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The Serpent and the Rainbow
A Harvard Scientist's Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombies, and Magic

Wade Davis

Pages: 300
Price: 13.00
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pub Date: 1997
ISBN: 0684839296

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Table of Contents >

A note on Orthography
Part One - The Poison
Part Two - Interlude at Harvard
Part Three - The Secret Societies
Glossary
Annotated Bibliography
Acknowledgments
Index

 
Description >
Excellent ethnopharmacological detective tale. Story of the Haitian people, their secret vodoun societies, and their use of potent plants (and animals) in the process of judging a wrongdoer, simulating their death, and then maintaining control over them (now a zombi). A compelling story and good ethnobotany. - Mind Books

This book "is an anecdotal and personal account by Davis, an ethnobotanist who pursued research on zombification in Haiti. During the course of several field trips, Davis discovered the neuropharmacological properties of plant and animal substances that explain how zombies are made. Davis also became enmeshed in the social web of Haitian society and {attempts to} depict the historical forces that led to the intertwined relationships between cults and secret societies on the one hand, and the government on the other." (Libr J) 

a chronicle of Davis' exploration of the Amazon rain forest--The Serpent and the Rainbow presents the author's account of his venture into the heart of Haiti, on a search for a powerful sedative--a "zombie drug." "Exotic and far-reaching."--The Wall Street Journal.

 
Reviews/Excerpts >
Reviews:

The book is an anecdotal and personal account by Davis, an ethnobotanist who pursued research on zombification in Haiti. During the course of several field trips, Davis discovered the neuropharmacological properties of plant and animal substances that explain how zombies are made. Davis also became enmeshed in the social web of Haitian society and depicts the historical forces that led to the intertwined relationships between cults and secret societies on the one hand, and the government on the other. The book lacks the kind of completeness that might be of interest to anthropologists, ethnobotanists, and medical specialists; it is more of a personal narrative, a diary of discovery, interesting to the public at large, but leaving specialists with a number of unanswered questions. Preferred Choice Book Plan main selection. Winifred Lambrecht, Anthropology Dept., Brown Univ., Providence, R.I.  - Library Journal

In this scientific adventure book, a Harvard ethnobotanist visits Haiti to try to get a glimpse into the world of the Vodoun religion and the process of making zombis. His mission is to discover by what potion or powder zombis are created and bring this back to the U.S. for scientific analysis. But, he also undertakes to explain zombification as a cultural artifact within the Vodoun belief system, a sort of syncretistic phenomenon incorporating elements from African religion and Roman Catholicism. The book details much of his adventure in Haiti, his involvement with Vodoun priests and magicians, and his involvement with Haitian secret societies. It is a thoroughly fascinating read and provides a unique image of a very singular culture.

The book begins with the author's early career at Harvard University. He contacts the professor Richard Evans Schultes, a famous ethnobotanist, and he begins his first journey to South America to collect plants. Upon returning after a near mishap, he enters Schultes' research group and one day receives and invitation to pursue research into zombification from a well known psychiatrist in New York. The benefits of a discovery of the zombification formula are tremendous with applications to anesthesiology. So, he undertakes a journey to Haiti to determine this formula. Once in Haiti, he explores the various Vodoun ceremonies and contacts Max Beauvoir, a local authority on the Vodoun religion. Max Beauvoir's young daughter helps Wade Davis (the author) get around in Haiti and converse with the locals. He forms the initial hypothesis that the zombi powder consists of datura (a psychoactive plant which is strongly hallucinogenic in small quantities and poisonous in large quantities) and that the antidote consists of Calabar bean. However, this will prove to be incorrect. After haggling for some time with Marcel Pierre, a houngan (Voodoo priest), he succeeds in making the powder and discovering its psychoactive components. He sends this back to the U.S. and it proves beneficial. The author later will return to Haiti and explore the deeper into the world of Vodoun culture and the zombification process. Here, he encounters secret societies, which interact with the government in various ways. He also delves into the history of Haiti and explains how these societies have arisen as revolutionary movements in that history. He becomes quite enamoured of the Haitian people and even considers joining a secret society at the end. However, he decides against this, because of the intense code he would be bound to follow were he to do so. Finally, he leaves Haiti to return home to write his book.

The idea of zombification is a very interesting one, and this book has certainly gone a long way in explaining it. But, in some ways it will always remain mysterious. It turns out that the zombified individual is usually someone who has broken a code within the secret societies. The powder puts the person in a catatonic state, only to be reawakened and given an "antidote" (which is actually largely inactive). However, it is not so much the powder that determines the zombi as it is the cultural surroundings of the individual. For instance, the same component used in the powder is known in other cultures to cause paralysis and "returns from the dead", but it is never taken to be a cause of zombification. So the culture of Haiti and the Vodoun religion are actually the most important components of this procedure. This is the discovery of Wade Davis. - Zosimos

 

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