Demons, Monsters, and Ghosts, Oh No! Part XVII: The Walking Dead

In Vodou zombies are generally considered to be recently dead individuals that have been revived by a bokor.

I know that it’s been a while since I posted in this series, and if you need a refresher you can check out my previous posts on While We’re Paused, as well as posts on this blog here, here, and here.  I never gave up on this series, although I did get distracted from it for a while, and I’ve been wanting to get back into it.  Our world has a rich history of mythology and magic upon which we, as authors, can draw for ideas either in plotting, character development, or designing creatures for our heroes to battle.  I have, on While We’re Paused, covered demons of various types and vampires, and here I have covered werewolves.  So, I would like to devote the next several posts to the various forms of the walking dead throughout history, starting with Zombies!

The term Zombie, actually Zonbi, comes from Hatian Vodou.  However, the similar creatures appear world wide including the Tibetan Ro-langs, the Norse Draugr (which is different enough that I will discuss it in a separate post), and the Chinese Jiang-Shi (which is a cross between a vampire and a zombie and has already been discussed in my posts on vampires).

According to the teachings of Vodou (which descends from West African Vodun) a zombie is created when a Bokor (a type of sorcerer) revives a recently deceased person.  The revivified person, being without a soul, is left empty and without any will or motivating force of its own.  Thus, it follows every command of the Bokor to the letter, and has no ability or desire to escape its captivity.  It is interesting to note that the term Zonbi is very similar to Nzambi (Kinkongo, a West African language, for god), and the term is also intimately connected to Iwa Damballah Wedo, a serpant-god of Niger-Congo origin.  According to folklore a zombie will return to its grave if it is fed salt.

In South Africa zombies are generally the same with one notable exception.  While a powerful bokor must raised a zombie, according to Vodou, in South African tradition zombies can be raised by young children, but that it takes a powerful sangoma (a witch-doctor or shaman) to return the zombie to its rest.

Kun-dga'-snying-po or Kunga Nyingpo was an accomplished Tibetan Buddhist monk also known as Jetsun Taranatha.

The Ro-langs is similar to the zombie in many ways.  According to Tibetan belief a Ro-langs can be created by either a powerful Buddhist priest, or by a possessing demon.  When the Ro-lang is created by a priest it is generally created either for manual labor, or to be used in the creation of a powerful magical item (such as in the story of Narada, recorded by Kun-dga’-snying-po).  However, a Ro-lang can also be created by an evil spirit when it possesses the body of a recently deceased person in order to spread death and disease.  Ro-langs folklore also generally separates Ro-langs into five categories of vulnerability: the lpags-langs, or skin-zombie that can be destroyed by cutting the skin; the khrag-langs, or blood zombie that can be destroyed by making it bleed; the sha-langs, or flesh zombie that can be destroyed by cutting away a piece of flesh; and the rme-langs, or mole zombie that can only be destroyed by cutting a specific mole hidden somewhere on the zombies body.  According to Tibetan beliefs the Ro-langs cannot bend their joints, and so the doors to many older buildings were build low to prevent a Ro-langs from entering the building.

Wade Davis, author of The Serpent and the Rainbow and Passage of Darkness

While all of this is very interesting, perhaps more interesting is the fact that there has been some legitimate scientific attempts to justify zombie folklore.  In the 1980s an ethnobiologist from Harvard University, Wade Davis, traveled to Haiti and spent some time among the Vodou practitioners there.  He wrote two books about this issue, The Serpent and the Rainbow, and Passage of Darkness.  Davis attempted to explain the Vodou belief in and creation of zombies through a combination of pharmacology and psychology, arguing that the state of zombification could be explained by a combination of tetrodotoxin with dissociative drugs, such as datura, used to induce a psychotic state and then combined with culturally reinforced beliefs about zombies.  While it is interested, Davis’ theory has generally been rejected by the scientific community because of the apparent inefficacy of tetrodotoxin to achieve the intended affects.  Although other scientists (notably R.D. Laing) have attempted to use rare presentations of psychological disorders such a schizophrenia to explain the phenomenon.

Whether these theories are accepted or rejected, they are very interesting, and there has been more attempt among the scientific community to explain the appearance of zombies than most other monsters have received (with the notable exception of Ghost Hunting).