Z101: Introductory Course in the Undead – Week 2 – Zombie History
Zombies in Traditional African Religions
If you search for information concerning the history of zombies, most of the resources will begin in the voodoo culture of Haiti. However, to really understand zombie history, you must go farther back in time to the cultures and peoples that eventually settled in Haiti.
Several African tribes features zombies or zombie-like creatures in their languages and in their religious practices and experiences. For example, the word nzumbe comes from the North Mbundu language common in Angola. “Zombi” is also the name of a snake god in the Niger-Congo region of Africa. The word “zombie” is also similar to the Kikongo (Congo-Angola) word nzambi, which means “god.”
Zombies were featured in West African Vodun (spiritist) religions in areas such as the Congo, Niger, Angola, and South Africa. Vodun is distinct from the various animistic religions of those areas and was typically more organized.
While the tenets of Vodun varied from region to region, most included some type of zombie. When a dead person (zombie) was revived by a sorcerer (bokor), the dead person would remain under the control of the sorcerer. According to the traditions, the zombie astral (part of the human soul) would be removed by the sorcerer and kept in a bottle.
The South African legends are little different. In that regions, it was believed that a small child can turn a dead person into a zombie. A sorcerer (sangoma) could break this spell.
Zombies in Haiti and the New World
Vodun made its way to the new world as Vodou (Haiti), Voodoo (Louisiana), Vudu (Puerto Rico), Santeria (Cuba), and other regional religions often mixing African religious elements with Christianity. With the spread of voodoo, the zombie legends spread as well.
Most modern information about zombies comes from this region and time period. For example, in 1937, Zora Neale Hurston was investigating anthropology and folklore in Haiti when she met a woman claimed to be Felicia Felix-Mentor. Family members confirmed her identity, and they also confirmed that she had died and had been buried in 1907.
The first glimpses of zombies in modern and popular culture descend from these types of stories. For example, in the 1920′s and 1930′s, H.P. Lovecraft wrote several novelettes featuring zombies, including “In the Vault,” which is perhaps the first story written in which a character is bitten by a zombie.
In W.B. Seabrook’s 1929 novel The Magic Island, the narrator describes voodoo rituals in Haiti, including zombies. Some credit this book with introducing the term “zombi” into American culture.
Several movies featured Haitian type zombies as well, including 1932′s White Zombie (featuring Bela Lugosi) and 1943′s I Walked With a Zombie.
Recently, a Harvard ethnobotanist named Wade Davis published two books related to Haitian zombies after studying the culture and practices: The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) and Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1988). Davis determined that a living person could be turned into a zombie by using two different powders, one of which contained a neurotoxin found in the flesh of the pufferfish.
The modern version of zombies, which are corpses reanimated by viruses, chemicals, nuclear waste, or space debris, found their start in the 1960′s. In fact, the modern zombie owes its existence almost to political and social unrest as to African or Voodoo rituals.
Without doubt, the 1968 George A. Romero film Night of the Living Dead has had more influence on the modern understanding of zombies than other book, film, or tradition previously or since. NOTLD was a commentary on society and culture, and had nothing to do with African religions or Haiti voodoo. However, the movie was based on the idea of the dead coming back to life, but instead of being controlled by a sorcerer, they were now controlled by an insatiable appetite for human flesh. Interestingly, in NOTLD, the creatures are referred to as “ghouls,” not as “zombies.” Romero does use the term “zombie” often in his follow-up movie Dawn of the Dead.
Many, many books and films have built on this new type of zombie. In fact, there are probably more zombie movies being made now (2011) than at any point in history. Zombies have found access to Western culture, and the term “zombie” is now used to describe anything from lazy consumers to the stocks of “dead” companies. Marketers (of pants, cars, fast food, etc.) are using zombies in their advertising, and the recent CDC use of zombies as an encouragement for disaster preparedness proved so successful that interested web surfers crashed their servers.
It seems the Western culture’s desire for zombies is as insatiable as the undead’s desire for flesh.