I recently got a new-ish (refurbished) computer and had to slog through a million old emails while transferring stuff from my old computer.  In that slogging I came across an email exchange I’d completely forgotten about.

Back in May 2011 mother-in-law went on vacation to NOLA, and came back with a great story about her time at the Voodoo Museum.  At the time I was writing Voodoo Moon (though it hadn’t been named that at the time).  I had the characters down, as well as the basic plot, but I was struggling with the details.  Thanks to my husband I had the brilliant beginnings of a villain, but I was struggling with his motivations, as well as with what form his magical abilities would take.  If you have read Voodoo Moon you know that the mystery plot-line hinges much on the bad guy’s reasons and methods for doing what he does.  He also didn’t have a name yet.

I was struggling, and frustrated because things were not coming together.  But then my MIL told me about her visit to the Voodoo Museum and mentioned zombies. My writer’s mind immediately started churning and I immediately knew that was the missing thread in my story.  I started doing some online research, but I also emailed the curator of the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum.  I let him know that while I would definitely “make stuff up” to fit my world, I wanted to have a solid knowledge of zombism as it pertained to the beliefs of Voodoo. I asked him for any information he could give.

He was very generous with his knowledge and wrote me back with a long, informative email.  I ran across this long-forgotten email today and wanted to share (most of) it with you:

A Lesson in Voodoo

Zombie Room (Courtesy: New Orleans Historical Museum of Voodoo)

Zombie Room (Courtesy: New Orleans Historical Museum of Voodoo)

Voodoo is neither a written practice, nor does it have any central authority, so it is very common to find very different, even conflicting, explanations for almost anything.

Voodoo comes from Africa and develops differently in the Caribbean and Louisiana. That alone produces three different versions. Then, there is both the zombie that is purely supernatural and spiritual as well as the one that is physically induced using poisons.

The word “voodoo” means spirits. Voodoo comes from the present day Republic of Benin on the West African coast. Zombies, however, come from the Congo, about a thousand miles away. In Voodoo there are thousands of spirits, but only one main spirit. In Benin he is called Legba. In contrast, the main spirit in Congo is called “nbzambi,” or as we would pronounce it, Zombie. Because slaves from different parts of West Africa were comingled in the New World, in New Orleans, the name that was adapted for the main Voodoo spirit (symbolized as a snake) is “le grand zombie.”

In general the term zombie refers to a spirit who may either a real spirit, or one (or, both) of the two souls of a person. In Africa, as I many areas, there is the concept that human has two souls (called, for example Ka-Ba, in ancient Egypt), a greater one and a lesser one. Upon death, the greater soul ascends to heaven but the lesser soul, (often considered to be unintelligent), lingers in the new human corpse roughly until the body corrupts and deteriorates. When a person with evil intentions contracts a corrupt Voodoo priest (i.e. witchdoctor) to use magic (the control of the supernatural, as opposed to the submission in traditional religion), an otherwise benign Voodoo spirit can be induced to agitate the lesser soul in a recent corpse and to call it back into a state of animation. The result, the reanimated soul and body are often called a zombie.

This incident is most pronounced in Haiti for purely political reasons. Keep in mind, Haiti is the only entity in history to be the result of a successful slave revolt. Therefore, it is considered a fate worse than death in Haiti to become a zombie (an eternal slave). When slavery ended, neither the need for cheap and/or free labor, nor the greed of large property owners ended. So, the zombie became the replacement for the slave. The zombie was/is a de facto slave, but technically, since it is not human, isn’t. The greed of the person desiring the zombie’s labor leads to the corrupt Voodoo priest (regular Priest and Priestess will not engage in this), who in turn corrupts the Ghédé spirit (also from the Congo) who is the guardian of the gateway to the cemetery, and therefore the arbitrator between life and death. The witchdoctor gets the Ghédé spirit to visit the corpse of the recently deceased, and using its powers of death v. life as keeper of the gateway to the cemetery calls the lesser spirit out from the corpse. At that point the spirit is captured in a device, usually a decorated clay jar, and subsequently turned over to the witchdoctor and/or the original instigator. With the lesser soul incarcerated the witchdoctor and/or the instigator can command it to reanimate the corpse from which it came and cause it to resurrect itself. Hence, the zombie. In Voodoo there is a heaven (where the greater soul has already gone), but no hell. To become a zombie, however, is considered a fate worse than hell. In Haiti, in the 19th century Penal Code #249 even allowed courts to condemn convicts as zombies for particularly serious cases. In the 20th century, Haitian dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier used the threat of zombification to terrorize opponents. (His secret police were the Ton-ton Macute, meaning “uncle magic bag,” it was believed that would not only carry out executions, but would also turn their victims into zombies.

The translation of this basically socio-political phenomena into a staple movie monster was instigated by the 1932 movie, “White Zombie,” starring Bela Lugosi and John Carradine. The movie was hit, so the “zombie-as-monster” lives on as just that in most people’s imaginations.

li-gand-zombi-ceremony-by-charles-massicot-gandolfoThe formula, using poisons, to actually create a zombie was discovered and published by a Harvard botanist, Brad Davis, and explained in his book, “The Serpent and the Rainbow.” I’ll refer you to the book for the full details and exact formula and methods, but in very simplified terms, here is what happens. The corrupt Voodoo priest (the witchdoctor) prepares a poison using an extract from the common Puffer Fish. When this has been distilled into a power it is put into the sandals of the intended victim. (The poison is a nerve agent and will enter the human system via sweet pours under the feet.) The target becomes sick, and then drops into a catatonic state induced by the poison. There is no evidence of food poisoning so the subject of evil magic is automatically diagnosed. The victim is presumed dead, and buried. The witchdoctor must now apply the antidote in order to revive the person and avoid their actual dying. The antidote, commonly called zombie cucumber, is actually the product of the seed pod of the common Angle’s Trumpet flowering bush. This seed pod has two primary ingredients; atropine (which is the natural antidote for nerve agent poisoning and revivers the person) and a hallucinogen (that causes the revived person to have both amnesia and disorientation). Hence, the apparently dead body is resurrected and the effects of the hallucinogen cause zombie like disorientation and lack of self-awareness.

In Haiti, families are known to guard the graves of family members to prevent their becoming zombies.

In New Orleans, becoming a zombie is slightly different in that one need not die first. The lesser soul is separated from the body while the person is still alive by a Voodoo Queen (not a witchdoctor). The extracted soul is then captured in a jar, but unlike the first case, this is considered desirable on the part of the person being zombiefied. The subject, contrary to being a slave, can now enjoy the lifelong intercession of the Voodoo Queen to provide them with prosperity, wealth, success, love, etc. It is very advantageous with one caveat. When the Voodoo Queen dies, the person does also. (The Queen needs to feed the soul in the jar spiritually and only she can do so. When she dies, a few days later the soul will die of starvation and its demise will cause the physical body of the voluntary zombie to fail.) This process is evident with at least one early jazz pioneer of New Orleans.

Physically, the key to zombies is the knowledge of poisons. In fact, a zombie, if feed anything with salt (a nerve conductor) will know it is dead and go back to its grave. Also, zombies are always afraid of frogs (the toad contains the same poison as the Puffer Fish.)

The key to the spiritual zombie is the spirit who is the master of the gateway to the cemetery. Originally he is called the Ghédé spirit in the Congo. Voodoo has about 20 names for every spirit so in Haiti he is also called Maitre’d Cemeterie, Maitre’d Carrefore and/or Baron Samedie. In New Orleans he is either known as St. Expedité, or recognized in the Skull and Bone men (a secret Voodoo society active in New Orleans today). The statue of St. Expedite still stands at the front door to the Mortuary Chapel built in New Orleans during the 19th century as a result of the Yellow Fever epidemics.

In either case, it is accepted that a zombies feet never touch the ground. Therefore, female zombies always were long hemmed skirts to hide this fact, and males will wear long hemmed pants for the same reason.

Jerry Gandolfo
Historian