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1938 (pub): Mammés, the Living Zombie

The following legend comes from Wade Davis' 1988 book Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie.

        A young man named Mammés was a stevedore on the docks in Jacmal, Haiti. He had bet heavily on a cockfight one night and lost, and found himself owing 200 gourdes... more money than he could pay or earn in any normal way. So Mammés went to see an aged houngan [priest] who lived alone and, after Mammés had been there for a week, his debts were paid by the houngan... but Mammés did not return home.

        Three years later, the houngan visited the farm of a friend named Vermineux; he brought what was left of the once young and lively Mammés, now reduced to an 'unkempt creature,' who sat crouched on the ground, cowered by the wall of Vermineux's hut. In exchange for the payment of his debt, Mammés had sold his soul to the houngan for a four year period. In the week previous to the debts being paid, the houngan had succeeded in a difficult feat of magic that his father had once bragged of doing: taking the soul from a living man and turning him into a zombie without his death being required.

        Mammés was left by the houngan to work at Vermineux's farm. It was here, months later, that Mammés first encounter an 'inexpressibly ugly' woman aged 50; she was toothless and covered by running sores... but for some reason, the zombie Mammés went to her house and became her lover, to 'satisfy his overwhelming desire.' She didn't complain. But one morning Mammés woke up... really woke up. He demanded to know who this woman next to him was, then ran outside complaining that a toothless woman was claiming to be his wife.

        Far away, the ancient houngan had finally died... and, as a consequence, Mammés had regained his soul.

Understanding the Tale

        The story reflects the general belief that zombies are created by starting with a body that has lost its life, and then filling it with a spirit that is subservient to the priest or magician. When a person is cursed to be a zombie, usually magic would be used to kill them first, then they would be raised as a zombie; but since Mammés was signed up for a temporary stint as a zombie, killing him wasn't part of the deal. Hence the idea of his soul being enslaved by the houngan while his body was used as a zombie. Mammés' sudden returned to full life when the houngan died seems to indicate a belief that houngans must keep up a constant effort of some sort to maintain their enslaved spirits.

        While it can be argued that proper zombies shouldn't have carnal desires, Mammés wasn't a proper zombie; perhaps still being alive meant he still had desires. Or, more simply, perhaps it was just a good excuse to provide a humorous ending to the story.

My Source's Source

        I found this legend in Wade Davis' 1988 book Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie... Davis, in turn, claims his source to be a 1938 book by Edna Taft titled A Puritan in Voodooland. I've been unable to track this earlier book down yet; I've seen enough references to know it exists, but it appears to have been a small print run that was never republished... so I'll likely have to track it down in a university library.

        I need to check that the above story is actually in the 1938 book and is essentially the same. In addition, though the story may have been told as if a true event, I'm treating it as a legend until I can see the first version in the 1938 book. For now, I'm marking this as 'Unreliable.' Nonetheless, it's still good evidence of what Haitian beliefs are regarding mystic and practical matters regarding death.