- Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Touchstone; Reissue edition (August 5, 1997)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0684839296
- ISBN-13: 978-0684839295
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 205 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #54,335 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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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"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
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He began the first chapter of this 1985 book, “My first meeting with the man who would sent me on my quest for a Haitian zombie poison occurred on a damp miserable winter’s day in late February 1974… having decided to go to the Amazon, there was only one man to see. Professor Richard Evans Schultes was an almost mythic figure on the [Harvard] campus at that time… both within and without the Department of Anthropology. (Pg. 15-16) “Schultes asked me if I would be able to leave within a fortnight for the Caribbean country of Haiti.” (Pg. 22)
He met several other scientists, and was told, “We understand from Professor Schultes that you are attracted to unusual places. We propose to send you to the frontier of death. If what we are about to tell you is true, as we believe it is, it means that there are men and women dwelling in the continuous present, where the past is dead and the future consists of fear and impossible desires… Kline… presented to me … a death certificate of one Clairvius Narcisse… ‘Our problem,’ Kline explained, ‘is that this Narcisse is now very much alive… He and his family claim he was the victim of a voodoo cult and that immediately following his burial he was taken from his grave as a zombie… The living dead… Voodooists believe that their sorcerers have the power to raise innocent individuals from their graces to sell them as slaves.” (Pg. 24-26)
Another pointed out. “If certain brain cells are without oxygen for even a few seconds they die and can never recover their function… the individual may lose personality… and yet survive as a vegetable because the vital centers are intact… Precisely the Haitian definition of a zombi… A body without character, without will… There must be a material explanation, and we think it was a drug… I did meet an old voodoo priest who assured me that the poison was sprinkled across the threshold of the intended victim’s doorway and absorbed through the skin of the feet. He claimed that at the resurrection ceremony the victim was administered a second drug as an antidote.” (Pg. 29-30)
Davis adds, “I found his excitement contagious. Yes, it was completely conceivable that a drug might exist which, if administered in proper dosage, would lower the metabolic state of the victim to such a level that he would be considered dead. In fact, however, the victim would remain alive, and an antidote properly administered could then restore him at the appropriate time. The medical potential of such a drug would be enormous.” (Pg. 30) He was told, “What we want from you, Mr. Davis, is the formula of the poison.” (Pg. 31)
He traveled to Haiti, and met a psychiatrist named Lamarque Douyon, who had been working with Clairvius Narcisse, who told him, “Zombis cannot be the living dead… Death is not merely the loss of bodily function, it is the material decay of the cells and tissues. One does not wake up the dead. However, those who have been drugged may revive.” (Pg. 58-59) Later, he adds, “It didn’t take me long to realize that the original hunch … had proved correct: the zombie poison included one of the most toxic substances known from nature… In English we know these as blowfish or puffer fish… many of which had tetrodoxin in their skin, liver, ovaries, and intestines.” (Pg. 117-118)
He observes, “Tetrodoxin induces a state of profound paralysis, marked by complete immobility during which the border between life and death is not at all certain, even to trained physicians. I need hardly express the significance of this in terms of the zombie investigation. It became quite clear that tetrodoxin was capable of pharmacologically inducing a physical state that might actually allow an individual to be buried alive.” (Pg. 123)
He summarizes, “The investigation had come full circle. Ironically, the plant I had originally suspected… was instrumental in actually creating and maintaining the zombi state… datura promised to amplify those mental processes a thousand times. … Administered to an individual who has already suffered the effects of the tetrodoxin, who has already passed through the ground, the devastating psychological effects are difficult to imagine. For it is in the course of that intoxication that the zombie is baptized with a new name, and led away to be socialized into a new existence.” (Pg. 166)
He explains, “For the vodounist, then zombis are created by sorcery, and it is the belief in the magic that makes the relatives of the dead concerned. For good reasons, they go to great efforts to ensure that the dead are truly dead, or at least protected from such a horrible fate. This is why the body may be killed again, with a knife through the heart or by decapitation.” (Pg. 185)
He notes, “In the end, this solution to this aspect of the zombi mystery had a certain elegance. For the vodounist the creation of a zombie is essentially a magical process… Rubbed into a wound or inhaled, the poison kills the corps cadaver slowly, efficiently, and discreetly. The poison contains tetrodoxin, which acts to lower dramatically the metabolic rate of the victim almost to the point of clinical death. Pronounced dead by attending physicians, and considered materially dead by family members … the victim is in fact buried alive… The widespread belief in the reality of zombis in Haiti… is based on those cases in which the victim receives the correct dose of the poison, wakes up in the coffin, and is taken from the grave… The victim, affected by the drug, traumatized by the set and setting of the total experience, is bound and led before a cross to be baptized with a new name. After the baptism… he or she is made to eat a paste containing a strong dose of a potent psychoactive drug… which brings on a state of disorientation and amnesia. During the course of that intoxication, the zombie is taken away into the night.” (Pg. 187)
He concludes, “I had arrived in Haiti to investigate zombis. A poison had been found and identified… that was chemically capable of maintaining a person so poisoned in a zombie state. Yet as a Western scientists … I had found myself swept into a complex worldview utterly different from my own and one that left me demonstrating less the chemical basis of a popular belief than the psychological and cultural foundations of a chemical event. Perhaps more significantly, the research had suggested that there was a logical purpose to zombification that was consistent with the heritage of the people. To be sure, I had failed to document a zombie as it was taken from the cemetery, but this was no longer something I deliberately sought out.” (Pg. 265)
Of course, the book also includes the fascinating story of Davis’s explorations and adventures. I found this a fascinating and informative book, that will interest students of cultural anthropology, comparative religion, psychopharmacology, etc.
It is the early 1980's and Harvard educated ethnobotantist (one who scientifically studies the relationship between people and plants) Wade Davis is sent to Haiti to investigate the validity of two reported cases of zombification. The theory being the reanimated state is created through the action of then unidentified toxins found in a mysterious mixture called "zombie powder". Dr. Davis's financial backers believe the powder may be of some pharmacological interest.
Wade Davis does indeed obtain the mysterious powder; several forms of it in fact and analysis in the States prove the substances to contain the active ingredients tetrodotoxin from pufferfish and another potent toxin from dried tree frogs. Davis hypothesizes the powder when applied to broken or abraded skin causes an extreme reaction culminating in a death-like state. The victim, fully conscious but completely paralyzed, is then mistakenly diagnosed as dead, buried alive, and left in the grave for hours to days with nothing but the darkness and his or her own thoughts as company.
This is just the beginning of what can only be described as an absolutely horrific fate. The victim is later dug up, viciously beaten and subjected to frightening rituals designed to convince the victim that he or she is now a soulless zombie. To further this belief the victim is feed a paste containing tropane alkaloids from the Datura stramonium plant which causes delirium, confusion, and memory loss. The pliant zombie is then sold to one of the large farms on the island and is usually never seen or heard from again.
Sounds pretty frightening doesn't it? Well it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of what according to the author was going on in Haiti at the time of the book's writing. By this point obtaining the powder and getting a positive chemical analysis completed wasn't enough for the good doctor. He wanted to understand WHY zombies were being created in the first place, and WHO was making the decision to create them. The author wanted to understand the magic of Haitian Vodou.
What follows is an odyssey into the secret Vodou societies who controlled the countryside, and to a certain extent the capital of Port-au-Prince. It is the societies who "own the night" enforcing a system of folk justice with zombification as the ultimate punishment. Victims are rarely if ever innocent, chosen specifically for their difficult temperament and moral degeneracy. That the author was able to penetrate so deeply into the inner machinations of the societies and their relationship with government officials, and lived to write the tale, is absolutely amazing to this reader.
So what conclusions can be drawn from this classic work on Haitin Vodou? At the very least THE SERPENT & THE RAINBOW raises interesting questions about magical ethics and the role of magical practitioners in their communities. It also describes the rarest type of government to ever exist in the Americas: the thaumacracy (a society governed by the belief in magic and the power of its practitioners). This in my opinion makes the book an essential read for all modern day pagans and not just vodouists. Besides, for sheer pleasure reading it is a really good book.