Wade Davis is an “ethno-botanist” who earned his degree from Harvard. He’s recruited by some very bright minds to travel to Haiti for research on the Haitian zombi. They inform Wade that due to the investigation of a Haitian zombification victim, Clairvius Narcisse, they’ve come to understand that the zombis are created with a poison that brings them to the brink of death. There is also an anti-dote that revives them but leaves them stripped of any free will. The scientists compare it to a form of artificial hibernation and want to use the poison and anti-dote as an alternative to anesthesia. The term “artificial hibernation” reminds me of an article I read about a village in Vermont that was rumored to have frozen the sick and elderly during the winter. Anyone who could not work was given a substance that rendered them unconscious and stored in boxes in a shed on their families’ properties. When the spring arrived, the women would pour a mixture involving Hemlock (which is a poison…go figure) onto the bodies to melt the ice and the people would slowly twitch back to life and wake up…
When Wade arrives in Haiti, he attends a voudou ceremony held by Max Beauvoir, a very rich Haitian who holds these ceremonies every night, always open to the public. Max’s daughter, Rachel, becomes possessed by 1 of the loa (deities of the voudoun faith) during the ceremony and puts flaming hot coals in her mouth, flying around the fire and screeching all in rhythm with the drums. When she is no longer “mounted” Rachel is unharmed by the coals that were in her mouth. She explains to Wade that the loa eat fire and nothing can hurt them because they are of God. Wade is at a loss of words first at how the people of Haiti can become possessed so easily and second how Rachel was able to hold the burning embers in her mouth without showing any signs of pain or burning herself.
Wade and Rachel travel all over Haiti, interviewing people involved with the Clairvius Narcisse case and other similar cases of zombification. Through Clairvius’ own sister, the pair learn that Clairvius was not very well-liked by the population. He fathered many illegitimate children without supporting any of them and refused a loan to his brother which caused a dispute between the 2 of them over the land they had inherited from their father. Because Clairvius only looked out for himself he was able to live luxuriously (or luxurious by Haitian standards…I guess tin roofs were a big deal.) According to Clairvius, himself, he remembers being pronounced dead at the hospital, although unable to communicate or move at all and he remembers being buried later to be dug up, beaten (The zombie is beaten after being dug up because they are known to be very violent once they’re awakened. Wade determines this may be from the toad venom of the poison. The venom is similar to a drug given to the berserkers before a battle, making them raging beasts with immense strength.), bound, and taken to a master where he was forced to work on the master’s plantation with other zombi/slaves. He could not fight back. He only did as he was told. He and the others worked on the plantation until 1 of the other zombis somehow regained his free will and killed the master. Clairvius was 1 of the few survivors as most of the other slaves died from a lack of oxygen while being buried alive…Another case was the zombification of a woman known as Ti Femme. She was known for being rude and sheisty, always trying to sell her items in the market for way more than what they were actually worth. She fought with a lot of people because of her attitude and greedy nature.
Rachel and Wade eventually meet up with an infamous bokor (professional black-magic sorcerer), Marcel Pierre. They join him on a grave-robbing and a secluded ceremony held out in the Haitian wild. Marcel’s reputation is not a great 1. He is not respected because of what he does for a living. Wade comes to understand that he is tolerated, however, because there is a need for him. Marcel’s specialty is the zombi powders he mixes. This is usually comprised of human/animal bones, toad venom and puffer-fish venom.
Wade goes into the notoriety of puffer-fish as a delicacy in Japan. Just a tiny droplet of the stuff in a person’s blood stream is enough to kill them. The Japanese enjoy puffer-fish because of the inebriation they experience while eating it. It has to be prepared very carefully so as not to kill the person eating it. The wealthy and elite of Japan pay large sums to have their chefs include more than the legal amount of venom in the meal. A famous Japanese actor died from this practice.
With this being said, Wade presents two facets of drug use; When someone ingests poisonous mushrooms for the intoxicating effects, the experience is usually enjoyable (provided not too much of the toxin has been consumed). When a person accidentally eats a poison mushroom they get very sick and are immediately rushed to hospital. Wade then implies that the “drug” or poison being used for zombification could be a mind-over-matter situation. Since voudou and zombis are ingrained into the Haitian society and the people grow up believing in zombis and are socially conditioned since birth to fear becoming a zombi, the idea is made into a reality. Or simply put “if you believe in it, it is real”. He also notes that European witches would go into trances that gave the sensation that they were flying with the aid of psychoactive substances. These substances were usually administered intravaginally with a wooden rod such as a broomstick. This gives way to the metaphor of a witch flying on a broom.
This argument then leads to how limitless the possibilities of the human brain are. Wade goes into detail describing how humans as recently as 400 years ago could see the stars and planets very easily even in the daylight. Sailors used them to navigate their ships while people on land used them to tell time and the changing of the seasons. Nothing comes without sacrifice, however. Because we now use automobiles for transportation, we’ve lost the ability to see the stars and planets so easily in order to operate these vehicles, which requires a whole different set of skills and mental complexities…I’d like to take a second to see where he was going with this. Haitians are in a different world than we are. The loa are very real to them and possession (or trances, if you prefer) come so naturally for them. This makes me wonder what other capabilities we had to sacrifice in order to function how we do today. I read somewhere that the human brain gave up a lot of other functions in order to use language…What else have we lost? Being pagan I’ve been taught that your inner eye is like a muscle that needs to be exercised in order to get stronger. Judging by the experiences of the Haitians, I’m rather confident that we all had stronger inner eyes at some point in history, but at what cost? I’m slowly learning the subtle messages of fairytales and supernatural movies and novels…Everything has a price. Magic, spiritual awareness, mystical power, whatever you want to call it does not come without a loss of something else. It’s not the answer to everything. We can have it all, but not all at once. Why?… Because there’s a balance. You must give up something in exchange for something else, because you will have too much.
During his time spent researching the substances used in zombification, Wade studies the history of Haiti and reveals that the poisoning traces back very far. The French colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) was particularly brutal to its slaves. If they put so much as a toe out of line, they were faced with cruel punishments such as being nailed to a post by their ear or raped or burned alive. Eventually the slaves started escaping and forming secret societies over the hills of the plantations. That’s when the deaths started. The French were dropping like flies because their food was contaminated with poison. Even their well-water became unsafe to drink and these poisoning went on for quite a few years. The French tried to fight back by killing thousands of slaves and even discovering and destroying the secret societies. It didn’t work. The poison was still taking its victims until the French were clearly outnumbered and the Haitian revolution was in motion.
These societies still exist in Haiti today. The Haitian government works with these societies and have special officers that keep track of the events of the societies. These officers know of all the rituals, ceremonies and trials and have never intervened. The societies serve their own form of justice and act as a spiritual jury to those who have done wrong by their members. Wade and Rachel are invited to a ceremony of the Bizango society and while attending they learn that Clairvius’ brother “sold” him to the society for his selfish ways. The society “judged” Clairvius and he was deemed guilty which lead to his zombification. If a member of a society has been mistreated, they can turn to their leaders to seek retribution. The accused is judged by having been unknowingly given the poison (usually sprinkled in the shape of a cross on their door step and absorbed through their feet) and the voudoun ceremony captures the accused’s “ti bon ange” or spirit. The ti bon ange is what makes up a person’s will, character and personality. The lack of a ti bon ange is what makes someone a zombi. There are 7 misconducts that justify someone becoming a zombi. Clairvius and Ti Femme had broken many of them and Wade comes to the conclusion that the 2 were not innocent victims but guilty and sentenced by the loa.
I like how in-depth this book was. Even what I wrote is just the gist of the whole experience and you will have to read it to fully understand the complexities of Voudou and Haitian culture. I’ve never been to Haiti, but I feel like I need to go there after reading about it. I learned a lot of history, mythology and politics of a country I had initially known very little about. The Serpent and the Rainbow has been highly criticized for its inaccurate scientific claims, so I guess take it with a grain of salt. I’m no scientist, so he could have completely made everything up and I’d be none the wiser. My real education from reading this was of the anthropological side. I got a good religious study out of it. It went much deeper than anything I had ever read in a text book about the subject, which is not much. The way Davis discussed the difference between the American school of thought vs. the Voudoun and how it affects the 2 cultures gave me that familiar sense that only a fellow pagan would understand. Voudou, after all, is a branch of paganism.