To most people, zombies fit into the genre of Hollywood monsters with vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein’s monster and space aliens. That’s fairly understandable since the zombie and the horror movie were married very early in the history of films. In fact, the 1932 movie, “White Zombie” which stared Bela Lugosi pretty much type cast the zombie as a movie monster.
Zombies are a little more complicated. They actually come from the Congo (not Benin where Voodoo comes from) where the word, “nbzambi” refers to their primary sprit and/or refers to one’s soul. When the Trans-Atlantic slave trade mixed peoples from all over the African Atlantic Coast, the zombie found a new home in Voodoo.
There are actually four types of zombies in Voodoo; the Great Spirit, the Spiritual Soul, the Herbal Zombie and the Bargained Zombie.
Li Grand Zombi: this is the snake spirit in Voodoo given the Congolese name for the same principal entity. It is the original and proper meaning. The snake used by Marie Laveau in New Orleans was said to have been called “li grand zombi.” The Louisiana mud snake used in rituals is sometimes called “ouncongo.”
The familiar living dead zombie of movie familiarity has two versions, one spiritual and the other chemical.
Spiritual Zombie: this follows an African belief that person has two souls, one called the Great Angle, and the other called the Little Angle. When a person dies, the Great Angle immediately knows the person is dead and departs the body. The Little Angle, on the other hand, takes about three days to realize the body is dead. During that period a witchdoctor may invoke the Congolese Ghédé spirit to reach the Little Angle and cause it to believe the body is not dead. Subsequently the corpse is reanimated using the Little Angle as a motor.
Herbal Zombie: The West Africans were master chemists especially in the use of herbs and poisons. To make a zombie chemically it is first necessary to cause he victim to appear to die, then to apply an antidote to revive them. The basic poison comes from the common blowfish. Died and powdered it is a nerve poison. It is applied mainly in one’s shoes, surreptitiously, and absorbed through the sweet glands in the feet. The poison inhibits the natural conductivity of the nervous system and causes the to atrophy and otherwise appear decreased. This phase completes he deception of death. In the second phase the antidote, a paste from the seedpod of the angle’s trumpet flower is applied. The seedpod contains two types of active ingredients. The first is atropine, which counteracts the nerve poisoning. The second is a hallucinogenic that causes both amnesia and disorientation. The final result is a person who appeared to have died, appears to have been resurrected and is now mentally incoherent, but physically functional.
In Haiti, which is most closely associated with the resurrected zombie, it is considered a fate worse than death to become a zombie. Haiti is the only reality in history that is the result of a successful slave revolt. A zombie is an immortal slave. Therefore, to become a zombie is a great catastrophe and a terrible fear far worse than death.
Bargained Zombie: This is a voluntary arrangement in which the volunteer bargains to have his lesser soul exorcised and keep by a Voodoo Queen. Under such an arrangement the Voodoo Queen can protect and give advantages to the volunteer but at some point, the volunteer has to surrender the rest of his soul. This usually occurs when the Voodoo Queen dies and can not longer protect the volunteer. The classic example of this the case of Jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton and his godmother, Voodoo Queen, Eulalie Hécaud.
Rougarou: In Louisiana there is a swamp creature, half man, half beast. Like a zombie, he s often the product of the manipulation of a deceased soul by a witchdoctor. Named similar to the French loup garou (werewolf) it often has red eyes and is usually nocturnal. Just like a zombie it is deathly afraid of frogs. This popular folklore creature is mist often used to scare small kids into good behavior. Of course, the annual Rougarou ball on deep Bayou Goula ever St. John’s Eve is very real.