Although the word is not used, Twain's zany novel of title-frenzy and mad-scientist capitalistic schemes The American Claimant (sequel to The Gilded Age) describes the intent by the megalomaniac Mulberry Sellers to "materialize" dead people for use as cheap labor. He intends to contract these would-be minions of his out as policemen and soldiers and such, thus saving city and national governments big money while reaping a giant profits for himself.

Is this 1892 novel the first to include "zombies" among its characters?

Actually, these "zombies" never really materialize - they remain figments of Mulberry's overfertile imagination; yet still, as far as the concept goes, is this the "advent of the zombies"?

If so, Twain was not only ahead of his time, again, but a case could be made that he foresaw the inroads that robots would make into the labor market (if you stretch or conflate "zombies" to "robots").


3 Answers 3


Zombies go way back, further than 1892. There has been a fear of the undead since caveman times, when some tribes used to tie up corpses to stop them coming back to life.

Perhaps the earliest form of writing about living dead is The epic of Gilgamesh (roughly 18th century BC)[1]:

I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,
I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down,
and will let the dead go up to eat the living!
And the dead will outnumber the living!

Although Ilmari Karonn mentions in the comments that that passage was probably copied from The descent of Ishtar, which was around but not written.

The origin of the word 'zombie' comes from the Haitian 'zombi' - meaning spirit of the dead.[2]. Originated in roughly 1791 from the voodoo culture.

But the actual mention of the word 'zombie', the earliest I can find is here on google books.

It is an account of Hispaniola in French by Moreau de Saint-Méry. It is called Description topographique, physique, civile, politique et historique de la partie française de l'Isle Saint-Domingue and was published in 1797:

Une jeune beauté au teint d'ébène, qu'un conte de Zombi (*) fait trembler de tous ses membres, veille pour l'attendre, lui ouvre une porte qu'elle sait faire mouvoir sans bruit , & n'a qu'une crainte , c'est d'être trompée dans son attente.

(*) Mot créol qui signifie: esprit, revenant.

Translated using google translate:

A young ebony-skinned beauty, whom a Zombie (*) tale frightens to the bone, stays awake waiting for him, lets him in through a door that she knows how to open quietly, and has but one fear, which is that her wait was in vain.

(*) Creole word meaning: spirit, undead.

Later of course we have Frankenstein (1818), which is arguably a zombie.


[1] - Dawn of the undead - wordpress.com
[2] - Umich.edu

  • 3
    @Hamlet I just added a whole thing on the origin literally as you said that. It came from Haiti Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 17:16
  • 2
    Oral literature counts as literature. Just because people don't write things down doesn't make their literature less important.
    – user111
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 17:38
  • 9
    @Hamlet isn't the definition of literature 'written works'? I have mentioned this is as well, is there still a problem? :( Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 17:40
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    @BeastlyGerbil: comments; I didn't notice it in the answer; my beret is all poofy now from the smoke that poured out of my ears. Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 19:39
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    @B.ClayShannon Je m'excuse beaucoup pour ma mauvaise utilisation de la langue et de bons noms Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 19:43

Zombies are also found elsewhere in Norse mythology; during Ragnarök, the unworthy dead return from Hel to fight the Norse gods (and the Einherjar).

I read about this recently in Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology:

Loki's troops are the legions of Hel. They are the uneasy dead, the ones who died shameful deaths, who will return to the earth to fight once more as walking corpses, determined to destroy anything that still loves and lives above the earth.

Gaiman, Neil. "Ragnarok: The Final Destiny of the Gods." Norse Mythology. New York: W.W. Norton, 2017. p 272.

The Einherjar themselves might also be classified as zombies, because they also returned from the dead, but they don't really feel zombie-esque because they're on the home team.

[...] and the Aesir and with them the Einherjar, all the warriors who died good deaths in battle, will dress for war, and together they will ride out to Vigrid, the final battlefield.

ibid., p 273.

I haven't read any other Norse mythology to date, so I take him at his word that he is faithful to the original myths. Wikipedia cites a similar claim to Jesse Byock's 2005 translation of Prose Edda.

This is not earlier than Gilgamesh, but as the Prose Edda was compiled circa 1220 CE (per Wikipedia), it's certainly earlier than Twain.

  • 1
    RE: accuracy: theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/02/…
    – user111
    Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 21:07
  • "Wikipedia cites a similar claim to Jesse Byock's 2005 translation of Prose Edda." - it seems like that Wikipedia page has been edited; your specific cite link no longer works, and I can't see any mention of the dead emerging to fight. But surely it must be easy to find free online retellings of Norse mythology which you can source this claim to.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jan 11, 2019 at 15:27
  • Argh. I'll see if I can find a replacement citation next week, @Rand.
    – Shokhet
    Commented Jan 11, 2019 at 19:15

The idea of revenants was definitely present in the Mabinogion, which dates to the about the 12th century CE, and is present in Norse mythology in relation to Freyja's powers.

As Beastly Gerbil suggests, this idea may be as old as literature itself.


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