Jesus and Zonbi

Frater Vameri

A friend recently pointed out to me the Elizabeth McAllister article that I use today as a basis for this discussion. It is a very interesting study in which the author analyzes zombies, necessarily falling into a discussion about Haitian Vodou. I would like to highlight a simple report that she cites in this study, because I believe that it is beautiful and that it communicates a lot about the mechanisms that structure Haitian Vodou.

Let me quote McAllister:

“ Some Vodouists understand that Jesus was the first zonbi. The myth says that Jesus' tomb was guarded by two Haitian soldiers, who, unscrupulously, stole the secret word that God used to resurrect Jesus. The soldiers stole the word and sold it and that stolen secret is now part of the secrets of the sorceres”.

This passage is full of incredible meanings. I will try to dissect, using some arguments that McAllister herself presents and others more. The fact that Jesus was the first zonbi links Vodou to Christianity directly and with no possibility of disruption. Here, however, Christianity not only becomes part of Vodou, but it is an act of "theft" that makes this integration. In an inversion of values, the "oppressed" steals the "oppressor" and uses his weapons to strengthen himself. This is a powerful interpretation of the syncretism process itself that more than mere substitution for resistance, can be understood as "incorporation" by resistance.

Let us now see how the tomb of Jesus could have been kept by two Haitians. Now, Haiti was born as an independent nation in 1804 and as a colony in 1492. We are too far away from Jesus' time to speak of “Haitians”. Well, the interpretive key in this case cannot be formality, but familiarity. Haitians understand themselves as an African nation. So much so that many understand that after death they will go to Guinea (Africa), their home, and leave Haiti for their true owners (the indigenous people who were massacred). Therefore, "Haitians" can be easily replaced by "Africans". If there seems to be any absurdity in this, there is not, since the Roman Empire was multiethnic that included citizens from Africa. In other words, this history, an allegory of course, does not seem so absurd - not even for an allegory. Furthermore, in classifying soldiers as “Haitians” we have another way of saying that the people of Haiti are, in fact, African.

Haitians “steal” the secret word that God uses to resurrect Jesus. Here we have theft that is judged to be "unscrupulous" and perhaps so to force a dichotomy between the sacred and magic - an old discussion that in Haiti takes the form of the eternal feud between Mambos and Houngans and Bokors. Although, in reality, these limits are much more blurred than some want to admit. Thus, witchcraft has a character that differs from religion at the same time that it uses divine resources. This reinforces the idea of right hand and left hand and the idea that it is the circumstance that defines what is magic and what is religion, something very Maussian .

Another important point: Haitians steal God's word and sell it. However, anyone who uses the word of God will not create a resurrected dead as Jesus was, since the zonbi is by definition an imperfect or tainted resurrection - remember that the zonbi is usually not in control of its own actions. We then have the dichotomy between the acts of God and the act of witchcraft, placing the divine order as definitely more powerful, since it is the original and also unambiguous. In any case, the theft and use of such a secret, even if imperfectly or perhaps corruptly, demonstrates without a doubt the great power of sorcerers and corroborates the aggrandizement of the spiritual practices that sustain them.

The passage cited by McAllister interconnects in a very complex and proper way a series of notions that are structuring of Haitian Vodou and Haiti itself. The discussion now presented, I believe, serves as a simple and very quick example of how the analysis of spiritual stories and myths can reveal a lot about the practices and the people in which they are circumscribed.


Elizabeth McAlister. Slaves, Cannibals, and Infected Hyper-Whites: The Race and Religion of Zombies.Anthropological Quarterly. George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research .Volume 85, Number 2, Spring 2012 .pp. 457-486

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