the serpents of life

Snake canoe, design by Torãmü Këhíri, Desana people, 2009.


Myths and cosmovisions of indigenous and afro-descendant peoples in Brazil

For the indigenous peoples of the Rio Negro, including the Desana, their ancestors were “fish people”, who came from the cosmos to populate the Earth, sailing in a canoe in the shape of a huge serpent. In the middle of the darkness, Yebá Buró, the Grandmother of the World, appeared by herself, supported by a white quartz bench. Chewing ipadu (coke) and smoking tobacco, she began to think about what the world should be like. While she was thinking, a sphere rose: it was the world, which she called the Maloca of the Universe.

Afterwards, Yebá Buró took some ipadu from his mouth and transformed them into men, they were the Thunders or the Men of White Quartz. Yebá Buró ordered them to create humanity, but they did nothing. The Grandmother of the World, then, decided to create another being that would follow her instructions and at the same moment, the God of the Earth emerged from the smoke of her tobacco cigarette. The Third Thunder and the Earth God teamed up to create the "fish people". The Third Thunder became the “serpent canoe” and brought the Earth God and the “fish-people” to populate the world, which did not yet exist. For many centuries, the “fish people” lived in the “snake canoe”, until a huge wall of ice appeared.

The Earth God gathered all his knowledge and, with his staff, broke the wall of ice. When the ice wall was broken, the sky, the seas, the oceans and the whole land appeared, and the “fish-people” landed and began to populate the whole world.[I] For the Kaxinawá, peoples who inhabit the state of Acre (Brazil) and Peru, the origin of life is the “boa boa woman”, who lives in the waters of the igarapé. Among the Shipibos, people of the Peruvian Amazon, the river, where life arose, is a great serpent called Ronin.

In African mythology,[ii] the concept of the “cosmic serpent” as the primeval force of creation is very important. For the Fon people of the kingdom of Dahomey (which existed between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, currently its territory is part of Benin, a country in western Africa), it was called Dan Ayido Hwedo. Mawu, the supreme mother goddess, rode the serpent Dan, in search of a place for humans. During the tour they created planet Earth in the shape of a gourd, surrounded by water on all sides. On Earth, all of nature was shaped by the rhythm of Dan, which, as it meandered, formed continents, valleys, rivers and mountains. With all of nature plus humanity, the Earth has become very heavy and could sink. Mawu asked Dan to enter the water and wrap himself around her, protecting her.

In Yoruba mythology (from Nigeria and Benin), which originated the Candomblé religion in Brazil, the serpent is the symbol of the orixá of continuous movement, Oxumarê, responsible for connecting heaven (sacred world) to earth (profane world). In Yoruba, Oxumarê means the rainbow snake and can be represented by two intertwined serpents or by a single one, which bites its own tail (ouroboros), symbolizing the eternal cycle of life-death-life. In addition to being wrapped around itself, Oxumarê is also wrapped around the Earth, protecting it. Without its power, the planet would roam free in space and that would be the end of it. In central and southern Africa the serpent is known as Chinaweji or Chinawezi; in the north of the continent it is called Minia, represented with its head in the sky and its tail in the waters, under the earth; among many peoples of the central savannah, Ncongolo is the king of the rainbow and lives like a serpent.

Oxumarê, panel carved in wood by Carybé, 1962.

Serpents, as generators of life and symbols of fertility, are present in the myths of a wide variety of peoples. It is a very old deity and spread practically all over the world. For the Quechua (indigenous peoples who inhabit the Andes Mountains in South America) life begins in the water, which is governed by the Yakumama serpent. The Dayaks, non-Muslim people of Borneo, believe that in the early days, everything was trapped in the mouth of an aquatic serpent. For the Balinese, in the beginning there was neither heaven nor earth. It was through meditation that the serpent of the world, Antahoga, created all creatures.

The myths of the Australian peoples attribute their origins to the great flood caused by a serpent, Yurlunggur, associated with the rainbow and quartz. Archaeological evidence suggests that the rise in sea levels that followed the last phase of the Ice Age had a major effect on societies in northern Australia. In the Fiji Islands, the serpent god Ratu-mai-mbula is worshiped, responsible for agriculture and the underworld, where he makes vital energy flow.

Coatlicue, the Aztec great mother, goddess of life and death, is represented as a huge serpent. From her were born, by parthenogenesis, the twins Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl, god of light who leads the dead to the underworld. Quetzalcoatl, whose name means "feathered serpent" or "precious twin", is the symbol of sacred life energy and is associated with fertility, death and resurrection. In Aztec, the word coatl it has a double meaning, being able to refer to the serpent or the twin. The feathered serpent is worshiped by many Mesoamerican indigenous groups, making it a strong religious and political symbol. In the most ancient myths of China, a serpent couple, Nü Gua and Fu Xi, appear as primordial creators. Nü Gua is depicted with the head of a woman and the body of a serpent. She came down from heaven to live on earth and formed humanity out of mud.

Serpents were also present in the pantheon of ancient peoples. The Sumerians called her Ningizzida, the lady of the tree of life, or even Namu. The Babylonians of Tiamat and the Persians of Shahmaran, the queen of serpents, with the head of a woman and the body of a serpent. In India they were called Anata, Vauski and Sesha, the serpent queen of the waters, recognized as the force that creates and involves life.

In ancient Egyptian mythology, Wadjet, snake goddess of Buto (a city near the Nile delta), was associated with protection; Aton, worshiped in the city of Heliopolis, was a creator deity who arose from primeval chaos in the form of a serpent; the goddess of the harvest was the serpent Renenutet; Ureaus was the serpent goddess that enveloped the Sun and Nehebkau was the primordial serpent that protects other spheres besides life. From Egypt, too, comes the oldest depiction of the ouroboros. The main god of Egypt, Horus, the sun god, was represented with an ouroboros above his head, as if it were a crown. Probably the first time the symbol appeared was in the tomb of Emperor Tutankhamun, dating from the XNUMXth century BC.

 Mythological serpents do not have a defined gender, they can be both female and male. While feminine, she is usually the mother goddess, associated with the creation of the world and all creatures. As male, the serpent appears as the companion of a mother goddess, as Dan was of Mawu. Female or male, she emerges as the creative force of all beginnings and presents herself as the possibility of the end, symbolizing the eternal cycle of life-death-life present in all of nature, becoming “a symbol of the origin of life and a mystery from beyond the grave” (Durand, 1997).

For Blaser (2013), myths, with their own criteria of veracity and reality, explain important aspects of a cosmovision, that is, the ways in which people think, feel and understand the world and beings, which influences their ways of acting. By believing that all beings, including humans themselves, emerged from the same vital principle, the people who worshiped the serpent as a vital creative force, had a cosmovision of deep respect for nature, creating an ethic of commitment to the preservation of life.

One of the best examples to understand how myths intervene in the formulation of worldviews and influence ways of acting is the work of Bachofen.[iii] From the analysis of several mythological narratives, which present a serpent mother goddess, Bachofen created a hypothesis (that after using the carbon-14 method[iv] and the inclusion of new refined and modern techniques and equipment (Tamanini, 2020) in archaeological research has been proven: that the first human societies had a legal system based on the mother (mother), with the predominance of motherhood (muttertum) and affectivity in public administration, based on the natural and blood right of the mother (mutterlich), unlike patriarchal civil law, based on rationality.

Mother-right did not belong to any particular people. Rather, it is a common cultural period, shared by various human groups, having the same organizational similarity and the same normative character as human nature. This organizational system, governed by the divine principle of life, harmony and peace, was based on the love that unites a mother with her children. From caring for the child, still in her womb, women learned before men, the importance of extending their loving care to another being, transforming love, empathy and care into essential ethical traits. Bachofen's analyzes led him to the conclusion that the maternal principle is that of life, unity, peace, freedom and universal equality; possessing a convinced and active concern for material well-being and happiness.

An ethic of care and preservation of life survives among the indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples who inhabit Brazil. They perceive nature sensitively, as a single body, a union of material and immaterial elements, all interconnected. Understanding the world and oneself is essentially organic, and the source of life is the patient work of Mother Earth. From this integrated existence with nature, they formulate myths and symbols that, in turn, constitute a real world of energy from natural forces. The four natural elements are connected and converge to the realization of all things, whose maximum symbol is the serpent: it belongs to the aquatic world, but it travels with ease on earth and manages to reach the highest branches of immense trees, facing all kingdoms of nature (that of water, earth and air), while his tongue moves like a flame of fire.

When myth precedes science

The dual serpent, which appears in various myths as a source of life, coincides with the double helix of DNA, the molecule of life present in all living beings. It was the anthropologist, Michael Harner (1980),[v] scholar of shamanism, one of the first to point out this visual similarity. Incidentally, the discovery of DNA corroborated the animistic belief of many peoples, who believe that all living beings are animated by the same vital principle. According to Campbell (2010, p. 154), “wherever nature is venerated as animated in itself, that is, inherently divine, the serpent is revered as its symbol”.

The image of two intertwined serpents, popularized by the caduceus of the Greek god Mercury (Hermes among the Romans), is actually a much older symbol. The oldest depiction of two intertwined serpents was found on an Akkadian seal dating from 2.350-2.150 BC. It depicts a human deity being honored by three devotees. Flanking the image, two pairs of intertwined serpents. For the archaeologist Henri Frankfort ([1951]1983), it represents the Lord Serpent, a recurrent deity among the Mesopotamians. Another image, equally ancient, was found on a vase belonging, most likely, to Gudea, the most notable prince of the city of Lagas in Sumer, having ruled between 2.144 and 2.124 BC. mythological figure with the head of an eagle and the body of a lion.

Ningizzida, Sumerian pitcher, 2.144 and 2.124 BC

The similarities between mythical narratives and molecular science are striking, revealing that there are many ways of knowing and that anthropocentric rationality is just one of them. As Leonardo Boff (2017) rightly stated, myths are metaphors that express deep human dimensions. They shed light on ancestral experiences, where they were formed and structured, but they are also updated, as they are confronted with new realities, forming syntheses.

DNA double helix

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) (Watson, [1968]2014)[vi] is formed by a double helix, which have a universal language of four chemical compounds, A, C, G and T. It is an organic compound with the genetic information that coordinates the development and functioning of all species, transmitting the characteristics hereditary from ancestors to their descendants, asserting a hidden unity of nature. “DNA and its replication mechanisms are the same for all living beings. From one species to another, only the order of the letters changes, in a constancy that goes back to the very origins of life on Earth”, explains Narby (2018, p. 82-3)[vii].

This protein double helix is ​​two meters long and is coiled around itself, resembling two intertwined serpents. This torsion is only possible because the DNA is in interaction with the salty water (with a mineral salt content that resembles that of the oceans) that exists inside each cell. An adult body is estimated to have more than 30 trillion cells, i.e. about 60 billion kilometers of DNA (Watson, [1968]2014). Enough footage for 5 round trips between the Sun and Pluto (last planet in the solar system), or even, with the DNA of just 20 thousand cells of the human body, it would be possible to go around the Earth.

DNA is a source of emission of magnetic waves. To measure them, a large number of researchers use quartz, as it is an excellent emitter and receiver. Not by chance, Yebá Buró, the Grandmother of the World in Desana mythology, was sitting on a quartz bench and created the Men of Quartz. There are seven types of magnetic wave (radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays and gamma rays), what determines their classification is the frequency and oscillation with which the waves are emitted, as well as the its length. Due to its frequency and oscillation, each type of wave emits a color. Altogether they form the seven colors of the rainbow, like the mythological serpents Oxumarê, Ncongolo and Yurlunggur.

DNA is also a hexagonal base crystal, even if the sides are slightly different from each other. The small particles of light, generated and emitted by each cell of a living being, and the hexagonal bases of DNA ensure communication between cells and possibly between cells of other living beings. Based on these findings, Narby (2018, p. 116) formulates the hypothesis that, as the vital principle is animated, there is the possibility of establishing communication between the set of living beings based on DNA and human consciousness: the biosphere " it is a more or less fully interconnected unit” and nature as a whole is able to communicate.

While living with the Desana people of the Colombian Amazon, anthropologist and archaeologist Reichel-Domatoff (1986) found some sketches that looked like the human brain. Several hexagons, like DNA, were drawn in the two cerebral hemispheres and in the center of them, a serpent occupies the fissure. In another sketch, a brain with two intertwined snakes was drawn: one matte and dark and the other brightly colored. For the Desana, the two serpents symbolize the male and female principles, representing a concept of binary opposition, a balance of opposites, very similar to that proposed by Taoism.

They “are imagined in the process of rotating rhythmically around themselves, in spirals” (Reichel-Domatoff, 1986, p. 87), coinciding, again, with DNA. Reichel-Domatoff (1986) also located the drawing of a cosmic anaconda, guided by a hexagonal crystal. The number 1 was placed inside the hexagon and the serpent's body is divided into five more parts, from numbers 2 to 6, that is, the Desana materialized their myth of the origin of the world and man in iconographies.

So many similarities cannot be mere coincidences. The discovery of DNA scientifically confirmed what ancient mythologies have been repeating for thousands of years: the vital principle in the form of two intertwined serpents is unique to all forms of life, and life originated in water. All human experience and wisdom is accumulated in DNA and can be accessed and reproduced in every impulse or desire realized by every human being, reconnecting him with his archaic nature and putting him in tune with all forms of life. As Ailton Krenak (2021, p. 26) rightly stated, “countless double serpents are inside each living being, immersed in the liquid environment of each cell. The water inside each cell has the same composition as seawater. Two luminescent serpents dance in a piece of sea water and travel from the beginning of time inside our bodies. Life is transformation. The future is ancestral”.

The defeat of the serpent: emergence of a destructive relationship with nature

With the rise of anthropocentric patriarchy (approximately 4.000 BC) and Jewish culture (approximately 2.000 BC), appropriated by Christianity, serpents became agents of chaos. Therefore, they should be subjugated, defeated and murdered, giving way to the celestial order, governed by great warriors and represented by male elements. Not infrequently, the defeat of serpents takes place with phallic objects, such as lightning, spears and swords. These ancient telluric deities needed to be replaced or subordinated to the spiritual gods, in a rupture with the mythological trajectory of the serpent of life.

Em Enuma Elish, one of the Babylonian creation myths, Tiamat, the great mother goddess of salt waters, who was often represented as a dragon or a serpent, was defeated by Marduk, made king of Babylon for his courage and bravery. In Egyptian mythology, the serpent Apep was killed with a spear by Seth, a god honored in several villages in the north of Upper Egypt. In India, Indra, the most illustrious warrior of the Vedic pantheon and ruler of all the gods, slew the serpent Vritra with a thunderbolt.

In Greek mythology, Zeus murdered the serpent Typhon, son of Gaia, the great mother Earth. And Apollo, son of Zeus and Leto, killed the serpent Python with several arrows. From then on, the oracle that had his name, became known as Delphi. According to Bachofen ([1861]2021), the myth of Apollo, which originated the Apollonian religion, widely practiced in Rome, is the best representative of anthropocentric patriarchy, which replaced an entire religiosity and social organization based on mother goddesses, associated to telluric energies and represented as serpents.

For the Germanic-speaking peoples who migrated north and populated Scandinavia, Norway, and Iceland, the gods, mostly men, were responsible for establishing order, law, wealth, art, and wisdom in the divine and human realms. . While serpents and dragons were considered gigantic ice monsters, posing a constant threat to order, and because they were always trying to restore chaos, they needed to be subdued. Myths of heroes who slew a great dragon or serpent are part of the entire northern tradition. The best example is the defeat of the World Serpent by the god of thunder, Thor; or again, the slayings of dragons by the heroic Beowulf and Sigurd.

Similarly, in Judaism-Christianity, serpents and dragons were also associated with chaos and needed to be subdued in order to restore order. George of Cappadocia (275-303) is honored for his bravery and courage in the slaying of the dragon, which held hostage all the inhabitants of Sylén, a city in Libya. For his defense of Christian principles, challenging the authority of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, Saint George is considered one of the greatest martyrs of Christianity, having been canonized in 494 by Pope Gelasius I. Genesis, first book of Bible, where the Judeo-Christian doctrine is synthesized, a serpent, the synthesis of sin, instigated Eve to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, so she and Adam (and consequently all humanity) were banished from paradise. At the New Testament (collection of books that make up the second part of the Bible), the serpent was transformed into Satan, the personification of all evil.

Not by chance, the European colonizers who arrived in America considered the original peoples, as they had already done with the Africans, as peoples without civil rights, destined to be dominated and domesticated. These colonizers considered themselves the "lords of God", heirs of the Crusades, who, blessed by kings, queens and the Roman Catholic-Apostolic-Roman papacy, assigned themselves the task of civilizing the discovered lands and establishing the rationality of capital, through the principle of exchange value and profit.

Although they themselves were not so aware – since they were only thirsty for wealth and domination by force, they made the extensive connection of the world networks of capitalism, which unified all regions of the planet in a system of production and world trade. The destructive and genocidal intensity, imposed by the navigators and colonizers of capitalism, on nature and the gigantic population contingents of the immense Amerindian, also tried to destroy all its mythological and cosmogonic paradigms, implanting Catholicism.

The result of the defeat of the serpent of life was the creation of a cosmovision in which humanity understands itself as separate and superior to nature. Based on calculation and subordination, humanity establishes a hierarchical relationship with nature, being able to dominate and destroy it. This anthropocentric worldview of patriarchy and Judaism-Christianism has become dominant throughout the western world and is the foundation of modernity, making it difficult (often preventing) the expression of other ways of understanding and explaining the world, such as mythical narratives, reinforcing their own valuation frameworks.

By adopting an exclusively rational point of view, modernity broke with the vital principle of cosmic serpents. Paradoxically, it was exactly this rational “science”, which inherits the dualism of Judeo-Christian conceptions, which considers the original peoples as uneducated and ignorant and despises their myths of origin, which discovered the material existence of DNA. And it is also precisely because it ignores other possibilities of knowledge and disregards other forms of existence that it has been destroying all forms of life on planet Earth, its ecological systems and the entire biosphere.

For the first time in history, the “conscious human being” understands himself as completely separate from nature, culminating in the emergence of two fundamental alienations. The first, which places capitalists, colonizers, traders and their agents as dominating subjects and exploiters of nature. And, the second, as explorers also of those men integrated into nature, as exploited as she is, thus creating a division between men themselves, the class of explorers and exploited.

Modernity was inaugurated in the 1637th century, mainly by the project of theoretical transition, from medieval thought to the establishment of the domain of reason, undertaken by René Descartes ([2005]XNUMX), considered the first philosopher of modernity. Cartesian philosophy presents nature as a sum of components that can be separated and, therefore, dominated, controlled and manipulated, becoming useful to human beings. Cartesian dualism operates as a generating principle of opposite pairs in permanent expansion, such as culture-nature, representation-reality, mind-world. In this process, man began to recognize himself as an autonomous, self-sufficient and universal being, moved mainly by reason, being able to act on nature and society.

In the XNUMXth century, with the emergence of industrial capitalism, modernity, dualistic and hierarchical, was already consolidated, greatly deepening the relationship of exploitation and domination between the capitalist and salaried workers, as well as in relation to nature. From then on, the process of withdrawing natural resources accelerated to such an extent that huge forests were devastated, rivers, seas and oceans were polluted, several animal species became extinct or were decimated. Nature became subordinated and controlled, not only to meet the needs of human survival, but above all, to satisfy the desires of the capitalist for incessant profit.

Capitalism has a dynamic marked by the expanded reproduction of capital, which means increasing accumulation, production and consumption of goods and increased extraction of surplus value. Now, if everything that man needs comes from nature and if capitalism increasingly encourages consumption, inevitably, a destructive relationship with the environment is established, which can lead to its complete depletion. Capitalism and its technoscience is a system of illness, destruction and death, as Fromm (1975) states, as the processes of dispossession are constituent and permanent in its dynamics of value production. In capitalism, a rationality prevails that subordinates utility to exchange value and social control, which suffocates life and the world of life.

For Jason Moore (2016), modernity is the age of capitalism, which in terms of geological and ecological, socioeconomic and political criticism, can be called the capitalocene, as it marks a behavioral change of human society with nature, conceived as something distinct of the human being and an object to be dominated. The capitalocene better describes human impacts on Earth's geology, recognizing capitalist societies (their ways of organizing and relating to nature and new work relationships) as those responsible for the most notable environmental crisis in the history of the planet. By placing nature at the center of thinking about work and work at the center of thinking about nature, the capitalocene allows thinking about the global ecological crisis in a clearer and deeper way, realizing the destructive character of capital in relation to nature. 

Since the 2007-2008 crisis, capitalism has been deepening its destructive and self-devouring aspects, which became more evident with the generalization of the Covid-19 pandemic, in 2020. their populations, revealed that under capitalist social relations, not only vaccines become commodities, but, before them, graves in cemeteries, beds in hospitals and oxygen vents.

It became clear that the problem for chemical-pharmaceutical companies and laboratories was not (as it still is not) related to saving human lives. It must be admitted that the vaccines were produced and distributed in record time, but not exactly aiming at the well-being of humanity, as the richer countries had their vaccination schedule more accelerated than the poorer ones. The goal of the World Health Organization (WHO) was that all countries had at least 10% of the population immunized with two doses of vaccine, by September 2021. However, 50 countries did not reach the goal, most of them on the African continent.

Nigeria, for example, the most populous country in Africa, was the most backward on the continent, only 3% of the population had taken both doses. The situation is similar in other regions. In Latin America and the Caribbean, in February 2022, fourteen countries had still not managed to reach even 40% of their vaccination coverage. As long as there are unvaccinated people, the possibility of more aggressive viral mutations remains a threat.

This situation is consistent with two other phenomena: the COP26, in 2021, and the disputes between the dominant powers for hegemony in world geopolitics. The serious ecological crisis failed to sensitize the leaders of the most polluting countries in the world, gathered in Glasgow, to end CO2 emissions, not even to reduce them. The war between Russia and Ukraine, which started in March 2022, seems to resurface as a tragic nightmare of the possible destruction of humanity. All in the name of progress, democracy, civilization, good against evil. In this scenario, the news wants to convince that there is a good side, a less “enemy” side, a corollary of the idea of ​​a possible good, friendly and non-destructive capitalism.

The survival and resistance of the serpents of life

All over the world, there have been several experiences that restore the synchrony between human societies and the environment, which revive or creatively reinterpret indigenous myths and cosmovisions and older religious traditions, recovering a whole set of knowledge and practices based on the serpents of life. All these transformative perspectives, say Kothari, Salleh, Escobar, Demaria and Acosta (2021), which seek to make peace with the Earth and nature in general, make up a “pluriverse: a world where many worlds fit (…). The worlds of all people must coexist, with dignity and peace, without depreciation, exploitation or misery”, in a horizontal and harmonious dialogue.

These multiple worlds, even if different, are connected. The philosophies of Agaciro in Rwanda, from feelthink among Afro-descendants from riverside communities in Colombia, the Agdals from Morocco, the Ubuntu of sub-Saharan Africa, the Kyosei in Japan, the Swaraj of India and the hurai of the Tuvan people in China are just a few examples of integrative and inclusive practices, with life-affirming elements that consider nature as a sentient being with rights.

There will always be those who question and wonder how one can consider nature as a being of Law, since they consider Law as something instituted by ethics (justice) and by human conscience, which seeks more perfect rules of coexistence. Marx ([1842]2017) has already dismantled, in a lapidary way, the idea that law is, above all, the fruit of a conscience that seeks justice. He recalled the “rights and customs” in common, a practice experienced naturally by woodcutter peasants in various parts of Europe, in contrast to the rules and laws enacted by kings, who began to make alliances with the landowners of “enclosures".

Remembering this, when writing one of his first newspaper articles, Marx explained that law, far from being the fruit of the enlightened spirit, was the imposition in the letter, of an institution based on physical and military violence, which assured the right to ownership and exploitation of something common, a direct result of nature, by the bourgeois class.

In general, transformative initiatives are called “territories and areas conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities” (Kothari et al., 2021). There are also several experiences of alternative social, economic and political organizations, such as agroecology, permaculture, ecovillages and solidarity economy. A Via Campesina, for example, founded in 1993, which brings together more than two hundred million small farmers in 73 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and America, is a strong peasant coalition, with the proposal of “feeding the world and cooling the planet”, adapting agricultural practices to natural cycles, through restorative agroecological methods, guaranteeing food sovereignty.

In this sense, it is important to highlight that, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), most of the world's food production is the result of the work of peasants and traditional small-scale farmers, who carry out this feat with only 25% of the total agricultural surface. Another example is agroforestry, millenary anthropogenic systems that emerged in the early days of agriculture, in the fertile crescent region, and are currently applied empirically and almost instinctively by various native peoples and small rural producers around the world. It is a cultivation technique in harmony with nature, which integrates food production with native vegetation, in accordance with the principles of nature itself, which is nothing more than the production of life. The result is the recovery of the soil and the entire biome, in a natural logic of unconditional love and respect for all forms of life.[viii]

All these alternatives to rational and hierarchical modernity seek to form, explains Grzybowski (in: Kothari et al., 2021), a “biocivilization”, a civilization of life, ecocentric, diversified and multidimensional, capable of finding balance between individual and community needs . In biocivilization, the struggle for social justice and against environmental destruction are intertwined, because one depends on the other; just as the economy is focused on life, with care as its principle of management and symbiosis between human life and natural life.

It is necessary to overcome the duality between use value and exchange value, and institute a return to the principle of use value. Social formations, which are organized postponing the exchange value and exploitation of work and nature, will inherit an accumulation of values ​​and technologies that, under the basis of new social relations, will not need to be destroyed or despised. There is no way to repeat the history of the evolution of human social formations in an eco/socially pure and perfect way, but it is possible to institute societal forms based on fundamentals that make life in common possible, and on the adequate treatment to renew and allow oneself to be renewed. nature.

In Brazil, ironically, this alternative cosmovision of overcoming, which seeks to integrate humanity with nature, is presented in the values ​​and practices of two peoples who, since 1500, have been dispossessed, subjugated and marginalized. The myths of indigenous and African peoples, as well as the religiosity of candomblé, form a cosmovision of resistance, which can become transformative, to the anthropocentric dualistic and hierarchical dominant rationality, which subordinates other forms of knowledge. An entire ancestral knowledge survives in the experiences of indigenous peoples and in the religiosity of Afro-descendants.

It is with them that all humanity can learn to reconnect with its double serpents of life, developing a cosmovision of love and compassion, respecting all forms of life. By instituting a treatment of natural life, respecting its laws of reproduction, nature will not fail to allow the reproduction of social/natural life in common. She will give herself to it and blossom with humanity. The foundation of the new societal life must be the understanding that the planet and its ecosystems are the home of social man. The inalienable unity between man/nature becomes a principle of life and an overcoming awareness of the destructiveness of capital.

Indigenous peoples have always been very attentive to nature, considering themselves as part of it. It is understood as ancestral to human existence and it is from it that these peoples assert themselves in the objective world, learning about the world and about themselves. This form of relationship with nature encourages attitudes towards environmental conservation. Taking care of nature also means protecting those who live in it, that is, defending the rights of indigenous peoples.

The life experiences of the indigenous people revolve around nature and are influenced by it. For the Sateré-Mawé people, for example, the river is not just the river, from where everyday food (such as fish) comes from, it is also the home of the mother-goddess Iara. The land is not only fertile soil that can be cultivated, it is also the home of Guaraná, chief of the Sateré-Mawé people. Heaven is not only the place of stars, planets and the entire cosmos, it is also the home of Tupana, the being who created everything that exists.

It is also from contact with nature that indigenous peoples formulate a whole medicinal knowledge. Leaves, plants and trees are their ancestral relatives. In 1992, at the Earth Summit (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development), held in Rio de Janeiro, the world had already become aware of the herbal erudition of indigenous peoples. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies have disclosed that more than 74% of medicines or drugs of plant origin, used in modern pharmacy, were discovered by indigenous people, who had already used them for centuries in the treatment and cure of diseases.

Another example of indigenous knowledge associated with nature is terra preta, found in large quantities in the Amazon. It is a type of anthropic soil (that is, modified by man), of high fertility, rich in phosphorus, calcium, magnesium and manganese. In this soil, an abundant amount of ceramic fragments, produced hundreds of years ago, was located, revealing that the indigenous peoples have a wide view of their attitudes, since when burying the ceramics, the objective was to create soils of high fertility. The huge patches of terra preta in the Amazon have a high forest biodiversity, proving that the areas of greatest diversity are also those with the presence of traditional peoples.

Terra preta is a product, but not the only one, of indigenous know-how, which can make relevant contributions to current human problems, such as soil degradation. In the Amazon, as Malheiro, Porto-Gonçalves and Michelotti (2021) state, an integrated vision of forest-soil-water-people prevails, which explains its richness, transforming it into a biocultural heritage of its peoples.

Living with nature in a sustainable way has always been present in the philosophy and practice of indigenous peoples. The advance of the ecological crisis and the imminent destruction of humanity have rescued the importance of this wisdom, placing it at the center of discussions and as a legitimate way of preserving planet Earth and man. In this context, explains Acosta (2016), the well live emerges as an effective alternative proposal.

It is a philosophy originating from South American indigenous peoples, concerned with the reproduction of life, which has as its basic foundation the respectful and harmonious coexistence between all living beings, forming sustainable and democratic societies, based on the economic logic of solidarity, of use value, in the exercise of creativity and critical thinking. O well live it is a new social, economic and political order, which seeks a radical break with “development”, “progress” and the growth of neoliberal capitalism, which are the root of the general world crisis. Competitiveness, consumerism and productivism are replaced by conscious consumption and production in a renewable, sustainable and self-sufficient way, aspiring to the well-being of communities, which would put an end to social classes, redefine cultural standards and political forms of management general society in common.

O well live, which is based on the validity of human rights and the rights of nature, rescues use values, opening the doors to the formulation of alternative visions of life and economic organization. The time has come for people to organize themselves to recover and reassume control of their own lives, not only defending the workforce and opposing the exploitation of labor, but, above all, overcoming anthropocentric schemes of productive organization, which culminates in the destruction of the most diverse forms of life (including human life) on the planet.

A worldview that values ​​all forms of life is also present in the religiosity and wisdom of Afro-Brazilians. Candomblé is a religion that keeps ancestral wisdom alive. To survive the traumatic event of loss of identity and territory, African peoples mixed, in a more or less harmonious way, their own customs with elements of cosmogonies and indigenous practices and popular Catholicism. The result was the creation of a unique syncretic cosmovision, which recovered existential territories and developed subjectivities resistant to dominant forces, which subordinate peoples, cultures and knowledge.

In candomblé, the orixás are intelligent forces of nature, explains Martins (2015), as they are identified with the elements and natural manifestations, and are regent spiritual entities, since they are linked to people. For its practitioners, nature is the central element in the way of perceiving the divine and it is a sacred space of communion between the material and spiritual world, with a relationship of belonging between nature and candomblé. Respecting and taking care of nature, one is also taking care of the orishas, ​​linked to it in each of its elements. The multiple orixás of candomblé presuppose multiple forms of life to be lived. Living for its practitioners is always cultivating life in harmony with nature, with their own natures. The bankruptcy of nature would be the end of the orixás and the end of everything.

The preservation and care of nature are also associated with the performance of rituals, as candomblé practitioners perform their rites based on leaf baths and make offerings to the orixás using beeswax candles, straw mats, fruit containers coité, clay and wood. The offerings are delivered in the woods, rivers, seas and other natural environments and are considered a sacred energy, mediating the contact between men and the orishas.

Each terreiro, as the places of worship are called, has a large number of trees and plants, which supply the sacred leaves for performing the rituals. With this practice, the terreiros are spaces that preserve biodiversity and contribute to the cultural maintenance of Afro-descendants. The entire Candomblé religious system is based on respect for nature, as it is its primary source, in all its strengths and expressions. The correct use of natural resources guarantees the practice of candomblé not only in the present, but for future generations.

According to the candomblé cosmovision, everything emanates from a single vital force, called axis, which in Yoruba means strength and energy in motion, in a kind of continuum connecting everything that exists. Exactly like the double serpents of DNA. Different modulations of axis constitute everything that exists in the universe, firstly, the orixás, and then all beings, including humans: “each being constitutes, in fact, a kind of crystallization or modulation resulting from a movement of the axis, which from a general and homogeneous force diversifies and materializes uninterruptedly”, explains Goldman (2005).

Because everything and everyone are “modulations” of the same vital force, the axis, it is possible for subjects, in their human condition, to establish a relationship of affection with other conditions (vegetable, animal or mineral), which goes beyond psychological identification, to the point of considering that everything that happens to this other being can happen to person, guiding its practitioners in a relationship of empathy and care for all forms of life. The result is a cosmovision of harmonious relationships and egalitarian coexistence, in which all living beings can live with dignity and respect.

The worldviews of indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples emerge as possibilities for building loving and supportive societies in complete harmony with life on planet Earth, in an integrating relationship with nature and the world in its entirety. Societies where people perceive themselves as part of the ecosystem and are in harmony with all living beings, overcoming forms of knowledge and practices of existence based on domination and hierarchy, which prevail in neoliberalism. Snakes were the DNA of life in the worldview of countless peoples throughout history, always representing a life-affirming principle. This principle needs to become dominant.

*Soleni Biscouto Fressato holds a PhD in social sciences from the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA). She is the author, among other books, of Hillbilly yes, muggle no. Representations of country folk culture in Mazzaropi's cinema (EDUFBA).

Originally published on Revue Illusio no 20.


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[I] Usumi Pãrõkumu; Torammü Këhíri, Before the world did not exist. Mythology of the people Desana-Kéhíripõrã, 3rd ed., Rio de Janeiro, Dantes, 2009. Originally, a first version of the book was published in 1980, by FOIRN (Federation of Indigenous Organizations of Rio Negro), which had the support of the anthropologist Berta Gleizer Ribeiro who typed, revised and rewrote the original text, in permanent dialogue with the authors. In 1995, the book was published again, being considered the starting point of the collection Narradores Indígenas do Rio Negro, published by ISA (Instituto Socioambiental). The book is considered the first initiative of the indigenous people to write their history, becoming a source of inspiration for several other research projects and in the areas of literature and cinema. 

[ii] For the writing of the myths mentioned in this text, the book organized by Roy Willis, was used as a bibliographic source. mythologies, Sao Paulo, Publifolha, 2007.

[iii] Johann Jacob Bachofen, Das Mutterrecht. Die Gynäkokratie der alten Welt ihrer religiösen und rechtlichen Natur, Stuttgart, Verlag von Krais & Hoffmann, 1861. Available at: . Accessed on 1861 Jun. 13; The matriarchy. An investigation about gyneccracy in the ancient world according to its religious and legal naturalization, Madrid, Ediciones Akal, 2018. Unfortunately, mistakenly, the work received the title The matriarchy (2018), in its Spanish version. The term matriarchy (the reverse of patriarchy) assumes a hierarchical society, in which power would be exercised by women, which is not consistent with societies in which maternal rights were in force, studied by Bachofen. Thus, whenever possible, the Spanish version will be confronted with the original in German, for better understanding and honesty with Bachofen's ideas.

[iv] The unstable and radioactive carbon-14, known as radiocarbon, is a naturally occurring isotope of the element carbon. When a living being dies, it stops interacting with the biosphere and its carbon-14 remains unaltered and natural and slowly starts to weaken. Because carbon-14 takes thousands of years to disappear completely, it has become the fundamental element for dating artifacts and skeletons, making it an effective tool for unraveling the past (BETA Analytic, sd).

[v] “I learned that these dragon-like creatures were thus within all forms of life, including man. They were the true masters of humanity and the entire planet, that's what I was told. We humans were but their vessels and servants. In retrospect, you could say that it was almost like DNA, although at the time, 1961, I knew nothing about DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)” (Harner, 1980, p. 26).

[vi] The structure of the DNA molecule was originally discovered by Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958), in 1951. Based on their studies, especially on a photo called “photo 51”, James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins demonstrated the functioning and structure in the double helix of DNA, in 1953, for which they won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, in 1962. Unfortunately, due to her early death, at just 37 years old, due to ovarian cancer, Rosalind did not know that her photos collaborated for the discovery of the DNA double helix, nor that his research received a Nobel Prize. Despite James Watson's suggestion, she did not even receive the posthumous award, since the committee responsible for nominations did not practice this type of award.

[vii] Jeremy Narby lived with the Ashaninka indigenous people, from the Quirishari community (in OK do pichis, in the Peruvian Amazon). His initial idea, which came to fruition in the book the cosmic serpent, was to study the hallucinogenic world of shamans or ayahuasca.

[viii] In Brazil, the system has been practiced in several regions of Brazil since 1995. The proposal was introduced by the Swiss farmer and researcher Ernst Götsch, who has been recovering degraded areas for over 40 years, integrating agricultural production with nature. More information on the Agenda Götsch website, available at

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