The Origin and Meaning of the Zombie

Source: Bernie Wrightson (Public Domain)

1.  Introduction and Definition

The term ‘zombie’ is usually applied to a dead body that has been allegedly resurrected and brought back to life. The corpse is in a trance-like state of suspended sensation and consciousness resembling an automotive and cataleptic condition. The condition is claimed to have been achieved by magical means or practice. In other words a zombie is a person whose soul has been stolen and whose body is not really dead, but has “…passed into the power of a magician or owner who uses it for his (rarely her) own purposes.” (Warner, 2006).

In Haitian religion the word ‘zombie’ is derived from the creole word ‘zonbi’ which means an animated corpse which has been brought back to life by witchcraft. The tenets of Haitian voodoo state that a dead person can be resurrected by a sorcerer or magician called a bokor. Such beliefs have their origin in the Afro-Caribbean system of belief known as voodoo. The zombie has been disinterred by the bokor and has their soul ‘stolen’ by this worker in evil magic, to be exploited as the owner sees and thinks fit.

A zombie has no will of its own but is nonetheless permitted to consume sustenance flavoured with salt. In addition if it is turned into an animal a zombie can be killed and its meat sold in the market. The term ‘zombie’ originates from the word jumbie which is common parlance throughout the Caribbean for ‘spirit’. Personhood consists of feelings, emotions, memories and other sentient qualities of which the zombie has been deprived. In this state they are controlled as the labourers or slaves of the magicians or bokors.

2.  Zombies and Voodoo Culture

Zombies have assumed the most well known aspect of the cult of voodoo in Haiti. Voodoo is a religious complex derived from magic, witchcraft, superstition and snake worship originating in both African and western Christian ritual. and belief. Expressed also in trance rituals the beliefs comprise vague combinations of magical practice and exotic and erotic rituals. Voodoo survives and continues in the Caribbean, Haiti, and some southern states of America.

Voodoo, and its American variant called hoodoo, are both derived from vodun. The hoodoo concept in America implies the existence of an evil force and where the magician is called  the ‘hoodoo man’. The term vaudun was first ascribed by French missionaries with one Waldensian called Vaudois being accused of sorcery. Hoodoo was originally taken to what became the USA by Haitian negroes brought to Louisiana after the French had been expelled from Haiti during the late 18th and early 19th century. It was slave uprisings in the then island of Hispaniola that led to the formation of the formation of the Republic of Haiti. The word vodun was also used by Sir Richard Burton who obtained the word from the Ashanti term obossum meaning a tutelary spirit or fetish – an inanimate object bestowed with supernatural powers. However, the use of the word voodoo to designate any African origin of New World negro ritual is not correct.

3.  The African Roots of Vodun

The origin of Haitian voodoo goes beyond the West Indies to Africa. It can be traced, as vodun or vaudun, to an African derived cult or religious system of belief. These beliefs can be traced directly to the old French West African colony of Dahomey, now modern Benin. The people of Dahomey had vodu which represented a polytheistic religion of worshipped deities. In the traditions of West African vodun the zombie was seen as a the astral component of the soul of the individual.

It was this aspect that was captured by the bokor from the person. The astral zombie was trapped in a bottle which, not only enhanced the magician’s powers, but could be sold to clients to improve their business ventures, good luck, or success in healing practice. A person from Dahomey uses the word vodu to mean deity whereas it is in Haiti it is vaudou and then the African vodun culture of Haitian peasants. In the Haitian vodun cult a priestess is called a Mambu. As slaves many people were imported into Haiti from Dahomey. The presence of Dahomey still retains its impressions on the African heritage of Haiti.

Some believe in South Africa that corpses can be ‘zombified’ by small children. Moreover, a zombie can be created by witchcraft with the aim of turning the corpse into a slave labourer (Isak, 2005). Similarly the word zombie is also the name of a snake called Iwa Damballah Wedo, which originates in the Niger-Congo, being related to the Kikongo word nzambi which means ‘god’. Zombi is also the python god of some West African tribes whose worship was imported into the West Indies via the trade in slaves and which still survives as voodoo in Haiti.

4.  The Zombie in Popular Culture

In the popular and contemporary culture of books, cinema, media and television, a zombie is a threatening creature who appears as an ‘un-dead’ mindless human caricature. Zombies have thus been popularised as a vehicle of horror and cannibalistic repugnance in fiction and the cinema. In the popular imagination the zombie, as a dreaded spectre, has been conjured up as a type of phantom or demonic revenant. Zombies can be contrasted and compared to the vampire. A vampire is also a reanimated dead person. Unlike ghosts and phantoms, which have souls without substance or bodies, the zombies and vampires have them, they are bodies (Warner, 2006), implying that a zombie is a body that has been emptied of its awareness of self. The vampire and zombie both exist and persist under “…a sentence of immortality.” (Warner, 2006) which they have acquired and have had bestowed on them through the popular culture of the mass media.

Modern investigations of a psycho-pharmacological nature were conducted in Haiti in order to explain the zombie phenomenon. In 1937 it was postulated that powerful psychoactive drugs were administered in order to artificially create a zombie-like appearance and characteristics (Mars, 1945). This line of enquiry was then linked to suspected voodoo practices of substance use, unknown to modern science, rather than ritual or ceremonial practice (Hurston, 1942). An ethno-botanical survey several years later conducted another investigation into possible psychopharmacological causes of ‘zombification’ (Davis, 1985; 1988). The claim was made than an individual could be ‘zombified’ by two specific causative agents introduced into the blood trough a wound.

Firstly a substance described as the coup de poudre, or ‘powder strike’, which was a powerful substance that included tetrodotoxin or TTX. TTX is a neurotoxin which is a frequent and often certain cause of death. It is found in the skin of the puffer-fish family called the Tetraodontidae. Secondly, also included were drugs of disassociative effect such as datura.


A puffer fish of the Tetraodontidae.  Source – public domain.

In combination they induce a state resembling catalepsy or death. In other words these substances create a pharmacological state of trace – one where the victim becomes the unwilling slave of the magician or bokor (Booth, 1988). The Tetraodontidae live mainly as esturine and marine fish. They are regarded as the second-most poisonous of all vertebrates. The poison, which is tetrodotoxin, is contained in their internal organs, liver and skin. Signs and symptoms of poisoning and toxicity are light-headedness, intoxication, and lip numbness. The puffer-fish toxin deadens the lips and tongue and induces vomiting and dizziness. Body tingling and numbness are followed by tachycardia, hypotension and muscle paralysis. The muscles of the diaphragm can be paralysed which causes cessation of breathing (Ebert, 2001). Datura is an herbaceous plant sometimes called ‘moonflowers’ or ‘angel’s trumpets’ and also the thorn apple. The plant contains the poisonous alkaloids scopolamine, atropine, and hyocyamine. Ingestion can lead to delirium, hallucination, tachycardia, amnesia, and a painful photophobia (Bliss, 2001).

5.  Epilegomena

The complex nature of the cult of vodun and the zombie connection has many theological aspects of deities in its wide system of belief. Zombies from their origin as ‘jumbies’ were precipitated into the phenomenon of slavery (Warner, 2006), whereby the slave culture described how slavery had the effect of stripping an individual of their personhood – they were depersonalised. In one respect ‘zombification’ can be seen as an aspect of personopathology. Indeed, during the 17th and 18th centuries the slaves brought to Haiti from Dahomey actually believed they had died. As contemporary media presentation shows zombies and voodoo brought “…a new, abject, and terrifying meaning within the context of slavery.” (Warner, 2006).

References and Sources Consulted

Bliss, M.  (2001).  Datura Plant Poisoning.  Clinical Toxicology Review.  23 (6).

Booth, W.  (1988).  Voodoo Science.  Science, 240. 274-77.

Davis, W.  (1985).  The Serpent and the Rainbow.  Simon & Schuster, New York.

Davis, W.  (1988).  Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie.  University of North Carolina Press.

Ebert, K.  (2001).  The Puffers of Fresh and Brackish Water.  Aqualog, USA.

Hurston, Z. N.  (1942).  Dust Tracks on the Road.  Urbana, University of Illinois Press.

Isak, N.  (2005).  Witches and Zombies of the South African Lowveld.  J.Roy.Anth.Inst.  11 (2).

Mars, L. P.  (1945).  The Story of the Zombie in Haiti.  Man. 45 (22), 38-40.

Warner, M.  (2006).  Phantasmagoria.  OUP, Oxford.



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