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The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist's Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis, and Magic Paperback – August 5, 1997


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The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist's Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis, and Magic + The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World (CBC Massey Lecture) + One River
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Touchstone; Reissue edition (August 5, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684839296
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684839295
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.5 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #43,652 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review

"Exotic and far-reaching . . . a corker of a read, just the way Indiana Jones would tell it." -- The Wall Street Journal

"Zombis do come back from the dead, and Wade Davis knows how." -- Washington Post Book World

"An account solving one of the most puzzling biological mysteries of all time." -- Omni

About the Author

Wade Davis received his doctorate in ethnobotany from Harvard University and is an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society. He is the author of many books, including The Serpent and the Rainbow and One River. He lives in British Columbia, Canada.

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Customer Reviews

Excellent research and reporting.
TropicalDoc
Rather than a horror story, this book offers up a fantastic vision of Haitian life throughout history.
Brian Emershaw
Finally, he leaves Haiti to return home to write his book.
New Age of Barbarism

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

90 of 93 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on March 23, 2002
Format: Paperback
Davis guides us through a fantastic world in this superb account of his investigation into Haitian "secret societies." Although outlandish at first glance, Haitian social justice and how it's administered is revealed in its deep cultural framework. The terms "voodoo" and "zombie," so ignorantly applied in our culture over the years, are clarified by this serious scholar. Davis offers much more than simply a redefinition of what media has distorted. He examines the origins and use of various toxins that are applied to put a living person in a death-like trance. This seemingly "evil" practice has deep and positive social roots. It's the social milieu that ultimately gives this book its real value. As Davis pursues botanical sources used in rendering people comatose, he is caught up in an investigation of why the drugs are used on particular individuals.
Davis' quest began with a commission to investigate anesthetic drugs from plants and animals. His mentor, Richard Schultes, was considered the founder of ethnobotany, the study of plant chemistry as a cultural artifact. Davis is sent to Haiti in 1982, a time of growing awareness of the numbers of natural products overlooked for medicinal use. Davis is sent to Haiti to investigate the zombi myths. He learns of the use of "magic powders" to bring about a catatonic state. People are declared dead, buried, but are exhumed and led away, often to a life of near slavery. Davis, using Schultes' work as background, investigates the Datura genus of plants. Datura in various species, ranges across the Western Hemisphere and is widely used by Amerindian and other peoples for various rituals. So, too, are the excretions of Bufo marinus, the Central American "cane toad," that today is the scourge of vast reaches of Australia.
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60 of 61 people found the following review helpful By Tyler Tanner on January 10, 2003
Format: Paperback
I bought this book years ago and put it down after I realized it was nothing like the movie. Man, I'm glad I wizened up. The book saturates you in a country and culture where nothing is as it seems. Secret societies, Vodoun (as Davis refers to it in the book) and yes, Zombies are throughout it's pages. But what I thought was really interesting is when Davis talks about the history of Haiti. I could not get enough. Not only does he paint an amazing portrait of a remarkable people, but he masterfully takes you step by step on how the brutal origins of the country reflects it's modern day society and religion.
When he does talk about the Zombie poison, Davis makes it easy to understand how without giving specifics but revealing the major components. Beginning with a sound hypothesis when starting on his adventure and unraveling the mystery scientifically as the book progresses. He loves is terminology, but never does it frustrate the reader. Also, where he excels again is when he uses historical reference to provide many examples how similar or the same poisons have accidentally given the appearance of death in different parts and times of the world. Furthermore Davis explains that the poison is just a component to religious and social conditioning that reinforce the defintion of "Zombi".
After reading "The Serpent and the Rainbow" it will compel you to look up figures such as Macandal, Dr. Francois Devalier and especially Zore Neale Hurston, in which he names a chapter from the works of this remarkable woman.
My only complaint about the book is that I wish the author had provided a map. As descriptive as he is, it's hard to get a point of reference. One would say go on the net, but that's hard to do when your reading on a bus.
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33 of 36 people found the following review helpful By ubu35 on March 4, 2000
Format: Paperback
Written by an ethnobotanist (a combination of a botanist and an anthropologist), this book focuses on Haiti, the secret societies within Haiti, and of course, the psychological and scientific means of making a zombie. No, Wade Davis doesn't come out and say, to make a zombie, do this, this, and this. Instead, he uses reason and logic to track down the actual processes, both social and psychological, that lead to the Haitian people's tendency to believe in them. As it's written by a scientist, the focus on Haiti's past and culture should be more expected than a flat out 'Indiana Jones goes to the tropics'. For those who've seen the movie: no, he doesn't get zombie poison blown in his face. No, he doesn't get buried alive. No, he doesn't get harassed by a corrupt police chief who cuts off peoples' heads. It's pretty down to earth. For those really interested in Haitian culture and, to some extent, voodoo, this is a perfect book to read. If you want adventure, rent the movie.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Wes McClain on September 21, 1997
Format: Paperback
In "The Serpent and the Rainbow" Ethnobotanist Wade Davis chronicles his explorations of Haitian culture and religion in what begins as a search for an actual drug used to create Zombis. As Davis delves deeper in to the Voudoun societies in search of this rumored drug, he discovers a many layered religious and social culture that raises new questions and leads to further investigations into the peasant culture of Haiti and its roots in West African religion and culture.

While not a reference work on the Voudoun religion, "The Serpent and the Rainbow" sheds new light on Voudoun practice and theology, and it's ubiquitous presence in all levels of Haitian society. This is not a horror story of "devil drums" and "Voodoo dolls" but an exploration of how history has shaped the lives and culture of the people of Haiti.

In a nutshell, this is a real life adventure that is, if anything, more entertaining, and interesting than the fictional adventures of Indiana Jones, and far more satisfying than the Wes Craven film which is loosely (very loosely) based on this book.
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