A Zombie is in Vodoun (Voodoo), a dead person allegedly restored to life by a sorcerer called a bokor. The zombie has no will of its own, but acts as a robotlike slave to the bokor. Meanwhile, others believe the person to be dead.
The word “zombie” probably comes from the Congo word nzambi, which means “the spirit of a dead person.” Zombies may in fact be real, but not as the resurrected dead; they most likely are poisoned and severely braindamaged individuals who give the appearance of being dead, according to investigations by such individuals as ethnobiologist Wade Davis, author of The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985).
Davis said he interviewed real zombies in Haiti, who told him how they had “died.” They had been administered powerful poisons through food or open wounds that made them sink into a deathlike coma. After being buried alive, they were “resurrected” by the bokor with another chemical mixture. The bokor beat them and starved them into submission; damage from the poisons left them physically and mentally impaired.
The poison, usually a powder, contains various toxic plants and animals and often human remains—the latter added more for grisly detail than deadly results. In the first stage, the bokor and his assistants bury a bouga toad and a sea snake together in a jar until they “die from rage,” or exude more poisonous venom in their desperate state. The bouga toad, or bufo marinus, is a native of the New World that conquered the Old World of black magic as well. The toad’s glands secrete bufogenin and bufotoxin, compounds 50 to 100 times more potent than digitalis, and cause death by rapid heartbeat and eventual heart failure. The toad also contains bufotenine, a hallucinogen.
Next the bokor adds ground millipedes and tarantulas to four plant products. The first is tcha-tcha seeds from the albizzia lebbeck tree, a poisonous plant that causes pulmonary edema, added to consigne seeds from a type of mahogany tree with no known toxic properties. Next the bokor adds leaves from the pomme cajou, or common cashew (Anacardium occidentale), and leaves from the bresillet tree (Comocladia glabra). The last two plants are related to poison ivy and cause severe skin irritations. All of these ingredients are ground into powder and buried for two days.
After disinterment, the bokor adds ground tremblador and desmembre plants, which Davis was not able to identify botanically. Next come four more plants: the maman guepes (Urera baccifera), mashasa (Dalechampia scandens), Dieffenbachia sequine, and bwa pine (Zanthoxylum matinicense). The first two belong to the stinging nettle family, with tiny hairs that act like syringes, injecting a chemical similar to formic acid into the skin. Dieffenbachia, also known as “dumbcane,” contains oxalate needles that act like ground glass when swallowed. The name “dumbcane” comes from the 19th-century practice of forcing slaves to eat the plant’s leaves, causing the larynx to swell and making breathing difficult, speaking impossible. The last one, bwa pine, has sharp spines.
Next come the poisonous animals. Skins of white tree frogs (Osteopilus dominicencis) are ground with two species of tarantulas, then added to another bouga toad and four species of puffer fish, all of the genus Fugu: Sphoeroides testudineus, Sphoeroides spengleri, Diodon hystrix and Diodon holacanthus. Ground human remains can be added for effect.
The puffer fish get their name from their habit of puffi ng up their ugly spiny bodies into balls to ward off attackers. But such efforts are unnecessary, as the fish contain tetrodotoxin, one of the most poisonous substances in the world—500 times more toxic than cyanide, 150,000 times more potent than cocaine. One tiny drop on the head of a pin is fatal to a grown man. Nevertheless, many Asian people, especially the Japanese, love eating the fish, since only some parts contain the toxin. Specially trained chefs are licensed by the government to prepare the delicacy, but at least 100 gourmets lose at this culinary Russian roulette each year.
The poison’s effects are horrifi c. Beginning with symptoms of malaise, pallor, dizziness and a tickling or tingling sensation in the lips, the prickly feeling extends to the fi ngers, toes, arms and legs, eventually leading to complete numbness. The victim salivates profusely, then sweats, suffering extreme weakness, headache and subnormal body temperatures, followed by decreased blood pressure and rapid, weak pulse. The victim then suffers nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and gastric pain. The eye pupils constrict, then dilate, then lose all corneal and pupillary reflexes. The lungs suffer severe respiratory distress, then the lips, extremities and finally the entire body turn blue. First the body twitches crazily, then it becomes completely paralyzed. The eyes become glassy, the body cannot move, and the victim may fall into a coma. Most terrible, however, is that the victim remains completely conscious throughout the ordeal—which takes about 30 to 45 minutes—and can watch and hear his friends and physician pronounce him dead, and perhaps witness his own funeral and burial before finally dying of suffocation.
Not all victims of tetrodotoxin die, but there is no anti dote. Those who have survived described the early tingling sensations as feeling like flying, and tell of their terror as they watch the doctor work on them without being able to say or do anything. Knowing they could be buried alive was described by one survivor as true hell. Even doctors cannot tell whether the victim has crossed the border between life and death.
The bokor, experienced in administering just the right dosage of his concoction (although not every zombie comes back), raises the victim from his tomb in a day or two and then gives him a hallucinogenic mixture of sweet potato, cane sugar and Datura stramonium, commonly called the “zombie’s cucumber.”
Zombies supposedly are made to work in the fields and in bakeries. Stories tell of some working as bookkeepers and shop clerks. They are said to require little food, but cannot be given salt, which will return their power of speech and sense of taste, and will send the zombie back to his grave to escape the bokor.
Although zombification depends on the poison, making a zombie requires belief in magic and the faith that zombies are real. In Vodoun, sorcerers, not poison, make zombies, who have captured the soul—the ti bon ange (“little good angel”) of the deceased. If the bokor takes the ti bon ange and not the body, he can make a “zombie astral,” or a ghost who wanders at the command of the bokor. To prevent this from happening, the deceased’s relatives “kill” the body twice, stabbing it in the heart or decapitating it. Without the soul, the body is empty, matter without morality. Haitians do not fear being harmed by a zombie as much as becoming one.
Zombification apparently is very selective capital punishment. Dating back to the days of slavery and even earlier to Africa, blacks had always established their own judicial tribunals for keeping the community under control. By means of poisons, magic and extreme secrecy, these organizations maintained a cloak of fear about their neighbors, administering swift justice to any who broke the codes. Stories of people who banded together to eat human flesh, to dance in cemeteries and to raise the dead inspired enough dread to cause any lawbreaker to think twice.
Such legends served a purpose, but were not entirely true. Followers of the secret societies pray to Baron Samedi, god of the graveyard, dance in red or no clothing in moonlit ceremonies, carry coffins and sacrifice animals. Such performances make great theater. But they do not eat human flesh, and they do not make zombies for sport.
The societies were—and are—a well-organized system of local justice, in which no member or a member of his family suffers a hurt or wrong without redress. The Vodoun secret societies act quickly, thoroughly and clandestinely to punish wrongdoers and those who talk about the societies’ actions.
- Begley, Sharon. “Zombies and Other Mysteries.” Newsweek (February 22, 1988).
- Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Simon and Schuster/Warner Books, 1985.
- Eliade, Mircea, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1987.
- Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft. New York: Facts On File, 1999.
A zombie is a dead person brought back to life by a magician, but not to the life the person previously knew. Believed dead by all who knew him, and by himself as well, the zombie becomes more like a robot than a human being, staring ahead and blindly following the magician leader, doing his every bidding.
The word zombie probably comes from the African Congo word nzambi, which means “the spirit of a dead person.” Yet a truly dead person—one who has lost bodily functions, whose cells have decayed—cannot be returned to life. To unlock the mystery of zombies Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis went to Haiti in 1982. Davis reasoned that the zombie (“zombi,” as he preferred to spell it) was a person buried alive, who only seemed dead. Such a person had to be drugged to appear dead, exhibiting no life at all, but could come out of his trance and resume living. He talked to two people who claimed to be zombies: a man named Clairvius Narcisse and a woman known as Ti Femme. They told how they died, how they witnessed their burials and how the bokor, or black-magic Vodun houngan (priest) lifted them from the grave.
After months of study and conversations with various hougans, Davis confirmed his suspicions. The “zombies” were created by the administration of a powerful poison to an open wound or into the victim’s food, guaranteeing its entrance into the bloodstream. The poison contains various pharmacologically active plants and animals and usually ground human remains, but the most important ingredient is the puffer fish, which contains tetrodotoxin. These fish, of the species Sphoeroides testudineus and Diodon hystrix, are so poisonous that a tiny drop of tetro
dotoxin is fatal. most importantly, tetrodotoxin exhibits two very strange characteristics: the body becomes completely paralyzed, the eyes glazing over and becoming completely unresponsive, mimicking death; and one can recover from a highly controlled dose without any aftereffects. Even trained doctors cannot tell if the victim has truly died from the poison.
The ingredients of zombie poison as determined by Davis are as follows:
First a bouga toad (Bufo marinus) and a sea snake are buried in a jar until they “die from rage,” say the Vodun preparers; or in other words, the toad secretes venom from its glands in its desperate state. Then ground millipeds and tarantulas are mixed with plant products: tcha-tcha seeds, or Albizzia lebbeck, which causes pulmonary swelling; consigne seeds, from a tree in the mohagany family with no known poisonous attributes; leaves from pomme cajou, or the cashew nut (Anacardium occidentale); and bresillet leaves (Comocladia glabra). The last two plants are in the poison ivy family and cause severe dermatitis. All of these plant and animal products are ground into a powder, placed in a jar and buried for two days.
Next the preparer adds tremblador and desmembre, plants that Davis was unable to identify botanically. At the third stage, the preparer adds four more plants that produce severe topical irritations. The itching from these plants could cause the sufferer to break the skin while scratching, making it easier for the applied “zombie powder” to enter the bloodstream. To work, the poison must enter through an open wound or be ingested into the stomach. These plants are maman guepes (Urera baccifera) and mashasha (Dalechampia scandens), both members of the stinging nettle family. The hollow hairs on the plants’ surface act like syringes, injecting a chemical similar to formic acid (the compound responsible for ant-bite stings) into the skin.
Also included is Dieffenbachia seguine, known as “dumbcane,” which contains oxalate needles that act like ground glass. During the nineteenth century, masters forced slaves to eat Dieffenbachia leaves, which irritated the larynx, making breathing difficult and speaking impossible, hence the appellation “dumb.” The fourth plant is bwa pine (Zanthoxylum matinicense), used for its sharp spines.
The animals added at this point complete the poisonous picture. Skins of the white tree-frog (Osteopilus dominicencis) are ground with two species of tarantulas, then added to another bouga toad and four species of the deadly puffer fish: Sphoeroides testudineus, Sphoeroides spengleri, Diodon hystrix and Diodon holacanthus. For dramatic effect, the powder can be mixed with ground human remains, preferably a skull.
Once the bokor raises the zombie from his tomb, the victim is force-fed a concoction of cane sugar, sweet potato and Datura stramonium, or “zombie’s cucumber,” which causes hallucinations and disorientation. The bokor announces the zombie’s new name and new “life,” and completely confused, the zombie follows the bokor wherever he leads him. Tribal Africans believe that slothful persons in life risk being made zombies after death, condemned to work for the bokor into eternity.
Traditionally, zombies work the fields, although some believe they are responsible for other work performed at night, like baking bread. A few zombies reportedly have served as bookkeepers, and even shopclerks. Becoming a zombie was a slave’s worst nightmare, since death provided no release from unremitting labor. Zombies require little food, but care must be taken not to give them Salt. Considered a magical, purifying substance since medieval times, salt can give the zombie back his powers of speech and taste, releasing a homing instinct that calls the zombie back to his grave. Once there, he burrows deep into the ground, away from the bokor’s influence, and resumes his eternal rest.
There is no antidote to “zombie poison,” since too many of its components have no recourse. But the Vodun preparers make what they call an antidote, made of various leaves from plants with no pharmacological properties, the liquor clairin, ammonia and lemon juice. Other possible ingredients include mothballs, seawater, perfume, rock salt and a mysterious liquid available from Vodun apothecaries known as magic noire, or “black magic.”
Although making a zombie requires detailed knowledge of the poisons—and cannot work without tetrodotoxin’s peculiar properties—the entire process requires belief in magic and the faith that zombies are real. In Vodun, zombies are made by sorcerers, who have captured the soul—the ti bon ange (“little good angel”) of the deceased. When a person dies, the Vodunist believes the ti bon ange hovers about the cadaver for seven days, during which time the soul is most vulnerable to sorcery. If the bokor captures it, he can make not only a zombie of the flesh, as described above, but a “zombie astral”: a ghost or spirit who wanders at the command of the bokor.
Through sorcery, the bokor controls those who were alive either in the body or the spirit. To guard against such a fate, relatives of the deceased “kill” the body again, stabbing a knife through the heart or decapitating it. Others place a dagger in the deceased’s coffin to stab the bokor or sew up the deceased’s mouth so he cannot answer the bokor when he calls. Another trick is to place seeds in the coffin, which the bokor must count before taking the body. Such a tedious task can take too long, and dawn could break before the bokor can remove the body. And no black magic is performed during daylight.
Davis, who wrote The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985), also found that zombification was no random act of evil or criminality but a means of capital punishment. Dating back to the secret maroon societies—groups of escaped slaves hiding in the mountains of Saint-Domingue—and beyond to the secret tribal societies of Africa, blacks have always established their own judicial tribunals for keeping their communities under control. By means of
poisons, magic and extreme secrecy, these organizations surrounded their neighbors with a cloak of fear, administering swift retribution to any who broke the codes. In the days of slavery, blacks used poisons to fight back against their white masters. Poisons worked well, too, against any black who betrayed his brother or sister slaves. Stories of people who banded together to eat human flesh, to dance in cemeteries and raise the dead inspired enough dread to cause any lawbreaker to think twice.
- Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.
- Hill, Douglas, and Pat Williams. The Supernatural. London: Aldus Books, 1965.
- Rigaud, Milo. Secrets of Voodoo. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1985.