It is said that on July 16, 1843, the Blessed Virgin materialized on top of a palm tree near the town of Ville Bonheur. The palm tree was very close to the precipices in which the Tombe River dissolves into the mist in a cascade known as Saut d’Eau, a sacred site for generations of voodooists. The Catholic Church recognized the location as a site of Marian worship, but to the Haitian people, it was really Erzulie Freda, goddess od love and beauty, who had materialized there. Since then, every July 16th, thousands of pilgrims visit Saut d’Eau to pay homage to the goddess Erzulie, although christian priests and pastors would rather believe that the pilgrimage is a form of Marian worship. The fact remains that Haiti may be 85 per cent christian, but it is 110 per cent voodooist.
In Saut d’Eau, as in any other Voodoo celebration, there is an indispensable element: possession.
A sociological study conducted on 486 societies around the world revealed that 360 of them believe in some form of possession. Haiti is a prime example. In the words of ethnobiologist Wade Davis, “Voodoo is a democratic faith par excellance. Each believer not only has direct contact with the spirits, but really receives them within his own body.” Unlike other religions, the Afrocaribbean ones do not require intermediaries between gods and believers. When the gods introduce themselves into the devotees’ bodies, anything can happen: voice changes, attacks of hysteria, walking on hot coals, eating broken glass…
Haitian voodoo admits three kinds of possession: rada, gede and petro. The last two are the most spectacular. Petro Voodoo is the most brutal, violent and dangerous kind. The violence of such possessions has even caused the death of some worshippers who have been “ridden” or possessed by the powerful loas of petro Voodoo. This kind of ritual, among the least accessible in Haiti, reflect the rage, the pain and humiliation of the people, who for generations were subjected to the indescribable cruelty of slave owners.
Haiti’s Secret Societies
“A fellow diplomat was named as a witness in a trial against one of the secret societies that proliferate in the country. When he reached the courthouse to testify, there was an exhibit table upon which he could see a cauldron brimming over with the head and arm of a girl sacrificed in a magical rite by the society. My friend had to run out of the courtroom to vomit.” This was the story told to us by Juan Blázquez, Spain’s consul in Port-au-Prince for five years and a scholar of voodoo. Throughout his years in Haiti he had heard of many secret societies, but had also learn that penetrating them is almost impossible.
The study of Haitian secret societies represents an arduous task for anthropologists and sociologists alike. In the summer of 1976, Haitian anthropologist Michel Laguerra met several peasants who had belonged to different secret societies, but who had later converted to Protestantism and were now willing to divulge certain information. According to his sources, there are secret societies running the length and breadth of the country, each controlling a given region.
Some of these secret societies are especially feared and respected in Haiti. The Zobop terrorized the population by kidnapping in the dark of night anyone considered a traitor to the community in order to “bring them to justice” in a cruel fashion. Others, like the Bizango, uphold a sorcerous tradition that goes back to the dawn of time. Its rituals mix ceremonies extracted from old texts on witchcraft, such as the Petit Albert or the Red Dragon (which reached Haiti during the colonial period), Masonic ritual and African magical practices.
Its rules are strict, and those who betray them are harshly punished. The Bizango society, for instance, has a taboo known as “the Seven Crimes”: ambition, excessive material wealth gained at the expense of relatives or subordinates, disrespect toward fellow members, seducing another man’s wife, slandering others or affecting their well-being, harming the members of someone’s family, and any action that impedes others from tilling the soil. An infraction of any of these could cost a Bizango member his life…a particularly cruel and painful death by means of the poisons known for ages by Voodoo houngans and bokors.
Poisons and the Living Dead
The discussion was becoming more heated by the moment. We were trying to convince an important Voodoo priestess to let us record a gede Voodoo ritual in her temple. We knew that we were not welcome and the haggling about the price was adding heat to the surroundings. On another occasion, a similar discussion at another temple almost cost us our lives when nearly a hundred Haitians barricaded the door to the hounfour, warning us that we would not get out alive unless we paid them a thousand dollars.
While one of us argued with the mambo, a tall, fierce looking young man toyed with a rubber glove. He would put it on and take it off his hand with a smile on his lips. We knew exactly what he meant: at any moment, a yellowish powder could appear on his right hand, to be blown in our direction. It would represent a terrible doom–zombification. As a measure against this fate, we had drawn up a special policy which stated that in the event of dying in Haiti, no autopsies were permitted and that our bodies should be returned to Spain immediately. Death in Haiti can be far more perilous than anywhere else on earth.
Anthropologists, missionaries and industrialists who have come into contact with traditional African medicine have discovered its wonders. The knowledge of herbs, plants and jungle poisons possessed by witches, sorcerers and shamans is surprising, and this fascinating wisdom reached Haiti on the slave ships. Ethnologists and biologists who have analyzed the “magical recipes” employed by Voodoo houngans and bokors have discovered fascinating aspects, such as the substances created based upon the root of albizzia versicolor, used in Africa to create ibok usiak owo (“medicine to make people talk”), a sort of native truth serum. Or Zawda dust, employed to cause marital discord; Yoyo dust, used for the “Evil Eye”; Patchouli dust, used to cause infidelity and wreck marriages, and a hundred other “magical powders” with a number of uses and functions. But among them all, one is particularly fascinating: Pudre or “zombie dust.”
It is impossible to discuss the mystery of zombie dust without mentioning the pioneering book by Harvard anthropologist, ethnobotanist and biologist Wade Davis, entitled The Zombie Enigma, a project that earned Davis his Ph.D and inspired the film The Serpent and The Rainbow, describing a scientist’s quest for the living dead. Wade Davis began his own search for zombies in April 1982. In spite of the skepticism and even repugnance which scientists, even Haitian doctors, expressed for the myth of the “living dead”, Davis and his sponsors were able to fathom a truth of great scientific interest concealed behind the veil of mystery and superstition. It wasn’t the first time that a case of zombification was medically documented, but on certain earlier occasions, pretentious scientific despotism had quelled interest in such cases with derisive qualifiers such as “trickery” and “popular hogwash.” If a death certificate was found for a person walking through the streets of Port-au-Prince, it was always attributed to confusion, hoaxing or medical error. After all, everyone knows that it’s impossible to return from the grave…
But the clinical histories and death certificates were not the only items in existence. Relatives and neighbors recognized the zombies. After making contact with Haitian houngans and bokors, Davis obtained access to certain Voodoo secrets, among them the making of zombie powder.
Far from being the product of strange esoteric ritual, zombification is the result of an exceptional application of natural chemistry on the bokor’s part. Zombie dust is a compound based on a number of vegetable, animal and human material, which combined in the right amounts produces the most fascinating poison of Afroamerican witchery. Extracts from plants, human bones, tarantulas, poisonous toads, worms and other no less picturesque ingredients form part of the dust whose main active ingredient is the tetrodoxine found in the Haitian blowfish, which we were able to localize and photograph with underwater cameras after various dives into Caribbean waters. The substance is a masterpiece of chemical artistry — if improperly mixed, it will have no effect whatsoever or will cause instant death.
Once prepared, the powder is deposited on the floor of the victim’s home, so that it will penetrate his skin upon stepping on it with bare skin. Otherwise, the bokor will blow it into the hapless victim’s face. Shortly after, the future zombie “dies” and the bokor “steals its soul,” containing it in a bottle. After burial, the bokor and his assistants go to the graveyard and retrieve the zombie from the tomb in order to sell him as a slave on the other side of the island.
Our travels took us all over Haiti — a hellish voyage between the Dominican border and Lake Peligros that took over twelve hours by motorcycle, crossing rivers and mudholes. We were thus able to prove the horror of the possibility of being zombified, a fear that forces the decapitation of corpses, or else the nailing of corpses to the casket to impede their removal. On the road to Lake Peligros, we found that many tombs and family crypts were built directly across from the relatives’ homes, in order to keep the bokor from tampering with the deceased’s body and soul.
In Haiti, death is not final. Death isn’t even an antonym for life. In Voodoo, both death and the dead form part of daily life, of religion, and of society. Death itself is another form of life.
[Translation (c) 1998, 2015 by Scott Corrales, Institute of Hispanic Ufology]
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