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Monday, 24 September 2012

Zombie Mythology: Walking With the Dead

A more traditional rendition of zombies

Where does the zombie myth originate? Where did we come from to this point in time and the modern day zombie? The last two months we’ve looked at the origins and werewolves and vampires (part of my larger series on mythical creatures - previous posts  can be found here - dragons, fantastical horses, mythical creatures of the sky, saltwater spirits - Part 1 and Part 2freshwater spirits, and spirits of the desert), and today we do the third installment in the origins series. The origin of the zombie myth appears to be far more recent, and therefore also less complicated. 

Zombies are linked with Afro-Caribbean lore and Voodoo. Without going into the origins of voodoo itself, suffice to say there are many variants, and it came out of Africa with the peoples carried away by European slavers. Voodoo as a religion therefore flourished in the plantations where the slaves were sold, in the Caribbean, the West Indies, South America, and parts of North America. 

Zombies had a role in many voodoo-related ideas. It was illegal under Haitian law to use zombies, which were understood as men without wills rather than dead men, in the cane fields, or to exploit them as cheap labour. There were constant whispers about blood sacrifice, usually cockerels and the like, and tales of other strange practices. However, in 1863 a riot threatened when a dismembered human torso was found in the house of an alleged voodoo practitioner, at which point talk of human sacrifice flared up. 

Tales of dark voodoo practices had circulated for about 8 years prior to this incident. One ‘voodoo queen’ was put on trial for, among other things, attempting to raise a corpse. Another was accused of murdering a prostitute by means of a zombie – although in this context it was less clear if the traditional ‘man without will’ was meant, or if it was a reference to reanimated dead. Another tale involved ‘voodoo dolls’ made of human skin and bone.

One of the most important voodoo practitioners of the time was Dr. John Croix. While he conducted his voodoo dealings far more privately than some, it was believed he had a legion of zombies to do all the house and yard work, and to dig up corpses for parts. Similar rumours abounded about other ‘doctors’ of the time. 
Zombies as depicted in I Am Legend
Although the zombie as a shambling dead man controlled by a voodoo practitioner is a recognised symbol of voodoo, it actually does not exist in this form in traditional voodoo – instead, a ‘zombie’ was only a mindless servant. In one form of voodoo, the ‘Le Grand Zombi’ is one of the incarnations of Damballa-wedo, one of the voodoo pantheon, but as it is the most dangerous and unpredictable form, it is rarely summoned. In the Petro variant of voodoo, the meaning changes slightly, and refers to someone possessed by the Damballa-wedo. The spirit is controlled by the practitioner, which in turn controls the possessed person. From this may have grown the traditional idea of the zombie.

The modern notion of the zombie may also have been influenced by various African and Caribbean folk terrors – the Ghanaian Dodo, a shambling creature hiding in trees to drop on unwary travellers; the Modulo, a humanoid blood-drinking creature of Zulu lore; and other living dead creatures that would attack slave encampments. 

Thus, the voodoo origin of the zombie supposes the reanimation of the dead via magical means. This has evolved, more recently, into less sorcerous and more scientific means of creation of zombies, in particular the notion that ‘zombies’ could be the victim of a transmissible disease which creates shambling creatures of horrific strength and near-indestructibility which, while not dead, and not resurrected, are no longer ‘human’ in any meaningful sense of the word. This has given rise to the latest craze of moves: 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, Zombieland and others.

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Source Material: A Field Guide to the Creatures That Cannot Rest In Peace - Encyclopedia of the Undead by Dr. Bob Curran 

2 comments:

Mikel Koven said...

You may also want to check out my chapter "The Folklore of the Zombie Film" in Shawn McIntosh & Marc Leverette's Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead. Scarecrow, 2008. The chapter is also reprinted in my own book, Film, Folklore and Urban Legends (Scarecrow, 2008).

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Thanks

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