Wow. Last night’s American Horror Story: Coven packed a wallop full of witches, bitches and one particularly nasty doll fetish. Yet, the highlight of the evening without a doubt was the introduction of zombies. And I’m not talking about those shuffling, moaning George Romero wannabes over at AMC. No, this was the real deal. Or as real as you believe Vodou (or voodoo) can be. The origin of zombies is debatable. Technically speaking, the first contentious mention of the “Zombie Apocalypse” might date back as far as 4,500 years ago when the epic poem of Gilgamesh was transcribed on the walls of Uruk (an ancient city of Sumer and Babylonian origin located in modern day Iraq). According to several translations, including the following one by Jeffrey H. Tagay, the Sumerian goddess Ishtar, deity of fertility, love, sex, and war (which are really all the same thing when you think about it), decreed that she would one day raise the dead to feed on the flesh of the living. Or:
“I will raise up the dead, and they will devour the living,I will make the dead outnumber the living.”This passage itself stems from an older poem called Nergal and Ereshkigal where the doomsaying is spoken by Ereshkigal, Queen of the Dead. However, scholars contend that in that Mesopotamian tale, she is actually referring to the dead taking the form of feathered birds who eat dust. In any case, our modern pre-Romero understanding of zombies is rooted in something much closer to home than ancient Babylonian cocktail conversation or European ghoul superstitions. I am of course speaking of Vodou. Consider that the word “zombie” is derived from “zombi,” which is rooted in the West African and Haitian tenets of Vodou. In that tradition, the word “zombi” is another term for the lwa (or loa) known as Damballah Wedo. An lwa is a spiritual deity or force that practitioners of Vodou pay homage to, as they are the subservient beings of the true creator known as Bondye. This creator, being so unknowable and beyond comprehension, uses the underling lwa, who also serve as figures worthy of prayer to Vodou followers. And in that tradition, Damballah is one of the biggest and most revered on the supernatural block. As a sky god whose role in the lives of mortals is as their creator, for it was Damballah who turned the primordial ooze to life, this deity is both respected and feared with its veve often symbolized by two serpents. Ergo, when one of Damballah’s nicknames, “zombi,” is used on any (once) living object, it is done with earnest clarity. For what is a zombie, but life made whole out of what is solely now rotting meat? In the Vodou tradition, a zombie is a reanimated corpse that has been resurrected by a bokor (sorcerer) or other form of freelancing priest or priestess (houngan and mambo). This may also derive from the “zombi astral” concept of West African origin. In that area, roughly around Ghana to Nigeria, it is believed by some people that certain parts of a human soul can be captured by a bokor and sold for personal use. Thus, a zombie takes it further when a sorcerer (or witch) can use black magic to create a mindless slave out of a cadaver. In the most insidious of methods, witches can even kill a person and possess their body, turning a zombie into slave labor. This comes with plenty of its own superstitions, such as corrupt businessmen hiring a mambo to create slave labor out of the dead (or soon-to-be-dead) for their necessities, be it anything from farming to operating migrant transport “witch” trains on the nighttime rails of South Africa. Also, while a sangoma (an African folk medicine healer) can apparently free a zombie, one way to put it in the dirt for good is to feed it salt. Of course, there are those who will pooh-pooh the idea of the dead coming back to the world of the living in service of a hellion bent on killing Kathy Bates (I’m on Marie Laveau’s side, but sending in LaLaurie’s daughters?! That is LOW). Still strangely, their theories can be just as intriguing. For example take Canadian ethnobotanist Wade Davis’ infamous 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow (not to be confused with Wes Craven’s fictional 1988 “adaptation”). In his text, Davis painstakingly attempts to explain away the Haitian zombie, as derived from the Haitian Vodou religion originated in the French Slave colony Saint-Dominigue during the 18th century, by exploring the uses of ethnobotanical poisons. According to Davis, zombies are nothing more than victims of bokors’ powerfully destructive tetrodotoxins (a chemical-induced hallucinogen). Wade approaches the famous case of Haitian Clairvius Narcisse to deduce that he was administered a tetrodotoxin derived from puffer fish venom, as well as a bufotoxin (toad venom) before being allowed home to collapse. The venoms created a severe comatose state that resembled death. Narcisse, who is to this day is believed by some to have been a zombie, was then buried alive according to Davis before being dug up by a plantation owner who kept him in a docile, zombie-like state of compliance with an herbal concoction created from Datura (making for a zombie cucumber). After his “master” died, Narcisse stopped receiving his regular supplements and simply awakened to return home (after 18 years according to an American Scientist interview with Davis from 1987). He was then told by family and friends that he had died and was now a zombie, which he believed to be true thanks to cultural persuasion. Granted, Davis’ research has been discredited b scientists who found little evidence in these chemical components or that they could be duplicated, especially in the case of a special seasoning noted by Wade: The crushed skull and/or brain matter of a recently dead infant supposedly used in front of Wade by a bokor as part of a tetrodotoxin. So, the dead really are coming back to life or dead baby brain juices are used to “kill” a witch’s intended victim? I suppose the latter would be even harder to explain in the case of Marie Laveau resuscitating LaLaurie’s daughters who have been dead for nearly 180 years. Either way that ending is still awesome! The Vodou zombie is a creature of unique folklore, superstition and religious tradition that is as mysterious as any monster of obscure quarters. The concept of the dead being enslaved by a witch’s will, or that one could kill you to make use of your Undead body is terrifying and terrifyingly fresh in a pop culture zeitgeist that is otherwise oversaturated with the traditionally (boring) image of the walking dead. Indeed, it was the use of the Vodou zombie in the Bela Lugosi picture White Zombie (1932) that put the term in the lexicon long before Romero came along. The eeriness of this original monstrosity could even make a squabbling daughter wish to grab her mother and hold her close. Maybe next week.