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The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985)

by Wade Davis

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Too bad they made this wonderful book into a horror flick. The book is about a Harvard trained ethnobotanist who goes to Haiti to learn about some of the naturally occuring compounds used in the voudoun culture. The hope is that some of the active compounds may provide a safer alternative to general anaesthesia. What I found remarkable about the book was Wade Davis' ability to embrace and respect the voudoun culture (and it is a culture in the full sense of the word) without making western value judgements and assumptions about it. It is only through his understanding of the culture that he is able to learn what he came to find out. I don't want to include any spoilers here about the specific drugs or their effects, but I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in anthropology and/or biology. ( )
  Eye_Gee | May 8, 2017 |
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

  bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
Moving portrait of voodooism and Haiti. Not at all like the movie, I'm sure. ( )
  stacy_chambers | Aug 22, 2013 |
Fascinating account of Davis' journey to Haiti in search of the science behind the mystery and rumours surrounding zombification. Davis is an ethnobotanist with impeccable credentials, and he throws himself headlong into his research. I learned a lot about the history of Haiti. I learned about Voodoo, too, and the interesting rituals and beliefs surrounding this religion. Parts of the book were muddy and circuitous, but so too was the nature of Davis' search. ( )
1 vote satyridae | Apr 5, 2013 |
Freakin' voodoo, man.
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
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He knew the story of King Da, the incarnation of the Serpent, which is the eternal beginning, never ending, who took his pleasure mystically with a queen who was the Rainbow, patroness of the Waters and of all Bringing Forth.


The Kingdom of This World
Everything is poison, nothing is poison.

To my parents,

to Professor Richard Evans Schultes, who made it possible,

and to John Lennon.
First words
My first meeting with the man who would send me on my quest for the Haitian zombi poison occurred on a damp miserable winter's day in late February 1974.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0684839296, Paperback)

In April 1982, ethnobotanist Wade Davis arrived in Haiti to investigate two documented cases of zombis -- people who had reappeared in Haitian society years after they had been officially declared dead and had been buried. Drawn into a netherworld of rituals and celebrations, Davis penetrated the vodoun mystique deeply enough to place zombification in its proper context within vodoun culture. In the course of his investigation, Davis came to realize that the story of vodoun is the history of Haiti -- from the African origins of its people to the successful Haitian independence movement, down to the present day, where vodoun culture is, in effect, the government of Haiti's countryside.

The Serpent and the Rainbow combines anthropological investigation with a remarkable personal adventure to illuminate and finally explain a phenomenon that has long fascinated Americans.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:00 -0400)

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