It’s spooky season, which means we get to pull out all the spooky trivia while everyone drills this song into the very core of your being. Let’s get started with a Halloween staple that isn’t spooky scary skeletons though. Except these do have skeletons, we’ll ignore that. We’ll instead turn our attention to the zombie. The modern pop-culture zombie has captured our attention since the 1960’s and 1970’s, but like every other person, you probably refuse to believe Night of the Living Dead is the origin of “fear the undead.” So, where did we get zombies from?
The word “zombie” in its English form dates back to the late 1819–at least that was one of the first times it was written by an English person. Well, perhaps it wasn’t the English form we know today. It was recorded as “zombi,” a perversion of Zumbi dos Palmares, the name of a Brazilian rebel leader of Kongo heritage who lived from 1655-1695.
Zumbi’s name was derived from “Nzambi,” a Kongo word for “god,” as well as a reference to a creator god in Kongo religion. As for Zumbi himself? He was a prime resistance figure who stood against the enslavement of Africans in Brazil. Because, you know, the Portuguese were enslaving people in the 1600s.
Haitian French and Haitian Creole also serve as roots for the word “zombie,” the words “zombi” and “zonbi” literally referring to a corpse raised through dark magic.
Further Reading: What Is a Creole Language?
Zombies and Slavery
As you probably discerned from the dates above, the idea of zombies, even in word form, predates the western conception of the “zombie.”
Given that Haitian French and Haitian Creole have their words for the zombie, our undead companions did hold some weight in Haitian folklore. They’re pretty similar to what we see in the media–they were still reanimated corpses. Though that reanimation is done by a bokor or caplata (the former for males, the latter for females) and the corpse serves as a mindless familiar that does the bidding of their animator.
In contrast, there is also a soul-type zombie that a bokor or caplata can contain within a bottle. It’s not the same as taking the entirety of one’s soul, it’s just a portion of it, but these bottles traditionally are sold as charms for temporary fortune.
Why is there a physical and incorporeal zombie? Well it’s a core belief of Vodou, a Haitian religion.
Zombies were integrated with Haitian tradition when Europeans brought enslaved Africans to Haiti. Becoming a zombie was a kind of condemnation for offending Vodou deities–one would serve as an undead slave unless otherwise saved. Western historians attribute the proliferation of the zombie legend to slavery in Haiti. Slave drivers (who were often also enslaved themselves) would hold the threat of zombification over the heads of other slaves to deter them from committing suicide.
Once the Americans occupied Haiti in the early 1900s, zombies would gain more widespread attention, which is probably a cornerstone for the contemporary zombies we know today being so prolific.
A Little Farther Back
So the zombie was imported to Haiti by western slavery. But where was it imported from? Well we turn again to the Kongo language we touched on earlier, when white historians in the 1800s looked at Zumbi dos Palmares. The Oxford dictionary brings forth the Kongo words nzambi and zumbi, respectively translating to “god” and “fetish.” The former gives us names for creator deities as we talked about, and the latter brings us the spiritual connection between these gods and the mortal plane.
Oh, as a side note, the word “fetish” refers to (typically) a man-made object given spiritual power. It has a pretty complicated history with Europeans not understanding the more material traditions found in the Central and West African areas Europeans colonized.
But zombies still have a link to European slavery, with the belief that one could be killed and possessed into doing slave labor via witchcraft. Once trains and railways started getting used to spread slavery, they came to be known by indigenous peoples as “witch trains.” Take that as you will.
Other Parts of the World & Romero
Obviously, fear of the undead sounds pretty universal. You’d be right to assume reanimated corpses would probably appear in folklore all over the globe and throughout history.
You probably were thinking about George A. Romero for a good chunk of this post, and you wouldn’t be misplaced for doing so. He’s often credited as the progenitor of the contemporary zombie film–no wonder many consider him one of the most influential forces in the horror film genre. This is where many assign credit to the endless feeding and spreading through bites and scratches.
Romero has described his zombies and films as “being about revolution, one generation consuming the next… all my films are snapshots of North America at a particular moment.” It’s not uncommon for people to read Romero’s works as critiques of consumerism and just generally how Western (but mostly American) society is.
So we guess the real spookies were powerful people all along. That and debt. Zombie debt.
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