No aspect of Voodoo — or Vodou, to use the Haitian Kreyol spelling — has led to more confusion and dread than the rather minor part of it associated with “zombies.”
Indeed, zombies seem to eat the very brains of moviegoers and the TV-viewing public. Which is too bad because, though a footnote within a broad and wonderful religious cosmology, zombies have their uses when it comes to conceptualizing the world in which we live.
In the popular imagination, the zombie is usually understood to be a soulless body, created, controlled, and owned by a zombie master or sorcerer. Fair enough and not inaccurate. But there is much more to Vodou, a bona fide religion that incorporates beautiful music, dance and art and brings solace and power to its practitioners. The ignorant error — and it’s widespread — is to equate the two: zombies and Vodou; Vodou and zombies.
However misleading, the equation has deep historical roots. The Spanish Inquisition, for example, did not limit its genocidal impulses to an attack on Jews and Moors. It saw fit to characterize African slaves as Satan-worshipping, baby-devouring heathens and to excoriate their religion — Vodou — in those same terms.
That kind of hostility did not persuade Afro-Caribbeans to abandon their faith and its rituals. Instead, they drew strength from Vodou, which posits an invisible spiritual realm more powerful, more beautiful, and much vaster than the visible world, which it ensouls.
Inevitably, a faith that empowered slaves came to terrify their owners. Not to mention that herbal knowledge from their homeland had taught the imported Africans a thing or two about poison.
Next to fall prey to ignorance about Vodou were European and British adventurers and journalists who visited Haiti and the slave states of the Confederacy in the 18th and 19th centuries. The dancing, the rhythms, and the trances induced through Vodou ceremonies stirred the repressed imaginations of these onlookers, driving them to flights of fancy as extravagant as they were absurd.
Slaves wore what few rags their master’s afforded them, but their near nudity was mistaken for sexual license, and startled foreigners declared the Africans depraved.
By any name, Vodou had certifiable and sometimes terrifying power, even power of the political sort. It is not widely known that the Haitian revolution — the uprising that caught fire in 1791 and led to creation of the world’s first black republic, a republic of self-liberated slaves — began with a high priest’s signal during a Vodou ritual at Bois Caiman. For 13 years, those rituals and the support of secret Vodou societies sustained the rebel slaves in a war that ended with the defeat of Napoleonic France.
The Haitian take on that extraordinary victory: Of course Napoleon had to lose. He didn’t realize he was fighting Spirits, not men!
The American slave owners received the news from Haiti with fear and trembling. Terrified that the revolution, supercharged by Vodou, would spread, they did their best to snuff out the slave faith as practiced in places like Congo Square. When the U.S. bought the vast Louisiana territory from France in 1803, the Americans ridiculed Vodou and demonized practitioners through lurid portrayals in the journals and newspapers of the day.
In the following century, Hollywood took over the task of sensationalizing Vodou, with the usual goal in mind: big boxoffice.
For a classic example of Tinseltown’s exploitative disregard for the truth, look no further than what was done with ethno-botanist Wade Davis’ exploration of Vodou in his best-selling 1985 book, The Serpent and the Rainbow.
Davis’ research led him to speak with Haitian bokors – sorcerers – and members of secret societies, who on rare occasions passed judgment on sosciopaths within their communities. The verdict in extreme cases: zombification. The means: a botanical powder, used in secret rituals to quiet the person’s vital signs to a point verging on paralysis. The ritual includes burial and disinterment, whereupon the subject believes himself or herself a zombie.
In director Wes Craven’s hands, an admittedly disturbing practice was made the centerpiece of an FX-laden horror flick. Indeed the film was so over-the-top that its one legitimate claim on anthropological interest, footage of entranced practitioners eating glass, goes almost unnoticed.
It’s ironic, also intellectually obscene — this tendency of ours to objectify our fears in the form of monsters that we then accuse of eating our brains. Whatever their nutritional needs, there’s no doubt these monsters of our own creating can destroy common sense and our ability to reason clearly about the meaning of life.
New World slavery and the police state required for its perpetuation energized the “old time religion” from Africa that the slave masters tried to stamp out. Vodou, like water, became a universal solvent, a substance able to absorb and synthesize other spiritual influences the slaves came in contact with: Catholicism, Native American practices and Masonic mysteries, along with African root traditions and magic.
Clearly, Vodou was not the great evil; slavery was. And zombification? It is best understood as a metaphor, indeed the perfect metaphor for slavery itself. The soul is stolen and only the body remains: mute, doomed to work forever under the lash of the zombie master, the slave owner. Even death offers no escape.
Perversely, the master/owners are the actual “living dead” — one sure sign of their moribund condition being their obliviousness to it. They are unaware that they are spiritually defunct.
I have traveled and served in Vodou ceremonies many times in Haiti, but I have never met a Haitian zombie. Back here at home, I have, however, met a great many examples of what I call “comfort zombies” – people who trade their souls for the empty pleasures and conveniences of modern life. We want our air-conditioning and our automobiles, so we simply disregard the sure knowledge that we are enslaving the earth’s resources to our greed. And just as the slaves rose up in revolt, so the Earth is rising up to rebalance herself and remind us where the real power lies.
Vodou teaches that every part of the universe is ensouled with spirit. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the earth we tread are all visible expressions of the life force. Vodou looks into the material surface of the world and recognizes its ensouling depths. It is the opposite of zombification.
As we stumble along blindly, disregarding the vanishing wetlands, the rising tides, the extremely costly and destructive global weather changes, the increasingly apocalyptic natural disasters, the grossly inequitable distortions of the world economy, we must surely start to wonder whether the soulless zombies who are eating our brains are ourselves.
Like the slave owners of yore, we are oblivious to the disorder over which we still think we preside.
Initiated in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1995, Sallie Ann Glassman is high priestess of the New Orleans based Vodou society, La Source Ancienne Ounfo. She is an artist and the owner of the Island of Salvation Botanica and founding co-chairman of The New Orleans Healing Center, at 2372 St. Claude.