Exploring the Ancient Cities - and Minds - of South America

Pyramids of Caral. Image by Michael TurtlePhoto credit: Michael Turtle

When it comes to ancient pyramids, the massive structures erected by the Egyptians on the Giza Plateau receive much of the focus. But on the other side of the world, at Caral in Peru, lies another pyramid complex of similar antiquity, constructed by the Norte Chico people ca. 2600-2000 BCE. The fact that people on both sides of the planet happened to build pyramids at the same time in history is, we are told, a coincidence...your mileage may vary!

One of the reasons for the lack of knowledge about Caral may be the difficulty travelers encounter in reaching this remote location - despite the intriguing ruins being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Thankfully, Australian travel writer Michael Turtle undertook the journey, and has blogged about his visit to Caral, and included some fantastic photos that he took while there, such as the one at the top of this post. Click through on the link above to see a bunch more.

While in South America, Michael also visited the temple complex of Chavin de Huantar (also in Peru), which dates back to around 1000BCE. In his blog he mentions the fascinating link that the temple seems to have with shamanic plant use, including the mescaline-containing cactus San Pedro and the DMT-containing seeds of the 'Yopo' tree, Anadenanthera peregrina. For more on this topic, see Mike Jay's article "Enter the Jaguar", available in full as a sample article (PDF) on the website of our anthology series, Darklore, from which the excerpt below is taken:

Chavín’s architecture...can be understood as a visionary technology, designed to externalize and intensify these intoxications and to focus them into a particular inner journey. This in turn offers an explanation for why so many might have made such long and arduous pilgrimages to its ceremonies. It wasn’t necessary to visit Chavín simply to obtain San Pedro or Anadenanthera. Both grow wild in abundance in the Andes; there could hardly have been, as in some cultures ancient and modern, a priestly monopoly on their use. Those who came to Chavín weren’t coerced into doing so; it drew participants from a wide area over which it exercised no political or military control. The Chavín ceremony, rather, would have offered a ritual on a spectacular scale, where the effects of the plants could be experienced en masse within an architecture designed to enhance and direct them.

Within this environment, participants could congregate to enter a shared otherworld, and also submit themselves to a highly charged individual vision quest. The sunken plaza might, as the reliefs suggest,
have harnessed the heightened consciousness of San Pedro to a mass ritual of dancing and chanting; the participants might subsequently have ascended the temple steps individually to receive a further sacrament of powdered Anadenanthera seeds administered to them by the priests via bone snuffing tubes. As this was taking hold, they would be led into the chambers within the pyramid where they could experience their DMT-enhanced visions in solitary darkness. Here, the amplified rushing of water and the growls and roars of the unseen participants around them would enclose them in a supernatural world, one where ordinary consciousness could be abandoned, the body itself metamorphosed and the world seen from an enhanced, superhuman perspective – analogous, perhaps, to the uncanny night vision of the feline predator. The development of the subterranean chambers over centuries would reflect the logistical demands of ever greater numbers of participants willing to enter the jaguar portal and submit themselves to a life-changing ordeal that offered a glimpse of the eternal world beyond the human.

If we want an analogy for its function drawn from Western culture, it might be the Eleusinian Mysteries, originating as they did in subterranean chambers near Athens a little later than Chavín, around 700BC. Like Chavín, Eleusis persisted for nearly a thousand years, under different empires, in its case Greek and Roman; like Chavín – and like the Hajj at Mecca today – it was a pilgrimage site which drew its participants from a diverse network of cultures spanning virtually the known world

Visit Michael Turtle's blog for more fascinating articles exploring the ancient sites of the world.

Chavin de Huantar.  Image by Michael TurtlePhoto credit: Michael Turtle


News Briefs 22-07-2014

Congrats to Daily Grail contributing editor Cat Vincent on writing the cover feature for this month's Fortean Times!

Quote of the Day:

You gotta be continually revising your map of the world.

Robert Anton Wilson

From the Mouths of Mediums - New Book Talks to Those Who Claim to Talk With the Dead

The Deceased in the Afterlife Realm

The topic of 'spirit' mediumship has been so successfully marginalized by modern skeptics that, for many, the image conjured up by the word 'medium' is now a caricature of a gypsy-robed street hustler. The phenomenon of mediumship, however - regardless of your opinion on whether the results are 'real' or not - is a lot more nuanced and fascinating than that, and those that claim to have this ability are also very much human beings, rather than cartoon villains.

Daily Grail Publishing released a book earlier this year that discussed the intricacies of mediumship across cultures all over globe (Talking With the Spirits, edited by Jack Hunter and David Luke), and now a new ebook released by Dr. Julie Beischel also aims to help the public in better understanding mediumship. Julie (who blogs occasionally here on the Daily Grail) is the co-founder and Director of Research at the Windbridge Institute for
Applied Research in Human Potential, which actively researches the phenomenon of mediumship.

As a part of her role, Julie assembled a group of mediums (via a process of testing and certification) to utilise in experiments, and after many years working with them had the fantastic idea to release a series of short ebooks that discuss mediumship from their point of view. In Volume 1 of From the Mouths of Mediums ($3.99 on Amazon's Kindle store), 13 mediums share their person stories, talking about how they experience communication from the deceased, what suggestions they have for people interested in experiencing communication on their own, and why it might be that someone has not heard from their loved one.

As an example, here are a couple of the mediums discussing their sensory experience of mediumship:

Ankhasha: “Sometimes I see things in a movie format, an entire scene runs in front of me, other times I see only a flash, like a subliminal advertisement: They come through visually quickly and clearly; like a flash, but very clear, over in an instant. When that happens, it is very choppy, hard to get a hold of the entire picture.From the Mouth of Mediums Sometimes I see them in kind of a fast blur, hear them loudly, but don’t really feel any emotion from them unless I spend time with them. It has been my experience that the ones who are able to stay around for longer times during the reading make their presence known by almost a building of energy, as if they are coming closer and closer as they communicate with me, until I can hardly hear anything, the sound is so high-pitched and loud and there is a buzzing, humming glow that becomes hard to look at. It almost feels like I am being lifted, levitating while I am communicating with them. I know that may sound wacky, but that is what happens to me. And to be honest, it feels really good!”

Traci: “Information comes to me via the gamut of senses: hearing (it may be a name, a particular ‘saying’ or accent, an animal, a cry, a speech idiosyncrasy, the wind, a crash); seeing (can be a symbol, a still as in a photograph, or a moving scene like watching a vehicle accident occur; also communication comes with words via a marquee, or in reading a page placed in front of my mind’s eye; the typeset can be significant, or the design of a letter: Victorian versus a technical-type of font can be indicative of a number of things); smelling (may indicate anything from a favorite or detested food; a perfume; or, if a flower such as a rose, either the name Rose/Roseanne/Rosalee, etc., or the discarnate loved or grew roses, for example); touching/feeling/being touched (too at times I experience shivering on top my head or down my neck or shoulders or back; this is an indication to me that the discarnate is letting me know I am on target); tasting; and ‘just a sense.’ It is important that I pay attention to first-thought as in: what comes to me powerfully, initially, and to not bypass it. Generally in readings, all of the above mentioned ‘senses’ come into play within each session. I also experience sympathetic pain particularly in regard to cause of death. Examples of this include an explosion of pain in my head indicates a gunshot to the head, whereas a sudden slap of movement with pain to the head may indicate a vehicle accident with head injury. In contrast, a sudden dart of pain may indicate an aneurism, or a throbbing pain or localized pain in head may indicate migraine, cancer, or tumor.”

From the Mouths of Mediums offers a fascinating insight into the processes and experiences of spirit mediums. Far from the shadowy figures demonized by outspoken skeptics, the Windbridge Institute-approved mediums interviewed for this book are shown to be caring, feeling human beings with as much curiosity about what they do as the scientists that are currently studying them. Recommended reading for anyone interested in the phenomenon of mediumship.

The ebook is available exclusively as a Kindle e-book rather than print in order to keep the price low - anybody can download and read Kindle books instantly on any computer, tablet or smartphone via Amazon's Kindle app. Heck, why not grab From the Mouths of Mediums and my own book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife (which features a section on Julie's research) for less than $10 combined?!

(Full disclosure: I received a complimentary advanced reading copy of the ebook)

Amazon Kindle eBook Link: From the Mouths of Mediums


News Briefs 21-07-2014

Hell is empty and all the devils are here

Thanks to Kat and Cat for links

Quote of the Day:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.


Shots of Awe: Biology and Self-Organization

In this latest 'Shot of Awe' video, Jason Silva wonders whether humans are at a point in history where evolution has become a secondary process, and the time has arrived when *we* will have to decide what we want to become.

More Jason Silva monologues:

What's the Frequency, SyFy? 12 Monkeys TV Trailer

If you're regular member of this eclectic salon we call The Grail, chances are you're also a big fan of Terry Gilliam. For me it's difficult to pick my favorite Gilliam film, but 12 Monkeys is definitely among the top 3.

Which is why I have mixed feelings about this recently released trailer for the upcoming serialized version of 12 Monkeys, premiering on SyFy next fall:

It's not so much that I'm ranting about the shameless recycling of yesteryear classics --after all, Battlestar Galactica was a masterful adaptation-- but nowhere in the trailer is the delightfully quirky humor that is such a big part of Gilliam's style; from the looks of it, SyFy is aiming straight for the dark, dystopic side of the story in a very serious way --maybe too serious. C'mon, SyFy! If the whole world's going to hell due to the outbreak of an engineered virus, why not have a few laughs while we're at it?

Or maybe all that was needed to get me on board was... this.

Consecration of the Host - You Are Legion, For You Are Many

The Numbskulls by Jamie Smart


Back in March Science Writer and blogger Ed Yong gave a TED talk on the subject of parasites and the fascinating ways in which they can sometimes "subvert and override the wills of their hosts" (a full video of the talk posted here on DG). In his talk Yong spoke about how rodents infected with the brain parasite toxoplasma gondii effectively become “cat-seeking missiles”; seeking out felines and getting themselves eaten just so that toxo can then develop and reproduce inside the cat. As much as one third of the global human population may be infected with toxo. Although mild flu-like symptoms occasionally occur during the first few weeks following exposure, toxo generally produces no symptoms in healthy human adults (toxoplasmosis can be fatal to infants and those with weakened immune systems, however). Opinions are currently divided among researchers as to what, if any, influence toxo has on the behaviour of infected humans (although links to schizophrenia are amongst the effects which have been hypothesised [1]). But, says, Yong in his TED talk, even if it isn’t from toxo,Given the widespread nature of such manipulations [of hosts by parasites], it would be completely implausible if humans were the only creature not under the same thrall.”

While the idea of mind control via a parasite may seem like science fiction, there is an example we're all already familiar with: rabies. The rabies virus induces aggressive, violent behaviour in the infected, increasing the chances of the host biting other animals. The rabies virus is transmitted via the saliva of the infected into a new host. It's a somewhat crude (and oversimplified) example but its one that is pretty much universally accepted and understood.

Not all parasites make themselves so conspicuous however, in fact it may come as a surprise to you that there may be as many as ten times more bacterial cells in your body than there are human cells [2]. 90 trillion or so microbes are your constant passengers; you are a walking ecosystem [3]. The human microbiome (to give it its proper scientific name) is the aggregate of micro-organisms that reside on and inside us; from between our toes, to the tips of our eyelashes, to our gastrointestinal tracts. Some of these organisms perform tasks which are known to be beneficial to us, the host, but the majority have thus far been too poorly researched for us to understand what, if any, role they play in shaping our lives [4]. That however is changing, especially when it comes to the gut–brain axis.

The gut–brain axis refers to the biochemical signalling taking place between the gastrointestinal tract and the nervous system, involving intestinal microbiota (gut bacteria) which have been shown to play an important role in brain function. Changes in gut bacteria are now being investigated as possible contributors to, or triggers for the worsening of, autism [5]. A 2013 study carried out by the University of California found that subjects who regularly ingested beneficial "probiotic" bacteria showed altered brain function [6]. Earlier this year researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Arizona, Tucson published that they had found that people living in cold, northern latitudes have bacteria in their guts that may predispose them to obesity [7]. How we process information, how we interact with others and the world around us, even our outward appearance, may all be controlled to some degree by our microbiome. Gut bacteria has even been proven to alter sexual preference (although only in fruit flies thus far) [8]. How much of what we think of as "us", might actually be "them"?

Servants of the Pierced Hearts stand by as people venerate the relic of Pope Joh

At the beginning of July 2014 a paper entitled Midichlorians - the biomeme hypothesis: is there a microbial component to religious rituals? was posted on the open access, peer-reviewed online journal Biology Direct (full text here). The paper puts forward the following hypothesis:

Some microorganisms would gain an evolutionary advantage by encouraging human hosts to perform certain rituals that facilitate microbial transmission. We hypothesize that certain aspects of religious behaviour observed in human society could be influenced by microbial host control and that the transmission of some religious rituals could be regarded as a simultaneous transmission of both ideas (memes) and organisms. We call this a “biomeme” hypothesis

Practices such as the touching and kissing of holy relics, drinking from or bathing in sacred waters, and ritual flagellation or piercing of the body are postulated as a possible means of transmission of specific parasites. The practice of fasting, "known to reduce total gut bacteria and affect the gut microbiome composition", could have a part to play in a parasite's life cycle, or else its effect upon the host. The veneration, or eschewing, of certain domestic animals could be a means of controlling which parasites the host is exposed to. Even celibacy in holy men and women could be linked to parasitic passengers; "it has been noted that many parasites eliminate their hosts reproductive potential as they channel all available resources to maximize their own reproductive success."

The hypothesis is completely unproven. It is mere leap of logic or flight of fantasy, depending on your own perception. Responding to one of their learned reviewers (all of whom seem entertained by the hypothesis but highly sceptical), the paper's authors state "We also agree with Dr. Koonin that our hypothesis is outrageous and may be incorrect, however we believe that it’s still an interesting one and worth considering. [...] What makes our hypothesis perceived as more outrageous [than others] is that religion is indeed a taboo subject in human society."

This response seems to suggest that the idea of parasitic control being a factor in some acts of religious behaviour would be inherently anti-religious; that it would somehow undermine the previously perceived purpose of those acts. But, why should that be the case? If proven to be true, would it not demonstrate that ritualistic religious behaviour had a provable, physical root? If the feelings of community, of belonging, and so on that people get from religious participation were proven to be caused by parasites controlling their hosts (just as the tapeworm Flamingolepis liguloides turns brine shrimp from solitary into social creatures [9]) would that not make them all the more real? No longer mere traditions, superstitions, or "brainwashing" as some would have it, these acts would have a concrete demonstrable cause and purpose. Some would argue it could be the death of religion, others would call it proof of a creator.

John Reinhard Weguelin – The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat (1886)

If we, the host, could in fact be the product of our passengers - those whose cells outnumber our own by ten to one - in so many ways, who is to say which of the behaviours and effects caused by "them" are the real "us"? If ritualistic religious behaviour could be eradicated, say via antibiotics just as an example, then what else would we choose to change? What if non-religious ritualistic behaviour was proven to have a similar root? Would we choose to eradicate peoples' desire to attend football matches? Muddy music festivals? Do we pick and choose which are positive and negative traits? Intelligence, body type, mental health... Do we legislate? Do we immunise? What does a homosapien look and like at the end of all that? What are we without our 90 trillion strong microbiome? Is it still what you and I think of today as human?

I fully acknowledge that is all ridiculous and outlandish speculation on my part, of course; a writer's imagination going into overdrive, but that's because parasitic control is an incredibly inspiring topic. Indeed, in his TED talk, Ed Yong said "I'm a writer and fellow writers in the audience will know that we love stories. Parasites allow us to resist the allure of obvious stories; their world is one of plot twists and unexpected explanations."

Midichlorians - the biomeme hypothesis... is itself, in effect, a work of speculative fiction; building upon existing research and ideas with a series of "what if"s. One of my favourite passages in the paper reads as follows:

It seems that something like Toxoplasma gondii would be a good preliminary candidate for the role of our hypothetical microbe that promotes religious behavior as it is prevalent and widespread (as religious practices are) and its infection is associated with some behavioral traits and it is capable of latently residing in the human brain. Coincidentally, the sacred status of cats, definitive hosts of Toxoplasma gondii was part of the ancient Egyptian religious tradition for centuries. To our knowledge, no research on the association between toxoplasmosis or similar infections and religiosity has been performed, thus such an association could have been overlooked

The entire great civilisation of Ancient Egypt motivated by cat parasites. That couldn't be true, surely? You just keep telling yourself that when you're checking your Twitter/Facebook/Instagram today and seeing images of cat after cat after cat.

Putting this piece together I was curious as to whether Ed Yong would have read (or even heard about) Midichlorians - the biomeme hypothesis... so I dropped him an email asking if he'd like to comment upon the hypothesis. He very kindly sent me this response:

It is clear that parasites and microbes can manipulate animal behaviour but it is very hard to confirm such manipulations, even in species that can be experimented upon. Hypotheses like this will remain cute just-so stories until they can actually be verified

[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3515034/

[2] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/strange-but-true-humans-carry-more-bacterial-cells-than-human-ones/

[3] http://discovermagazine.com/2007/jun/your-body-is-a-planet

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_microbiome

[5] http://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/treatment/treatment-associated-medical-conditions/gi-disorders

[6] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130528180900.htm

[7] http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2014/02/14/geographic-variation-of-human-...

[8] http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/11/01/gut-bacteria-change-the-sexual-preferences-of-fruit-flies/

[9] http://dailyparasite.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/flamingolepis-liguloides.html

News Briefs 18-07-2014

“What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning."

Quote of the Day:

“Quantum theory provides us with a striking illustration of the fact that we can fully understand a connection though we can only speak of it in images and parables.”

W. Heisenberg

Magic Mushrooms were the Inspiration for Frank Herbert's Science Fiction Epic 'Dune'

Blue Eyes of Spice Addiction

One of the central plot devices in Frank Herbert's 1965 science-fiction epic Dune is melange - colloquially known as 'spice' - a naturally-occurring drug found only on the planet Arrakis which has numerous positive effects, including heightened awareness, life extension, and prescience. These effects make it the most important commodity in the cosmos, especially as the prescience allows for faster-than-light interstellar starship navigation (and thus trade) by the 'Guild Navigators'. The spice also has other more, deleterious effects, which begin with its addictive properties, a symptom of which is the tinting of the whites and pupils of the eye to a dark shade of blue.

This central theme of Dune has often prompted assocations with psychedelic culture - the mystical-surrealist avant-garde film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky, who once attempted to make a film based on Dune, said that he "wanted to make a film that would give the people who took LSD at that time the hallucinations that you get with that drug, but without hallucinating". The popular nickname for the strong hallucinogen dimethyl-tryptamine (DMT) - 'spice' - may also have taken some inspiration from the novel.

But it seems the origin of the spice theme actually does have a direct link to the psychedelic experience: in his book Mycelium Running, legendary mycologist Paul Stamets notes that not only was Frank Herbert a talented and innovative mushroom enthusiast, but that the sci-fi author confessed to him that Dune took its inspiration from Herbert's experiences with magic mushrooms:

Frank Herbert, the well-known author of the Dune books, told me his technique for using spores. When I met him in the early 1980s, Frank enjoyed collecting mushrooms on his property near Port Townsend, Washington. An avid mushroom collector, he felt that throwing his less-than-perfcct wild chanterelles into the garbage or compost didn't make sense. Instead, he would put a few weathered chanterelles in a 5-gallon bucket of water, add some salt, and then, after 1 or 2 clavs, pour this spore-mass slurry on the ground at the base of newly planted firs. When he told me chanterelles were glowing from trees not even 10 years old, I couldn't believe it. No one had previously reported chanterelles arising near such young trees, nor had anyone reported them growing as a result of using this method." Of course, it did work for frank, who was simply following nature's lead.

Frank's discovery has now been confirmed in the mushroom industry. It is now known that it's possible to grow many mushrooms using spore slurries from elder mushrooms. Many variables come into play, but in a sense this method is just a variation of what happens when it rains. Water dilutes spores from mushrooms and carries them to new environments. Our responsibility is to make that path easier. Such is the way of nature.

Frank went on to tell me that much of the premise of Dune — the magic spice (spores) that allowed the bending of space (tripping), the giant worms (maggots digesting mushrooms), the eyes of the Freman (the cerulean blue of Psilocybe mushrooms), the mysticism of the female spiritual warriors, the Bene Gesserits (influenced by tales of Maria Sabina and the sacred mushroom cults of Mexico) — came from his perception of the fungal life cycle, and his imagination was stimulated through his experiences with the use of magic mushrooms.

It seems Frank Herbert did indeed 'let the spice flow'!

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