Cover Image

Not for Sale

View/Hide Left Panel

unteered one resident. “People are so afraid of it, that it controls their minds,” another resident answered.

“You’ve been watching too many movies,” said Jeanette. “Voodoo is the Creole pronunciation for the French Vieux Dieux*—the old gods, the spirits of the forest, in Creole the Lwa, who can be called out from their homes in the mapou and mahogany trees. The gods the slaves brought from Africa. The French tried to impose Catholicism on their slaves and to a certain extent succeeded. But the old gods, the Lwa, continued almost like the Catholic saints—there for personal intervention. In fact, in Haiti many of the saints have two personae—their Catholic image and their Voodoo role. The power of the dokte fè—you might call him a witch doctor, but the name really means “leaf doctor”—comes not from superstition but from a refined knowledge of the pharmacological effects of local plants and animals.

Just as the Inuit have many words for snow, the Haitians have several names for practitioners of their secret rites. In addition to dokte fè, there’s hougan, spell giver; bokar, a male priest; and mambo, priestess. And there are several kinds of spells too; good spells and bad ones, ranging from a mojo—a love potion—through curses meant to wreak revenge. The worst, though, is the zombie curse.

Jeannette showed a documentary tape from the BBC of people who were declared dead, buried, and then turned up alive. In one case, a man returned to his sister’s house 14 years after he was buried. The residents were spellbound. “The key to the zombie curse is tetratotoxin, found in the skin of puffer fish, abundant in the waters surrounding Haiti. It induces a state indistinguishable from death. The dokte fè returns after the funeral, exhumes the body, and administers an antidote that keeps the zombie in a drugged state. Zombie is Creole for ‘like a shadow.’ Literally, when you’re a zombie, you’re only a shadow of your former self.


This was Jeanette’s explanation of the word “Voodoo”; many scholars believe it is derived from the Fon word for “spirit”—”Vodoun.”

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement