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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping, fascinating anthropological account
Davis's book is a joy to read. It is very well written, combining both hard scientific fact with mystery and high adventure. It reads like a novel and provides an excellent background on Haitian culture and the anthropology of voodoo. I object to Davis's relativistic stance that magical and scientific thought are in some sense equally valid and that we are...
Published on 16 Nov 1998

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1.0 out of 5 stars Voodoo science
I came to this work having read another book by Wade Davies - his wonderful biography of Richard Evans Schultz, 'One River'. Schultz was in the heroic tradition of botanical exploration, particularly his ethno-botanical work on psychoactive plant drug use amongst the tribes of the upper Amazon. One of the great botanical scientists of any era.
So how does this work...
Published 15 months ago by Post enlightenment


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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping, fascinating anthropological account, 16 Nov 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: The Serpent and the Rainbow (Paperback)
Davis's book is a joy to read. It is very well written, combining both hard scientific fact with mystery and high adventure. It reads like a novel and provides an excellent background on Haitian culture and the anthropology of voodoo. I object to Davis's relativistic stance that magical and scientific thought are in some sense equally valid and that we are culturally conditioned to accept one or the other. But the science is there (after all, it was Davis who cracked the medical mystery of zombification), and his respect for the the theology of voodoo helps make his account personal and lively. I recommend it highly.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating scientific adventure, 21 Sep 1997
By A Customer
This review is from: The Serpent and the Rainbow (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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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An exploration of other worlds, 8 Feb 2006
By 
Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Serpent and the Rainbow (Paperback)
Davis guides us through a fantastic, but not fantasy, 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. Its poison was adapted for various uses in Europe within years of Columbus' voyages.
This pharmocopoeia of toxins and anesthetic drugs have been a part of many cultures, but in Haiti, they prove to be a mechanism of social justice. Wade's account of the structure of Haitian society is worth the price of the book. The classic picture of hierarchical society, resembling so vividly that of our own, is dissected carefully by Davis. Haiti, with its history of dictators and oppression, foreign rule and harsh slavery so vividly depicted by North American media, retains a hidden but powerful underlying structure. While the government seems to sit dominant in Port-au-Prince, in the rural areas an almost independent organization of communities flourish. These local structures reflect accepted norms, deal with local conflict and provide an underlying enforcement mechanism for the maintenance of social order. Their foundation is derived from African roots, modified by Roman Catholic ritual, and remain unheralded except by those who decry their secretiveness. Wade argues these community establishments are not truly "secret societies," but instead reflect the needs of people for whom bombastic pronouncements have no place in their daily existence. The houngans ["vodoun priests"] are little more than Haitian parsons supporting their local populations.
Although focused on Haiti, Davis' book cannot but evoke how much we have yet to learn about other "hidden" or "clandestine" societies. If the method of "zombification" of malefactors seems extreme in our view, it may be simply because we hide our criminals away in concrete tombs at taxpayer's expense. Davis explains that no victim of zombification has been selected arbitrarily. Each situation is carefully examined to assess whether the victim has offended family or the community. Catatonic drugs are administered to render the culprit to a state where they may be transported from the community they've offended. To Davis, it's simply the quiet application of justice. Is this a technique we could apply in our own society? Probably not, since we don't possess the cultural background. But the rendering of justice at the local level for local offenses is surely something we might consider as a behavioural innovation. Davis leaves this question open, but if we engage in the type of investigation he relates, there might be other examples in other societies from which we can learn. This book offers much information and interesting examples of lives different from our own. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Epic quest for better medical drugs, 25 Nov 2010
This review is from: The Serpent and the Rainbow (Paperback)
Wade Davis (WD)is a Canadian, Harvard-educated anthropologist, ethno-botanist and environmentalist. In 1982 he was asked by 2 key US scholars in psychiatry and psycho-pharmacy to travel to Haiti to find out more about `zombies', dead people alleged to have been resurrected from their graves to work as slaves. The scholars convinced WD that death is a tenuous concept and that the ultimate proof of death is putrefaction. But reports from Haiti suggest that some people declared dead (no breathing, heartbeat or brain activity) were buried and returned later to their communities without signs of putrefaction. How come? How can a death-like state be induced, sustained, and then be undone? WD thinks 2 types of poison might be responsible: one to turn the living into a near-dead capacity, another to undo the first poison to bring them back to reality.
WD's professor of ethno-botany at Harvard made his name by staying in the Amazon basin for 12 years rather than the one planned semester, collecting tons of medical plants, some of which turned out to be vital for pharmaceutical production, e.g. tranquillizers. His students were the Indiana Jones's of the 1950's and beyond, challenged to discover new plants able to serve as inputs for new medical drugs to improve anesthesia, psychiatric treatment, even space travel, by incapacitating people and resurrecting them at will.
This is an exceptionally well-written autobiographic account of research in Haiti to prove or dispel the notion of `zombies' and the poisons/pharmacology used to create and resurrect them. He does so by combining induction and deduction, testing book-based hypotheses from West Africa's Slave Coast in the late 18th century, its local botany and religious beliefs, with contemporary Haitian mindsets.
It is the journey rather than the destination that should preoccupy readers of this formidable piece of research with plenty of references to personal and written sources. Today, 25 years after the publication of WD's book, Haiti is spared no amount of suffering. Its fierce energy is reflected in many novels from the 1980s,`90s and beyond by WD himself, Mayra Montero, Madison Smartt Bell's historical trilogy, Edwidge Dantikat and others.
Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in Haiti and the powers of mind-altering drugs and rituals.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This was a facinating story, well written and intriguing., 24 Feb 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: The Serpent and the Rainbow (Paperback)
Davis's journey into the heart of Haitian culture is facinating. It is an educational piece that opens the reader's eyes to a different culture from their own. Please keep in mind, if you have not read it, THIS IS NOTHING LIKE THE MOVIE. The film is a very poor interpretation. The book, however, is excellent.
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1.0 out of 5 stars Voodoo science, 13 Sep 2013
This review is from: The Serpent and the Rainbow (Paperback)
I came to this work having read another book by Wade Davies - his wonderful biography of Richard Evans Schultz, 'One River'. Schultz was in the heroic tradition of botanical exploration, particularly his ethno-botanical work on psychoactive plant drug use amongst the tribes of the upper Amazon. One of the great botanical scientists of any era.
So how does this work of Davies stand up to scientific scrutiny? Wade sent his samples for analysis of Tetrodotoxin content and the result was published as a letter in the Journal Toxicon (Toxicon Volume 24, Issue 8, 1986, Pages 747-749. Tetrodotoxin and the Haitian zombie Takeshi Yasumotoa, C.Y. Kaob a Faculty of Agriculture, Tohoku University Sendai, Japan b Department of Pharmacology, State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, Brooklyn, NY 11203, U.S.A..)
The authors' conclusion was as follows "As is evident from the above, there is, at best, only insignificant traces of tetrodotoxin in the samples of `zombie potions' which were supplied for analysis by Davis. There is a good reason for the virtual absence of tetrodotoxin, if indeed any had been present initially. Both samples were extremely alkaline; even the extract in 0.1% acid alcohol had a pl-I of 10. A slurry of a portion of another sample tested in Brooklyn in January l985 gave a pH of 12. From extant knowledge of the chemical properties of tetrodotoxin (Tsuox er al., 1964; Most-nan et al., 1964; Goro et al., 1965), in such alkaline environments tetrodotoxin would have been decomposed irreversibly into pharmacologically inactive products.
From these results it can be concluded that the widely circulated claim in the lay press to the effect that tetrodotoxin is the causal agent in the initial zombification process is without factual foundation. Moreover, it can be predicted safely that as long as `zombie potions' are made the way they are, with the inclusion of material that can impart the extreme alkalinity, no active tetrodotoxin could be present to produce any significant biological effects." The same conclusion was reached in an excellent review article of Wade's claims published in Science by William Booth (Science 1988; vol 240; pp 274-277) entitled "Voodoo Science" which just about summarizes the view of this work held by Wades's critics and by me.

The works of Carlos Castaneda come to mind. A rattling good yarn; just bear in mind its a yarn which Davies paid his informants many hundreds of dollars to obtain.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful book, 11 Feb 2013
By 
E. E. Smith "magyk1" (San Francisco, CA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Serpent and the Rainbow (Paperback)
My sister recommended this book and I purchased this and One River by the same offer for my partner. He tells me both books are a journey of discovery. Magnificent original thoughts on each page.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A thrilling blend of science, history, and anthropology, 21 Jan 2013
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This review is from: The Serpent and the Rainbow (Paperback)
I came to this because I'd read some of Wade Davis's other work, but I had no real interest in Haiti or Voodoo, so all credit to the author for keeping me glued to the page throughout. The initial motivation for Davis's investigation, back in the nineteen-eighties, was to find out whether psychoactive drugs which many academics believed were used in Voodoo practices, specifically to create Zombies, were real, were psychoactive, and perhaps useful for other medical purposes.

Where the book is really interesting is that not only does he crack the puzzle of what drugs are used and how they operate, but he also delves deep into Haitian history and society to explain what Voodoo, and specifically Zombies, represent within Haitian culture. It's a book full of historical narrative and anecdotes about Voodoo practitioners the author meets, as well as a biochemistry puzzle (although the biochemistry is interesting in itself).

His ultimate point is that you can't explain a cultural phenomenon like the Zombie without a multi-disciplinary approach which takes into account not only the sophisticated poisons used, but also the place they hold within Haitian religion and society. In other words, you can't understand the drug without understanding the 'set and setting' of its consumption. He also uses this insight as a jumping-off point to show that whilst it is certainly a very distinct set of beliefs, the role of intoxication and trance in Haitian Voodoo actually has many parallels to other religions.

All in all it's an exciting, interesting account which can be thought-provoking and definitely taught me that much of what I thought I knew about Haiti and Voodoo was misleading. The only reason I've given it 4 stars and not 5 is that Davis clearly became very involved in the practice of Voodoo to write this book, and opened his mind to its possibilities. Whilst this is admirable in an anthropologist, there are passages here where he tries to evoke the spiritual power of religion in contrast with the rationally-driven societies of the modern West which are, quite frankly, wishy-washy New Age bunkum and stick out from the normally smart, thoughtful text like a sore thumb.
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good book.... but don't expect to make any zombies after!, 1 July 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: The Serpent and the Rainbow (Paperback)
Right, First of all, this is a damn good book, and anyone intrested in the subject matter should find it really intresting.
But know the bad points(outweighed by good):
1). I want to make a zombie goddamn it(sorry only joking). Bue the author does tend to spend a lot of time talking about things, that whilst being intresting, and in a sense relevent, i feel move the subject matter away from a history of voudan, and more towards a history of the island. Of Course the two are connected, but does the author need to put that much detail in to the subject matter.
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The Serpent and the Rainbow
The Serpent and the Rainbow by Davis (Paperback - 25 Aug 1997)
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