The first images that come to mind when we hear the words voodoo are blood sacrifice and dark magic that is invoked within voodoo rituals. Probably one thing that does not come are zombies. Yet, zombies are very much part of the voodoo heritage.
The word that is likely farthest from anyone’s mind, when the word voodoo comes up, is Bokors. The Bokors though have quite a significance in the Voodoo religion. The question is who these people were, and role they played in the voodoo religion. However, to speak only of the Bokor, and not include the entire previous development of the voodoo religion, it is not possible, so therefore we will try to follow the development of Bokor through the course of history of voodoo.
How and where did Voodoo religion originate from? Voodoo religion is predominantly in Haiti and came about at the time of the French colonization. It is assumed today that it originated from the Caribbean islands in the sixteenth century among slaves who were brought from Africa. They were forbidden to practice their old Religion and were forcibly converted to Christianity. They secretly continued to practice their pagan rituals, and it is this dualism of religion and religious life that had created Voodoo, a mixture of old and new faith.
Regarding the African roots of voodoo, their origins are closely connected to the African Nations Yurubí who lived on the territory of present-day states Togo, Benin and Nigeria, although today scientists credit many parallels with the archaeological sites in present-day Congo.
Even though Haitian Voodoo is different from the West African Vodun, evidence suggests a common origin.
What specifically does voodoo religion itself consist of and what role does it play in Bokor?
There is one God in the Voodoo religion. has the French words Bon and Dye which mean Good God, and translate to someone who is untouchable and possesses the spirits Loa. Or someone who has authority over the power of the world. When the old religion came into contact with Roman Catholic Christianity, the Christian God took the role of the only God, and the saints took over the role of spirits.
In the voodoo religious system, there are religious clergy named Houngans, who are the male Voodoo priests or Mambos the female Voodoo priests and Bokor. Bokor are not priests. Bokors are something similar to mages or sorcerers who can cast spells and sorcery at the request and what they are best known for is transforming people into zombies.
The Bokors are considered dark mages because of their ability to transform people into zombies. This is because this ability runs counter to voodoo religion mantra. For one, the voodoo religion believes in a system that gives people second chances. They believe reincarnation is the very essence of the voodoo religion. Moral dualism is extremely present. If you are living an honest and good life you will become a creature of higher level of existence, Loa.
If you do not lead a good life, after death you will return back into existence to try again, but this time you are burdened by temptations from the past life. It is clear that someone who turns the dead into zombies, in this dynamic, is considered foul. Yet, Bokors are said to serve Loa with both hands, which means that they can use both dark and light magic. In essence, they are primarily engaged in casting various spells according to the needs and requirements of believers in the voodoo religion.
It is assumed when raising a zombie, the Bokor use a variety of toxins, that cause the victim to actually just look dead and once the victim has woken up, they would be extremely vulnerable to suggestions and with almost no will of their own. The toxin used by past Bokor was not a special magical potion, but something called tetrodotoxin, a chemical compound most often found in the puffer fish. This toxin causes one to look dead. When the families of the deceased bury a person who has been given the toxin, a Bokor later returns and is said to raise them as Zombies. Bokors capture the souls or spirits – which are called astral zombies. The astral zombies primarily serve to reinforce the Bokor’s power.
In some parts of the world, up until the mid-twentieth century, each and every practicing of the pagan religion was characterized as black magic and persecuted. The history of the Bokor and Voodoo in Haiti are closely linked with the liberation of the French colonial authorities. The French authorities were strict in prosecuting anyone practicing voodoo, but could not seem to break the bond of their slaves with the old religion. Christian saints were used instead of spirits, and parts of the Christian liturgy replaced the lost prayer.
Although Haiti had been released by the French colonial authorities in the year 1804, a great fight battle had started in 1791 among the Roman Catholic Church in cooperation with the ruling elite against the people of Haiti who persecuted voodoo and the Bokor until everything came to an end in 1950. In the times of persecution though, Voodoo survived as a secret association. Such secret voodoo associations provide not only comfort, but also the protection of the poorer parts of the population. During these times, the services a Bokor provided were important for someone’s survival. The Bokors have become an important segment of society in Haiti.
Bokor and the belief in zombification go hand in hand in Haitian history. In 1883, the criminal law of Haiti provided a clause, which forbid turning people into zombies. Initially, the law was a simple clause, which forbade poisoning, and provided that each type of poisoning be considered an attack on life. Later, the provisions were added that stated that every human poisoning that could put a victim in a lethargic state without his own will, would be prosecuted as attempted homicide.
During the oppressive Duvalier regime form 1957 to 1984, the cruel and brutal secret police known as the Tonton Macoute were said to employ powerful bokor sorcerers, and used the threat of zombification to quell resistance among the superstitious population. It was also said about Duvalier that he had a private armie of zombies loyal to him, as he was a devout voodooist, a Bokor.
The mystery of Bokor and the transformation of people into zombies attracted many researchers, anthropologists and ethno-biologists to Haiti who were dedicated to exploring this phenomenon in greater depth, especially after the American occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934. One of the most famous ethno biologists, who went to Haiti and studied Bokor and zombifikation of people is Wade Davis, who has published a book called: Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie.
In today’s more rural parts of Haiti, Bokor are still present, and the practice of raising zombies is still being practiced to some extent. Bokor and the services they provide are still a constituent part of life of a cultural and religious heritage of Haiti.
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