Voyage to the Land of the Living Dead
Voyage to the Land of the Living Dead
By Manuel Carballal
[This article, which graced the splash page of the old Inexplicata website 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 Haiti and we had been warned that under no circumstances should we venture into the shanty towns outside Port-au-Prince where, we were told, "there exists a 90 per cent chance of being mugged." We ignored this sage advice, of course.
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 Haiti, Western patterns of logic become fragile in the face of the unpredictable, incomprehensible and irrational voodoo cult -- vodú in the native tongue -- which originates from the Fon language of Dahomey, meaning "deity" or "spirit." This is the precise nature of voodoo: a spirit that envelops Haiti, influencing each and every cultural or social manifestation of this small country, the poorest of the Americas.
Voodoo Reaches the Presidency
No single cultural manifestation is longer-lasting or more influential than a country's religion. In Haiti's case, this influence becomes particularly apparent. In late 1995, when President Bill Clinton visited Haiti to supervise the "changing of the guard" -- American troops being replaced by UN peacekeepers, more than four thousand Haitians converged upon the square in front of the Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince to witness the event. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, restored to power thanks to the intervention of twenty thousand U.S. troops in October 1994, would preside over the event.
Bill Clinton had barely finished his conciliatory speech concerning military intervention in Haiti when a white dove landed next to his microphone. Immediately, thousands of Haitians roared their approval and applauded in the light of such an unequivocal "sign of approval" from the gods. The Voodoo loas had accepted Clinton. This "innocent coincidence" made thousands of Haitians--and more importantly, secret societies like Bizango, who had promised to protect the country against foreigners through magic--put aside their anger against the new white invaders, respecting the wishes of the gods. Voodoo is the main power in Haiti: no one would dare contradict the wishes of the loas, or what is interpreted as their wishes.
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 Haiti. President Aristide was no exception. In spite of having been a Catholic priest, after an interview with several houngans (priests) and mambos (priestesses) on July 19, 1995, Aristide officially announced the construction of a great Voodoo temple within the capital. In this manner, the president equated the Voodoo religion with other "accepted" religions, granting Voodoo practitioners a "cathedral" similar to the Baptist churches, Masonic temples or Catholic parishes which are so numerous in Haiti.
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 Haiti, Duvalier named the feared bokor of Gonaives, Zacharie Delva, as commander-in-chief of the army, and began to revindicate Voodoo as the official religion. His personal bodyguard, a sort of "esoteric police," were the Volunteers for National Security (VSN), the feared Tontons Macoutes who spread terror throughout the island (the name Tontons Macoutes refers to an old Haitian folk tale of the "men with the sack". Misbehaving children were warned that their tonton -- uncle -- would take them away inside a macoute, a sack). All the hounfor who were not aligned with the Duvalier regime were locked up and rebels were persecuted. According to his biographers, "Papa Doc" ordered a special airplane to bring him the head of former rebel captain Blucher Fhilgénes. The man was decapitated and his head was placed in a bucket of ice. According to the rumors filtering out of the Presidential Palace, Duvalier would spend hours contemplating the head and consulting its spirit in secret rituals.
"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 Haiti. Papa Doc had woven around himself a terrible magical legend thanks to his knowledge of Voodoo, a legend that none dare question, and which allowed his dictatorship to flourish for decades. In fact, many peasants believed that "Papa Doc" was an incarnation of the dreaded Baron Samedi, lord of cemeteries. "They cannot have me. I am an immaterial being," Duvalier said during one of his speeches in 1963. The fact is that his legend exists to this day, and many believe that Duvalier has become a loa, a spirit of the Gede family that can still manifest itself in certain rituals...
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 New World as their only treasure was forcibly mimetized with the saints of the Catholic onomasticon. The orishas and African loas were disguised as saints, mystics and martyrs in order that their worship could survive in a hostile world, which was that of slave-owning whites. This abstract mixture of witchcraft, paganism and christianity survives to this day.
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 slaveowners.
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.