Friday, May 6, 2016

The dead who walk...

Haiti, a unique country occupying the eastern part of the island of Hispaniola... Dubbed 'La perle des Antilles' both for its natural beauty and also the vast fortune that it provided to France, it's colonial rulers, Haiti was indeed the wealthiest of French colonies.
Haiti being the only nation in the world established as the result of a successful slave revolt, boasts of having defeated three European super powers. France, Britain and Spain.
But since declaring itself a free nation it has suffered dejection, political isolation, political humiliation and interference from other nations as well as perhaps even bio terrorism.
The Haitian religion or Voodooism is a curious mix of native African religions and Roman Catholicism. And it's got a rich colourful culture with many unique rituals and beliefs. But up until modern times, Haiti was mostly shrouded in mystery and its culture and beliefs were painted in a negative light in the western eye.
In 1915, in response to anti American revolts and threats to the US economic dominance over Haiti, American forces occupied island. That was when strange reports of men (and women) who are raised from death, to be turned into slaves, started to reach the west.
In Haitian Creole, they were called the 'Zombi'.
Haitian legends state that a zombie is a corpse which is reanimated by a wizard that they call 'a bokor'. The zombie thus created is purported to be completely under the control of the bokor.
Reports of such real people who were supposed to have died, but who later walked into their villages, were investigated by researchers. One such notable case is a man named 'Clarivius Narcisse' who was presumed to be dead and buried in 1962. But he returned home 18 years later and claimed that he had been dug up from his grave and forced to work in a sugar cane plantation.
The idea that zombies are really a scientifically explainable phenomenon, had been prevalent from those early times. The most widely circulated theory was that zombies are people who are put into a state of paralysis which resembles death. After that they are buried and the body is later unearthed by the bokor, and revived by another drug. After that the 'dead' man is kept under the absolute control of the bokor by the administration of hallucinogens. The ingredients of the magical concotion are of course kept secret. But they are reputed to contain Puffer fish poison, Datura plant extract, camphor and most gruesomely a newly buried baby's brain.
Wade Davis, one of the proponents insisting on a scientific explanation for the zombies, claims that the active ingredient from the puffer fish, Tetrodotoxin is responsible for the creation of zombies. But this claim had been refuted in 1990s based on results obtained by analytical chemistry.
But although analytical chemistry failed to show positive results for the alleged toxins, the fact remains that the puffer fish poison, Datura etc are definitely used by the bokor.
So can there be a truth in the myth? Is it possible to create a so called zombie by using the above medicines?
Also worth noting is that not just any old person, or even any old bokor can create a zombie. Only the most experienced and the seasoned could do it, and even so, there is no guarantee that you would succeed every time. The same medicines may act differently in the hands of different bokors. So why the big uncertainty??
The puffer fish, is a primarily marine and estuarine fish, which contain the toxin tetrodotoxin. The fish isn't inherently poisonous but the toxin is produced by symbiotic or infective bacteria. So the exact amount of poison in a given puffer fish is difficult to predict. The toxicity varies depending on the species, the geographical locality and the season of the year.
The toxic nature of the Puffer fish is know in other civilizations as well, the Chinese writing about it at around 2000 BC.
But with experience and local knowledge, predicting the toxicity maybe a different matter, thus accounting for the fact that only certain bokors are successful. For example the fish caught in the sea is more poisonous than their counterparts caught in estuaries.
The active ingredient in Puffer fish, tetrodotoxin, can kill in 17 minutes. But death can take up to 4 to 6 hours most commonly. The victim although completely paralyzed, remains in a lucid state until shortly before death. Some victims go into a coma. If the victim survives for 24 hours he usually fully recovers within 2 to 3 days.
According to the legends the presumably dead victim is buried and later dug up and revived by the bokor. Camphor is supposed to be one of the ingredients used for revival. It is interesting to note that camphor, obtained from plants of Lamiaceae family, especially rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), may contain caffeic acid and rosmarinic acid, whic have acetyle choline esterase inhibitors. And although not sufficiently investigated, acetyl choline esterase inhibitors are proposed as anti toxins for tetrodotoxin.
The legends do not stop there and go on to say that powerful medicines are repeatedly given to the zombies to maintain submission.
One such drug is supposed to be obtained from a plant of the genus Datura. Datura is a known hallucinogen with anticholinergic activity.
But here also the toxicity changes among individual plants, from leaf to leaf, from the age of the plant and flowering etc. So to use Datura safely and obtain the desired effects at the same time one has to be extremely experienced.
Another ingredient which is supposed to be used in the making of a zombie is the brain of a recently buried baby. This is the one ingredient which had been subjected to least scientific scrutiny. The infant brain having known chemical difference from the adult brain may indeed be used for its chemical properties.. Or on the other hand, this addition could well be in order to add a touch of mysticism.
Most probably there are yet still more active ingredients which we have never heard about. A secret handed down from one generation of bokors to the other, but eventually as most other ancient magic, dying slowly and getting lost and forgotten in history.
But on the other hand, as some historians tend to argue, the myth of the zombies is just what it is... a myth, conveying the story of Haiti's slavery in metaphorical language..
As usual, we may never know....

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