The second part of this series (the first part on zombie ants and spores is one I am trying to put behind me) on zombies and plant life brings us to the island that has historically been known as Hispaniola and today is known as the two sovereign nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Before we settle our story there perhaps we should push out a bit across the Atlantic to West Africa, namely the areas around Angola and Gabon. From there, supposedly, we have the word for zumbi, which roughly translated as fetish, and nzambi, translated to (snake) god. This snake god later took on the meaning of reanimated corpse in voodoo and later was mixed in with Creole to become the word we have today. Now I won’t turn this post into an overview of voodoo, nor will I refer to the very good article on how much of voodoo is n expression of racial and cultural resistance of an oppressed class of people within a hostile society. What I will refer to is the Economic Botany take on the importance of specific plants in voodoo ceremonies for dispelling zombies (phantoms).
Here is the article:
So the plant in question is Zombia antillarum
, endemic to Hispaniola. It is a few other uses, such as feed for livestock, etc., but mostly it is the connection to ritual and ceremony that makes it popular. According to Taylor and Timyan (themselves referring to another ethnographic source), the “people of Gros-Morne, Haiti
, believe that the yellowish-brown oil can be used to “awaken” a zombi back to life” (2004, 182). Another use is that “the leaves are used as thatch material along rooftops of houses to keep zombies from being posted by their masters in order to spy on people” (182).
An illustration of the zombie palm. Descourtilz: Flore des Antilles, 1821
Once again, a lot of this ceremony has racial, cultural, and political antecedents as becoming a zombie is a nightmare “because it means becoming a slave again. Zombies are said to live in a semi-lethargic condition, raised from the dead and used by their masters as labor in agriculture, housework, and other tasks. They are said to be in a catatonic state, moving slowly…” (182).
So in comes the Zombia antillarum
, an awakening agent from a deep sleep (death). Other elixirs are made and absorbed by the future zombi, a mixture of different herbs and fish products (puffer fish, in particular). “Once ingested, it allows the person who is buried alive to survive with very little oxygen for up to 48 hours” (182). Once awake, the potential zombie is fed an “antidote” of sorts, commonly including Datura stramonium
(jimson or stinkweed), which actually contains psychoactive properties that causes hallucinations and can affect speech and willpower. A zombie, indeed. See the specimen below.
The highly hallucinogenic Datura stramonium, aka jimsom or stinkweed (1965). Contributed from the Forestry Research Institute of Nigeria.