This post is about the Goddess Mami Wata. Mami Wata (also known by numerous other names, listed below) is a goddess of the African diaspora whose immensely popular cult has grown in West, Central, and Southern Africa, and in the Caribbean and parts of South America since the 18th century.
Mami Wata is often pictured as a mermaid, half-human and either half-fish or half-reptile. Other stories and images show her as a human-looking woman dressed in the latest fashion. Her most definitive image that of a long-haired woman, with a snake circling her torso is based on a 19th century chromolithograph of a Samoan snake charmer.
The goddess is characterized by her inhuman beauty and capricious nature; in many traditions, she is as likely to harm her followers as to help them. Her cult has strong associations with fortune, healing, sex, and water. Worship practices for the goddess vary, but they often involve wearing the colours red and white (sacred to Mami Wata) and dancing to an altered state of consciousness, and potentially spiritual possession.
Mami Wata as she exists today represents a widespread amalgamation of many different African water gods. Slaves from the Slave Coast brought their water-spirit beliefs with them to the New World, and traders in the 20th century carried similar beliefs with them from Senegal to as far as Zambia, so that today the goddess is known in at least 20 African nations. As the Mami Wata cult spread, native water deities were subsumed into it. In addition, Africans may sometimes call non-Mami Wata figures by that name when speaking to foreigners, as they know that Mami Wata is better known than local gods and goddesses. She is today one of the most popular themes in African and Caribbean popular culture.
Mami Wata is usually described in excesses. She possesses an inhuman beauty, unnaturally long hair, and a lighter-than-normal complexion. Her hair is straight, either black or blonde, and combed straight back. Her lustrous eyes gaze enticingly, which only enhances her ethereal beauty. In many parts of West and Central Africa, “Mami Wata” thus serves as a slang term for a gorgeous woman.
She is often described as a mermaid-like figure, with a woman’s upper body (often nude), and the hindquarters of a fish or serpent. In other tales, Mami Wata is fully humanoid (though never human). Her superlative nature extends to her clothing, which is more fashionable than anything created by a human fashion designer. She flaunts her unimaginable wealth with jewellery that blinds those who view it. In both mermaid and humanoid form, she often carries enormously expensive baubles such as combs, mirrors, and watches. A large snake (symbol of divination and divinity in many African cultures) frequently accompanies her, wrapping itself around her and laying its head between her breasts. Other times, she may try to pass as completely human, wandering busy markets or patronising bars. She may also manifest in a number of other forms, including as a man.
Followers of traditional African religions, Santeria, and Voodoo comprise Mami Wata’s devotees. Her worship is therefore as diverse as her worshippers, though there are many parallels. Groups of people may gather in her name, but the goddess is much more prone to interacting with followers on a one-on-one basis. She thus has many priests and mediums in both Africa and the Caribbean who are specifically devoted to her.
As her name would imply, the goddess is closely associated with water. Traditions on both sides of the Atlantic tell of the goddess abducting her followers or random people whilst they are swimming or boating. She brings them to her paradisiacal realm, which may be underwater, in the spirit world, or both. The captives’ release often hinges on some sort of demand, ranging from sexual fidelity to the goddess to something as simple as a promise that they do not eat fish. Should she allow them to leave, the travellers usually returns in dry clothing and with a new spiritual understanding reflected in their gaze. These returnees often grow wealthier, more attractive, and more easygoing after the encounter.
HEALING AND FERTILITY:
A prominent aspect of the deity is her connection to healing. If someone comes down with an incurable, languorous illness, Mami Wata often takes the blame. This implies that she caused the illness, and that only she can cure it. Similarly, several other ailments may be attributed to the water goddess, from headaches to sterility.
In fact, barren mothers often call upon the goddess to cure their affliction. However, many traditions hold that Mami Wata herself is barren, so if she gives a woman a child, that woman inherently becomes more distanced from the goddess’s true nature. The woman will thus be less likely to become wealthy or attractive through her devotion to Mami Wata. Images of women with children often decorate shrines to the goddess.
As other deities become absorbed into the figure of Mami Wata, the goddess often takes on characteristics unique to a particular region or culture. In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, Maman Dlo plays the role of guardian of nature, punishing overzealous hunters or woodcutters. She is the lover of Papa Bois, a nature deity.