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The Snake Cult of Consciousness
Giving the Stoned Ape Theory fangs
“If we want to understand the phylogeny of language or any human production, we have to keep in mind the following timeline. What is most important is that an essential divide occurred around 15,000 BCE, but it took several thousand years before being effective, and in many areas in the world the transformation may have started later and may have taken longer to become effective.” ~Jacques Coulardeau
It is a surprisingly fertile question to ask how recently the human condition could have emerged. For the existentially inclined, the answer is a bit too close for comfort. Noam Chomsky argues that language is the result of a single mutation. Humans could not fathom recursion until a child was born with the instinct, from whom we all descend. It is this ability, Chomsky argues, that separates humans from the animal kingdom. To date this event, he assumes that it must have happened in Africa before the last great migration 50-100k years ago. He then looks to the archeological record to see evidence of language in the form of creativity. Using this method the mutation must have emerged just before humans left Africa.
From my optimization days, if you accept a constraint and find the solution butts against this, it’s likely that constraint affected the answer. That is, a better solution could be had without the constraint. This seems particularly likely given there is a problem named the Sapient Paradox, which asks: If humans have been cognitively modern for 50k, 100k, or 300k years, why isn’t modern behavior widespread until roughly the end of the Ice Age? Where “modern behavior” includes activities we consider fundamental like making sacred objects, practicing religion, and domesticating plants and animals. The stuff of civilization.
Wynn, an anthropologist, goes so far as to say there is no evidence of abstract thought until 16 kya (thousand years ago)1. Recently a linguist argued that grammar-based language did not exist until 20 kya. The National Geographic calls the temple at Gobekli Tepe 12 kya “The Birth of Religion”. Herzog sees the birth of the human condition in cave art 30 kya. Colin Renfrew, who first posed the Sapient Paradox, said “From a distance and to the non-specialist anthropologist, the Sedentary Revolution [12 kya] looks like the true Human Revolution.”
More broadly, the idea that our minds took their now-current form 40-20 kya is termed the “classic Upper Paleolithic model” by the critical paper Behavioral Modernity in Retrospect. It points out that this timeline was popular until the 1990s when a more inclusive definition of behavioral modernity was accepted.
This is a lot of dates from various disciplines. What I mean to convey is that many experts looked at the evidence and concluded that we weren’t really “us” until quite recently2. This presents a quandary if it happened after humans left Africa. The instinct to language, art and the divine is now spread over the whole world. How did it get there if it was not initially genetic? The most common explanation is that the impulse was always there, but just lay dormant. This is just as puzzling. Even in environments as monstrous as Auschwitz man still searches for meaning. At this point, it is the one thing that cannot be taken from us. Where was the art 50,000 years ago? How could the impulse ever be dormant?
These observations are begging for some mechanism. In this post I propose the concept of "self" was discovered and diffused memetically via psychedelic ritual. This led to a fundamental change in human psychology. With that, we can discard the genetic constraint and fit the date of cognitive modernity to wherever the data suggest.
This post stands alone, but it does follow from the Eve Theory of Consciousness, which I wrote about previously.
The Tree of Knowledge
The oral history of some island-dwelling Australian Aboriginees tells of a time when their homeland was connected to the mainland. This was indeed the case during the last Ice Age, when the sea level was much lower and the island was a peninsula. The longevity of this knowledge raises the question of the shelf life of myths outside Australia. Could there be stories from our deep past that can teach us more than Ice Age geography?
The Agricultural Revolution was more recent than the Ice Age and, psychologically speaking, on a grander scale. For it was not just a new way of sustenance, it was preceded by a religious and symbolic revolution. Given how long myths can last, it’s reasonable that those indigenous to the Fertile Crescent recorded something about those revolutions.
If some myths are so ancient, they will also be widely shared. For example, the world tree is a motif in Indo-European and Native American mythology, which connects the heavens, the earth, and the underworld. Of these, the Tree of Knowledge in Genesis being the best-known instantiation. For most, the fruit of this tree is simply a physical metaphor for self awareness, and the particular fruit of no consequence. Once you understand your position in the world, you become a moral agent. And, sure, some stories say we got it from a snake-infested apple tree.
Psychedelic theorists point out that there are chemicals which can grant higher states of consciousness. Take “5 dry grams” of Psilocybe cubensis and then say the fruit wasn’t a mushroom, they say. They can even produce iconography such as the mural above where the Tree of Knowledge is shaped like a mushroom.
These theories always struck me as strained. I can believe that the Medieval artist had done mushrooms. I can believe there were entire communities of psychedelic Christians initiated into an ecstatic sacrament. However, what does this have to do with the evolution? All the examples are too late in the game to be species-wide force of natural selection.
To believe that psychedelics had a central role in our evolution I would need to see them at the center of religious iconography regarding knowledge and creation worldwide. And this would have to be the case from the beginning. This seems like an impossibly high bar to clear.
And yet, this is true of snakes, which are worshiped all across the globe, and have been from the beginning. One strange coincidence is how often they are associated with knowledge, despite having a peanut for a brain. What no one has noticed is that snakes themselves contain a hallucinogen: their venom. I argue that there was an ancient psychedelic snake cult concerned with selfhood from which modern snake symbolism descends.
Tripping on venom
Consider the abstract of Snake Venom Use as a Substitute for Opioids: A Case Report and Review of Literature.
The mind-altering agents such as tobacco, cannabis, and opium have been widely used since the evolution of human being. These substances have been widely used for recreational purposes. However, derivatives from reptiles such as snakes, reptiles, and scorpions can also be used for recreational purposes and as a substitute for other substances. Their use is rare and related literature is very scanty. In this report, we present a case of snake venom abuse and review the existing literature.
The paper starts by recounting the story of a Pakistani man who was addicted to opium and alcohol for the better part of a decade. As his life was falling apart he learned from his friends that snake venom could be used as a cheaper alternative.
Initially, with the help of the nomadic snake charmers, he subjected himself to the snake bite (possibly cobra, but patient was not sure) over his tip of the tongue. The snake bite was associated with jerky movements of the body, blurring of vision, and unresponsiveness, i.e. “blackout” as per the patient for 1 h. However, after waking up he experienced a heightened arousal and sense of well-being, which lasted for 3–4 weeks, which according to the patient was more intense than the state of high experienced till that time with any dose of alcohol or opioids. According to patient, during these 3–4 weeks, he did not have any craving for alcohol and opioids and did not consume the same.
The effect is similar to case reports where, after a single dose of psilocybin mushrooms, people report changing long-ingrained behaviors, including addictions.
There is also a pharmacological connection to mushrooms. Cobra venom contains Tryptophan (see 1 and 2), which is chemically similar to Psilocybe, the psychedelic compound in mushrooms. The figure below is from a paper that reports a way to synthesize Psilocybe from Tryptophan in five steps. And note that even without processing, snake venom can cause hallucination3.
A five step synthesis is likely beyond our Paleolithic ancestors. But it’s also surprising that tribes in the Amazon discovered how to process Ayahuasca, which requires hours of cooking and and multiple ingredients. It’s possible there was some modification of venom that made it less toxic or more hallucinogenic. The most natural paired ingredient would be an anti-venom such as Rutin. Where is Rutin found in rich abundance? Apples!
Now, I’m not saying snake venom is the best psychedelic, nor that apples are sufficient if you get bit by a snake (see a doctor!). But it does stand to reason that venom would be the first psychedelic humans experimented with given that it literally finds us. As for the apples, they may be enough to take the edge off, in a pinch. Folk remedies for snake bites are effective.
The snake and the apple
In perhaps the most well known story on earth, a snake tempts woman with knowledge, often depicted as an apple. These themes are not limited to Genesis. The life of Heracles is defined by conflicts with women and snakes. Like many others, he is the bastard son of Zues. In a bid to appease Hera, his father’s legitimate wife, his name is given to literally mean “[he] who is glorified through Hera”. This didn’t work. In his infancy she sends two venomous serpents to his crib which he dispatches. When he has grown Hera curses him with madness. Under this spell he kills his wife and children.
As penance, Heracles performs 12 labors. Six of these are in locations that are "previously strongholds of Hera or the 'Goddess' and were Entrances to the Netherworld"4. Three of them involve snakes. The second, where he must slay a nine-headed hydra. The eleventh, where he must steal an apple from the garden of the Hesperides, which is guarded by a serpent. This prepares him for the penultimate task, descending to hell and wrestling the guard with his bare hands. Cerberus is remembered as a dog with three heads. Less known is that he has a snake for a tail. There is even a genus of snakes named after him.
The ending is not happy for Heracles. According to Euripides, it is after returning home that he goes mad and kills his wife. In other traditions he gets a new wife who is tricked into killing him with a cloak poisoned with snake venom. These ancient tales repeat similar themes. Adam becomes as the gods through Eve. Herakles is glorified through Hera. Snakes, apples, death and rebirth are all present. The complementary pharmacology of venom and apples is especially curious. It’s reasonable to me that if snake venom was relevant to some psychological change many millenia ago, this is about what would be left of the history.
It bears mentioning that Genesis does not specify the fruit as an apple5. Even so, other common interpretations of the fruit, such as figs, grapes, and wine, also contain rutin. There would be considerable experimentation on the antivenom front. In fact, it is a common theme in Indo-European lore to take a draught before fighting a serpent.
There would also have been experimenting on the hallucinogenic front. My guess is that snake venom is not a good trip, all things considered. If it served a ritual purpose, that it would eventually be replaced (perhaps by mushrooms, or any other local psychedelic), even if the symbols did not change. Wikipedia’s entry on serpent symbolism says:
Serpents are connected with venom and medicine. The snake's venom is associated with the chemicals of plants and fungi that have the power to either heal or provide expanded consciousness (and even the elixir of life and immortality) through divine intoxication. Because of its herbal knowledge and entheogenic association, the snake was often considered one of the wisest animals, being (close to the) divine.
Entheogen is a word invented by psychedelic theorists who wanted something more serious to discuss hallucinogens used to reveal sacred knowledge. This class consists of peyote, ayahuasca, psilocybin mushrooms, and, apparently, snake venom. The citations are all from ancient greek writers6, so the association is just literary. I can't find any evidence of snake venom being used in actual ceremonies. Though realistically these were mystery cults that existed before writing. Gone with the wind.
I want to discuss the role of snakes in other myths. But first, it is helpful to explain how I think psychedelics are related to self-awareness.
Your sense of self is your life story woven together with a map of your body and plans for the future7. It is an open question as to how language evolved, and how it is related to self awareness. A reasonable order is that at some point in our past we first had audible speech, a proto-langauge without grammar. Very simple versions of this are shared with other animals such as monkeys who have different calls for different predators. As our lineage’s brains got bigger we could gradually add more vocabulary. No phase change is necessary. At this point, which is widely believed to be tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago, evolution would have followed the course described by Darwin:
After the power of language had been acquired, and the wishes of the community could be expressed, the common opinion of how each member ought to act for the public good, would naturally become in a paramount degree the guide to action.
Here I am assuming that grammar is not required for language to effectively censure bad behavior. For example, if someone tells the rest of the tribe “MindVector steal”, the gist has been communicated and I’ve got a big problem. The shame!
In a previous post I argued this would have caused us to evolve a proto-conscious which modeled the will of society. In this scenario there could be gradual selection for Theory of Mind before self-awareness.
Psychedelics alter what we are aware of. It’s possible that on such a trip someone became aware of their own mind. This person looked inward and discovered the self. They had been building maps of minds and in that moment the map became the territory “I”.
In Freudian terms, we had an animal id for millions of years. We then evolved a super-ego, the simulated view of society in our head. Implicitly, there was a node resolving conflicts between these competing interests: a subconscious ego. A fateful encounter with snake venom allowed someone to perceive this process and she could not unsee it. Henceforth, she perceived and identified with her ego, the agent tasked with navigating the tribe’s moral code. Or in the parlance of the time, she “became as the gods, knowing good and evil.”
This is what I mean by “birth of the human condition”. Animals, ostensibly, identify with their body (some pass a mirror test). In humans the concept of self was extended to an invisible agent with an impossible task8. The self is defined by tension between id and superego. There is no rest for the wicked, nor the righteous. Such is life. This is very different from an animal's map of their body, which does not contain such a contradiction. Hamlet cannot be translated into dog. But from the moment we became Homo Sapien (literally, Thinking Man) we have been moved by the question “to be or not to be?”.
The last question is why humans no longer require a psychedelic trip to form a self. My model is that a ritual could only push us over the edge as far as brain wiring goes. We were already most of the way there to a modern mind. And in a sense we used our own resourcefulness to make an evolutionary leap. At first only some of the initiated would obtain or retain a sense of self. As the seamless formation of self was useful, there would be selection for those that could maintain it. After several generations, perhaps the success rate goes up, and dosage of psychedelics can be reduced. After thousands of years, the dosage is zero, and the ritual is forgotten.
But there may still be marks of this heritage. Most people experience auditory hallucinations of some sort (especially young people), and schizophrenia is surprisingly common at 1% worldwide, given how much it reduces fitness. (See: the paradox of schizophrenia.)
In this view Eve is the Mother of All Living not as a metaphor of child birth. She and the serpent literally initiated Adam into what we now call living. Likewise, Herakles actually is “glorified through Hera” in his labors, particularly the final two. My contention is that there was a ritual which involved descending into the netherworld in a venom-induced trance. Apples would have been eaten in preparation. Hera, like Eve, was the master of ceremonies and bestowed consciousness on man. I’ll write more about the gender aspect in future posts. For a bit more see the Eve Theory of Consciousness (or read Genesis, the Epic of Gilgamesh, etc.).
The problem the proto-conscience was trying to solve can be abstracted to “do unto others what you would have them do unto you”. Therefore, selection for a brain with voices that capture reciprocal altruism is selection for a brain that can compute recursion. This process would be gradual, and the genes and rewiring could be done over millennia. The idea that Theory of Mind would produce the ability for recursion is not new, see for example, Recursion: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve?
I think The Ritual itself could have produced recursion. This is more speculative but bear with me. Recursion is “nothing more than re-applying a rule to its own output.” What if someone became aware of their own ego? The ego, even when it was subconscious, required input from the perception system. If perception came to include the ego, it would then receive its own state as input.
The fact that we are aware of so little of our mind, and that we often use language (a new tool) to introspect, indicate we did not perceive our mind until recently9. The base state of mental processes is to be outside of our perception. If the super-ego and ego system evolved recently, they would likely have sprung up outside our awareness. If something caused us to perceive this node, this seems sufficient to produce recursion, at least in the ego circuit. This could have happened all at once for an initiate: “See yourself and be!”
Relating recursion to language Pinker and Jackendoff write “Indeed, the only reason language needs to be recursive is because its function is to express recursive thoughts. If there were not any recursive thoughts, the means of expression would not need recursion either.”
I’m happy to drop the point about self awareness producing recursive grammar. This post is mainly concerned with snakes and the self. But it makes sense to me that recursive language is synonymous with abstract thought. The manipulation of hypotheticals arguably requires recursion. If recursion started out as genetic, then why don’t we see proof-positive examples before humans leave Africa?
Chomsky points to the “Cultural Revolution” that occurred 50-100k years ago as the beginning of language. Consider the most complex of art from that period:
Why does the production of these artifacts require abstract thought (and therefore language)? Wynn, who argues abstract thought starts just 16 kya, at least disagrees. And if this qualifies as evidence for language then should we also accept shell engravings made by Homo Erectus half a million years ago? I have a hard time squaring Chomsky’s mechanism and timing with the Sapient Paradox. If it’s 50 kya, where is the recursion? If it’s more recent, then how did the recursion gene spread everywhere?
As a summary so far, the timeline of events is:
100-50 kya: Chomsky’s date for the emergence of recursive language. Common time range to argue humans started “behavioral modernity”
~50 kya: Out of Africa
~35 kya: The start of art featuring figures, both cave art (mostly animals) and Venus Statues. Mostly in Europe though cave art is also found in South East Asia.
20 kya: Last Glacial Maximum. Ice starts receding and the Ice Age officially ends by 12 kya.
16 kya: Wynn argues abstract thought emerges as evidenced in organized cave art
12 kya: Gobekli Tepe, the first temple
~12 kya: Agricultural Revolution. This also demarcates the Neolithic time period (or Revolution) as well as the Holocene epoch, literally meaning “wholly new”. I am arguing it was caused by snakes.
The genesis of religion
Once the snake ritual was established, it and self-awareness, spread over the whole world allowing civilization to form. Such a wild theory ought to be rejected with a cursory look at the archeological record. If it’s true, then that would mean the first religion would be one of snakes, and it would immediately precede the invention of agriculture. Surely that is not the case.
And yet, we have exactly this in Gobekli Tepe, the first temple built 12 kya. Readers may know it as a skull cult, but it is also crawling with snakes. 28.4% of the representations are snakes, double the second most commonly depicted animal, the fox at 14.8%. And this counts groups of animals as just one occurrence. Snakes, which are often carved in bunches, account for half of all identifiable animals if you break them up as individuals.
Archeologists associate the snakes with death and rebirth. This is explained by the symbolism of snakes shedding their skin. The metaphor strikes me as a bit flat. It’s a skull cult! They hang human skulls from the ceiling and drink the blood of the innocent10. Are we to believe the most potent metaphor for death and rebirth they can muster is a snake molting? It's really underwhelming. For such an extraordinary location, why not the Snake Cult of Consciousness? It at least has a chemical mechanism equal to the moment. Something fundamental clearly changed, and it may have been more than a cultural adaptation. Our psychology also had to become modern at some point.
When Gobekli Tepe was discovered, it upended our views about the Agricultural Revolution. It was assumed that Homo Economicus would build granaries before temples. Why start with religion? As it seemed to be an anachronism, the site was fertile grounds for speculation about a lost advanced civilization seeded by Ancient Aliens or Atlanteans. What are the archeologists hiding?
The Snake Cult of Consciousness offers a pretty satisfying explanation for our tech tree. First, we do see a progression of snake ritual and symbolism. There is a burial in Siberia from the height of the Ice Age 19 kya. In it we find mammoth ivory carved with snakes that look like cobras. Cobras (or any snakes?) did not live in such a frigid climate. These were likely foreign gods that had traveled with these people. Clearly they had staying symbolic power. (Similarly, this culture carved many Venus Statues, which are common in Europe at the same time.)
Back in Venus’s motherland, they performed headless snake rituals as far back as 17 kya. In a Pyrenees cave decorated with headless bison, two decapitated snake skeletons were found. Imagine what it would be like to enter that cave by fire light, after days of fasting. It would be abundantly clear to an initiate they were about to lose their head. The YouTube link is to an Indo-European specialist who describes it as evidence of Europe’s first dragon ritual (worth a watch, his channel is great).
Finally, though the figures are more striking, most cave art is actually of abstract symbols. There are 20 or so symbols that are found in cave art the world over. These are thought to be a form of proto-writing whose meaning was consistent across time. Of those, serpents and birds are the only two animal forms, with the serpentiform first appearing 30 kya. The snakes at Gobekli Tepe don’t just pop out of nowhere.
In this view, Gobekli Tepe represents a mature snake cult. One that has learned from many mistakes of the past to dose the venom and antivenom, as well as prepare the initiate (nobody wants a repeat of what happened to Greg). Conscious states may have been obtained far before Gobekli Tepe, especially by women and shamans (more on that later). However, some fundamental aspects of culture seem to go global at about the end of the Ice Age, possibly because the whole ritual had been worked out.
As for temples predating agriculture, our psychology is simply not so mundane. If you first experienced the mind-body problem as an adult, answers to that may be more important than food. The Snake Cult goes farther and claims that religion produced agriculture, for without initiation abstract thought and the ability to plan would not have been present.
I can’t show an unbroken chain between Gobekli Tepe and historical snake myths. However, it is pretty clear that snakes stories are universal, and share surprising commonalities.
I have thus far referenced snakes in Greek, Judeo-Christian, Aztec, Aboriginee, Magdalenian (cave art), and extinct Anatolian cultures. And this isn’t cherry picking. Show me a culture and I’ll show you the snakes. This has been common knowledge for over a century. Consider this abstract found from 1873:
“The subject proposed to be discussed in the present paper is one of the most fascinating that can engage the attention of anthropologists. It is remarkable, however, that although so much has been written in relation to it, we are still almost in the dark as to the origin of the superstition in question. The student of mythology knows that certain ideas were associated by the peoples of antiquity with the serpent, and that it was the favorite symbol of particular deities; but why that animal rather than any other was chosen for the purpose is yet un- certain. The facts being well known, however, I shall dwell on them only so far as may be necessary to support the conclusions based upon them.” C. Staniland Wake, 1873 CS WAKE.-Origin of Serpent- Worship. 373
The internet is in its true form when you start googling questions like “did snake venom cause consciousness?”11. Remarkably, there is another person who let their imagination fly and spins a yarn about snakes producing self-awareness. Finding that was an unexpected meeting of minds: an engineer with a substack and a linguist with a wordpress. At risk of belaboring the point, those far more qualified than I see self-awareness and not fear of predation in snake mythologies. Or in their words:
The fight is total, the spirit is totally absorbed, fear and courage are one single thing, the blood pump inside the veins, someone loses his life, but the moment is so intense that in the mind of the first warrior of the history of men occurs a sensory explosion, in a moment all is clear, the sky, the earth, one’s essence, the serpent, affections, life, death. His perceptions see through. He defeated the serpent, he brutally slaughtered it, mercilessly – self-consciousness is directly proportional to willpower led by the heart. ,The fight is ended, the man can teach now the acquired conscience to the others, “I am” *h1e’smi, “you are” *h1e’sti. The battle is ended, mankind possesses the luxuriant springs and can settle down and with ease understanding the natural cycles throughout growth and death, the change of season, the function of a seed. He discovers the agriculture, the sheep-farming, the wheel, the car. The fire that Agni represents is the conscience that flows from the redeemed springs that from now on shall have many frames.
This is at odds with the going explanation for the phenomena, the poster child for evolutionary psychology. Snakes were our primary predators for millions of years, which etched itself into our psyche. We are now biased to conjure their image in the shadows, or in any story we tell.
There is something to this, IMDB lists 57 horror films where snakes are central. That’s a lot but still a small fraction of the total. If snakes were put in our mind by fear of death, one would expect them to be better represented in horror stories than creation myths.
Further still, the wiki on snakes in mythology contains these broad categories: immortality, creation myths, the underworld, water, wisdom, and healing. Very strange list if you believe they were put there by predation. Underworld kind of fits, but immortality? Creation?
Or, consider Quetzalcoatl below, with 8 snakes covered in eyes slithering out of his brain. To my eyes, that is a better depiction of a snake-venom induced revelation than an instinctual fear. It is spooky, but such is the nature of forbidden knowledge.
If the Australian tribe living on the newly-formed island had lost their oral tradition, the fact that they were once connected to the homeland would have disappeared. That is not so for myths in Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas. Language families such as Afro-Asiatic and Indo-European span continents. Likewise, comparative mythologists construct phylogenies of myths that span multiple continents and tens of millenia. There is robustness in parallelism. We should expect there to be better preserved stories outside of Australia (and more of them). More still, it was around the Fertile Crescent that writing was invented. Genesis and Herakles labors were written down millenia ago. These stories did not have to last as long in the oral tradition.
I am not the first to argue the significance of snake worship diffusing with the building blocks of civilization. Take, for example, the anthology Man Across the Sea: Problems of Pre-Columbian Contacts. It is a collection of essays that summarize the debate in anthropology about the extent of Pre-Columbian contacts in the Americas. The introduction includes a history of the debate:
“Beginning in the period around 1880, Miss A. W. Buckland presented a series of papers on various aspects of diffusion or presumed diffusion over vast areas…According to Miss Buckland—and this is the key doctrine that is implicit in Elliot Smith and his followers—civilization was never, never independently acquired. It could not be and it was not. If you read Miss Buckland it will give you a foretaste of Elliot Smith, for she was writing about sun and serpent worship, and the spread of agriculture, weaving, pottery, and metals all over the earth.”
The Snake Cult of Consciousness is the type of thing that would only be invented once. If venom was an active ingredient to self awareness, then serpents and the ability to invent agriculture would be a package deal. This is, of course, much more diffusion than is commonly accepted, even if there are a few Victorians who see things this way.
Still, even in this century there are radical cases made for diffusion. Julien d’Huy has been published in the likes of Scientific American contending that the Algonquian Native Americans tell a version of the Odyssey, and that the myth crossed the land bridge 13,000 years ago. Though this is not about snakes12, it does demonstrate that very strong versions of diffusion are given serious consideration.
Now, it is hard to demonstrate universality. There are 7,000 languages spoken in the world. Many come with their own creation myth and not all of those have been catalogued. Besides, realistically I could only get through like 3,000 in this post. It would be cool to cite some book that argues the point. In fact, I can do one better: the Serpentarium. It is an online catalog of snake mythology research! Under “seminal works” (shown below) it lists a dozen with titles like The Good and Evil Serpent: How a Universal Symbol Became Christianized. If you follow the link, it also includes hundreds of other works. The collection is focused on Indo-European. I’ll go into other cultures in future posts.
Self Transforming Machine Elves
Finally, credit where it is due, the Snake Cult draws from Terence Mckenna’s Stoned Ape Theory. For Mckenna the relationship between consciousness and psychedelics was practical. When he tripped, he saw consciousness being constructed in his mind. One of his most eloquent expositions is on entities he described as self-transforming machine elves—fantastical creatures made of language. “I don't know why there should be an invisible syntactical intelligence giving language lessons in hyperspace. That certainly, consistently, seems to be what is happening.” Based on his schooling in hyperspace, he figured that language was fundamental to consciousness and that psychedelics could help in obtaining it.
The time frame he suggested was equally practical. He would often bring up the amount of rainfall in Africa over the last several million years. This, he said, was evidence that the climate was amenable to psilocybin mushrooms which could have been collected by our forebears for eons.
As evidence, he points to cave art featuring mushrooms such as the shaman figure below, dated to about 7 kya13. It is significant to Mckenna that this is in Africa, where our species evolved. Once again, we run into the Sapient Paradox. There was no culture millions of years ago when Mckenna suggested mushrooms were relevant. This cave art is downstream developments in other parts of the world (the first figures are found in Indonesia and Europe). Where are the mushrooms in earlier cave art, closer to the advent of abstract thought?
Micheal Pollan, an effective mainstreamer of psychedelic mushrooms, distances himself from the theory. In How to Change Your Mind, he calls it the "the epitome of all mycocentric speculation”. (Recommended: Joe Rogan debating him on this.) My theory is far more radical, and subject to falsification. It’s also much less convenient. I am in no way connected to Big Serpent. I’m not asking you to take the heroic dose of apples and venom. (Though if you do please reach out, I have questions.)
It’s important to calibrate how seriously to take the Snake Cult of Consciousness. I am having fun. But I also think it could be true. Most people ask how far back we can push human origins. Genesis gave me the idea that snake venom could have precipitated self-awareness, a mechanism so crazy it might just work. This caused me to invert the standard framing. If fragments of our beginnings have survived in myths, then these events must be fairly recent. What is the closest date where the human condition could have emerged? It turns out there are a host of human universals (including snakes!) that are hard to explain without diffusion, and evidence for recursive thinking is quite recent—well within the territory that myths could survive. In summary:
There was a time when we were not self-aware, but were still social beings capable of speech (though perhaps it was non-recursive)
The discovery of self was the invention of introspection. The mind maintains a map of the body, this was then extended to the ego. Before we had subconsciously navigated the demands of society. After, we came to identify with our ego, “I”.
This realization was the object of an early ritual which used snake venom as a psychedelic. By around 15,000 years ago this was packaged well enough (including the anti-venom) to spread globally.
This goes a long way in explaining:
The Sapient Paradox: "why there was such a long gap between emergence of genetically and anatomically modern humans and the development of complex behaviors?". How did we become cognitively modern after the Out of Africa event? If modern psychology was dormant, what brought it out?
Why temples precede agriculture
I think the strongest case for this can be made with comparative mythology and linguistics. There are a lot of universal beliefs that I don’t think can be explained by psychic unity. Stuff like the Sirius star being associated with dogs from Mexico to China to Australia. It’s strange, right? Is there something canine about that point in space?
Still, the comparative approach is swimming upstream when used to make claims more than a few millenia back. Plenty say “oh we just can’t know” even if it’s pretty clear that the Sirius-dog connection is either chance, psychic unity, or diffusion. Hard, though not impossible, to be the first two. Add up enough of those and you get a case for diffusion.
I have more to say about the nature of the ritual, so far it’s just a chemical and a couple stories. The other accounts are far more gruesome, even if Herakles has his moments. I also want to write about agriculture, psychological sex differences, snake mythology, and the invention of pronouns. Until then, I am interested in feedback, so leave a comment.
And those that push the date back to 150,000 kya really softpedal the human condition.
A case report of a patient with visual hallucinations following snakebite, 2018, Mehrpour, et al
Visual Hallucinations After a Russell's Viper Bite, 2021, Subramanian Senthilkumaran et al
Ruck, Carl; Danny Staples (1994). The World of Classical Myth. Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press. p. 169.
Well, there are many definitions, often contradictory. For our purposes we only need one that emphasizes newness and the mind-body divide. A more thorough definition can be found in The Evolution of the Human Self: Tracing the Natural History of Self-Awareness.
One clue that animals are not aware of their minds is that we use language to introspect our own. If animals don’t have language, perhaps they do not have our introspective powers.
This also aligns with the artistic record. If art is the record of the minds that are on our mind, we were only started thinking of human figures when we started making Venus Statues.
For now, I also asked chatGPT who took a rather stern tone and told me to be more scientific. There may be much lower variance in the information we are given in the future.
It is, however, about agency and self-identity. How does Odysseus escape Polyphemus? By giving his name as nobody.