Author: Wade Davis, 1985
Review by: Trevor Williams, managing editor, Global Atlanta
When I first traveled to Haiti in 2012, I was amazed at its sheer cultural magnetism. In spite of its poverty and social problems, there was a latent depth to it, a stubborn fidelity to tradition that frustrated those anxiously pulling it toward modernity.
In my 2017 reading of The Serpent and the Rainbow, written nearly 30 years before my visit, I was presented with kaleidoscopic and often jarring picture of the centuries-old spiritual heritage bubbling beneath the surface.
It’s painted by author Wade Davis, a self-described ethnobotanist studying the intertwined history of people and plants. His journey begins when he resolves to investigate claims about Haitian zombis, men and women pronounced dead but later seen working for their enemies — “undead” slaves certifiably alive but robbed of their former vitality and will.
What he discovers on a captivating quest — which at times seems a bit too conveniently Indiana Jones-esque — is a web of witchcraft rooted in the cultural creole resulting from Catholicism’s mix with West African animism. This sophisticated system of beliefs became Haiti’s foundational religious tradition: vodou, more commonly (often misleadingly) simplified as voodoo.
Davis is interested in uncovering the natural explanation for what he discovers to be surprisingly credible stories of zombification. In the process, he delves into vodou’s underworld, with all its rituals of possession and animal sacrifice. He eventually embeds with priests and healers who grudgingly peel back the layers of the process to reveal supposedly powerful poisons derived from various plant and animal ingredients.
Critics (perhaps rightly) see this book as a romanticized adventure story with dubious scientific merit. But to me, its value isn’t in the tedious discussion of the poison’s “active ingredient,” tetrodotoxin. It is in the persistent openness of Davis’ inquiry, the refreshing willingness to appraise respectfully the supernatural even while on a fact-finding journey.
Too often, science and religion are seen as incompatible, and Western heirs of the Enlightenment are too quick to discard centuries of spiritual wisdom and cultural richness in favor of a tidy confirmation of their hypotheses. Davis follows his own thread of curiosity back through history to the secret societies that emerged in the slave revolts that made Haiti a republic.
In the process, he teaches a valuable lesson for understanding today’s world of neat national boundaries, Google searches and Wikipedia pages: Skin-deep explanations aren’t enough to explain the way it works, and we often have to admit our own ignorance to stumble upon the truth.