Voodoo, zombies & the puffer fish

Vodun, popularly known as voodoo because of Hollywood's misrepresentation, is a religion that originated in West Africa. It can be traced back to the 18th and 19th Century Yoruba people, who lived in parts of the countries that today are called Togo, Nigeria and Benin.

Some anthropologists believe that Vodun's roots may go back 6,000 years. Vodun is the dominant religion in Haiti and was recognized as the official religion of Benin in 1996. It has 60 million followers worldwide and is also practiced in Ghana and the Dominican Republic, as well as cities of the American Deep South such as New Orleans. In the 1700s, Vodun-practicing West African slaves were shipped to work on French plantations in Haiti (called Hispaniola at the time). The French tried to proselytize them to Catholicism but the slaves secretly continued to practice their own religion.

Vodun therefore contains elements of Catholicism but has no sacred text, church or religious leaders. Both religions share a number of similarities. Both believe in a supreme being, an afterlife and the existence of invisible spirits, and both use ritual sacrifice and consumption of flesh and blood as the centerpiece to some of their ceremonies.

Followers of Vodun worship a pantheon of spirits, referred to as Loa (meaning 'mystery' in the Yoruba language). These spirits were once people who led exceptional lives and are therefore similar to Christian saints. The Loa are believed by Vodun followers to govern every aspect of their lives. At the same time they are dependent on their worshippers for the sacrifices made to them, so that there is an interdependence of spirits and worshippers.

Vodun ceremonies involve outdoor gatherings where people try to make contact with the spirit world. The ceremonies typically involve a feast, the creation of a pattern of flour or cornmeal on the floor (a veve), drumming, dancing and chanting. The dance intensifies until one of the dancers is possessed by a Loa and falls to the ground, at which point it is the spirit which is in control of the dancer's body. During the ritual sheep, goats, chickens or dogs are sacrificied in order to gain favour with the spirits.

A houngan is a Vodun priest, a mambo a priestess and a bokur a Vodun sorcerer believed to be endowed with the power to perform black magic. Powders used by the sorcerers give them power over their victims, with one of those powers being zombification.

In Haiti, zombification is a punishment for severe crimes. Coupe poudre is the powder used by a bokur to induce zombification. The active ingredient of coupe poudre is tetradotoxin (TTX), produced in the liver and ovaries of some species of puffer fish (e.g. Fugu rubripes). TTX is a neurotoxin 500 times more potent than cyanide. It acts by blocking the sodium ion channels which enable nerve and heart cells to produce electrical impulses. In miniscule doses TTX causes a near-death state in which metabolic functions are depressed, so that breathing and pulse rate are undetectable. Total paralysis follows, although the brain and senses remain intact. The victim is thought to be dead and is buried alive.

A few days after being buried, the 'zombie' is disinterred and given another powder containing atropine and scopolamine. These are toxic and hallucinogenic compounds from the plants Datura metel and Datura stramonium (both known as the 'zombie cucumber'). This powder, when administered, puts the victim into a permanent state of delirium and disorientation in which they experience delusions and hallucinations. He or she can then be made to do menial work for those against which the crime was committed. 

The puffer fish is a delicacy in Japan. Only small amounts of the fish are edible and preparation is extremely difficult. Only highly trained chefs can remove the organs which produce TTX. Trace amounts of the toxin cause a tingling sensation on the tongue and lips when puffer fish is eaten.

Every year a small number of people eat puffer fish which has not been properly prepared and die by cardiac arrest as a result. There are also cases of people who are buried alive after going into a state of deep suspended coma, hence the Japanese practice of leaving those thought to have been killed by eating puffer fish next to their grave for three days before burial.

However, there are no reported cases of zombification in Japan. The phenomenon of Vodun zombification can be ascribed to the socialization process, in which one acquires personal knowledge of the Vodum religion and the expected effects of the sorcerer's powder.

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