Zombology (from roots, “zomb”, “zombie” + λόγος, “logos”, “knowledge”) is a branch of Natural Science, and the discipline which involves the study of zombies. The systematic exploration and tabulation of the facts involved in the recognition of all the recent and ancient kinds of zombies and their distribution throughout time.
History of: The Zombie
We are all familiar with the films of George A Romero and the many different variations of the Zombie story, but where did the idea come from? Who came up with the original concept of the Zombie? What is the history behind the idea?
A zombie (Haitian Creole: zonbi; North Mbundu: nzumbe) is an animated corpse resurrected by mystical means, such as witchcraft. The term is often figuratively applied to describe a hypnotized person bereft of consciousness and self-awareness, yet ambulant and able to respond to surrounding stimuli.
In West Africa, according to the doctrines or principles of Vodou, a dead person can be revived by a bokor, or sorcerer. Zombies remain under the control of the bokor since they have no will of their own. “Zombi” is also another name of the Vodou snake lwa Damballah Wedo, of Niger–Congo origin; it is akin to the Kikongo word nzambi, which means “god”. There also exists within the West African Vodun tradition the zombi astral, which is a part of the human soul that is captured by a bokor and used to enhance the bokor’s power. The zombi astral is typically kept inside a bottle which the bokor can sell to clients for luck, healing or business success. It is believed that after a time God will take the soul back and so the zombi is a temporary spiritual entity. It is also said in vodou legend, that feeding a zombie salt will make it return to the grave.
The idea of zombies is present in some South African cultures. In some communities it is believed that a dead person can be turned into a zombie by a small child. It is said that the spell can be broken by a powerful enough sangoma – a traditional healer and are practitioners of traditional African medicine in Southern Africa.
They fulfill different social and political roles in the community, including divination, healing physical, emotional and spiritual illnesses, directing birth or death rituals, finding lost cattle, protecting warriors, counteracting witches, and narrating the history, cosmology, and myths of their tradition. There are two main types of traditional healers within the Nguni societies of Southern Africa: the diviner (sangoma), and the herbalist (inyanga). These healers are effectively South African shamans who are highly revered and respected in a society where illness is thought to be caused by witchcraft, pollution (contact with impure objects or occurrences) or through neglect of the ancestors
It is also believed in some areas that witches can turn a person into a zombie by killing and possessing the victim’s body in order to force it into slave labour. After rail lines were built to transport migrant workers, stories emerged about “witch trains”. These trains appeared ordinary, but were staffed by zombie workers controlled by a witch. The trains would abduct a person boarding at night, and the person would then either be turned into a zombie worker, or beaten and thrown from the train a distance away from the original location.
In 1937, while researching folklore in Haiti, Zora Neale Hurston encountered the case of a woman who appeared in a village, and a family claimed she was Felicia Felix-Mentor, a relative who had died and been buried in 1907 at the age of 29. However, the woman had been examined by a doctor, who found on X-ray that she did not have the leg fracture that Felix-Mentor was known to have had. Hurston pursued rumours that the affected persons were given a powerful psychoactive drug, but she was unable to locate individuals willing to offer much information. She wrote:
“What is more, if science ever gets to the bottom of Voodoo in Haiti and Africa, it will be found that some important medical secrets, still unknown to medical science, give it its power, rather than gestures of ceremony.”
Several decades later, Wade Davis, a Harvard ethnobotanist, presented a pharmacological case for zombies in two books, The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) and Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1988). Davis traveled to Haiti in 1982 and, as a result of his investigations, claimed that a living person can be turned into a zombie by two special powders being introduced into the blood stream (usually via a wound). The first, coup de poudre (French: “powder strike”), includes tetrodotoxin (TTX), a powerful and frequently fatal neurotoxin found in the flesh of the pufferfish (order Tetraodontidae). The second powder consists of dissociative drugs such as datura. Together, these powders were said to induce a deathlike state in which the will of the victim would be entirely subjected to that of the bokor. Davis also popularized the story of Clairvius Narcisse, who was claimed to have succumbed to this practice.
The process described by Davis was an initial state of deathlike suspended animation, followed by re-awakening — typically after being buried — into a psychotic state. The psychosis induced by the drug and psychological trauma was hypothesised by Davis to reinforce culturally learned beliefs and to cause the individual to reconstruct their identity as that of a zombie, since they “knew” they were dead, and had no other role to play in the Haitian society. Societal reinforcement of the belief was hypothesized by Davis to confirm for the zombie individual the zombie state, and such individuals were known to hang around in graveyards, exhibiting attitudes of low affect.
Davis’s claim has been criticized, particularly the suggestion that Haitian witch doctors can keep “zombies” in a state of pharmacologically induced trance for many years. Symptoms of TTX poisoning range from numbness and nausea to paralysis — particularly of the muscles of the diaphragm — unconsciousness, and death, but do not include a stiffened gait or a deathlike trance. According to psychologist Terence Hines, the scientific community dismisses tetrodotoxin as the cause of this state, and Davis’ assessment of the nature of the reports of Haitian zombies is viewed as overly credulous.
Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing highlighted the link between social and cultural expectations and compulsion, in the context of schizophrenia and other mental illness, suggesting that schizogenesis may account for some of the psychological aspects of zombification.
Finally, Slaves who were brought to Haiti in the 17th and 18th centuries, believed that when they died, Baron Samedi would gather them from their grave to bring them to heaven, unless they had offended him in some way, such as committing suicide, in which case they’d be forever a slave after death, as a zombie.
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- ^ Hines, Terence; “Zombies and Tetrodotoxin”; Skeptical Inquirer; May/June 2008; Volume 32, Issue 3; Pages 60–62.
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- ^ Wilentz, Amy (2012-10-26). “A Zombie Is a Slave Forever”. Haiti: NYTimes.com. Retrieved 2012-10-31.