Damanhur — My Sci-Fi Theophany Under the Mountain
In 2007, I made a pilgrimage to Italy's infamous subterranean temple. This is what I found
Original published at Disinformation — December 17, 2010
December 2007. The distant Alps are covered in snow. Small flakes dance around red clay statues of giants and voluptuous goddesses, all sculpted in the Egypt style. 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’d be willing to chance it, but rules are rules.
In the distance is Monti Pelati, the sacred mountain of the Damanhurians. It’s 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, known as Falco.
This is a place of power. A place of mystery. The perfect place for a secret temple. A nice spot to start a cult.
So what am I doing here?
I have a sweet tooth for communal cults. As the Zendiks say, “Cult is short for culture.” A quick visit to a welcoming sect is like Disneyland and a voodoo possession wrapped into the same vacation package. It’s invigorating. It’s mind-warping. At times, it’s terrifying.
The Damanhurian Federation
Damanhur is home to The Temples of Humankind. This massive work-in-progress is overseen by the Italian visionary, Oberto Airaudi (aka. Falco). Beginning in 1978, the Temples were constructed inside man-made caves beneath Monti Pelati.
The work went on in secret for thirteen years—until the Italian authorities were alerted in 1991. This masterpiece testifies to the possibilities of communal art and to the bizarre things people will believe.
Damanhur sits in in the Valchiusella Valley, about 30 miles north of Turin, Italy. Called the “Largest Intentional Eco-Community in the World,” it’s a vast complex of farms, homes, shops, art studios, and small manufacturing centers in the Alpine foothills.
Damanhur grew out of the occult fervor that swept through Turin and its surrounding rural areas during the 1960s and 70s. Italy’s mystic revolution is comparable to 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 boasts 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).
Of course, all Damanhurians are expected to donate a sizeable portion of their Creditos for the common good.
This sprawling network, covering nearly 500 acres, is home to over four hundred Damanhurians, from children to old-timers. Hundreds of people in the area are affiliated with the group. Hundreds more participate in the many Damanhurian satellite centers around the world, where you can have cosmic visions or hear the songs of houseplants through bio-machines.
The Communal Panopticon
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?”
The driver points to a scruffy ponytail sitting in back and tells me to get off with him.
Patrick is a doe-eyed Austrian in his thirties. He’s a world traveler and patron of various spiritual centers. When he learns I’m an American, he sneers. 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. This is accomplished by laying under a spiraling coil of copper wire known as a “Self.”
The first Selfs were designed and developed by Falco. They’re 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’d never live at Damanhur because there’s no privacy. The activities of citizens are constantly monitored by the others.
“People talk 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 wanna come off like a tourist or a nosy journalist. Cults don’t like that shifty business. So I’ll play the curious truth-seeker. The American mendicant.
I’m 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.
I pay for a bed in their hostel and arrange for tomorrow’s tour of the Temples of Humankind. 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 for €160.
“Perhaps another time,” I say.
Gazza gives me a warm hug and then I’m turned over to Shama Viola (as in the Hawaiian White-Rumped Shama bird and the Italian for a Violet flower), who takes me on an informal walk around the grounds.
The Bird Woman and the Dolphin Whisperer
Shama is a longtime Damanhurian resident, about sixty, 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. We pass a concrete Stonehenge that would fit well in a putt putt course and arrive at a wide field covered in painted stones. “These paths follow the Earth’s energy fields,” she explains.
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 and hands it to me. “To protect you from the powerful energies.”
Back at the hostel—probably the cleanest in all of Europe—I search my room 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 and 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 highly competitive in an aloof, passive-aggressive way. She doesn’t come out and say, “I’m more enlightened than the others. Pick me, pick me!” But she’s quick to talk up her psychic abilities, extensive ritual experience, and acute sensitivity to subtle energies.
In typical New Age fashion, she talks about eating food or going for a walk with the solemn reverence of divine revelation. Then she’ll discuss sacred visions and magical powers as if they’re as commonplace as a fart.
I’ve seen it a hundred times. It’s her bid for a top spot in the hierarchy. That means she’s more fun than a cup of Kool-Aid in Jonestown.
Sects and the City
Our first stop is the Crea. It’s 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 health food store reincarnated as a shopping mall.
One shop specializes in Selfic technology. They have portable Selfs for sale that resemble the copper wire jewelry peddled by hippies at music festivals and Rainbow Gatherings—except these little guys have souls that 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 are crude, child-like patterns infused with animate spirits (like amateur abstracts—only magic) that go for €1,600 or so.
Walking by the medical facility, I see 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. He’s so desperate—so hopeful—that for a moment, this absurd place isn’t so funny.
As we wait outside for our ride to the Temple, I ask Shama what’s up with their names.
“Damanhurians are given an animal name when they first arrive,” she explains, “and as they are initiated into the mysteries, they get a plant name.”
That’s how you end up with names like Furetto Oliva, Iguana Mangrovia, 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?”
“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. Zoe scowls. I’d 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 assume the little Self coiled on the dashboard was made to ward off head-on collisions.
When the “Eighth Wonder” Was 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’s nothing worse than seeing a lame picture in a hiking guide before reaching the mountain’s summit. It ruins the element of surprise. 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 again in 1992, on allegations of tax evasion, weapons hording, and satanic child abuse—back before their subsequent acquittal made the press.
I imagine Damanhur at the height of its secrecy, as if I were some 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 harmonic chants echoing through the forest and beautiful women in flowing robes. I would envy the knowing smiles between these eccentric initiates.
Up on the mountain, we meet two Americans, Mark and Lisa, coming out of the temple. For them, it’s just another stop on a New Age world tour. They’ve done the Israeli kibbutzim, the Indian ashrams, and the Peruvian shamanism. Like tourists—only magic.
Mark’s business card identifies him as a Massage Therapist – Intuitive Counselor – Spiritual Healer – Venture Capitalist.
Lisa is an “etheric surgeon” with 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, which provides “12th dimensional shields.” She explains this with a straight face.
These guys know the game. How else could they afford their exotic jaunts?
Not me. I’m going in cold.
Initiated in the Temples of Humankind
I imagine I’m entering the Temples in the old days, before Damanhur had PayPal. When hippies flocked to the hills to do magic and find God. When the Machine 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. We would consume quantities of wine and strange drugs, and become gods—our own will be done. We would 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’d take me into the Temple and show me the Secret. It would change my life forever.
Imagine—you’ve been taken deep into the cold belly of the Earth. They take off your blindfold and you’re led through winding corridors by pale lantern light. You pass murals of cells forming into fish, into lush vegetation, into great dinosaurs and flying lizards. Then you enter a vast circular chamber.
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 and asks me, “Can you feel the energy here?”
I roll my eyes and try to ignore her.
Every piece of the Temple tells a story. Every face is a Damanhurian.
Imagine you walk toward the golden Androgyne painted on the far wall. An ephemeral gray Demiurge separates and blows out spiraling galaxies from a pile of dust in his hand.
In this mural, cavemen give way to the golden city of Atlantis. Its citizens are armed with laser guns and other wizardry. After Atlantis is destroyed, humanity is left with the Egyptian god-kings, the Semitic law-givers, and the Asian mystics.
You follow these images up to the crucial development in history—the Damanhurians. They’re gathered up and led by Falco into a great war against faceless grey automatons. As the robotic monsters approach the battle line, they’re given faces—reflections of the Damanhurians that fight them.
Imagine that you want to be a part of this final battle. There are still some faces yet to be painted. Maybe you want to get your picture on the wall.
Land of the Lost
It’s time to enter the Hall of Water. The walls are covered with the lunatic patterns of Falco’s brainstorms. You’re told that these diagrams are a mystical language. Circles, spirals, polygons, and random lines are interwoven in gold paint. It’s like standing in a massive circuit board.
Imagine you’re purified and primed for the cause. Perhaps you’re on psychedelics.
They tell you to step inside the circle of bulbs. There’s a sense of apprehension. This apparatus isn’t just some nightmare of New Age interior design—
I stare at Platypus. 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 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. He was initiated into the Ancient Mysteries which have been lost for millennia.”
Zoe says, “Of course. Of course. 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 bubbling tubes from a safe distance. This hi-tech “time machine” belongs in a haunted house at a county fair.
I look from Zoe to Platypus. The floodgates break and I bust out laughing. This operation would be evil if it weren’t so dumb.
Cult is Short for Culture
I spend a few days nosing around the compound, asking questions, taking notes, getting the story straight. Zoe’s ready to move in. Mark is ready to invest.
Imagine for a moment you bought the whole bit. You’re convinced all of history culminates in this budding New Age utopia. You decide to stay forever.
The decades pass and you end up like these old, droopy-eyed Damanhurians shuffling around the commune. You bust your hump to keep things moving. You save the world from ignorance and suffering. You gain experience points and become a wizard supreme.
You pass from spouse to spouse, according to the Damanhurian custom of annual remarriage. You watch your children grow up in a magic fairyland and hope they’ll stay. Hell, they couldn’t adapt to the outside world if they tried.
You live your life the best you can. Then you die. You’re buried peacefully in the Valchiusella Valley. A painting of your face smiles forever in the Hall of Earth. Tourists even pay to come look at it.
If cult-hopping has taught me anything, it’s that communes are just a microcosm of the wider world. Society is basically an excuse to get laid. You laugh and you cry. You eat, shit, and die. Cult is short for culture.
Seriously, what would make a person dumber—a TV set or a make believe time machine?
So I hitchhike out with a smile. A young Italian woman named Taraka picks me up, but she’s not going directly back to town.
“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.
“It’s nice to be with a normal person. 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 in the floorboard.
“So where are you going, anyway?” I ask.
“To a Lakota Sweat Lodge in the Alps. We call to the Grandfather spirits of American tribes. You can come if you like. Only €200. You have heard of this?”
I nod my head wearily. “Of course. It’s like a sauna—only magic.”
Original published at Disinformation — December 17, 2010
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That was fun!
Marvelous piece. I know the pull of the occult having flirted with Aleister Crowley’s works in my early thirties. For me it was all about power and wanting to know secrets. Thank God conversion brought me back to reality, after a couple of years in psychotherapy and then Buddhism.
Now I know the Way, the Truth, and the Life. ❤️❤️❤️🎶🎶🎶