During a recent holiday in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, I ventured into the mountains and across the border to the town of Tiroli to find out a little more about zombies (or zombis as they are also known) and about the Haitian religious practice of Vodoun (or “voodoo”).
My interest in Vodoun was first piqued when I met Harvard professor of ethno-botany, Dr. Wade Davis, five years ago at the Explorers Club 100th Annual Dinner at the Waldorf Hotel in Manhattan. Davis, originally a native of British Columbia, was sent to Haiti in 1982 to research the phenomenon of zombification and to search for new pharmaceuticals that might prove useful in surgical anaesthesia.
Davis’s experiences led him to write a book called The Serpent and the Rainbow, which was later adapted into a Hollywood movie (with which Davis was less than thrilled).
Davis expended much effort interviewing bokors, or Vodoun sorcerers, and even speaking with two individuals who had been zombified and escaped. He discovered that zombies were very real, and he was able to elucidate the way in which they were created and why.
Haitian Vodoun speaks of illness caused a by a coup de poudre — literally a magical attack initiated with powders. Davis was able to discover that such powders were made from a combination of irritants such as stinging nettles and ground glass, in conjunction with puffer fish venom (tetrodotoxin) and venom from the cane toad, Bufo marinus.
The former is known to induce a comatose state in Japanese gourmets who consume fugu, and the latter became a popular poison in Renaissance Europe when the cane toad was introduced to that continent. The formula most likely originated with the Taino, Hispaniola’s now extinct natives.
The victim was then spirited away to the mountains and used for slave labour until death, rarely escaping. Even after returning home the zombie would be shunned by his kinfolk as a soulless being, having lost his p’tit bon ange as the Voduisants (Vodoun practitioners) call this aspect of the spirit.
Interestingly, it would appear that zombification was usually used on wrong-doers whose thieving, abuse of family and anti-social conduct was felt to merit punishment by the community.
Although the creation of zombies is now nothing but a historical footnote, the practice of Vodoun is still widespread in Haiti. It was recognized as a legitimate religion in 1987 in Haiti and is the official state religion of the West African country of Benin (formerly Dahomey).
Vodoun received a major public relations blow when Hollywood of the mid twentieth century depicted its practitioners as evil ghouls who would cast hellish spells on innocent victims. In reality, it is a highly spiritual practice derived from an amalgamation of Catholic, West African and Taino beliefs.
During my visit to Haiti, I was fortunate enough to witness a demonstration of Vodoun. The Voduisant, a young man, began the ritual by drawing a veve (a pattern drawn in corn meal on the ground), and evoking a particular spirit or lloa.
Pouring libations of a potent Haitian home brew onto the ground, he began to pray and chant in Creole, asking Papa Legba, the loa who controls the gate to the spirit world (and often identified with St. Peter), to open a passage. Afterwards, he washed his head with a mixture of water and alcohol, identifying himself as a member of the kanzwe or tete-lavee sect most popular in Haiti’s north.
The Voduisant then invoked the spirit of Damballah, the powerful serpent loa, to come down, take possession of him and bless the onlookers.
In Vodoun belief, the Voduisant who is occupied by a loa is called a cheval or “spirit horse”. Under the spirit’s influence he is said to be able to perform acts that would ordinarily not be possible.
As we watched, the young Voduisant’s face began to contort and he moved his body in an increasing frenzied fashion. Lighting a torch from the burning alcohol of his offering, the cheval held the torch successively against his arm, his heel, his groin and he finally placed the torch in his mouth.
He held the torch in proximity to his body in each location for a prolonged period of time and I was aghast to see that the torch’s flames continued to be visible, burning inside his mouth. I felt sure that he would have severe thermal injuries.
After finishing with the torch, the Voduisant picked up a glass bottle, broken in the heat of the fire offering, and knelt before the onlookers. He then consumed the bottle, bite by bite.
Afterwards, copious fine shards of green glass were visible in his mouth. I checked the remnants of the bottle afterwards and the glass was real. At this point he quietly sank to the ground.
Thus ended the ceremony.
Was the Voduisant’s apparent imperviousness to injury and pain a trick… or was it a manifestation of the power of the loa?
If You Go…
1. The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis: Simon and Schuster, New York 1985
2. Vodun: Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
3. Lonely Planet: Dominican Republic and Haiti: Clammer et al.
“Group of Haitian women in the town of Tiroli, Haiti, on market day.” © George Burden
“A Zombie, at twilight, in a field of cane sugar of Haïti” llustator: JNL (Jean-noël Lafargue) Wikimedia Commons
“Young Haitian girls observing a voodoo ceremony.” © George Burden
“Voodoo practitioner under the influence of the serpent god, Damballah.” © George Burden
This piece appeared in the November 17, 2009 edition of The Medical Post