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Shaman in the Sky

The Evolutionary Message of the Solar Apex

All in all there are 88 constellations in the celestial sphere. Of these, thirteen lie on the apparent path of the sun through the heavens, which is actually the orbital track of the earth as it moves around the sun. This group is the Zodiac, the great "band of animations" connected with mythological themes and motifs of universal renown. The immense star-patterns of the Zodiac are also known as the ecliptic constellations, ecliptic being another name for the earth's orbital track—so called because it defines the narrow zone where eclipses occur. The earth, moon, and the other planets of the solar system all circulate within the zone of the Zodiac.

The remaining 75 constellations of the visible sky are called extra-ecliptic. These star patterns fall into several categories, but they are most easily remembered by grouping them into northern and southern groups defined respective to the ecliptic band, the Zodiac. Orion, for instance, is an extra-ecliptic constellation south of the ecliptic. Auriga, the charioteer, is an extra-ecliptic constellation north of the ecliptic, and so on. The constellations closest to the terrestrial pole are called circumpolar due to the way they rotate continually around the pole. They are visible throughout the entire year, by contrast to other constellations that rise and set seasonally.

The north circumpolar constellations are Cepheus the Polar King, Cassiopeia the Milky Way Queen, Camelopardalis, Lynx, the Big Dipper (Great Bear), Leo Minor, Canes Venataci the Hunting Dogs, Draco the Dragon, the Little Dipper (Little Bear), Lacerta the Lizard, Cygnus the Swan, Lyra the Lyre, Hercules, Auriga the Charioteer, Perseus, and Andromeda. These figures are partially or wholly visible at 45 degrees latitude and above.

Hercules (or Herakles, "the pride of Hera," to apply the Greek name) is a "solar hero" whose lore is well-known in Greco-Latin mythology. Curiously, Hercules is the one circumpolar figure closely associated with the Zodiac, because he is said to have performed twelve labors often associated with twelve of the ecliptic constellations. In other words, the story of Hercules unfolds in the Zodiac, though the figure of Hercules stands well above it.

The visual signature or "composite" of Hercules consists of a central rhomboid called the "keystone," with four splayed L-shaped armatures coming off its four corners. The brightest star, alpha, is at the bottom of the composite as viewed at a rather steep angle, looking north and up. You have to crane you neck rather awkwardly to observe Hercules. (Composite from Skywatching by David Levy)

Hercules is one of about a dozen constellations that encode astrophysical directions. These are points of orientation in the Zodiac and in cosmic structure out to the galactic scale. The north star, Polaris, is located in the Little Dipper. Hence, the constellation of the Little Dipper encodes an astrophysical direction: the cosmic extension of the north terrestrial pole. Hercules uniquely encodes the direction of the Solar Apex. The illustration above indicates this astrophysical feature by an oval with a curving line extending from it. The star lambda marks the oval, and the string of stars delta-lambda-mu-chi-omicrom mark the curving line. The curve points to Vega, a large bright circumpolar star in the Lyre.

What is the Solar Apex? It is the direction in which the sun moves by proper motion. All stars in the galaxies and in extragalactic regions move in a complex dance consisting of two kinds of movement. Our sun is a star that moves on the current of the galactic limb where it is located, and it moves by its own power, called proper motion. It may be compared to a power-boat moving on the current of a strong river. Where the river curves, the boat tends to be pulled around by the current. This is how the sun moves in the current of the galactic limb, the Orion limb of our galaxy, an immense stream of stars that curves around and finally flows into the galactic core. But the sun is like a power-boat that also propels itself in a straight line, taking its own course independent of the strong current on which it rides. The direction taken by the sun in its proper motion is called the Solar Apex. It lies in the constellation of Hercules, near lambda. The actual motion has to be imagined stereometrically, in depth: the sun propels itself in the direction of lambda Herculis, on its way toward Vega. It never reaches Vega, but it is, as it were, telemetrically guided in that direction.

In the catalogue of astrophysical directions, the placement of the Solar Apex in Hercules is especially notable, because the imagery of the constellation carries a unique message about the direction of human evolution.

Polar Connections

With the Solar Apex located in Hercules, this constellation can claim a major role in cosmic orientation, but there are also some other striking cosmic connections to be noted with the Sun Hero.

Just above the stars of Hercules is the head of the massive coiling form of Draco, the Celestial Dragon. The head-stars of Draco (another rhomboid) looms just above iota, one of the two northernmost stars in Hercules. Draco is the location of the north celestial pole, NCP, as distinguished from the north terrestrial pole, NTP. The NTP, the extension of the earth's polar axis into the heavens, currently points to Polaris in the Little Bear; hence Polaris is called the North Star, but this is not always so. Over thousands of years the earth wobbles on its axis like a top slowing down, so that the north pole inscribes a huge circle in the heavens. The center of that circle is the north celestial pole in Draco. The NCP, defined by the extension into the heavens of a north-south spindle through the sun, is called the pole of the ecliptic. It remains ever fixed while the NTP rotates around it. (No particular or prominent star marks the NTP.) The time involved for one full rotation, 25,920 years, is called the great polar cycle. In terms of the ecliptic, this period is called the precession of the equinoxes. In other words, the shift of the equinoxes in the Zodiac is a peripheral effect of the polar-axial shift.

Hercules is so far north that for a period of the great polar cycle, the north pole shifts into its composite stars. The pole slides beneath iota and skirts M92, a globular cluster of 26,000 stars in tight formation. Thus, Hercules is intimately involved with the great polar cycle, so close to the NTP that it can be used to define the timing of the pole's transit. The deepest shift of the NTP into Hercules, in the current cycle, was around 9200 BCE. That epoch was the highpoint of Age of Hercules defined by the polar parameters of cosmic timing.

See the detailed illustration of the great polar cycle or Draco Cycle.

Siamese Shamans

Hercules' involvement with the great polar cycle emphasizes a cosmic orientation to events that transpire far beyond the local realm of the Zodiac where the earth and planets circulate. And yet, as already noted, Hercules is closely associated with the Zodiac as well. He is the hero who performs the "herculean" feats or labors correlated to the ecliptic constellations, and that is not his only link to the Zodiac, either. Hercules is clearly a shamanic figure, a Paleolithic strong-man stereotypically pictured wielding a club. This is a strong masculine image, but not a patriarchal archetype. Hercules is the type of male hero known for his mastery of excessive power, violence, and rage, but he masters these forces in the service of the Goddess, not to defeat or defy her. Hence he is called "the pride of Hera," the maternal goddess and icon of matriarchy seen in Casseiopia, the voluptuous queen who bathes in the Milky Way.

We may wonder, Is Hercules the only shamanic image among the constellations? The answer is no, and we do not have to look far to find another one.

In fact, the head-star of Hercules situated at the bottom (extreme south) of the composite is also the head-star of another shamanic figure, Ophiuchus, the Snaketamer. To visualize this relation, we have to take into account that Hercules is pictured head-down, legs sprawled above, toward Draco and the ecliptic pole. The detail from the 1515 woodcut of Albrecht Durer shows the two shamans, head to head. The figures are inverted against the composites, for Durer has based the woodcuts on a celestial globe that pictures the constellations as if viewed from outside the globe—a god's-eye view. Nevertheless, the relationship of the two shamans is clear. They are locked head to head like Siamese twins. (Click on the image for an enlargement with commentary.)

Now consider this: there are traditionally twelve labors of Hercules, but there are thirteen distinct composites in the Zodiac. How do we account for the one less labor? Clearly, the Snaketamer is the double of Hercules. As such, this Zodiacal constellation does not correspond to a labor but to the one who performs the labors. Ophiuchus is the shamanic double of Hercules inserted into the Zodiacal band. This is most significant, because the Zodiac is the band where the earth, moon, and planets circulate. It is the bounded region where life as we know it unfolds, but Hercules occupies another celestial zone, connected perhaps with the life of the mother star, the sun itself. The celestial, circumpolar figure of Hercules is somehow internalized in his counterpart, the Snaketamer.

Can the powers of the shaman that are turned outwards toward the vast cosmos beyond the earth (Hercules) be turned inwards toward the human body and the deepest secrets of our genetic makeup (Ophiuchus)?

According to ancient and indigenous traditions, this is so. Shamans were always astronomers and diviners, capable of reading the signs in the skies and detecting astrophysical directions. At the same time, they were healers who could look deeply into the secrets of nature, even to the extent of perceiving the molecular structure of matter. In The Cosmic Serpent, Jeremy Narby describes the capacity of ayahuasca shamans to observe the molecular structure of matter. In my book Twins and the Double, I suggested that animistic and totemic traditions around the world sprang from shamanic knowledge of the DNA code and genetic continuity. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali list eight siddhis or occult faculties possessed by accomplished yogis (siddhas), including anima, "enabling the perception of the infinitely small, the structure of atoms," and mahima, "enabling one to see the exterior, the structuring of galaxies" (Alain Danielou, When the Gods Play, p. 95). And there is much more evidence along these lines.

Plant Wisdom

The traditional image of Hercules, shaman in the sky, shows him engaged in one of the twelve labors: winning the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. In the starry composite he clutches this magical plant at the locale of the Solar Apex:

This hand-colored image from Burritt's atlas shows Hercules spun head to feet to facilitate the visualization. The imaginative message of the sidereal myth could not be more clear: a magical plant marks the direction to the Solar Apex. Whatever the Apex may denote in astronomical terms, in human terms it must be linked to our connection with the plant kingdom—specifically, the special world of psychoactive plants used in shamanism. I would even say that in this instance the astrophysical direction signals our dependence on plant wisdom to show us the way ahead in evolutionary terms.

What kind of plant is disguised in the mythologem of the Golden Apples? In recent years, many tons of ink have been spilled exploring this question. Most writers on entheogenic practices identify the Apples of the Hesperides with a mushroom of some kind, most often amanita muscaria, fly-agaric, wrongly said to be poisonous. In The Apples of Apollo, Cark Ruck, Blaise Daniel Staples, and Clark Heinrich develop a syncretistic thesis:

The Golden Fleece of the ram named "Golden Apple," guarded as it was by the dangerous serpent, and all—the fleece, the apples, the serpents—represent the fly-agaric mushroom.

The authors explain that "carefully dried fly-agaric caps turn a metallic golden-orange color" (p. 118). Also, in a certain state of fruiting, the fly-agaric forms veil fragments that have a wooly or fleecy look. "The fly-agaric is a mycorrhizal fungus; that is, its mycelium will only grow in association with the rootlets of certain trees." Hence the Golden Apples (dried mushroom caps) are found in special gardens guarded by white-toothed serpents.

There are other candidates for the magical plant of Hercules, however. My first choice would be Datura stramonium and its related species D. inoxxia and D. metel, commonly known as "thorn apple." This is one of the most potent and notorious psychoactive plants known to our species. In the West it is known as Devil's weed or toloache and reputed for its capacity to assist divination, shapeshifting, and other acts of sorcery. (An early and accurate European illustration of the thorn apple, with spiny fruits and blossom. From a German herbal, 1731. Christian Ratsch, The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants, p. 209)

D. stramonium and its closely related species are loaded with tropane alkaloids, conducive to absorption in the form of unguents and oils. One of these alkaloids, scopolomine, may be particularly efficacious in producing the state shamanic transport, or out of the body projection. (A preparation of scopolimine is widely used today for motion sickness.) The shaman who ingests D. stramonium will be capable of telekinetic transport to other worlds—bilocation, or projection of the double, as Castaneda called it. Bilocation fits the profile of Hercules, who stands beyond the earth realm (Zodiac). In fact, Hercules may be regarded as the transported double of Serpentarius. The joining head to head of these figures appears to have been no arbitrary convention.

In considering psychoactive plants, I have found it helpful to think in terms of an elemental trinity: plant - fungus - potion. By plant I mean a flowering shrub such as D. inoxxia. By fungus, I mean a range of psychoactive mushrooms from the fly-agaric to other species such as Stropharia cubensis (attributed by Terence McKenna with the capacity to give access to intergalactic spaces). Finally, the potion is a brew that can be made from plants or fungi. The kykeon at Eleusis was brewed from the fungus of ergot (Claviceps purpurea) and the common plant, pennyroyal. The point is, the brew is a human concoction. Plants and fungi can be eaten or smoked without being brewed in any way. There is a great diversity of effects to be experienced here, and the differences are quite precise. Different plants afford distinct kinds of knowledge.

I cannot go along with Ruck and colleagues on the conflation ("all—the fleece, the apples, the serpents") they propose. While such correlations may have some academic value, they do not advance or enhance our practical knowledge of entheogens. In my experience, fleece and apples and serpents manifest in quite different modalities of experimental mysticism. Take datura and go looking for apples or serpents or fleeces, and take S. cubensis and go looking for apples or serpents or fleeces, and you will encounter particular information that engages your attention in a most distinctive way. It is certainly not useful to confound the serpent that guards the plant with the plant itself. Cerberus (also pictured as a dog) is the three-headed reptilian guardian of the Underworld, not to be confused with the apples to be found there. What is this three-headed reptile? I would suggest that it is a three-lettered reptile, the DNA molecule composed of three-letter codons generated from the 64 combinations of four letters: A, G, C, T. You eat the apple to behold the serpent who guards it.

The determination of which psychoactive plants provide access to the DNA molecule, and just how they do it, is, to my mind, the central task of modern shamanism. I can only attest to the experience of such access with P. Cubensis and other tryptomine-loaded fungi, not datura in any species, and not amanita muscaria—simply because I haven't tried them. My best guess, however, is that D. stramonium can be prepared specifically for shamanic transport with the aim of venturing into cosmic realms. As for the fly-agaric, I am as perplexed about its psychoactive properties as everyone else.

African Roots

    Our African forefathers gave us this wisdom because they understood what we ourselves should never forget: that is the oneness of the human being, in which the animal and the deity coexist... Why this should be the case, ma'am, is a very deep mystery indeed.
    Zulu Shaman Credo Mutwa to Linda Tucker

Considered in imaginative terms, the Solar Apex encodes a message about the way our species must rely on sacred plant wisdom to see our way in the cosmic perspective. Frequent readers of this site will realize that this statement is one of the most important signals to come out of metahistory.org.

Experience with psychoactive plants can be described as a rite of interspecies communication. When you ingest a "magic mushroom," the species animating that fungus enters your body and communicates to you directly through its chemical presence in your nervous system, blood, and brain. You, in turn, communicate with the plant species via the net of neurotransmitting chemicals that support your everyday faculties of thought and language. In short, you telepathize with the ingested species through the same neurochemical instrumentation that allows you to be conscious in the physical world, to think, empathize, and express yourself. All participants who pay attention to their experience marvel at the fact that the ingested species communicates with us in language as we know it.

Even Gaia, the planetary intelligence, can talk to us in this way. Under particular conditions, and given the right preparation, the plant-teachers will afford the shaman a direct connection to her voice. It is a deep, sulky voice, reminiscent of the actress Kathleen Turner when she did the voiceover for Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? At least that is how She talks to some shamans.

So, Hercules pictures a plant-human connection, an instance of how interspecies communication guides humanity in ways we cannot manage to do if we remain isolated in our self-engendered conceptual frame, our all-too-human paradigm. But there is another clue here as well. Hercules is a lion shaman, as shown by the lion's skin he wears, complete with a lion-head cap. In some manner, the message in the mythological imagery of Solar Apex points to an animal-human connection as well. Our direction in evolution depends not only on the plant wisdom we accept—in humble recognition that we cannot, limited to our humanity alone, know what it means to be human—but also on the sense of kinship we have with other animals. Kinship with all species is essential, of course, but we might imagine that in some manner the lion-human connection is a key to all-species rapport.

How this could be so has been revealed recently in the discovery of the white lions of Timbavati, described by Linda Tucker. I have reviewed this book on site. What I would now add is that the white lion connection may afford the optimal approach to evolutionary rapport with all non-human species. In other words, the white lion connection may provide special knowledge about our evolutionary history, allowing us to reconnect with the animal kingdoms that are now rapidly going extinct. Tucker suggests, and I agree, that the miraculous epiphany of the white lions of South Africa has happened because we also are facing extinction, and the lions are here to teach us how to face it.

Linda Tucker with Aslan, a white lion of Timbavati

Zula shaman Credo Mutwa told Linda Tucker that "in the Great African Tradition, we do not separate the lion hero from the lion priest." I would suggest that in making this remark Credo Muwa drew upon the powers of shamanic recall that affords memory of prehistorical events in the evolution of the earth. The time when hero and priest were not separate was the Golden Age of the Lion, indicated in the Draco Cycle: 10,000 - 7500 BCE. The African shaman was pointing back to a time and a tradition that preceded patriarchy. Doing so, he implied that we can regain the understanding of that era to face the problems of today and tomorrow.

For the continuation of this theme, see the forthcoming essay, The Curse of Theocracy.

jll: 4 July 2006 Flanders

Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.