In the early years of the 2000s, I conducted hundreds of interviews of DMT users in Australia for what was to become my PhD dissertation, Vapors and Visions: The Religious Dimensions of DMT Use. During my research, I discovered that the entities or spirits encountered on a DMT trip ranged from faerie-like beings that look like they have just stepped out of an Enid Blyton children’s book through to others that look like they have just crawled out of an H.P. Lovecraft horror.
There is great variety among these entities, but there are also some creatures that recur with surprising frequency. A basic inventory would include enormous amoebas and tentacled beings; felines; insects (especially mantids); reptiles; robots, “mechanoids” and androids; aliens; and humanoids (including elves, clowns, goblins, divinities, “ancestors”, “elementals”, “little cartoon character like entities”, and daemons). Humanoids or beings with primarily human attributes are probably the most common.
“Giant lizards seem connected with impulses and instincts that many humans, and mammals generally, might consider highly antisocial or even psychopathic. As such, in psychedelic visions they may contribute to an understanding of our repressed tendencies and neuroses.”
There are a number of reports of blue or violet, luminescent, tentacled creatures resembling the jellyfish animal phylum Cnidaria. Like the Cnidaria they are radially symmetrical in general body plan, but may have ciliated grooves at the edges of the mouths that make them perfectly divisible in only two planes. Unlike the Cnidaria they inhabit some kind of suspension medium, or perhaps a low-gravity environment. Creatures with similar geometry but composed of a blue incandescent gas or liquid have also been reported.
The Feline Beings
Some of the DMT creatures are more tellurian. Cats play a conspicuous role. Considering the ancient reputation of felines as familiars of the supernatural, as well as their feral genius for ecological adaptation, we should not be too surprised to find cats in hyperspace. The jaguar is important in New World shamanism and frequently features in the imagery and cosmology connected to the Amazonian entheogen ayahuasca:
In many tribes, the shaman becomes a feline during the intoxication, exercising his powers as a cat. Yekwana medicine men mimic the roars of jaguars. Tukano ayahuasca-takers may experience nightmares of jaguar jaws swallowing them or huge snakes approaching and coiling about their bodies. (Schultes & Hofmann, 1992:122)
The domestic cat has an old association with Western magic, and in popular consciousness it can appear as an otherworldly trickster/magician, for example Lewis Carrol’s (1862) levitating, teleporting, enigmatic ‘Cheshire Cat’ with his dislocated grin, and the miraculous and mystifying ‘Cat in the Hat’ of Dr Seuss (1957).
In DMT visions the cats may be benign or auspicious, but they may also be extremely frightening as in the following classic account of intramuscular DMT injection:
And then, there it loomed before me, a devastating horror, a cosmic diamond cat. It filled the sky, it filled all space. There was nowhere to go. It was all that was. There was no place for me in this—its universe. I felt leveled under the cruel glare of its crystalline brilliance…It ravaged the nerves and passed its spasms into my head to echo insanely from one dark corridor of my mind to another. Me-e-e-e-yow-owow-ow me-e-e-e-yow-ow-ow-ow me-e-e-e-yow-ow-ow-ow—the incessant, insatiable staccato went on. It would not have been so bad if it had just been diabolical noise. The chilling thing was that I knew what it was saying! It told me that I was a wretched, pulpy, flaccid thing; a squishy-sqashy worm. I was a thing of soft entrails and slimy fluids and was abhorrent to the calcified God. I opened my eyes and jumped up from my chair screaming: “I will not have you! I will not have such a God! What is the antidote to this? Give me the antidote!” (Masters & Houston, 2000:163)
The Reptile Creatures
Reptiles are also reported with some regularity, especially immaculately black, shiny reptiles who are often bipedal and anthropomorphic. Snakes figure as elements in a number of images depicting DMT trips. They are significant in many indigenous Amazonian cosmologies, where they are closely associated with the DMT-containing entheogen ayahuasca.
At the risk of grossly simplifying a very complex symbol, the aspects of the serpent that are most relevant to DMT in the case of these Amazonian systems are the snake’s motion, patterning, and ability to renew its designs through the shedding of skin: these being the metaphoric hallmarks also of all perceptual qualia (Lagrou, 2000). Snakes and ayahuasca vines are intimately related: “what unites both elements is precisely that design that offers itself on the surface of the snake and awaits in the interior of the vine” [as visions] (Saéz, 2000:39).
Visions of dragons, dinosaurs, and crocodiles may appear in DMT trips, and they can also be found in descriptions of psychedelic visions produced by other agents, such as ibogaine and ayahuasca, both of which, like DMT, comprise derivatives of tryptamine (Shulgin & Shulgin, 1997). Generally, giant lizards seem connected with impulses and instincts that many humans, and mammals generally, might consider highly antisocial or even psychopathic. As such, in psychedelic visions they may contribute to an understanding of our repressed tendencies and neuroses.
Anthropologist Michael Harner drank ayahuasca while living with the Untsuri Shuar of the Ecuadorian Andes in the early 1960s. His account of his vision is very detailed and explicit, and consists largely of communications with large dragon like creatures, from which we may perhaps glean some understanding of how ill-adjusted the mammalian brain can find itself when ancient dragons are aroused:
First they showed me the planet Earth as it was eons ago, before there was any life on it. I saw an ocean, barren land, and a bright blue sky. Then black specks dropped from the sky by the hundreds and landed in front of me on the barren landscape. I could see that the “specks” were actually large, shiny, black creatures with stubby pterodactyl-like wings and huge whale-like bodies…The creatures then showed me how they had created life on the planet in order to hide within the multitudinous forms and thus disguise their presence…I began to struggle against returning to the ancient ones, who were beginning to feel increasingly alien and possibly evil… I barely managed to utter one word to the Indians: “Medicine!” I saw them rushing around me to prepare an antidote, and I knew they could not prepare it in time. I needed a guardian who could defeat dragons, and I frantically tried to conjure up a powerful being to protect me against the alien reptilian creatures. One appeared before me; and at that moment the Indians forced my mouth open and poured the antidote into me. (Harner, 1990:4-5)
Harner soon recovered from this traumatic encounter, and subsequently discussed the experience with missionaries who pointed out the similarity of the visionary reptiles to the expelled “dragon” of the Book of Revelation. Harner also discussed the intimidating reptiles with an elderly shaman who explained that this was typical behaviour for the giant bat-like creatures. Harner, on ayahuasca, encountered malevolent entities but received a timely rescue.
The speed of onset and the rate of DMT visions are much faster than those of ayahuasca. If one encounters visionary hostilities there is little possibility of the psychonaut getting outside assistance to intervene in the visionary experience (for example, by providing calm reassurance, or otherwise improving the subject’s psychological state).
The Insectoid beings
DMT psychonauts also commonly report visions of insects, and as with reptiles, these entities appear to be heterogenous in terms of their conduct and intent. I have also heard reports from people who have taken ayahuasca in Australia who have had terrifying visions of being devoured by small, jewel-like insects with prominent serrated mandibles. Cicada-like chirpings, buzzing, and snipping sounds sometimes accompany these insectoids visions (it should be noted that these experiences took place in the eastern Australian bush where insects orchestrate the aural back-drop of summer evenings, and that ayahuasca increases sensitivity to sound).
The insect is an ambiguous and intermediate symbol between traditional western diabolic and angelic forms. Combining elements of both, the visionary insectoids are an amalgam, a synthesis of the hard, scaly demons (conventionally reptilian in accord with the idea of the devil as dragon or serpent) and the gloriously pigmented, swift and airborne choir of heaven. The antennae recall the horns that are so characteristic of devils. And yet the insect is neither angel nor demon. It is not at all human. There is no pity in those compound eyes; nor is there any malice. Evil and good are purely human sensations. The insect is more like the technology we have created. The arthropod morality, the snipping of its mouth-parts, is like binary code applied to nutritive action. The insect then, is the messenger of sacrifice in a utilitarian age of total moral relativism: an almost mechanical processor of initiatic meat.
The mantis, in particular, links the idea of religious devotion (as implied by its “praying” stance) with the idea of sadomasochistic eroticism, or perhaps the eroticism of the prey and the preyed upon that forms the major theme of Bataille’s Erotism. The female mantis is infamous for decapitating the climaxing male mantis with her serrated forearms, and savouring her lover’s twitching corpse as a delectable post-coital refreshment. This inhuman and amoral treatment of the beloved delineates the mantis as wholly other, a transcendent amalgam of Eros and Thanatos. The mantis is intellectually and morally alien, and yet distinguished by a religious attitude of prayerful contemplation of its victims. It is a holy predator. The mantis symbolism eloquently expresses Rudolf Otto’s great paradox of numinous experience, that the spiritually intense is simultaneously a seductive fascinans and an awe-engendering tremendum.
The Jester Tricksters
The word ‘harlequin’ was used by a number of DMT users to describe parti-coloured, acrobatic, Joker-like beings very similar to the zany character from 16th Century Italian comedy. Here we have another curious conjunction of meanings: the liminal, wholly other, gender variant clown covered with distinctive, brightly variegated, alternating triangular or diamond patterns very similar to the checker-board-like ‘hallucinatory form constants’ (Klüver, 1966), or the ‘entoptic phenomena’ of palaeolithic art (Lewis-Williams & Dowson, 1988). A psychonaut from Brisbane, Australia, reported finding himself in the presence of a clown-like being after smoking DMT:
I’m in a kind of box (not a coffin). Floating above me is the strangest being. It appears to be androgynous wearing a long white gown or robe. It has curly blonde hair caught up in a bunch on top of his/her head. The eyes are an intense blue. I get the feeling that he is more male than female so I will henceforth refer to ‘him’. He has a crazy look on his face and starts throwing stars at me! They are flying down on me and landing on either side of me gathering in piles between me and the sides of the shallow box. They are very colourful stars, sort of metallic. He is just throwing stars at me and laughing. He does not feel malevolent, just mischievous. He reminds me of a clown.
The Alien Entities
Another common category of beings encountered by DMT users is the alien, in the contemporary, extraterrestrial, sense of the word. To see ‘little green men’ is of course widely considered a clichéd symptom of mental incompetence, and it is interesting to note, as Erich Fromm (1971:121) has, that alienage meant insanity not so very long ago, and that according to Hegel and Marx most people today suffer from alienation to various extents, which is to say, they experience themselves as not themselves (assuredly, each to a different degree), but rather as someone (a false persona) or something (a role or a function) other.
So, who or what are these visionary DMT aliens? Carl Jung was of the opinion that Flying Saucers were a psychological phenomenon, independent of any degree of objective reality they might also possess, a position that seems to be supported by the tendency of DMT to induce visions of space crafts and aliens. Some researchers have gone so far as to propose that UFOs and alien abductions, along with Near Death Experiences and most of religion, are caused by unusual but natural electrical stimulation of the temporal lobe (Persinger, 1987, 1989). Rick Strassman (2001) has tentatively postulated a hypothetical over-production of endogenous DMT as a possible explanation for ‘close encounters’. Regardless of the aetiology, UFO contact experiences overlap in certain of their symbolic particulars with ecstatic experiences of a religious nature, so that we might consider them para-religious.
The aliens encountered on DMT are not necessarily extraterrestrials, but could perhaps be described as ultradimensionals. Although psychonauts definitely report beings from other worlds and travelling to other planets while under the influence of DMT, entities seem to also come from worlds separated from ours in more esoteric ways, whether by ‘vibration’, ‘frequency’, strange ‘angles’, or other quirks of physics. Some DMT users have rationalised these perceptual changes as quantum differences between the physical properties of DMT as opposed to the more usual receptor ligand serotonin. They experienced an alien experience by virtue of their modified instruments of perception.
Some of the aliens are alien in the extreme: as much faerie as alien. These beings are described variously as ‘tykes’, ‘elves’, ‘leprechauns’, and ‘children’. They are usually intensely curious, joyous, frequently shiny, friendly and often appear sweet and innocent. They are reported to play in a rumpus-room world full of toys and outlandish machines. Although often child-like, they change form continuously and seem to bewilder, amaze, and disconcert as a matter of course:
It’s completely paradigm shattering. I mean, you know, union with the white light you could handle. (laughter) An invasion of your apartment by jeweled self-dribbling basketballs from hyperspace that are speaking demotic Greek is not something that you anticipated and could handle. – Terence McKenna, 1992
This article has been extracted with permission from Des Tramacchi’s PhD thesis Vapors and Visions: The Religious Dimensions of DMT Use.
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