Mermaids: ANCIENT & AMBIVALENT

Ricky Bringante, Under the Sea~ Journey of the Little Mermaid Ride in New Fantasyland (11 Oct 2012). CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Ricky Bringante, Under the Sea~ Journey of the Little Mermaid Ride in New Fantasyland (11 Oct 2012). CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Godong, Voodoo in Benin West Africa (N.D). Royalty-Free/RF

Godong, Voodoo in Benin West Africa (N.D). Royalty-Free/RF

MERMAIDS. Just in case you’ve been living under the rock or you’ve not seen Disney’s The Little Mermaid, mermaids are exceptionally beautiful half-human and half-aquatic creatures that live “under the sea~ under the sea~”. But we bet you’ve never heard of a religiously worshipped mermaid-like water spirit named “Mami Wata”; “Mother of Water” in Pidgin English 1 . Mami Wata is in fact widely worshipped across the African continent today; Western Africa in particular. Interesting enough, depending on area or tribe, Mami Wata can be conceived to be either female, male or both (p 341). However, Mami Wata is still predominantly worshipped as a female water spirit; as such, we’ll refer to Mami Wata as a water goddess for the purpose of this post. Mami Wata is most often represented as a fair-skinned mermaid, who has with her a snake companion (p 8). Some devotees believe that she carries around a mirror and wears sunglasses because of how vain she is.

  1. Pidgin English was the language of commerce and trade developed and used widely among British slave merchants and local African traders, during the African Diaspora slave trade that began in the 15th century. For more info, do refer to the Wikipedia page.

What we know about Mami Wata now seems to suggest that Mami Wata is just a contemporary deity, especially with the sunglasses and all, but hold up! Not only does Mami Wata have its sources primarily in the Euro-African encounters during the 15th century transatlantic slave trade 2 , there are also evidences pointing towards the possibility that Mami is of ancient-descent. This totally makes her religious presence important to history! In the subsequent paragraphs, we will be addressing Mami Wata’s roots in the ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Greek mythologies across various themes – dominance over the sea, ideal women as well as wealth and prosperity. Get ready to be intrigued!
  1. The transatlantic slave trade was the trafficking of Africans by European powers from mid-15th century to the end of 19th century. About 12 -15 million people from Africa were forced to migrate and to provide exploitative labor for the European colonies in the Americas.

DOMINANCE OVER THE SEA

Water spirits like Mami Wata, are believed to have the ultimate dominance over the oceans (p 338), well obviously. As such, West African believers often attribute mysteries of the vast oceans, to Mami Wata’s curses or blessings (p 338). In other words, Mami Wata holds the blame for any misfortunes (unexplained deaths or storms) that happen out in the Atlantic Ocean. Followers also believe that Mami Wata seduces men with her beauty and drowns them while they sail or swim (p 325). A lesson for all the men out there, never trust a mysterious and beautiful lady you see along the beaches, or she’ll be the last thing you will ever see!

Viktor Vasnetsov. Sirin and Alkonost Birds of Joy and Sorrow. 1896. SOil on canvas 133*250 Russian Museum. Scanned from A. K. Lazuko Victor Vasnetsov, Leningrad: Khudozhnik. 1990. Public domain

These unsettling mermaid behaviours are not only exclusive to African mythology; scholars believe that this characteristic of Mami Wata was actually descended from ancient spirits, predominantly the Sirens from ancient Greek mythology. The Sirens were creatures who possessed bodies of birds and heads of women (p.163). They were said to have enchanting voices that the melodies they sing were said to have lured mariners to their deaths. It was believed that once a siren’s voice is heard, there was no snapping out of it. Fun fact: Mariners would use wax to cover their ears to protect themselves from the melodies of these dangerous and seductive creatures out at sea!

But don’t be too quick to judge! Mami Wata is more than just a troublemaker. West African followers, especially fisherman, sailors and coastal residents, worship Mami Wata (p 338) in hope to gain her blessings and protection, for she has the power to control the waters; she is also a “protector”. That is, if you manage to get on her good side. Scholars have also discovered that such Mami Wata’s protector-propensities has descended from the other ancient mythologies (pp 39-42); ancient Egyptian goddess, Isis and Greek god, Poseidon.

Let's look at the influence of the mighty Poseidon first (the son of Kronos and Rhea and brother of Zeus). Poseidon (p.150) was regarded as the higher power who had control over the sea and all other water deities. He had the power to bless mariners with peaceful voyages despite his reputation for being a temperamental god. But of course, nothing comes too easy. His blessings depended on whether the Greek fishermen and mariners were able to suck up to him; they provided sacrifices and offerings in hope for smooth journeys on the sea.

Now let’s move on the influence of Isis. Besides being widely worshipped as a goddess of wisdom, marriage and health, Isis was also associated with the seas. She was sometimes worshipped as a protector of sailors and merchants; they would wear talismans to honor Isis and to gain her protection when out at sea. And their similarities don’t just end here! On side note, Isis was once worshipped as “Mama Uati”, “Uati” means “water” or “ocean” in ancient Egyptian language (p 42); “Mama Uati” was in fact one of Isis’s earliest appellations! Aren’t their names similar? There are scholars who believe that the name “Mami Wata” was actually derived from “Mami Uati” (Isis) (p 42). Mind-blown~

WEALTH & PROSPERITY

Yes, there’s more! Mami Wata is also an exceptionally wealthy water spirit and devotees believe she has the power to bring her loyal followers good fortune (p 340 - 341). Interestingly, West Africans believe that good fortune can only come through personal relationships and agreements with spirits (p 331).

Her (Mami Wata) relationship with her devotees is more as a lover than as a parent.
— Henry John Drewal; Performing the Other - Mami Wata Worship in Africa

With that, it was largely acceptable for men to choose between wanting a wife or a faithful relationship with Mami Wata (p 341).  It is believed that unfaithfulness would trigger Mami Wata’s notorious jealousy; she will strip the unfaithful off their fortune, bring death or illness to them and bring their families great misfortune. Creepy...but that aside, scholars found out that Mami Wata’s ability to bring wealth may have derived from Isis! In ancient Egyptian mythology, Isis was seen as the provider of wealth, because she was responsible for flooding the Nile River, which helped her devotees to yield tremendous harvest annually. Another set of evidence to prove Mami Wata’s ancient roots!

Ägyptischer Maler, Egyptian goddess Isis tomb painting (2002). Wikipedia Commons

Ägyptischer Maler, Egyptian goddess Isis tomb painting (2002). Wikipedia Commons

THE IDEAL WOMAN

Ullstein Bild, Bonn: Mami Wata Priesterin (10 June 2005). RM

Ullstein Bild, Bonn: Mami Wata Priesterin (10 June 2005). RM

As part of her ideal women status, Mami Wata was viewed as a fertility goddess (p. 2). Not much has been written about how they came to view her as one so, we conclude that it probably has to do with her name meaning mother and that it was a gender-based assumption. However, the sources have provided us with contradicting views depending on the different areas. On one hand, followers built shrines and place offerings in hopes that she aides in procreation. Her shrines is mostly made up of reflective objects since they believe that Mami Wata loves to look at herself in the mirror (p. 165). On the other end of the spectrum, there are followers who are not allowed to engage in sex and be impregnated (p. 325). Their view of mother-like figure is similar to how the Egyptians viewed Isis and the Assyrian view of Astarte. Isis is known for her generous personality and motherly figure. Astarte was worshipped as a fertility goddess as well, but experts hypothesised that some Semitic groups have overly sexualised the goddess (p. 214). 

Another feature that she was praised for was her beauty. Her ability of luring men (p. 4) out led us to draw connection to the Greek goddess, Aphrodite. People who have dreamt of Mami Wata consistently spoke of a fair-skinned beauty with long tresses (p. 10). Being part of a Mami Wata cult has provided women with the opportunity to be more involved in matters of the tribe. This is apparent in the Igbo tribe where there is a group of women called the umada (p. 3). Aphrodite is known first and foremost for her beauty (p. 46), she is able to effortlessly seduce both men and gods and engage in adulterous affairs just like how Mami Wata lure men out for companion ship. All these traits are a clear sign of her many roots within multiple ancient civilizations!

W.AFRICA & THE WORLD

Mami Wata is the manifestation of power, danger and hope. It is also the key towards understanding the West Africa’s way of live and what they believe is worth sacrificing for. Contrary to the common perception that Africa is an “isolated” continent, Mami Wata’s ties with other ancient deities and goddesses show how Africa is in fact historically connected to the world as a whole. Moreover, the West Africans’ willingness to worship an erratic water spirit like Mami Wata reflects how limited employment and education are; hence, much focus is placed on the sacred and profane rather than materialism and other modern ways of life.

BY JANNAH, NATALIE, AATIQAH & TIM

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"Mami Wata." Encyclopedia of Religion.  Retrieved February 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com