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The Origins of Zombies

by Teresa Martin

The Origins of Zombies

by Teresa Martin


     The history of zombies encompasses an extensive lore originating from the earliest civilizations in all continents. However, zombies, explicitly as they are named and most well known in the Twenty-First Century, have traced their roots directly from Voodoo traditions in Haiti.

The word “zombie” is defined by Brad Steiger as “a reanimated corpse . . . brought to life to serve as slave labor.” The belief that such beings exist was brought from Africa to the Caribbean and Southern states by the slaves who practiced Voodoo. “Voodoo holds that a supernatural power or essence may enter into and reanimate a dead body (Steiger 5-6).” The more ancient incarnations of this creature were chronicled in the History Channel documentary Zombies: A Living History which includes the Chinese Jiang Shi, a corpse brought back to life (Abramowitz). This undead predator hops about and pounces on humans, feeding on their life-essence. Human victims of the Jiang Shi will resurrect and become the very creatures which brought about their deaths (Radford). Also listed by the documentary is the Arabic Ghoul, a demon that eats human victims, the Draugr of Scandinavia that swallows its victims whole, and the Revenant of England which terrorizes family members and shares many characteristics with a vampire. An ancient source mentioned in Zombies is The Epic of Gilgamesh in which Ishtar wishes for the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh. He declares in Tablet VI:

“If you do not give me the Bull of Heaven,
I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,
I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down,
and will let the dead go up to eat the living!”

A modern  and unique manifestation of this tradition is found in the practice of Voodoo.  Zombies in Haiti were not viewed as antagonists but rather victims of those who wield control over their dead bodies for purposes akin to slavery.  They were made zombies through magic by bokors, the equivalent of a “witch doctor” (Radford).  A dark and fearsome magic was wielded, according to local belief.  An attempt to explain how this could have occurred naturally holds that this process happened when the bokor created the ultimate zombie cocktail full of various poisons that would cause a person to appear dead, be buried alive, and then dug-up. The trauma of the experience and the mind-altering drugs could leave a person in a “zombie state” and susceptible to commands (Harrington).  Whether it is the supernatural or a marvelous combination of drugs, the belief in the bokor’s ability to control a person using this process is not disputed.

These popular creatures mirror both the fears and comforts of the viewers in a fragile time.  It is an unquestionable assertion that humanity is in a brave new world of scientific, political, and economical experimentation made paradoxically capable by the very advances in these areas of study, thus leaving people without any certainty of the outcome.  Humanity may be facing ruin in an apocalyptic destruction, or, as the more optimistic assert, a better world, which many call “Utopia.” This latter can give hope until one remembers that the work Utopia by Sir Thomas More was based upon a pun of the Greek word which means “no place.”   Thomas More perhaps wrote more than he knew, since he who wrote about the perfect society met his end with an execution because he refused to betray his conscience.  No “Utopia” for the writer of Utopia.  Therefore even that comfort is denied those in a changing world in which nothing is certain except the knowledge that nothing is certain.

Into this society of ambiguity and loss of control, enter the zombies.  James Turner suggested this in a Forbes article: “Americans must like the idea that, as out of control as our hubristic science might become, a good machete and a 12 gauge in the hands of a competent man or woman can always save the day.”


Works Cited
Abramowitz, Andre et al. Zombies: A Living History.  Dir. David Nicholson.  Narr. Peter Outerbridge. History
Channel, 2011. DVD.
Beaufortninja. “Jiang Shi: The Chinese Zombie.” Wandering American.
Harrington, Thomas van.  “Zombie Secrets.”  http://www.zombiesecrets.com/p1002.htmlRadford, Benjamin.   “A           History of ‘Real’ Zombies.” Discovery News.  

http://news.discovery.com/history/history-zombies-12-6-4.html  June 4, 2012.
Steiger, Brad.  Real Zombies: The Living Dead, and Creatures of the Apocolypse.  Canton, MI: Visable Ink Press,
2010.Turner, James. “A Brief History of Zombies.” Forbes.com.  June 30, 2009.

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