Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Mamaloi in the 1920s

The Mamaloi is supposedly a Voodoo priestess, sorceress, or queen. British author Hesketh Prichard (1876-1922) first described her in Where Black Rules White: A Journey Across and About Hayti (1900). According to Jared Poley in his book Decolonization in Germany: Weimar Narratives of Colonial Loss and Foreign Occupation (2007), German author Hanns Heinz Ewers (1871-1943) used the Mamaloi in at least six of his works, from "Die Mamaloi," published in 1907, to "Ich trinke Schlangenbrühe und finde--ein süßes Wort," published in 1927. (Poley, p. 99) At least one American author also wrote about the Mamaloi. His name was Gerald Chittenden (1882-1962), and his story "The Victim of His Vision," published in Scribner's Magazine in May 1921, was selected for inclusion in Prize Stories of 1921 (1922) as a winner of an O. Henry Award. The story opens:
"THERE'S no doubt about it," said the hardware drummer with the pock-pitted cheeks. He seemed glad that there was no doubt--smacked his lips over it and went on. "Obeah--that's black magic; and voodoo--that's snake-worship. The island is rotten with 'em--rotten with 'em."
He looked sidelong over his empty glass at the Reverend Arthur Simpson. Many human things were foreign to the clergyman: he was uneasy about being in the Arequipa's smoke-room at all, for instance, and especially uneasy about sitting there with the drummer.
"But--human sacrifice!" he protested. "You spoke of human sacrifice."
"And cannibalism. La chèvre sans comes--the goat without horns--that means an unblemished child less than three years old. It's frequently done. They string it up by its heels, cut its throat, and drink the blood. Then they eat it. Regular ceremony--the mamaloi officiates."
"Who officiates?"
"The mamaloi—the priestess."
Chittenden's story, Hesketh Prichard's original, Ewers' variations, and the general ideas of infanticide, human sacrifice, and cannibalism among practitioners of Voodoo might seem sensationalistic. Is there any truth in them? There is actually, as in the gruesome case of "the torso in the Thames" from 2001. In any event, Chittenden's protagonist, Reverend Arthur Simpson, is a Protestant and looks at the Roman Catholicism practiced in Haiti with distaste. The sacrifice of children by the Mamaloi and her coreligionists would seem to comport with his seeming anti-Catholic views. I searched for the words zombi and zombie in the text of "The Victim of His Vision." Once again, I didn't find any occurrence of either word. I also did a Google search for "Hanns Heinz Ewers" and "zombi" and came up empty. It looks like the stories, respectively, of zombies and of the Mamaloi, though perhaps from a common origin, diverged at some point, leaving only the inducing of a death-like sleep as a common element. Still no zombies before 1928.

Original text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

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