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Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Zombies.  The very word conjures up visions of mysterious drugged-up humanoids, stiffly moving with no facial expressions, nor are they able to speak.  Kids love them.  The movie industry loves them.  But where did they come from?

The popular culture connotation is a dangerous but lethargic once-human creature that bids the requests of a controlling (usually malevolent) figure.  Folklore suggests that a sorcerer can put a spell on a dead body and gain control of it.  Tales of zombies come primarily from Haiti and Africa, although they appear in other cultures as well.  The etymology of the word is questionable; it most likely came from West Africa, meaning either "fetish" or "god".  Originally it was the name of a snake god, but later came to mean a reanimated corpse in voodoo cult.

Haitian folklore contends that bokors, voodoo black magic priests, can resurrect the dead through the use of coup padre, a powder issued orally.  This powder is said to be derived from the fou-fou fish, a poisonous fish similar to the pufferfish that the Japanese call fugu.  Consumption of this powder would cause a shallowness in breathing and a drop in heart rate and body temperature.  These victims would be buried by their kin, but the bokor would exhume them, then erase their memories, thus turning them into mindless drones.  They remain under the bokor's power until the bokor dies.

Actually there are several drugs that could produce the appearance of a stupor and/or death.  One of them is certainly the poison of a pufferfish or blowfish.  There are also poisons from frogs that are deadly and could cause similar symptoms.  However, people who have consumed the poison of pufferfish and live eventually return to normal, not a zombie-like state. 

Datura, also known as jimson weed, is a genus of perennial plants that have been used as hallucinogens as well as a poison for centuries.  Unlike blowfish poison, this one has an antidote.  The symptoms of ingestion of this plant is a kind of delirium, and possibly amnesia, hyperthermia, or tachycardia.  Since it has hallucinogenic properties, the victim may think (s)he's been made a zombie, and that claim could keep the myth alive.

Other ingredients of "zombie powder" include, as well as the above, the usual parts of lizards, snakes, toads, human parts, etc., found in recipes for traditional "witches' brew".

However, since none of the poisons mentioned produce the trance or stiffened movement of the classic Zombie connotation, we can correctly assume the standard movie depiction has been exaggerated in detail to add to the fright factor.  Haiti, does however, have strong beliefs in zombies.  Papa Doc, the Haitian dictator who ruled from 1957-1971, claimed to have a private army, called tonton macoutes, that answered his beck and call.  He also claimed he would come back after his death to rule Haiti forever.  He still hasn't returned after dying of a heart attack, but even so a lock and chain was put on his tomb and a guard placed there just in case.  Padlocking tombs is a common practice in Haiti, where it is a crime to make a zombie:

Haitian Penal Code:

Article 246. It shall also be qualified as attempted murder the employment which may be made against any person of substances which, without causing actual death, produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged. If, after the person had been buried, the act shall be considered murder no matter what result follows.

Anthropologist Wade Davis has written a couple of books on zombies - it was the focus of his graduate studies and PhD dissertation.  Although ethnologists and pharmacologists pooh-poohed his books, some scholars find parts of them intriguing.  

There IS a zombie you can believe in.  It is the name of a cocktail that is supposed to make you feel like one.  So this Halloween, you can get into the swing of things and consume a zombie or two:

1/2 oz 151-proof rum
1 oz pineapple juice
1 oz orange juice
1/2 oz apricot brandy
1 tsp sugar
2 oz light rum
1 oz dark rum
                                 1 oz lime juice

First, make sure you have a designated driver.  Blend all ingredients with ice except the 151-proof rum.  Pour into a tall glass and float the 151-proof rum on top.  Garnish with a fruit slice, sprig of mint, and a cherry.  (Makes one serving.)

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