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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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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.
Beginning with his expedition to the jade labyrinth of the Darien Gap, Davis traverses vision quests in British Columbia, Haitian horse races, and the most hidden corners of vodoun rites in pursuit of an elusive compound capable of inducing living death. It’s a world where spirits seize acolytes, women swallow fire, and water turns to blood. Working at the intersection of chemistry and culture, Davis’ investigation takes him from the laboratories of Harvard to the pool-halls of Port-au-Prince, and the connections he forms with bokors and houngans reveal a spiritual dimension rooted in respect for the natural world in communion with a spiritual one. He’s pushed to the limits of physical endurance, ethical research, and religious politics. Indeed, as impressive as Davis’ quest to obtain samples of the tetrodotoxin used in zombie powder is his dedication to accurate reporting. Extensive historical context anchors his narrative, and a bibliography notes both scientific and anthropological references.
This isn’t a book fetishizing Haitian vodoun as a Hollywoodized cult; instead, Davis depicts a complex worldview rooted in secret societies of the Efik in Africa and evolving through Maroon communities of escaped slaves in the Caribbean. Rather than a fable of rotting flesh, vodoun represents the lifeblood of rural Haiti, a spiritual and political paradigm intertwined with a colonial past and embedded in Haitian cultural thought. Within this nexus, zombification serves a very real and judicial purpose. For anyone looking to learn more about ethnobotany, Haitian religion, and one of the most significant ethnobotanical projects of the 20th century, this book is a must-read.
For those interested, Davis’ Passage of Darkness is an account of his research in Haiti written for an academic audience. If you want to learn more about the scientific foundation for zombification, consider giving it a look.
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Wade Davis travels to Haiti, after a man, long-thought dead, reappears. Lurid story, huh?Read more