Voyage to the Land of the Living Dead
By Manuel Carballal
[This article, which graced the splash page of the old Inexplicatawebsite from 1998 to 2000, is among the finest we've ever offered to our readers. It comes from the masterful pen of contributing editor Manuel Carballal, summarizing one of his most perilous brushes with the unknown.-- SC]
The scene could have been derived from any suspense film. Manuel Delgado instinctively held on tightly to his television camera as we clutched our machetes. Our vehicle was being surrounded by a dozen ebony-skinned Haitians. The blancs, as they derisively call Europeans, are not welcome in
After endless minutes of waiting, our guide allowed us to emerge from the car. Monsieur Balaguer, an important bokor -- a voodoo high priest -- would allow us to visit his hounfor or temple. The hounfor consisted in a humble wooden shack whose center contained the peristyle, the indispensable central column of every voodoo ritual, by means of which the gods or loas descend to earth. A filthy light bulb and seven candles enabled us to see the disquieting form of Monsieur Balaguer, a tall man with sparkling black eyes, who covered his head with a Stetson.
While our guide stated all the arguments at his disposal in order to have Monsieur Balaguer allow us to film his "she-devil" and his "zombie", we were startled by a sudden blackout. The dirty light bulb was extinguished, plunging us into the shadows, illuminated only by the seven candles around the peristyle. Balaguer greeted his "she-devil" -- supposedly located behind a mysterious metal door -- by rapping on it a few times. From the other side, "something" responded with brutal blows against the door, causing the entire temple to shake. Suddenly we were told that the bokor had to consult the loas: we looked on as Monsieur Balaguer fell int a sort of trance, being "ridden" or possessed by Bravo, one of the loas who shares the lordship over death and cemeteries with Baron Samedi and Baron La Croix. Subjecting us to a sort of "trial," exchanging a curious combinations of handshakes to which we instinctively responded to, Balaguer drank rum through an ear as he smoked a cigarette through one nostril.
The fact of the matter is that in
Voodoo Reaches the Presidency
No single cultural manifestation is longer-lasting or more influential than a country's religion. In
Bill Clinton had barely finished his conciliatory speech concerning military intervention in
From the days of Macandal, the pioneer of independence in the 18th century to the times of General Raoul Cédras, no Haitian ruler has forgotten to acknowledge the all-powerful influence of voodoo in
Warlocks in Charge
But there was one Haitian ruler who knew how to make use of Voodoo as a political tool: the mythical and shadowy "Papa Doc," François Duvalier. In 1954, the legendary "Papa Doc" published (with Lorimer Denis) a monograph entitled L'Evolution graduelle du vaudou (The Gradual Evolution of Voodoo). The knowledge of Voodoo displayed in this book was evidently utilized during his political career.
As a young man, along with other Haitian intellectuals, Duvalier published a nationalist newspaper called Les Griots. At a time when the government torched the sacred Voodoo drums and other objects of worship as a sign of loyalty to the Catholic church, Les Griots revindicated Voodoo as a religion and as rebellion against American colonizers. It isn't surprising that "Papa Doc" gained the support of the traditional secret societies, and that during his 1957 campaign, the hounfour or Voodoo temples were utilized as his local party headquarters.
Immediately after rising to the presidency of
"Man speaks, but doesn't act. God acts, but doesn't speak. Duvalier is a god." This was the thought echoing through the streets of
Blood, Rhythm and Possession
We were engulfed by frantic drumbeats. The convulsive dancing of the hounsí --Voodoo initiates--bewitched us, and the markedly African chants and litanies overwhelmed us. The entire montage of the Voodoo ritual we were witnessing in Cachimán, near the border with the Dominican Republic, created an almost dreamlike atmosphere within the confines of Voodoo priest Manuel Sánchez Elie. Without a scrap of hesitation, one of the houngan's assistants delivered a powerful blade-stroke on the neck of a ram, abruptly decapitating the animal while its blood showered everyone present. The ram's head was torn from its body and offered to the gods, while two acolytes stripped the body, which would be served to the participants later. Voodoo religion is an imprecise mixture of blood, music and esthetics.
Voodoo, like Santería, Umbanda, Candomblé or Palo Mayombe, is the product of synchretism between African religions and Christianity. The ancestral beliefs brought by African slaves to the
It is said that on July 16, 1843, the Blessed Virgin materialized on top of a palm tree near the town of
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.
Haitian voodoo admits three kinds of possession: rada, gede andpetro. 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
"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,
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
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
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
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
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,
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