WELCOME TO THE FIFTH LESSON FOR HAITI TODAY
PART OF THE HISTORY OF IDEAS ACADEMY
You can find the outline for the course here, a brief history of Haiti here, an introduction to Vodou here, a discussion of daily life here, and an overview of NGOs and foreign intervention here. Please post all comments, requests, and questions in the Reddit post here rather than the blog. That way we can continue our discussion within the History of Ideas subreddit. I've also posted an album to accompany the post here so you can see how the dead and zombies are represented in Haiti.
WELCOME TO THE FIFTH LESSON FOR HAITI TODAY
PART OF THE HISTORY OF IDEAS ACADEMY
Top Hats, Skeletons, and Zombies
A Haiti Today Halloween Special
My original plan for this post was to talk about the future of Haiti. But I realized that since today is Halloween it would be much more fun and topical to talk about the spirits of the dead and zombies. We'll save the future of Haiti discussion next week. First, I will discuss the spirits of the dead, who have become part of New Orleans and even Hollywood popular culture as the skeleton wearing a top hat. Even James Bond got in on the theme with the film Live and Let Die. Then, I'll talk a little about the concept of souls in Vodou since All Saints Day and a big Vodou ceremony is coming up. And lastly, I'll tackle zombies in Haitian Vodou since they were the original source for all the zombies we see running around trick or treating today. So when your friends show up tonight in zombie outfits or share pictures on Facebook you can impress them all with your knowledge. I've also included a photo album of related pictures that you can browse here.
Spirits of Death and the Dead
We've talked a little already about the spirits of the ancestors and the lwa in my section introducing Vodou. But a brief recap might be useful. Ancestors are important actors in everyday life who deserve honor and feeding. They look after their family for generations or until they are reincarnated. The lwa are the living spirits that live in Ginen (Africa) but also animate the landscape around us. They form complex and life long relationships with humans where they expect to be honored and fed, but like the ancestors also look after their charges and can protect, heal, or punish. The lwa become extended but revered family members - called by terms of endearment such as father, mother, and cousin. Some humans even marry spirits. In the larger scheme of things, the beloved dead and lwa help retain balance and moral order. One such spirit we only briefly touched on before is Baron and the Ghede.
The lwa are grouped into different nations and families that share some personality traits and often have interpersonal relationships with one another. The Ghede make up a family of spirits of the dead. But they are not the ancestors who are taken care of and remembered by the surviving family. Rather, Ghede are the Unclaimed Dead who have no one to look after them. The Barons are the spirits of death who head this family and look after the Unclaimed Dead and our own spirits when we die. Since the Ghede are dead, they have no inhibitions because they exist beyond such earthly constrictions and concerns of punishment. They are loud naughty pranksters who dance sexually, drink heavily, and love a good party even if it isn't thrown for them. When they show up they like to wear the formal but moth eaten clothes of an undertaker such as a top hat, a tux, and a cane. They also like to wear dark sunglasses, smoke, and powder their faces white like a skeleton. Ghede love liquor spiced with the habanero peppers and have enormous appetites. They always speak the truth (why lie when there are no repercussions for blunt honesty?) and love a good joke. Sometimes their jokes touch on subjects that the living are too afraid to speak about such as mocking dangerous political figures. Since they are part of the cycle of death and rebirth, they are also tied to sex and its consequences - i.e. children. Sometimes you'll see Ghede with a purple penis at the tip of their staff and they love to dance the banda (a type of sexual dance) with members of the party. But since they also care about children, they are fierce protectors of those who haven't yet led a full life.
There are also endless individual Ghede within the larger Ghede family and as the social and political situations in Haiti change, new Ghede appear to reflect that. For example, the economic situation that favors women has spurred female Ghede to appear and the ever present Protestant Preacher (who really, really does not approve of Ghede's sexuality) has even become a Ghede. A Protestant Ghede preacher drinking copious amounts of alcohol, making dirty jokes, and grinding on the dance floor is a pretty interesting commentary on religion, life, and politics. Most families have their own Ghede that only show up to their parties and have a personal relationship with them. But everyone has Ghede since everyone dies, and they are important spirits in part because they purposefully occupy the space between. Living in the boundaries, they provide powerful defense, vengeance, and healing against outsiders. They also provide a psychological release for dealing with death, political and cultural oppression, and the stress of living up to social norms. Beginning on All Saints Day, which is November 1st, Haitian communities will begin holding their yearly fet (ceremony) for Ghede. This is always one of the biggest ceremonies of the year since everyone has Ghede and a need to honor the dead. In Haiti, these fets will go on for days. In the diaspora (i.e. immigrant communities living abroad), they usually last from about 9 PM to 9 AM. The community I work with here in the States will hold theirs in the upcoming weeks. Last year, the goal was to begin around 7 PM but most Vodou ceremonies happen on Haitian Standard Time, meaning they happen when they happen. The priestess made her way down into the tightly packed basement around 9 PM to begin the opening prayers. The vast majority of the people packed into the basement were Haitian immigrants or children of immigrants, though there were a few white visitors, scholars, and initiates. The altar was loaded down with Ghede's favorite fish, Halloween decorations of skulls and skeletons, white run packed with habaneros, and fabrics in Ghede's colors of black and purple. Though Ghede was the main attraction, all Vodou ceremonies have to go through the order of lwa and honor them all with at least a brief song or prayer. But Vodou ceremonies are less formal than church, so that people were dancing, talking, singing, and laughing throughout. Finally, around 2 AM it was time for Ghede to make an appearance. The drums began the beat of the banda and the congregation began singing songs for Ghede. The first Ghede showed up quickly, taking one of the manbo by surprise. But there is no mistaking when Ghede shows up. The usually demure and stately priestess's body took on the mannerisms of the lwa as her body began moving to the beat of the drums and the congregants brought Ghede's accouterments. Donning the tux, hat, powder, and sunglasses Ghede grabbed his staff and liquor. He drank some of the habanero packed rum and then poured it into his eyes. The fact that the priestess's eyes did not water or turn red was proof of an authentic possession. Then Ghede began the process of bringing his brothers to the party. He pulled attendees aside to dance with him, often spinning them around and around until they became dizzy. In this moment of dizzy confusion, it is easy for other Ghede to push out the person self and take over the body. Soon a host of Ghede were running around the cramped basement making sexual comments, cracking jokes, and dancing. One Ghede came up to me and invited me to dance by offering the end of his cane. We each put an end of the staff between our knees so that we were bound by the cane as we danced together. Though I am a rather horrible dancer, Ghede smiled his approval of my dancing and shook my hand afterwards. Then he was on to the next attendee. After a while, they began greeting individuals and giving advice, healing, and congratulating or predicting pregnancies. Then the drums picked back up and the dancing began again with everyone joining in. The Ghede and Vodouisants danced and celebrated for hours, the living and the dead joined together and laughing at and with the world.
The Body and the Soul
Haitian Vodou concepts of the body and soul are influenced by both West African beliefs and Catholicism. The physical body is merely a vehicle for the soul, a material thing that eventually dies and rots. The most important part of the body is the head, which is the seat of consciousness and the space where sight, hearing, smell, and taste all reside. All experience is filtered through the head. The physical and metaphysical self is expressed in the concepts of gwo bon anj and ti bon anj, which are similar to our ideas of the soul. The consciousness and personality (gwo bon anj) are tied to the physical body, which is animated by the ti bon anj. These three things: body, the gwo bon anj and the ti bon anj make up the trinity of the individual self. The animating soul is not active in influencing personality or choices - it is just the force that keeps the body living. You might call it the spark of life. For the body to continue operating, this animating soul is necessary. For the person to have thoughts, beliefs, and emotions, though, they need their gwo bon anj.
During possession, the lwa displace the gwo bon anj and utilize the animated body. The possessed person cannot remember the experience, it is believed, because their gwo bon anj is not seated in the body and therefore is temporarily not connected to its actions. This same concept applies to the foods offered to the spirits and the dead. The nanm (soul) of the food is consumed by the spirits and ancestors even as the physical aspect of the food remains. Therefore, the trinity of body, animating soul, and personality soul can be separated at various points throughout life and then, of course, at death. After death, the gwo bon anj returns to Ginen (a heavenly Africa) and the ti bon anj lingers around the cemetery for a while since it no longer has a body to animate. It is the gwo bon anj that houses the ego, self, personality, and ethics of the person from life. A year and a day after death, Vodouisants can work to bring this soul back across the waters so that it can be an active and honored ancestor.
People who are called to work with the lwa also have a met tet. The met tet is the ruler of the head, and the person has a very personal deep relationship and set of obligations to this lwa. During initiations, a ritual head washing opens the head to allow the met tet to permanently reside within the individual head. This spirit becomes part of the self, adding to the existing souls that makeup the complex of personhood. Though the conscious remains, unlike in possession, the spirit now has a direct line to the individual that allows them to interact in a much more direct manner. One spirit may have its foot in multiple doors, so to speak, thereby forming these bonds with many individuals so that the spirit can actively communicate with and guide them. Individuals are believed to grow along with this spirit, its influence guiding their maturity and development. Knowledge of an individual’s met tet is often protected because it may provide dangerous people with too much power, but close friends and relatives understand the individual in relation to their spirits. Therefore, in Haitian Vodou the concept of the self and personhood is made up of the body, the gwo bon anj, the ti bon anj, and the met tet (if applicable).
Zombies in Haitian Vodou
Though few people are aware of it today, the original concept of zombies in pop culture came from Haitian Vodou. I'll get back to this at the end, but first I want to explain what zombies actually are within the religion because they are quite different from the rotting stumblers we see in movies and Halloween in America. Anthropologist Elizabeth McAlister argues that you cannot understand zombies without first understanding colonialism and slavery in Haiti. I've already discussed this in my section on history, but you'll recall that it was incredibly brutal even by chattel slavery standards. And that on the eve of the revolution up to 2/3 of slaves in Haiti had been born in Africa. Enslaved peoples dreamed of returning to Africa, so much so that some committed suicide on the way to Haiti and on the plantations in hopes that their souls would return to Ginen. Though the revolution instituted the first free black republic in the world, many people found themselves back working on plantations in poor conditions. Plantation labor has continued to be a reality for Haitians all the way up to the present. Many poor Haitian men today travel to the Dominican Republic where they work in near slavery conditions on sugar cane plantations. Other peasants work on farms owned by elites or US businesses. When poor families cannot support their children, they might send a daughter to live as a restavek with a well off family in the city. These children are often taken advantage of and rather than being given the opportunities of education that they were promised, they are trapped in these homes as servants. There are many cases of sexual abuse. During periods of political unrest, militias like the Tonton Macoutes sometimes grab local control and force people to do their bidding. Sweatshops run 24/7 and people work in dangerous conditions for very little pay for foreigners. Therefore, this legacy of slavery and exploitation of the poor and weak continues to be a running theme in Haiti. People dread the concept of slavery because of Haiti's history, because of the contemporary semi-slave conditions for many poor, and also because of the concept of zonbi.
Zonbi (zombies) can happen in one of two forms. The first is a spiritual zonbi. Since the ti bon anj lingers after death, it is vulnerable to being captured and used by sorcerers. In Haitian Vodou, houngans (priests) and manbos (priestesses) promise to keep a strict religious morality and do not practice with the left hand. This means that they can only bring justice, only work with a certain families and nations of lwa, and promise not to belong to secret societies. Justice in this sense refers to balance - if someone does something to you, you can return the curse or sent illness to return balance. There is nothing immoral about self defense and balance, but sending a curse without justification is dangerous. Secret societies, however, are more willing to work with the left hand, lwa, and magic that is dangerous. This doesn't mean that all secret society members are bad or do harm - just that they play with fire more than most. Though members of secret societies go through initiations and training too, they are usually considered sorcerers called boko. These sorcerers have the knowledge of how to capture the animating spirit after death and use it to do spiritual work. The sorcerer goes to the cemetery where he or she may ask permission from the recently dead to use their ti bon anj. Sometimes this permission is not asked, depending on the kind of work that will be done. Either way, a few pieces of the skeleton, cemetery earth, money, and other ritual items are placed into a bottle that is then dressed in fabric and items related to the work the zonbi will do. Often one skull will provide enough energy for multiple zonbi bottles, so that the ti bon anj is splintered and set to goals specific to each bottle's owner. This practice is likely influenced by the Kongo nkisi. They might be aimed at healing, getting money, love relationships, work, or other desires. Each zonbi is crafted by the sorcerer for a specific person and purpose. The owner has an obligation to feed their zonbi, but they must be careful not to salt the food or else the zonbi might break loose. These zonbi become enslaved souls working tirelessly for their owners until the time when God calls them back. In this sense, it is a reenactment of the process of colonialism and slavery. But like colonialism in Haiti, the enslaved can rise up if mistreated too long. If the zonbi are not fed they will begin to feed on the life force of the owner, just as the Haitian slaves rose up and killed their masters. Spiritual zonbi can also be sent to attack other people, and McAlister gives an example of such a case in her own fieldwork. A teenage boy was diagnosed as having a sent zonbi eating away at his life force because he had been secretly sold to a secret society. The local Vodou community had to come together to trick the zonbi and restore his health. Ghede Loray possessed a participants body in order to conduct the delicate procedure. The boy was buried up to his neck in dirt for a mock funeral. The zonbi was tricked into staying in the grave when the boy was lifted out and then trapped. The boy was free from the zonbi, but still needed to be bought back from the secret society to ensure his continued health and safety. So they took the boy to the cemetery where they negotiated with Baron to buy back the boy's soul and keep it safe until God determined his natural lifespan was up. Thus, a boy was tricked into slavery, an enslaved soul was sent to eat at his own, in turn the zonbi was tricked, and the boy was saved by getting a benevolent being to buy him instead. This idea of selling someone else's soul also shows up in related cultures. In New Orleans, the self proclaimed inventor of jazz Jelly Roll Morton claimed his godmother sold his soul to the devil (in Haiti spirits outside of the official Vodou pantheon are sometimes called devils) and that is why he was doomed to die young.
But there is also a second form of zonbi, which may be more familiar to avid movie fans. Zonbi ko kadav are somewhat controversial because everyone claims to know a person who knew a person who became one, but no one witnesses it directly. 1 Yet, the concept is still part of the popular idea of zonbi in Haiti and a powerful deterrent against serious moral transgressions. If someone does something that is so wrong and immoral that it completely fractures a family and community, the ultimate punishment of zonbi ko kadav might be meted out. When this happens, a sorcerer kicks out the gwo bon anj from the body leaving only the body and its animating force, the ti bon anj. Without the gwo bon anj the person has no self left - no personality, no hopes, no fears, no understanding of the world around him or her. Yet, the ti bon anj can be ordered by its master to do whatever he or she wishes. The body is then sold to a sugar cane plantation for money where it is worked night and day until it falls apart.
It is said that the first zonbi ko kadav was Jesus. Romans standing guard over his grave overheard the secret words that God used to raise Jesus from the dead. These Roman guards took this knowledge and used it for evil, passing down knowledge of its use through secret societies. In Haiti too, not every zonbi ko kadav is someone who committed an inexcusable wrong. Papa Doc, the horrific Haitian dictator, claimed to be a sorcerer and even dressed as Baron to scare people into submission. It is believed that political dissidents were turned into zonbi ko kadav as punishment. Papa Doc had 60,000 people killed but reserved the punishment of zonbi for his most dangerous opponents because it was so horrific. The body becomes a walking corpse for all society to see and fear lest they be made one too. Some believed that Papa Doc's Tonton Macoutes were zonbi ko kadav too because how else could you explain people who raped, tortured, and killed their former neighbors?
Zonbi in Popular Culture
So how did this concept of zonbi ko kadav turn into our walking dead of comic books and Hollywood? In 1932, Universal Studies released the horror movie White Zombie. If you're curious, you can watch the entire thing here. It was the first full-length feature film and stared the famous Bella Lugosi. The main plot was that a white plantation owner in Haiti falls in love with a woman engaged to marry someone else. He hires a sorcerer to win the woman's heart, but instead she is turned into a zonbi. I won't ruin the end in case anyone decides to watch it, but this was the first time most American audiences had ever heard of the concept. The US Marine occupation of Haiti at this same time fueled rumors and interest from letters that the marines wrote home. In fact, zonbi and cannibalism were part of the arguments for why the marines needed to intervene in the first place and justifications for staying there. In the 1940s, other zombie films were released that also shared the idea of loss of bodily control to another, Vodou drumming, and forced manual labor.
These early representations of zombies were highly influenced by the actual concept of zonbi, but they also reflected fears going on in America at the time: slavery to capitalism and the barbarism and backwardness of blacks. McAlister argues that ever since, zombies have been used to reflect contemporary fears. Over time, white Americans shifted their racist views and fears of black people, but this theme still appears in some representations of zombies. In 1968, Romero released Night of the Living Dead, which you can watch here. In this movie and the other two that make up the trilogy, issues of patriarchy, racism, traditional family units, consumerism, militarism, and the misuse of science are all addressed. From there, zombie movies took off and have become increasingly popular. And in each film, the cause and action of the zombies often reflects our fears. Today, it seems we fear science and epidemics. In the video game series Resident Evil, which began in 1996, horrific zombies and other mutations are created from a release of the T-virus by an evil corporation. In 28 Days Later the zombies are caused by scientists accidentally releasing a virus they created. In the Walking Dead comics and tv show the zombies are also caused by a viral epidemic that infects everyone. You could even argue that Joss Whedon's thankfully short lived Dollhouse series was a modern twist on a zombie theme. An evil company takes people, wipes their minds using technology, and implants their memory and personality with whatever their owner wants them to be. Unchecked capitalism and the misuse of science are issues that many Americans still worry about. Zombie films provide an outlet for exploring these fears and battling with them. Perhaps, in some ways, our own representations of zombies aren't that different from the role that zonbi play in Haiti. There too, they provide a way for Haitians to deal with the fears of past and present and symbolically take control over them.
1 Ethnobotonist Wade Davis once claimed in his book The Serpent and the Rainbow to have found a scientific chemical explanation for this type of zonbi. But subsequent scientists have argued this argument makes no scientific sense and faced with overwhelming evidence in the contrary, Wade Davis recanted his argument. He is also ahistorical, seems to not fully understand Haitian culture and Vodou, has a number of methodology issues, and tends to make an argument about the whole with only anecdotal local evidence. In short, it is a poor ethnography and does not stand up to expert scrutiny. Davis is not a good reliable source about zombies or Vodou.
McAlister, Elizabeth A. 1995. “A Sorcerer’s Bottle: The Art of Magic in Haiti.” In Donald J. Cosentino, ed.
Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou, 305-321. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.
Pagano, David. 2008. “The Space of Apocalypse in Zombie Cinema.” In Shawn McIntosh and Marc
Leverette, eds. Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead, 71-86. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
Taussig, Michael. 1987. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
My own photos related to the topic: http://imgur.com/a/1Z7Y4