On the trail of the real-life zombie: Benin

If I’m going to study zombies, I need some context. For that, I need to read up on Haiti. The zombies that live on the small Caribbean island are different than the brain-eaters I’ll spend most of my time looking at over the next few months, but it doesn’t hurt to arm myself with knowledge.

But if I’m going to look at Haitian zombies, then really I need to start across the Atlantic, in Africa, in the small coastal country of Benin—the birthplace of voodoo.

What we commonly refer to as “voodoo” stems from an actual religion known as “vodun” or, alternatively, “vodoun.” The spelling with all the “ooooo’s” is really a Hollywoodized version intended to play up the Creepy Factor.

Benin had been a stop along the infamous “Slave Coast” of Africa, so as slavers shipped Beninese to the Caribbean, the captives naturally took as much of their religion with them. In Haiti and in Brazil, vodun became well established—although it was practiced mostly underground, as it was in Benin, too.

In 1996, however, Benin’s government officially recognized vodun as a religion. “For visitors, the resurgence of vodun offers a chance to catch a rare glimpse of an indigenous culture’s spiritual practices,” writes New York Times travel writer Joshua Hammer in a piece he did earlier this month.

“Le vodun is Africa,” a spiritual chief tells Hammer. “It is the faith of our ancestors.”

Those ancestors live among a spirit world that includes a pantheon of hundreds of gods and demigods, whose spirits live in a wide range of objects in the natural world. “[T]hey employ talismans, or ‘fetishes’ like dried animal parts, for spiritual rejuvenation as well as for protection against spells case by malevolent sorcerers,” Hammer says.

“In recent years, a steady flow of Western tourists have traveled the vodun route in Benin and Togo, visiting temples and fetish markets, and occasionally gaining entry to ceremonies presided over by priests who lead adherents in singing, dancing and animal sacrifices,” Hammer writes, tracing part of what he calls “the Vodun Trail.”

One of those Western tourists was writer Barbara Kingsolver, who recounted part of her trip to the country in her essay “The Vibrations of Djoogbe,” included in her book High Tide in Tucson. “It’s a hot place, Benin, where everybody has a different story to tell, but every creature has its rapport with nature,” she said. “It’s best to be prepared.”

At one point during her visit, she stumbled “by pure dumb accident” into the vodoun market. “Dozens of fetishers had laid out their wares on the ground,” she wrote: “rows of animal skins and bird bodies, turtle skulls, dried chameleons, dark monkey hands lined up in a beseeching row, palms up. I was horrified by this trade in literal flesh and bone (wondering how much of the pharmacopeia was rare or endangered), but also enthralled by the sense of secret business.” Elsewhere, “in the smoky heat among the vendors of souvenirs and street food, a flock of kids danced around a boom box playing Lionel Richie.”

It took Kingsolver an hour to work up the nerve, but she visited a fetisher to get “something for my love life.” The resulting charm, “two small sticks bound to a piece of bone, stained dark with blood,” was, according to the fetisher, “a very powerful one…blessed in a fire ceremony….”

Hammer, during his trip, which he wrote about for the Times earlier this month, sat in on a vodun ceremony. “These white people are coming to take part in this, they come to see you, so welcome them,” the ceremony’s presider told the several hundred attendees. “His comment,” wrote Hammer, “evoked some tittering, and many warm smiles.”

The ceremony turns out to be unexpectedly brutal, which leaves Hammer shaken, although he also admits he was “awed by the display of devotion.” (I’ll let you read his article for the full description of the ceremony.)

It’s hard to tell what’s 100% traditional vodun because after the religion had been exported to the western hemisphere, some of those traditions changed over time, especially under the influence of Catholicism, and then made their way back across the Atlantic with returning slaves to renest in Benin. The newer traditions were quickly subsumed into the old ways, creating a new synthesized practice.

The practice of vodun, at least to Hammer and, to a lesser extent, Kingsolver, seems an odd and powerful thing, but neither of them reported on zombies. It’s back to Haiti for that.

But I’ll still follow Kingsolver’s advice: “It’s best to be prepared.”