciousness was on the pharmacology of venom. The first was from someone who ostensibly works with snake venom:
Your entire claim for hallucinogenic properties of venom is based on a single, probably fake, case report. No other person has EVER reported any similar symptoms, nor really anything positive at all, following envenomation
He then went on to say it’s the worst-researched post he has ever read on the internet and that I should test my theory by getting bit by a snake to rid the world of my idiocy. The specifics of the advice lead me to believe he does in fact handle snakes. The internet, maaan. Others were more delicate.
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Do I believe it? Hell no. Do I think the theory is really entertaining and well written? Yes. I'm a big fan of snakes though, so maybe that biases me. The big problem here is that the psychedelic status of cobra venom seems suspect to me, I'd need solid evidence of that before I can take this seriously.
Third, a science writer with a background in chemistry reached out with thoughts about oral vs intravenous delivery1. The long and short is that it works better if venom and anti-venom are both oral or intravenous. Or, in his words:
Love a crazy speculative hypothesis like the snake cult piece; good read.
I think I buy it, at least as far as "snakes as the first portal to altered states of consciousness", considering people have probably been surviving snake bites and emerging with delirious visions since time immemorial.
Gotta say, the neuroscience is a little flimsy, though; "contains tryptophan" is not saying much when you're talking about a venom protein.
It seems like a long shot that oral administration of a snake venom would be CNS active, as the protein toxins would be chewed up by stomach acid and digestive enzymes before entering circulation. I know the case report involved snakebite-based administration, but you wouldn't expect rutin to do much outside the GI tract since it's got pretty poor bioavailability--so pick one, I guess.
Other than the death wishes, I couldn’t hope for more helpful feedback! So let’s talk a bit more about the how snake venom could produce a psychedelic experience (and perhaps even revelations of self-awareness). My idea is that at some point somebody was bit by a snake and that caused hallucinations. They, or the tribe, put 2 and 2 together. Then, over thousands of years, snake venom was worked into a ritual in a way that would mitigate risk of dying and maximize spiritual breakthroughs. The most obvious way to do this is with an anti-venom.
Effects of venom
The first thing to defend is that snake bites are psychoactive. And hopefully more forcefully than “any stressful event can spark psychosis”. In the previous post I linked Snake Venom Use as a Substitute for Opioids: A Case Report and Review of Literature. Imagine my joy when I hit google scholar with “snake bite hallucination” and found that there are entire reviews written on the subject. That means there are a bunch of separate people working on the phenomenon, and they have enough evidence to step back and look at the bigger picture. Table 1 includes nine cases from five different studies. Much more than you would expect for the literature on abusing snake venom.
Now, none of the cases include hallucinations or psychosis, hallmarks of psychedelics. They do however list: dizziness, blurred vision, arousal, grandiosity, euphoria and a sense of well-being. It definitely gets you high. It is also a good sign that the object of the paper is to argue that snake venom may be a path out of opioids. The hook is a man who takes a single dose of venom and kicks a decade long alcohol and opioid addiction. Now, that could be just chemical. But most people who go cold turkey report some epiphany, whether religoius or personal. “I don’t need this, it’s killing me.”
Proponents of psylociben mushrooms for addiction therapy emphasize the revelatory aspects. Someone who has been smoking for years has self-realizations over a few hour trip that then stay with them and they don’t go back to smoking. The drug tears down their defenses and they have a chance to peer inside their mind and see what makes them tick. This is the part of the psychedelic experience that I am positing could produce self-awareness in the first place. I find it more significant that snake venom can get someone off opioids than whether it can make them hallucinate. It would be very interesting to pry about whether venom imbibers, like mushroom patients, interpret the experience as more than chemical2.
With all of that said, hallucinations are documented. For example: Doctor who’s had 26 snakebites has endured pain, vomit and hallucinations: A RESEARCHER who has dedicated his life to finding lifesaving drugs has experienced searing pain, non-stop bleeding and psychedelic hallucinations on the way.
Evidence of anti-venom
As for the anti-venom, that was pretty handwaivy. I felt pretty good about getting snakes and apples consistently next to each other in founding myths of self-realization. Remember, snakes first show up as abstract symbols in cave art 30,000 years ago. Gobekli Tepe, the first snake temple (or temple full stop), was constructed 12,000 years ago. That is 18,000 years of trial and error to work out an anti-venom (and, you know, a theology to make sense that the man behind the curtain is you).
But, seeing that this was a point of interest, dear reader, I investigated a bit more. They have found more than 10,000 grinding stones at Gobekli Tepe, along with Einkorn wheat which was used to make beer. They also found vessels that can store up to 200 liters of liquid. That’s a lot of grinding!
This is cool because it’s right at the cusp of a sedentary lifestyle and you can see them experimenting with this new food source (that they are gathering, rather than tending, probably). Some even argue that it was sourcing grains for beer that drove the Agricultural Revolution.
Beer normally has negligible amounts of rutin, the antivenom that is found in apples. However there are techniques as simple as varying the temperature of initial steps that can 60x the amount of rutin (See: Brewing Rutin-Enriched Lager Beer). This is an object of study because that level is at least nutritionally significant. It also triples the amount of flavanoids which may have anti-venom properties.
The Einkorn wheat at Gobekli Tepe also contains phenolic acid, which has been studied as an anti-venom (see: The potential of phenolic acids in therapy against snakebites: A review). From the abstract of Phenolic composition and antioxidant potential in Turkish einkorn
Einkorn, an ancestral wheat species with 14 chromosomes, has higher phenolic molecules, total flavonoid content and antioxidant potential than modern wheat species such as durum wheat with 28 chromosomes and bread wheat with 42 chromosomes. Wheatgrass of IZA (einkorn) is thought to have the potential as a functional food/beverage in the future with its higher amounts of phenolic molecules and strong natural immune booster antioxidant activity.
So we can be pretty sure they had the chemicals to make an antivenom. But they could also just like beer and like snakes (who would blame them?). It would be nice to go back and ask if they think beer can counteract snake venom. The best we can do is go back to when writing was invented, in the same area. It turns out one of the first things people did was write down how to cure a snake bite.
If a snake bit a man, you crush imḫur-līm, he drinks (it) in beer and he lives…
If ditto, you crush tarmuš-plant, he drinks (it) in first-quality beer, and he will live…
If d[itt]o, he drinks barraqītu-plant in first-quality beer….
The pattern continues for another six lines before the plaque becomes unreadable. So there are at least a half-dozen more plants the healer believes can be combined with beer to protect against venom. Hard to say if that knowledge was in place 9,000 years earlier in the same region, but the snakes and production of beer was. Clearly, this people had lots of practice on the subject.
Other nearby cultures had a similar recipe. According to Ancient Snakebite Literature, the Egyptians also used beer:
Most of the cures are emetics, usually ground into beer, wine, or some other fermented drink. It seems like the idea was to vomit up the venom somehow, though this likely would not have worked.
Because we like snakes, it’s worth mentioning that Egyptians were obsessed with them. Take their primordial snake deity, Nehebkau. The etymology, from wiki:
Nehebkau's name has been translated in many ways by Egyptologists. These include: “that which gives Ka [‘double’ or ‘vital essence’]”; “he who harnesses the spirits”; the “overturner of doubles”; “collector of souls”; “provider of goods and foods” and “bestower of dignities”.
If you believe that snakes show up in mythology for evo-psyche reasons, these titles are difficult to explain. They are a much better fit for the Snake Cult of Consciousness where snake venom helped us identify with our own mind. “That which gives Ka, our vital essence or ‘double’” becomes “that which gave us the mind-body problem”. It all comes back to snakes.
Nehebkau was subdued by the primordial god Atum, from whom all life sprang. Atum himself was created by saying his own name, a moment of self-realization.
I’m going to take a pass on whether the venom and antivenom were administered orally or intravenously. Seems like the timeline of the whole hypothesis is a much bigger loose end. The people at Gobekli Tepe had chemicals which we know have antivenom properties. The first cultures that are downstream Gobekli Tepe3 and have writing believe beer + herbs are an antivenom. That's about all we can know, chemically.
One thing I notice reading Darwin and modern science is how much of the writing nowadays is defensive. Darwin drops these wonderful anecdotes about an extinct tribe whose language is kept alive one generation longer by a parrot who had been friendly. It’s an explorer’s tale that anybody doing science now would cut. What if it’s not true? What if I can’t prove it? What if readers aren’t generous? This mindset leads to boring writing, but also bad science.
In this project I have consciously tried to make the strong version of arguments. There could be a psychedelic Snake Cult that produces insights but not consciousness. If so, that will probably remain a mystery as it’s hard to track the diffusion of people getting high and going on with their lives, however enriched. Strong theories can be falsified. Various experts theorize that self-awareness emerged anywhere from 50,000 to 200 million years ago. If so, stories of the transition would have been lost to time.
If we became self-aware 15,000 years ago, the story would absolutely still be told. I have argued it involves snakes, which frequent our creation myths. The discovery would leave many other marks. Would there have been the word “I” before “I” existed? My guess is no.
If the first person singular has existed for >50,000 years, then it should sound very different in each language family, having had ample time to diverge. If it’s 15,000 years old, then many languages will be cognate. That will be the subject of an upcoming post. How similar would you guess the world’s pronouns are?
The first poll asks “What percent of the world’s language families use the consonant “n” in the proto- first person singular?” Each language family that has been studied has a proto-1sg. This is a based on the variety of 1sg that appear in the family today. It is the linguist’s reconstruction of what the language family would have sounded like when it was just one language. As a hint there are 24 consonants in English and ~40 stems in the world (eg: ǰ,ð, ɬ, š,ch). Most pronouns only contain one consonant, and “n” is the most common.
Don’t just answer the poll, you guys should comment more! How are you doing? Is this your flavor of rabbit hole?
The subject of the email was “Snakes and Ladders” and I’m still too afraid to ask whether it’s a reference to Jacob’s Ladder; some puns are just too powerful. Snake Cult offshoot branch Jacob’s Adder when?
There are other differences from psylociben, as it looks like snake venom may be addictive. Who knew?
Bit of an assumption that they are downstream. But they did inherit megalithic architecture (pyramids!) from the builders of Gobekli Tepe and are in the same region. If that’s not enough check out this paper which argues that the neighboring Luwian civilization’s word for God appears as a symbol at Gobekli Tepe. And we do know snake myths have lasted that long. Reasonable that beliefs about antivenoms do as well, especially considering they have a chemically sound basis and probably worked.