Monday, June 14, 2010
The Secret Drug of Haiti´s Living Dead
Haitian zombie. From http://media.photobucket.com/
In1981, a man walked into L´estere, a village in central Haiti, approached a peasant woman named Angelina Narcisse, and identified himself as her brother Clairvious. Eighteen years earlier, Angelina had stood in a small cemetery north of her village and watched as her brother Clairvious was buried. The man told her he remembered that night well. He knew he was lowered into his grave, because he was fully conscious, although he could not speak or move. As the earth was thrown over his coffin, he felt as if he were floating over the grave. The night he was buried, he told Angelina, a voodoo priest raised him from the grave. He was beaten with a sisal whip and carried off to a sugar plantation in northern Haiti where, with other zombies, he was forced to work as a slave. Only with the death of the zombie master were they able to escape.
Legend has it that zombies are the living dead, raised from their graves and animated by malevolent voodoo sorcerers, usually for some evil purpose. Most Haitians believe in zombies. There were another zombies wandering in the fields, but Narcisse´s case was different, because it was documented. His death has been recorded by doctors at the Hospital in Deschapelles. The attending physicians, and American among them, signed his death certificate. His body was placed in cold storage for 20 hours, and then he was buried. He said that he could hear his doctors pronounce him dead.
At the Centre de Psychiatrie et Neurologie in Port-au-Prince, Dr. Lamarque Douyon, Haitian born, Canadian-trained psychiatrist, had been systematically investigating all reports of zombies since 1961. He had been unable to find a scientific explanation for the phenomenon. He requested assistance from New York, wanting to find an ethnobotanist, a traditional medicines expert who could track down the zombie potion he was sure existed; a potent drug that could dramatically lower human metabolism.
Wade Davis. From http://us.asiancorrespondent.com/
28 years old Wade Davis, an ethnobotanist from Harvard, was recommended for this research.
When Davis landed in Haiti, he discovered a materially impoverished country, but rich in culture and mistery. He was impressed by the cohesion of Haitian society, where the vast majority of peasants practiced voodoo, a sophisticated religion with African roots. Vodoun society is a system of education, law, and medicine; it embodies a code of ethics that regulates social behavior. In rural areas, secrete vodoun societies are as much or more in control of everyday life as the Haitian government.
Many researchers before Davis failed to obtain the important drug. But he obtained a sample in a few weeks. He was adviced by a BBC reporter to contact Marcel Pierre, a voodoo sorcerer. Davis told Pierre he was a ¨representative of a powerful but anonymous interests in New York¨, willing to pay for the priest´s services.
Davis spent one day watching Pierre mixing the ingredients –including human bones stolen from a child´s grave- but his expertise told him there was nothing there to produce the effects of zombification. Three weeks later, he contacted Pierre again, and called him a ¨charlatán¨. Enraged, the priest gave him a second sample, claiming that it was real. Davis pretended to pour the powder into his palm and rub it into his skin. He might have been dead, because this powder proved to be genuine, but he was only pretending a bravado, and the substance didn´t touch his skin. So, the priest, very impressed, agreed to make the poison and show Davis how it was made.
The powder contains part of toads, sea worms, lizards, tarantulas, and human bones. The poison is rubbed into the victim´s skin. Within hours he begins to feel nauseated and has difficulty breathing. A pins and needles sensation afflicts his arms and legs, then progresses the hole body. The subject becomes paralyzed; his lips turn blue for lack of oxygen. In 6 hrs, his metabolism lowers to a level almost indistinguishable from death.
Davis discovered, though the formula could be changed, there was one important ingredient as a powerful poison: a dried fish, a kind of blowfish, common to this part of the world; it gets its name from its ability to fill itself with water and swell to several times its normal size when threatened by predators. Many of these fish contain tetrodotoxin. This poison was present in all the samples. If a victim of tetrodotoxin survives the first few hours of the poisoning, he is likely to recover fully from the ordeal. Others, will be dead by the poison or by the coffin´s suffocation.
As a result of the exotic nature of his discoveries, Wade Davis has gained notoriety. He published the book The serpent and the rainbow, which has also been produced as a film.
The serpent and the rainbow. From http://innerself.ca/market/i
This post is taken and adapted from The Secrets of Haiti´s Living Dead. By Gino Del Guercio. Published in Harvard Magazine January-February 1986, p. 31-37. Reprinted in Annual Editions. Anthropology 06/07. P. 168 to 171
Read about Fugu Fish or puffer fish in Japanese food
Read about vudu emerging again after the earthquake in Haiti