Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Mamaloi and Hanns Heinz Ewers

The word Mamaloi is new to me. I searched for it on the Internet and came up with a Doobie Brothers song. Here is a passage:

Gypsy, she say I got the fever
I don't know whether to believe her
But when the wind blow from the sea
My soul start to fly away
She give me charm that will protect me
Necklace with stone from far across the sea
But island magic much too strong
It won't let me go this time

The song is about Jamaica. The group hails from California, I guess, but had, in the early 1970s, a Southern/Cajun/Texan kind of vibe. At least that's how I remember them. ("Mamaloi" is from the album Toulouse Street, named for a street in New Orleans. The album also has a song called "Snake Man.") (1) Anyway, if you keep searching, you'll find out that Mamaloi is a name given to a Voodoo sorceress, priestess, or queen. Her male counterpart is Papaloi. Among their powers are the ability "to produce a sleep which is death's twin brother." That's according to Hesketh Prichard in his book Where Black Rules White: A Journey Across and About Hayti (1900). The Mamaloi and Papaloi can also raise the afflicted person--usually a child--from this state of near death only so that he can be used in a human sacrifice.

The raised dead of the Mamaloi sounds a lot like zombie-ism. It seems to me that following the Mamaloi lead might produce some results. But first, before I even started searching, I thought of the musical piece Ma mère l'Oye, or the Mother Goose Suite, by Maurice Ravel (1910). L'oye or l'oie is French for goose. I don't think that's the right track, though. It seems more likely that Mamaloi is a combination of Mama and loi or law. In other words, the Mamaloi is a person of some authority, power, or prestige.

In searching for Mamaloi in literature, I found that, strangely enough, there is a connection to the German author Hanns Heinz Ewers (1871-1943), a fantasist and seeming decadent who lived a strange and interesting life. According to the book Decolonization in Germany: Weimar Narratives of Colonial Loss and Foreign Occupation by Jared Poley (Peter Lang, 2007), Ewers "was deeply fascinated by what he called the Mamaloi." (p. 99) Ewers wrote about the Mamaloi in at least six works, beginning with "Die Mamaloi," from 1907. The subject of "Die Mamaloi" is a Haitian woman, Adelaide, "who kills her son in a voodoo ritual." (p. 99) In that, Ewers seems certain to have read Where Black Rules White.

According to Jared Poley, Ewers' fascination with the Mamaloi was because of her practice of infanticide. (2) Her use of Voodoo magic to afflict a person with near-death seems less the point, and Ewers' use of the word zombie or zombi is uncertain. I found the full text of "Die Mamaloi" in Spanish and searched it for zombie and zombi. No dice. So, again, a seeming miss in the use of those words before William B. Seabrook of 1928. I would add that Ewers is an interesting figure for students and fans of weird fiction. I would like to find a full-length biography and study of his works. I wonder, too, about discovering his works in English.

(1) Notice in "Mamaloi" the phrase "island magic" with its echoes of The Magic Island by William B. Seabrook (1929).
(2) As a moral transgression and an expression of self-loathing, infanticide is likely a sign of decadence in a culture or society. In fact, it would seem a key sign in diagnosing decadence, as it is demonstrates a lack of vigor, confidence, and hope in the individual and his or her society. Jared Poley ties it to "the Baal and Labartu creation myths from the fertile crescent." (p. 99) I am reminded of sacrifices made by Canaanites to Moloch and of the current worldwide practice of abortion, which--whatever its moral implications--is helping to bring about the dissolution of decadent societies. Cannibalism in the modern world, too, is a decadent practice: William Seabrook is supposed to have partaken of human flesh at least once. Aleister Crowley is also supposed to have been a cannibal. In 2001, Armin Meiwes, significantly a German, advertised for someone who would voluntarily be eaten by him. Bernd Jürgen Armando Brandes, significantly a German, answered the ad and ended up in pieces in Meiwes' refrigerator. In 2012, Floridian Rudy Eugene, of Haitian descent, tried to eat the face of a homeless man in Miami. For a time, some people were alarmed that Eugene's actions were the beginnings of a zombie outbreak. Instead, Eugene was probably using a synthetic drug, although his use of marijuana might be enough to explain his psychosis. That brings us to zombies, which are of course, cannibalistic and an ultimate expression of decadence, although wanting to be eaten by another person is probably even more ultimate.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Hanns Heinz Ewers in an English edition of 1927, published by John Day, and illustrated by Mahlon Blaine (1894-1969). 

Alraune by Ewers, translated by S. Guy Endore (1900-1970) of The Werewolf of Paris (1933) fame. Published by John Day in 1929, this edition was also illustrated by Mahlon Blaine.

Vampire, the last in Ewers' trilogy of Frank Braun, translated by Fritz Sallagar and published by John Day in 1934. Vampires are associated with zombies as among the undead, moreover, as among the cannibalistic undead.

Blood, a collection of three stories from Heron Press (1930) and including "Mamaloi" from 1907. The pictures were by the children's book illustrator Edgar Parin d'Aulaire (1898-1986).

Although there are many, many more images I might include here on Hanns Heinz Ewers, I have decided to stop with this one, the cover for L'araignée et autres contes fantastiques, a French-language edition with an unknown date. "L'araignée" was originally "Die Spinne," from 1908.

Original text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Mamaloi may be a variant or class of “loa”, the spirits associated and contacted through voodoo, with mama loi being one of the nations of the loa. It’s a new one on me, but I suspect it’s not about zombies, but about spirits.


    1. CoastConFan,

      Thanks for making that connection. I think you're right that the Mamaloi and the Papaloi are about Voodoo and its spirits, not about zombies. I have read Arthur J. Burks' book Black Medicine, and though there are stories of the Maman Loi (as he calls her) and the Papaloi, there aren't any zombies. (I have to admit I'm disappointed in that.)

      By the way, according to the article you cited, "loa" comes from "les lois," or "the laws" in French.

      Thanks for writing.