December, 2007. The distant Alps are covered in snow. Small flakes swirl in the wind, dancing around red clay statues of muscular giants and voluptuous goddesses, reminiscent of Egypt. Most prominent is the falcon-headed god, Horus, facing the Fire Altar where the looming statues converge.
I start to walk into the grove of the Earth Altar, but my guide Shama tells me I should go no further.
“It is dangerous for anyone who is not spiritually prepared,” she warns me. “Very dangerous.”
I would be willing to chance it, but I suppose rules are rules.
In the distance is Monti Pelati, the sacred mountain of the Damanhurians. It is said that more Synchronic Lines converge there than any place in the world. These lines are like the Earth’s magnetic field — only magic. They were discovered psychically by the founder and leader of the Damanhurians, Falco.
This is a place of power, of mystery. The perfect place for a secret Temple. A nice spot to start a cult.
So how did I end up here?
I have a sweet tooth for communal cults. As the Zendiks say, cult is just short for culture. A brief visit to a welcoming sect is like Disneyland and a voodoo possession ritual wrapped into the same vacation package. It’s invigorating, it’s mind-warping, and if you get lucky, it’s terrifying.
The Damanhurian Federation
Damanhur is home to The Temples of Humankind, a massive work-in-progress overseen by the Italian visionary, Oberto Airaudi (aka. Falco). Started in 1978, the Temples were constructed within man-made caves beneath Monti Pelati. The work went on in secret for thirteen years — until the Italian authorities were alerted in 1991. This subterranean masterpiece is a startling testament to the possibilities of communal art, to the evolution of occultism in the modern age, and to the bizarre beliefs that isolated communities typically cling to.
Located in the Alpine foothills, about 30 mi. north of Turin, Italy, this spiritual commune is dubbed “The Largest Intentional Eco-Community in the World”, a vast complex of homes, shops, art studios, small manufacturing centers, and farms in the Valchiusella Valley.
Damanhur grew out of the occult fervor that swept through Turin and its surrounding rural areas during the 1960s and 70s. This period is comparable to the volatile atmosphere of New York’s Burned Over District in the 1800s, which spawned the Mormons, the Shakers, the Oneidas, and the Fox Sister séances.
After thirty years, Damanhur is a relatively successful attempt at communal self-sufficiency. The community sustains its own marketplace, the Crea. It has its own fire and police departments, schools, medical facilities, construction, insurance, and real estate companies, private banking system, and its own currency: the Damanhurian Credito (with a constant exchange rate equal to one Euro).
Although contracts with non-Damanhurians are negotiated in common currency, all wages within the community are paid in Creditos. All products sold at the Crea or services provided by Damanhurian companies are purchased with Creditos. And of course, all Damanhurians are expected to donate a sizeable portion of their Creditos for the good of the commune.
This sprawling network, covering nearly 500 acres, is home to over four hundred Damanhurians, from children to old-timers. Hundreds of other people in the area are affiliated with the group, and hundreds more participate in the many Damanhurian satellite centers around the world.
At the time of my visit, the Damanhurians were making serious moves. New centers were springing up in Italy, Austria, Germany, Croatia, Japan, and Miami, Fl., where one could be healed, have cosmic visions, or hear the songs of houseplants through bio-machines. Sounds like Paradise, right?
A Day in the Life
I take the train from Naples to Turin — train #1666. I interpret this as an important omen. From there I get another train to Ivrea, where I catch the bus to Damanhur.
I check my Italian phrasebook and stammer, “Scusi, c’è un autobus per Damanhur?”
This seems to be a common question for the driver. He points to a scruffy guy with a ponytail sitting in back and tells me to get off with him.
Patrick is a doe-eyed Austrian in his thirties. He is a world traveler, a patron of various spiritual centers, and an aspiring artist. When he learns that I’m an American, he expresses disdain. He says he has a girlfriend in the US, but will never go back.
“America is too much military for me. If I go there, I end up fingerprinting and retina-scanning. I get interrogations and strip searches.”
“What about your girl?”
“She is having too many mans, anyway.”
Patrick is visiting Damanhur to receive “Selfic” energy treatments to repair his soul, which is accomplished by laying under a spiraling coil of copper wire known as a “Self.”
The first Selfs were designed and developed by Falco, and are said to be animated by conscious entities. These devices harness the energy of the Synchronic Lines to harmonize personality, balance sensitivity, and clear negativity. Anyone can receive these services for a modest fee.
Patrick tells me he would never live at Damanhur because there is no privacy. The activities of citizens are constantly monitored by the others.
“People talk a lot in small towns,” I remark.
“It is like intentional communities that I stay in Hawaii. There are too many eyes,” he says ominously. “Too many eyes.” He looks around as if they might be peering over the next seat.
We get off the bus into the snow flurry and I prepare my approach. I don’t want to come off like a tourist, a smug skeptic, or a nosy journalist. Cults don’t like that shifty business. So I try to play the curious truth-seeker. The American mendicant.
I am greeted by Gazza Solidago (Italian for Magpie Goldenrod) at the Welcome Center. Gazza is one of the public faces of Damanhur, very pretty, with curly dark hair. She expresses sympathy for my travel fatigue and sets up my visit with gracious hospitality.
I pay for a bed in their hostel (€20/night, for four nights) and arrange for tomorrow’s tour of Damanhur and the Temples of Humankind (for €55). They hand me a release form that waives Damanhur’s responsibility if their underground Temple happens to collapse on my head.
Gazza informs me of the “Contact with the Cosmos” workshop (€160) and the option of a 3-day or a 7-day visit (€350 and €650, respectively).
“Perhaps another time,” I reply.
Gazza gives me a warm hug, hands me some introductory literature, and then I’m turned over to Shama Viola (as in the Hawaiian White-Rumped Shama and a Violet flower), who takes me on an informal walk around the grounds.
Shama is a longtime Damanhurian resident, about sixty or so, with silver-gray hair and a youthful face. She came here decades ago, after spending the Psychedelic Sixties in San Francisco and Hawaii.
She guides me through the Altars of the Elements, past a concrete Stonehenge that would fit well in a putt putt course, finally arriving at a wide field covered in painted stones which “follow the Earth’s energy fields.”
Shama indicates a special spiral path and encourages me to walk it. One wanders these complex mazes to harness cosmic energies and focus the will. Kind of like hopscotch — only magic.
“But you must wear this.” She takes a crude amulet off of a wooden post at the entrance and hands it to me. “To protect you from the powerful energies.”
I hold my poker face and politely decline.
Back at the hostel—probably the cleanest in all of Europe — I search my room thoroughly for spy cameras before going to bed. From bathroom to bedroom, I feel their eyes on me.
The next morning I meet Shama and a Dutch woman named Zoe for the big tour. Zoe is a first time Temple visitor, but quick to show her hard-earned New Age credentials. She just arrived from Hawaii, where she was communicating with dolphins.
“All the dolphins here speak Italian,” I tell her.
Like most enthusiastic newcomers to a cult, Zoe is reasonably intelligent and very competitive, in a passive-aggressive way. She never comes out and says, “I’m more enlightened than this guy. Pick me, pick me!” But she’s quick to talk up her psychic abilities, extensive ritual experience, and acute sensitivity to subtle energies. I’ve seen it a hundred times. With every highfalutin comment, she’s gunning for acceptance and a top spot in the hierarchy, reeking of an unconditional positivity that only profoundly disturbed individuals can maintain.
This makes Zoe more fun than a cup of Flavor Aid in Jonestown. I get out my cynic stick to poke at her for the rest of the day.
Shama has bad news for us. The “Reawakening the Senses” workshop has been cancelled due to a lack of participants. Zoe is devastated. She asks:
“Will I still be able to do ‘Contact with the Cosmos’ if I don’t do ‘Reawakening the Senses?’”
Zoe speaks of these psychic tutorials like they are baking classes. Why do New Agers always talk about meeting strangers or eating food with the solemn reverence of divine revelation, but then discuss sacred visions and magical powers as if they were as commonplace as a fart?
Shama assures Zoe that “Contact with the Cosmos” is still on, and I ask how much she will save.
Our first stop is the Crea, a large, pink building situated on the slope of the valley. It houses the Damanhurian construction and real estate offices, an organic food market and cafeteria, art studios, a day care center, and the medical facilities. Imagine a hippie health food store reincarnated as a shopping mall.
One of the shops specializes in Selfic technology. They have portable Selfs for sale, which resemble the copper wire jewelry peddled by hippies at music festivals and Rainbow Gatherings, except these little guys have souls and can heal anything from moodiness to colon cancer. You can get an Insomnia Self for €35, a cell-regenerating Beauty Disc for €145, or a Multi-Functional Self for €60.
They also offer Falco’s Selfic paintings. These feature crude, child-like patterns infused with animate spirits (like amateur abstracts—only magic), which go for €1,600 or so.
Walking by the medical facility, I notice a sickly old Damanhurian in the waiting room with a portable Self clasped in his hands. Perhaps it’s a Terminal Self. He rubs it anxiously, desperately, hopefully, and for a moment this absurd display isn’t so funny.
As we wait outside for our ride to the Temples, I ask Shama what’s up with their names.
“Damanhurians are given an animal name first,” she explains, “and then a plant name, as they are gradually initiated into the mysteries.”
That’s how you end up with names like Furetto Oliva, Iguana Magrovia, and one that translates as Shrimp Wild Fennel.
“I’ll bet all the badass names like Jaguar Thornbush and Viper Petunia got snatched up pretty quick, huh?” I ask.
“Yes, yes,” Shama says, “the big cats are all taken.”
I say, “If I were a Damanhurian, I’d be Paramecium Chloroplast. You know, to show my spiritual humility.”
Shama laughs at this, but Zoe scowls in disapproval. I would dub her Weasel Chili Pepper.
Our van arrives, and we head up the mountain on a slushy one-lane road. George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” plays on the tapedeck and our fur-clad driver honks her horn around every tight corner to alert oncoming drivers. I hope that the little Self coiled on the dashboard is to ward off head-on collisions.
The Eighth Wonder is Underground
There are detailed photos of the Temples available on the Internet or in their official book, Damanhur: The Temples of Humankind, published by Alex Grey’s CoSM Press. But I refused to look at them before my visit. There is nothing worse than seeing some lame picture in a hiking guide before reaching a mountain’s summit, or reading a detailed review before watching a movie. It ruins the element of surprise, and I like to go in cold.
I imagine how mysterious the Temples must have been before the Italian police raided the compound in 1991 and 1992 on allegations of tax evasion, weapons hording, and satanic child abuse. Before their subsequent acquittal made the press. Before ads hit the papers and the tickets went on sale. Before any schmuck with €55 could take the carnival ride under the mountain.
I imagine Damanhur at the height of its secrecy, as if I were some dope-dazed wanderer following the winds, suddenly blown into the arms of these charming Italians.
I would be shown warmth and hospitality. I would be hypnotized by moonlight rituals, harmonic chants echoing through the forest, and beautiful women in flowing robes. I would be baffled by strange coincidences and Falco’s lofty talk of a new consciousness. I would envy the knowing smiles between these eccentric initiates.
Two fellow Americans, Mark and Lisa, come out from their morning Temple visit. It’s just another stop on their New Age world tour. They’ve done the Israeli kibbutzim and the Indian ashrams, the Gypsy Tarot readings and Peruvian shamanism. Like tourists—only magic.
Mark’s business card identifies him as: Massage Therapist – Intuitive Counselor – Spiritual Healer – Venture Capitalist. Lisa is an “etheric surgeon,” with an HTML website, a podcast, and a PayPal account. She identifies spiritual ailments in her clients through mystical visions provided by extraterrestrials. Then she heals them by waving her hands around to provide 12th dimensional shields. She explains this with a straight face.
These guys know the game. How else could they afford such exotic jaunts?
I imagine the clandestine Damanhur of old. I enter the Temples before Damanhur had PayPal, when spiritual ideas traded at bargain prices in the back alleys of Turin. When Aleister Crowley and Madam Blavatsky were underground sex symbols. When hippies flocked to the hills to do magic and find God. When the ubiquitous Machine of the modern world could still be escaped—and perhaps defeated. When the End was still nigh.
We would share meals at blessed tables and make love in communal beds, consume quantities of wine and strange drugs, dance with the gods and become gods ourselves—our own Will be done—and follow the falcon-god Horus into the dawning Age of the Child.
We would call each other Platypus and Ostrich. We would hug trees until they spoke to us. We would take our fill of love.
Then one night they would take me into the Temple and tell me the Secret. And it would change my life forever.
I ignore the rumbling dehumidifiers and the awkward elevator ride. I look at my shoes as we go down. Somebody smells. Is it me? Nah, I think it’s Zoe.
Imagine, you have been taken deep into the cold belly of the Earth. They take off your blindfold and you are led through winding corridors by pale lantern light. You are about to take the journey of a thousand lifetimes.
You pass murals of cells forming into fish, into lush vegetation, into great dinosaurs and flying lizards, as you enter a vast circular chamber. The verdant jungles of Eden are painted in exquisite detail across the walls.
This is the Hall of Earth.
Zoe wouldn’t be standing next to you, clasping her hands to her chest as she gasps:
“Wow… There is such a profound energy here…” She closes her eyes. “Yessss. I can feel it vibrating all around me…” She opens her eyes and asks me, “Can you feel the energy here?”
I roll my eyes, trying to ignore her. There is a man painting a child onto the mural from a photograph.
Every piece of the Temple tells a story. Every face is a Damanhurian. They frolick through this tropical garden with all of the endangered species of the world. In the center of the dim chamber is a single pillar carved with a man and woman, twisting around each other, reaching up to the twinkling LED stars dotting the ceiling.
On the floor are detailed mosaics of boys playing with blocks, a young woman traveling in a spaceship with a cellphone to her ear, two middle-aged men jamming out on drums and a saxophone, and an old woman playing chess against a younger version of herself.
“She masters herself over time,” our guide Platypus explains, “and it is through playing that we connect with others.”
You see your life reflected in these images.
There are stairs leading up to a wide portal. You pass through. You walk slowly toward the golden Androgyne who towers on the far wall. An ephemeral gray Demiurge separates from this hairless Godhead and blows out the spiraling galaxies of our Universe from a pile of dust in his hand. This Universe evolves into the Earth, into prehistoric humans, into the Golden Age of Atlantis with their laser guns and wizardry, devolving into the great antediluvian religions: the Egyptian god-kings, the Semitic law-givers, and the Asian mystics.
You follow these traditions up to the crucial development in modern history: the Damanhurians, who are gathered together and led by Falco into a great battle with oncoming hordes of faceless grey automatons. As these soulless monsters approach the battlelines, they are given faces—reflections of the Damanhurians that fight them.
You want to be a part of this battle. There are still some faces yet to be painted, and you want to get your picture on the wall.
The stained-glass on the ceiling is a kaleidoscopic dome that fills your field of vision. The geometry is impeccable, creating dazzling illusions as your eyes pass across it. But even more striking are the two backlit stained-glass panes fitted into niches on opposite sides of this room.
You see a face of solar fire with a drooping phallus for a nose. Across from him is an aqua-hued female with a gaping vagina between her eyes. You feel the overt symbolism between your legs.
“Okay, okay,” Platypus snaps, “Let’s move it along.”
Our next stop is the Labyrinth. We wander through a series of interconnected halls with arched ceilings. On the walls are evolving murals depicting humanity’s progress from caves to cathedrals to chaos. We breeze past World Wars, industrial pollution, and vat-grown GMO babies, all the way to rocketships headed for the stars.
Along the halls are a series of sixteen stained-glass panels that depict dieties from each world religion. There is the Semitic Jehovah, the Indian Brahma, the Celtic Brigit, the African Sky Father, and so on.
In this subterranean pantheon, you are initiated into a new teaching: the rites of the Triad.
The Triad brought harmony to the “divine ecosystem.” Powerful Damanhurian sorcerers gathered the Divinities of the world together, asking for their cooperation in the salvation of humankind. This forged a “theurgic magical alliance.” Though a few belligerent gods declined, most accepted the invitation. These Triad rituals were performed around the clock, until every god was purified of negative aspects and fused into a divine conglomerate.
All of this is revealed to you with a straight face. You are now ready to move on to the Hall of Metals.
First, you follow the stained-glass progression from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to old age. Then you contemplate the cartoons of vices personified on the floor: Pride, Egotism, Pessimism, Falsity, Lack of Awareness, and Self-Destruction. Above are the warriors who will conquer them, armed with books, battle-axes, bows and arrows.
You are taken to an antechamber with more portraits and stained-glass. You are told that there is a secret passage. You are given a riddle.
“We are of the Way of Action…”
I nearly destroy one of the stained-glass panels in my search for this damn secret passage. Platypus runs across the room to stop me. In my defense, Zoe can’t find it either. Platypus taps his foot impatiently, playing “warmer/colder” for ten minutes until he finally gives up and pushes on the painted face of a little girl to reveal…
The Hall of Spheres. The gateway to deeper mysteries. There are a dozen plastic globes full of food coloring along the hall stretching before you, glowing by unseen bulbs. You see all sorts of magic stuff in them before being whisked away to the Selfic treatment laboratory.
The lab writhes in a schizophrenic frenzy of copper wires. Perplexing gadgets clutter the room. A gigantic, coiled super-Self is suspended from the ceiling, tapering to a point aimed at an examination table. It looks like a homemade linear accelerator, ready to harness the Synchronic energies and zap the living shit out of you.
You lay down on the table, and God only knows what happens when they fire this thing up.
In time, the Damanhurians invite you to live with them. Their esoteric doctrines are gradually revealed to you. Your personality is harmonized, your sensitivity is balanced, your negativity is cleared. You farm the valley and help build the eco-friendly house you now share with your brothers and sisters. You struggle daily through the enigmas of the Temples. Eventually, the cosmos is illuminated before you.
It is time to enter the Hall of Water. The walls are covered with the lunatic patterns of Falco’s brainstorms. You are told that these diagrams are a mystical language. Circles, spirals, triangles, polygons, and random lines are interwoven in gold paint, like you are standing inside a massive circuit board.
Long glass tubes of glowing, bubbling fluid hang down to the floor in the center of the dim blue room, like a circle of fluorescent bulbs—only magic. You are still naked from your session with the super-Self. You are purified and primed for the cause. Perhaps you are on psychedelic drugs.
You step inside the circle of bulbs. There is a sense of apprehension, because this apparatus isn’t just some nightmare of New Age interior design—
I stare into Platypus’ eyes. He doesn’t budge. I say:
“It’s a what?”
“It’s a time machine.”
“A time machine,” I repeat flatly.
“Yes. A time machine.”
“As in, you step in and get beamed back to the dinosaurs, time machine?”
“Yes. This has already happened!” His eyes get wide and his hands go Italian. “The Synchronic Lines converge here.” He points into the circle. “Here! Falco harnessed this energy to travel back to Atlantis. For three days he was initiated into the Ancient Mysteries which have been lost for millennia.”
Zoe says, “Of course, of course. These mysteries could not have been revealed in 3rd dimensional reality. This is the work of ancient masters…”
She starts to walk toward the circle, hesitates at the edge, then steps back cautiously to admire the spiraling designs and bubbling tubes from a safe distance.
I look from her to Platypus. That’s when the floodgates finally break, and I laugh until tears stream down my cheeks.
Life on the Outside
I spend the next few days nosing around the compound, asking a lot of questions, getting the story straight. Zoe is ready to move in here. Mark is ready to invest. I chat with people at the café, and glean information from live-in laborers hanging out in the common room. These people are so kind, and seem so happy. I’m baffled that such a thriving community would be built upon utter nonsense.
Damanhurians speak of Falco with a hushed reverence. They claim that his work will change the world, sometimes with a tear in their eye.
When Falco’s public Q&A day finally comes, seekers from all over the land crowd into the Crea’s auditorium, paying €10 a head to ask their question, but I opt out. Zoe can’t understand it.
“But you have so many questions!” she implores me.
I only have one question to ask Falco at this point, and I already know what his answer would be. Of course, I would have liked to see the look on Zoe’s face as I stood in the auditorium with the little microphone in my hand, everyone holding their breath as I ask:
“Are you fucking serious, dude?”
But these folks have been too hospitable for a stab like that.
Time machines, theurgic alliances, magic Selfs, eye of newt and wing of bat. Whatever. If millions of people believe that chanting the Vedas makes the sun rise, or that Jesus is coming to put the world to rights, or that life evolved from protein boiling on lava, then a few hundred people buying into Falco’s pitch should not surprise me.
With all these wolves on the fringe, every lamb needs a good shepherd.
Imagine for a moment that you bought the whole bit, and were convinced that all of history culminates in this budding New Age utopia. You decide to stay forever.
The decades pass and you end up worn out like all the droopy-eyed Damanhurians that I see everywhere. You bust your hump to keep this thing moving, to save the world from ignorance and suffering. You gain experience points and advance in levels to become a wizard supreme. You pass from spouse to spouse, according to their custom of annual marriage. You watch your children grow up in a magic fairyland, and wonder if they will be fulfilled here, or if they could even adapt to the outside world. You hope the best for them, and you live your life the best you can.
Then you die. You are buried peacefully in the Valchiusella Valley, and a painting of your face smiles forever in the Hall of Earth. People even pay to come look at it.
Most folks who would call this crazy work 9 to 5 jobs and go home to TV sets. When I visit alternative communities, I am reminded that society at large can be just as fake and shabby. Food and drink, family and friends, shelter and security, allies and lies. Culture-makers wrap it all up in pretty pictures, sell you on salvation, and pump you for all that you’re worth.
You laugh and you cry. You eat, shit, and die.
Cult is just short for culture.
So I hitchhike out with a smile on my face. Luckily, a young Italian woman named Taraka picks me up. But she’s not going directly to Ivrea.
“You can come up the mountain with me if you like. To meet my friend. Then we take you to the train station tomorrow. Yes?”
“Sure. I’m just happy to be out of that loony bin.”
“Damanhur has a dark reputation in this Valley.”
She nods and fumbles for a new CD as we swerve all over the tight mountain road.
“They are believing in crazy things and controlling too much,” she says.
“Well, it sure is nice to be with a ‘normal’ person for a change. All that mumbo jumbo was beginning to wear on my nerves. Here, let me get that CD for you.”
That’s when I notice the beaded feathers hanging from her rearview mirror, the amulet wrapped around her wrist, the books emblazoned with arcane symbols laying on the floorboard.
“So where are you going, anyway?” I ask nervously.
“I am going to a Lakota Sweat Lodge in the Alps. We do chants and call to the Grandfather spirits of the American tribes. You can come, if you like. Only €200. You have heard of this?”
I nod my head wearily and say, “Of course. It’s like a sauna — only magic.”
© 2010 Joseph Allen
[Corrections made to original post.]