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Zombies (Ayensu 182)


The meaning of the voodoo religious cult is as remote arid elusive to the tourists who attend ceremonies staged at Port-au-Prince hotels as it must have beeri to the earliest white ethnographers. Yet, as recently as 1983, a remarkable breakthrough towards the scientific understanding of one of the secret voodoo phenomena, zombiism, was achieved by Dr. Wade Davis, a Harvard University ethnobotanist. A theme that has pervaded the lore and physical rcality of voodoo for generations is that certain practitioners apparently possess magic to raise the dead. Indeed, the undead were occasionally seen.

Datura metel and Mucuna pruriens
(Schultes and Hofmann 1979 42, 50)

They wandered about, or labored in the fields, cutting and weeding the sugar cane with slow and deliberate motions suggestive of being in a stupor or trance, as if the soul had been removed from the body: the living dead. It is now recognized that the communities of voodoo priests (houngans) include some specialists in "black magic" called bocors who belong to the secret society of the Zobops, whose loas (spirits) can be invoked for harmful practices. A zobop is most often consulted, as noted by Dr. Davis, "when individual passions such as love, hate or jealousy express themselves." Alternatively, zombification may be dealt to a person whom a family member or the village community at large wishes to punish. The bocor is able to induce in the victim a deep coma. The body's vital signs are arrested to the point where the victim appears "dead."

This is done bv surreptitiously administering, to the skin of the intended victim, a powdered mix of toad and puffer fish poisons and plants with stinging hairs. After an "accidental" brushing of the poison, it is absorbed into the skin and the victim starts to feel the effects. The zombie poison contains two species of plants which are hallucinogenic and can cause amnesia: Datura metel and Datura stramonium, both of which are called "zombie cucumber." Another species used in the powder is Mucuna pruriens, a plant with stinging hairs and one which "contains psychomimetic constituents and may have hallucinogenic activity." The victim may recognize the early effects and repent in time to receive an antidote from the priest. In other cases, the poison continues to act until the victim is certified dead and buried in a coffin. Obviously, no autopsy or embalming is permitted by the person who arranges burial, often one verv close to "the deceased" and a collaborator with the zobop.

Puffer fish - The source of tetrodotoxin (Scientific American Sept 1995 33, Attenborough 85). This toxin is a sodium blocker which halts neuronal excitation and causes a state reminiscent of suspended animation which even enables people to be temporarily buried. It is believed that some victims of puffer fish poisoning in Japan, where the fish is a delicacy may have been accidentally buried alive when thye have gone into a deep suspended coma.

Under cover of night and usually well within two days of burial, the person is disinterred and revived. In Hector Hyppolite's painting, The Zombies, is seen the cemetery with the black crosses and the death's head emblems of Baron Samedi. Antidote from the bottle in the bocor's hand has resurrected the two zombies, who are roped together for restraint during the violent spasms always exhibited by an awakening zombie. These drugs and their dosage have interesting potential for the fields of psychiatry and space medicine. The most mystifying aspect of zombification, from the medical point of view, is the great degree of expertise required to limit dosage of the poison, and to mix the correct amounts of plant and animal materials into it, so as to approach death, but to fall short - just this side of eternity.

Magic cited in Ferry Disaster Sept 1997

September 1997 MONTROUIS Relatives of victims of a Haitian ferry disaster have bumed a boat belonging to a competing line saying the rival owner had sunk the vessel using voodoo magic, a local official said. Islanders also tried to lynch the wife of ferry owner Tio Djo, who, fearing for his life, apparently had fled to Miami. "You people have good magic. That's why our people are dead," residents shouted as they surrounded Mr Djo's wife, Nereus Jean-Joseph, aged 42, on the outskirts of Anse-aGalets. Police urged the crowd to be calm. The town's mayor, Simon Lapointe, said he had received death threats warning him not to allow any other ferries to operate. 'The owner of the Calypso line had given three days for the boat to sink, and everyone knew that," said Mr La Pointe, meaning voodoo spirits had been invoked to sink the doomed ferry. "Voodoo is something you just can't exclude in the Haitian system."

The ferry La Fierte Gonavienne capsized and sank just 50m from shore before dawn on Monday when passengers eager to disembark crowded to one side. Between 30 and 60 of the passengers survived. It is now believed there were about 300 on board. Ludes Derival, father of the Gonavienne's owner, insisted that magic was the cause of the catastrophe. "How could a boat get all this way across, arrive and then sink?" he asked. "It's magic.People were jealous because his boat was doing so well."

Calypso ferry representatives could not be reached for comment on the allegations. The steel-hulled, air-conditioned, threelevel Gonavienne was even equipped with televisions. The boat had begun carrying passengers in Haiti two weeks ago on a route mostly run by rickety wooden boats. REUTERS