MAMI WATA: THE SACRED FEMALE AFRICAN WATER DEITY
Figurehead of Mami Wata from an unidentified vessel. Circa 1900-1925
Wood, gilt, pigment. The Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Virginia
The powerful and pervasive presence of Mami Wata results from a number of factors. Of special note, she can bring good fortune in the form of money, and as a “capitalist” par excellence, her power increased between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries, the era of growing trade between Africa and the rest of the world. Her very name is in pidgin English, a language developed to lubricate trade.
Mami Wata Devotee
The countless millions of enslaved Africans who were torn from their homeland and forcibly carried across the Atlantic between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries as part of this “trade” brought with them their beliefs, practices, and arts honoring Mami Wata and other ancestral deities
Karin Miller, “African Mermaid,” ca. 2011, from the series Sea Changes.
. Reestablished, revisualized, and revitalized in diaspora, Mami Wata emerged in new communities and under different guises, among them Lasirèn, Yemanja, Santa Marta la Dominadora, and Oxum. African-based faiths continue to flourish in communities throughout the Americas, Haiti, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere.
Mami Wata’s powers, however, extend far beyond economic gain. Although for some she bestows good fortune and status through monetary wealth, for others, she aids in concerns related to procreation—infertility, impotence, or infant mortality. Some are drawn to her as an irresistible seductive presence who offers the pleasures and powers that accompany devotion to a spiritual force.
Yet she also represents danger, for a liaison with Mami Wata often requires a substantial sacrifice, such as the life of a family member or celibacy in the realm of mortals. Despite this, she is capable of helping women and men negotiate their sexual desires and preferences. Mami also provides a spiritual and professional avenue for women to become powerful priestesses and healers of both psycho-spiritual and physical ailments and to assert female agency in generally male-dominated societies. Rapid socioeconomic changes and the pressures of trying to survive in burgeoning African urban centers have increased the need for the curative powers of Mami Wata priestesses and priests.
attributes, personalities, identities, and actions of these fascinating and ambiguous spirits. Worshippers of Mami Wata have typically selected local as well as global images, arts, ideas, and actions, interpreted them according to indigenous precepts, invested them with new meanings, and then re-presented them in novel and dynamic ways to serve their own specific aesthetic,devotional, social, economic, and political aspirations.
Mami Wata is often portrayed with the head and torso of a woman and the tail of a fish (Dona Fish). Half-fish and half-human, Mami Wata straddles earth and water, culture and nature.
Dona Fish. Ovimbundu peoples, Angola. Circa 1950s-1960s
Wood, pigment, metal, mixed media. Private Collection. Photo by Don Cole.
(This sculpture comes from Angola where, as in Zambia, Mami Wata is known generally as Dona Fish (“Fish Woman” or “Madam Fish”). This version of Mami Wata is closely related to the water spirit Mamba Muntu of Central Africa. Carved by an Ovimbundu artist, this work was kept in a house as “decoration,” but it evoked fear and accusations of “witchcraft” from locals who saw it.)
She may also take the form of a snake charmer, sometimes in combination with her mermaid attributes and sometimes separate from them. And as if this formidable water spirit were not complicated enough in her “singular” manifestation, the existence of mami watas and papi watas must also be acknowledged.
Mami Wata shrine figure Annang Ibibio peoples, southeastern Nigeria
1950s–1960s.Wood, pigment, metal, mixed media; 87.6cm (34½")
Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University 1994.3.9; L2007.63.1
Snakes, ancient and indigenous symbols of African water spirits, frequently accompany Mami
Wata, who is often represented as a snake charmer. The partial depiction of Mami Wata’s lower
torso often provokes viewers to comment that she is “hiding her secret,” that is, her fish tail.
Thissculpture, covered in white, riverine clay, was probably the centerpiece of an elaborate
Mami Wata altar used by Annang Ibibio peoples.
An Efik sculpture portraying Mami Wata as a human-fishgoat-priestess handling a bird and a snake (Fig. 3) demonstrates her hybridity and powers of transformation.
She can also easily assume aspects of a Hindu god or goddess without sacrificing her identity (Fig. 4). She is a complex multi-vocal, multi-focal symbol with so many resonances that she feeds the imagination,generating, rather than limiting, meanings and significances: nurturing mother, sexy mama, provider of riches, healer of
physical and spiritual ills, embodiment of dangers and desires, risks and challenges, dreams and aspirations, fears and forebodings. People are attracted to the seemingly limitless possibilities she represents, and at the same time, they are frightened by her destructive potential. She inspires a vast array of emotions, attitudes, and actions among those who worship her, those who fear her, those who study her, and those who create works of art about her. What the Yoruba peoples say about their culture is also applicable to the histories and significances of Mami Wata: She is like a “river that never rests.”
“Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas” is an attempt to tell the story of the magical world of mermaids and other fantastic creatures, their myths and seductive powers. It is also about art, belief, globalization, capitalism, and the power of traveling images and ideas to shape the lives of people and communities. Further, it explores how human imagination and cross-cultural exchange serve as catalysts in the artistic representation of these marvelous water divinities. The exhibition and the book that accompanies it aim to trace various streams of the far-flung, diverse, and complex artistic and devotional traditions for Mami Wata. Some may share sources and directions; others with shared sources may diverge; some with
different sources may converge; and every combination of the above may occur at different times and in different places.
Sources and Currents
From the earliest images on the continent and throughout the millennia, diverse African cultures have stressed the value and power of water not only as a source of sustenance, but also as a focus of spiritual and artistic expression. Many early depictions of spiritual entities assumed the form of hybrid creatures, parthuman, part-aquatic. In other words, the cosmological and artistic frameworks were already present in many local contexts to make the introduction of newer water divinities, such as Mami Wata, a natural progression.\
A primordial female water spirit sometimes known as Tingoi/Njaloi epitomizes ideal yet unattainable beauty, power, and goodness. She presides over female initiation rites among various peoples in Sierra Leone and Liberia, including Mende, Temne, Bullom, Vai, Gola, Dei, Krim, Kissi, and Bassa (Lamp 1985, Boone 1986, Phillips 1995:37). Tingoi/Njaloi is often likened to a mermaid (Phillips 1995:53–4), and Muslim Mende peoples speak of her as a female jina, or spirit, with the lower body of a fish. Sowei/Nowo initiation headdresses from this region offer deep and complex allusions to Tingoi/Njaloi as well as to social practices and cosmic forces. They are worn by women elders during the initiations of young girls. A zigzag motif found on the forehead of some of these headdresses may be a glyph for water, and young Sande/Bondo girls are said to “go under the water” during the first part of their initiation (Boone 1986:50, 170). Among the Temne, as Frederick Lamp notes, “water is the gestating fluid of rebirth, called, in the esoteric language of initiation, yankoila, ‘Mother Water’” (1985:42).
A rare and elegant late nineteenth-century Sowei/Nowo headdress from the Sherbro-Bullom peoples of Sierra Leone features the idealized attributes and beauty of a young woman. The ringed neck suggests ripples of water, as if the spirit has just emerged from the depths (ibid., p. 36). It may also resemble the chrysalis of a moth or butterfly as a sign of beauty and female transformation (ibid., p. 32). The snakes that appear coiled on either side of the head are among the most frequent motifs depicted on Sowei/Nowo headdresses. Generally considered to be water creatures, snakes reveal a constellation of ideas about
ancient African water spirits and, later, Mami Wata. They are the guardians of the medicines of Sande/Bondo, and shrine sculptures often depict a female-headed coiled snake or a female head and neck encircled by a snake (Phillips 1995:146,). Wall paintings of Tingoi/Njaloi sometimes show her as a serpent-fish with a human head adorned by elegantly arranged and luxuriant hair (ibid., p. 54,).
Ancienne Mami Wata Gouro Guro
This elaborate coiffure resonates with later descriptions and representations of Mami Wata. Among the Sherbro, rich, full hair is a sign of beauty and health, and women interweave black cotton with their own hair to achieve volume (MacCormack 1980b:106). For the Mende, the thickness and length of hair are emblematic of the productive organic growth and fertility essential to femininity (Boone 1986:96–7, 138; see Jell-Bahlsen forthcoming for a discussion of Mami’s hair among the Igbo.). The flat circular form
over the broad forehead in the illustrated headdress may be a mirror or older form of amulet. Mirrors often refer to the surface of water and are attributes of mermaids, as well as of the graduates of Sande/Bondo who, during their “coming out” ceremony, sit in state and gaze meditatively into them (Phillips 1995:84.)
Mythical Origin of Mami Wata
The mystical pantheon of Mami Wata deities are often pictured in their most ancient primordial aspects as a mermaid, half-human or either half-fish or half-reptile. Mermaids are not a recent phenomena in African history. For example, according to the Dogon’s creation myth, they attribute the creation of the world to mermaid/mermen like creatures whom they call Nommos. They claimed to have known about the existence of these mermaid-like divinities for more than 4000 years. Also according to Dogon mythology, the ancient home of these (originally crude) reptilian (half-woman/half-men/fish) pantheon of water spirits is believed to be the obscure and celebrated star system in the belt of Orion known as Sirius (or Sopdet, Sothis), more popularly known as the “Dog Star” of Isis. When asked where their ancestors obtained these stories of mermaids and mermen, they quickly point to ancient Egypt (Griaule, 1997, Winters 1985, p. 50-64, Temple 1999, p.303-304). Mermaid/mermen "nymphs" worshiped as goddesses and gods born from the sea are numerous in ancient African cultures history and spiritual mythology. Most were honored and respected as being "bringers of divine law" and for establishing the theological, moral, social, political, economic and, cultural foundation, to regulating the overflow of the Nile, and regulating the ecology i.e., establishing days for success at sailing and fishing, hunting, planting etc., to punishment by devastating floods when laws and taboos were violated. However, just as not all serpents were revered, not all mermaids/mermen were considered "good." In one story, the famed London, Naturalists Henry Lee (1883) recounts that "in the sea of Angola mermaids are frequently caught which resemble the human species. They are taken in nets, and killed . . . and are heard to shriek and cry like women (p. 22)."
ANCIENT ORIGINS OF NAME "MAMI WATA"
The name “Mami Wata,” was believed by Western scholars to be a derivative either directly from pidgin English, or is an anglicize version of the two words “mommy/mammy” and “water.” However, though phonetically similar to the English words, the name “Mami Wata” does not have its linguistic roots nor any cultural, mythological or historical origins in the West. Mami Wata are ancient, African deities whose primordial origins and name can be traced linguistically through the languages of Africa. According to some renowned scholars, the name “Mami Wata” was originally formulated in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and is derived from a composite of two African words, “Mami,” and “Wata.” Both words are rooted in the ancient Egyptian and Ethiopian (Coptic), Galla and Demotic languages. “Mami” is derived from “Ma” or ”Mama,” meaning “truth/wisdom,” and “Wata” is a corruption of not an English, but the ancient Egyptian word “Uati,” (or "Uat-ur" meaning ocean water), and the Khosian ("Hottentot") "Ouata" meaning “water.” Further, we discover from Mesopotamian myths that the first great water goddess in the story of the Creation Flood was known as "Mami," (Mami Aruru) as she was known in ancient Babylonian prayers as being the creator of human life (Dalley 2000, p. 51-16, Stone 1976, p. 7,219).
“Uati” is perhaps the first of more than ten thousand appellations of Isis (logos/wisdom) in her oldest generative form as the Divine African Mother, or Sibyl (Mamissii/Amengansie) prophetess. Furthermore, Massey (1994, p. 248) informs us that the word “Wata, Watoa, Wat-Waat” which means “woman,” are all exact spellings in the ancient Sudanic languages spoken by the Baba, Peba and Keh-Doulan groups. In ancient Egypt, Uati was Isis’ oldest appellation, and was the first Mami goddess worshiped by the Egyptians as “the Holy Widow”, “the Genitrix,” the “Self-Creator”, “the one who reigned alone in the beginning”, “the one who brings forth the gods,” “she who was mateless”, and “the Virgin (meaning ‘unmarried’) Mother.” Thus, we have Isis originally worshiped as “Mama Uati” in ancient Egypt, and as Mami (Uati/Aruru) in ancient Mesopotamia, where she is first addressed and immortalized in prose by the gods. (Massey 1992, p. 204, 227). Mami Uati, is an ancient and sacred name which remarkably, after thousands of years, has survived as “Mami Wata,” in West African Vodoun and other African religious systems, having changed little in its original phonetic form.
In Togo, West Africa, and in the United States, the priestesses of Mami Wata are called Mamisii (Mamissi, Mamaissii, Mammisi). Certain paths of high-priestesses who are called to open an Egbé (spirit house) are known as "Mamaissii-Hounons" which translates as “queen of the ship,” or literally “mother wisdom” (Alapini 1955, Massey 1994, p. 227, Rosenthal 1998, p. 116-117). This is an ancient name probably having its etymological roots in ancient Egypt, where we find the name Mammisi meaning “motherhood temple,” as the sacred shrine where the queen/ priestesses gives birth to spirit. (Walker 1983, p. 572-573).
CLEOPATRA BUILT MAMMISI SHRINE
In a political ploy probably designed to legitimize her reign, after inheriting her father's expanding colonial kingdoms at the age of 17, the Macedonian (Greek) Cleopatra IV and her 10 year old brother (Theos Philopator)-Ptolemy XIII, installed as the new rulers of Egypt, in imitation of the African queen mothers, reputedly built herself a (now destroyed) Mammisi shrine at Erment (Upper Egypt), when giving birth to her first son. She even had inscribed in her shrine the traditional priestly attributes including depicting herself giving birth to Julius Caesar's son, being assisted by the seven Netjers (divine African ancestors, including Isis and Osiris).
However, lacking the ancestral connection to the divine spirits, she thought she could fake it by trying desperately (without success) to obtain the sacred prophetic poems of the Eastern Masses, authored by the great Sibylline (Mami) prophetesses'. Undeterred, she ordered her conquered African subjects to address her as the "New Isis." Ironically, she met her demised when she was fatally bitten by one of the sacred asp (serpents). (Walker 1983, p.573, Britannica 1974, Vol. 6, p.484, Vol 8, p. 386, Vol. I p. 261, VIII p.282, Nicholson, p.264,269,Lindsay 1971, p. 384).
P R I M A R Y F U N C T IO N
On a basic level, in the family, Mami Wata's primary role in the life of the devotee/initiate is "healing," by helping the initiate to achieve wholeness both spiritually, and materially in their lives. Mami is also responsible for protection, emotional, and mental healing, spiritual growth/balance, and maintaining social order by assuring that sacred laws imposed on both the initiate and the family in which she/he lives is maintained.
When these requirements are met, Mami often blesses the initiate (and family) with material wealth. "wealth" being relative to assuring that the family has the basic needs of survival, such as shelter, food, clothing, medicine and funds to maintain them. Or, wealth could mean achieving great riches through some profession or spiritual gifts the initiate might possess. Far from being the over-embellished, “seductress” or “god/dess of love” so over-emphasized by western anthropologists, Mami Wata is primarily known to produce Africa’s great seers, prophetesses, prophets, scribes, herbalists, healers, orators, mystics, etc., They are also known as the protector of mothers and children, and of abused women, and the “bringer of fertility” to both men and to barren women. They are even known in ancient history as being the “protector of sacred prostitutes”, meaning those African priestesses whose role was to subsume the “uncivilized invader/foreign groups” by “spreading the ache” of the African god/desses.
The Mermaid—A European Water Spirit Arrives
Mermaids, and to a lesser extent mermen, have populated the human imagination for millennia. Some of the earliest have their origins in the fertile river valleys of Mesopotamia (e.g., the merman spirit of River Urat, circa 900 bce, in the Museum of Ethnology, Berlin-Dahlem), Africa’s Nile Valley, and later the
Mediterranean world of the Phoenicians, Minoans, Greeks, and Romans.
Name: Mami Wata
Details: It is a Snake Goddess, an Africa’s Ancient God/dess representing the Mother Goddess. Found in the
Palace shrine of Knossos in Pre-Grecian Afro-Minoan, matriarchal Crete.
Location: Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Greece
For the Greeks and Romans, mermaids—like the part-bird, part-human sirens—symbolized danger. In Christian Europe of the Middle Ages, the mermaid entered bestiaries and other arts in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, where she usually appeared in a strongly moralizing context as a symbol of vanity, immorality, seduction, and danger (see Hassig 1999).
By the fifteenth century, when Europeans began to explore beyond Mediterranean waters, they carried with them images of mythic creatures—dragons, griffins, unicorns, centaurs, and especially the mermaid. These images assumed different forms within the material culture of sailors, merchants, and explorers and might appear as book illustrations, prints, playing cards, flags and other heraldic devices, trademarks (like the mermaids and mermen on Dutch clay pipes traded in many parts of Africa since the seventeenth century), watermarks, and perhaps tattoos. Songs, dances, games, and the playing of musical instruments may also have made direct reference to sirens or mermaids. European belief in the existence of such creatures is confirmed by the fact that in January of 1493 Christopher Columbus recorded the sighting of three mermaids off the coast of Haiti, then known as Hispaniola. He wrote that they “came quite high out of the water” but were “not so beautiful as painted, though to some extent they have the form of a human face” (Columbus 1493 :154).
Sirena Mermaid Mexico
A new exhibit called "Mami Wata" opened last week at the National Museum of African Art in D.C. Mami Wata, an African water deity, is often depicted in art as a mermaid. The sirena (mermaid) is a very common subject in Mexican folk art, too. This mermaid in a private collection in Oaxaca appears to have been made in Santa Maria Atzompa
At about the same time that Christopher Columbus was seeing mermaids in the Atlantic, an African sculptor, a member of the Sapi peoples living on Sherbro Island off the coast of Sierra Leone, was carving the image of one on an ivory saltcellar, commissioned by a visiting Portuguese explorer or merchant. As his model, the artist used an image supplied to him by his Portuguese client.Though the mermaid was copied from a European model, the Sapi sculptor immediately “Africanized” her, for she is flanked by two crocodiles, ancient African symbols for water spirits and a central image associated with water spirits among the Sapi’s descendants, the Bullom and Temne. As their familiarity with European mermaid lore increased, Africans interpreted, adapted, and transformed the image of a European mermaid (and, later, other images) into a representation of an African deity—Mami Wata—evolving elaborate systems of belief and sacred visual and performance arts in the process.
Although the wellspring of the visual culture and history of Mami Wata will always remain conjectural, I would suggest that much textual and visual evidence indicates that the concept of Mami Wata, if not her name,originated long before the massive dispersal of Africans to the Americas (from the sixteenth to
nineteenth century) and the colonial era (1900–1957). Th e antiquity and prevalence of indigenous African beliefs in water deities, widely imaged as hybrid human-aquatic creatures,served as a basis to understand and translate European mermaid myths and images into African ones from the first momentous Euro-African contacts in the fifteenth century.
The Double-tailed Mermaid—Benin and Yoruba
Another version of the mermaid, one with a double tail, was probably introduced by the Portuguese in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. This image has had a major impact on the West African coast in the Benin Kingdom and among the neighboring Owo- and Ijebu-Yoruba.
At Benin, images of the Portuguese were quickly incorporated into the royal arts of the court (ivories, bronze sculptures, plaques, musical instruments, textiles, and so forth) because these newcomers were immediately associated with wealth from the sea, with Olokun, the god of the sea, and therefore, with the divine ruler on land, the king, or oba. Judging a motif ’s “centrality to culture” can be highly problematic. Its reception and
integration depend on where and how it fits within an existing, evolving cultural system, a concept that is crucial in the complex histories of Mami Wata images and ideas. I believe the striking imagery and popularity of the double-tailed European mermaids of the twelfth through sixteenth centuries, which were carried to
Africa in various forms by Portuguese travelers and others from the late fifteenth century onward, are a likely source for the fishlegged figure in Benin and Yoruba cultures.
A janus-faced, double-tailed figure crowns a Benin ivory ritual bell. Below this, a standing, “mudfish-legged” figure with a crown, sword, staff, snake, and fish represents the oba and his divine link with the god of the sea and wealth, Olokun. Juxtaposed on the opposite side, the image of a Portuguese man with straight hair, a beard, and a hat refers to Benin beliefs about the visitors from overseas, their luxury goods, and their connection to the watery realm and riches of Olokun.
Two Yoruba-speaking peoples, the Owo and Ijebu, have had close, long-term interactions with the Kingdom of Benin, especially during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This is clearly evident in their arts, which share a number of images, including the mermaid. The lid of an Owo-Yoruba wooden box, which was probably used to hold kola nuts or perhaps precious gifts, is dominated by a relief image of a female fish-tailed figure. She grasps her breasts as her tail curls around behind her. An interlace pattern runs above and below the figure, echoing the curve of her tail. In the absence of other contextual data,we cannot know much about its other possible meanings. Such objects were, however, the possessions of high-status individuals, chiefs, or rulers, who would presumably have had interactions with court officials from Benin, and therefore might have used the mermaid to associate themselves with Olokun and, by extension, the oba.
Owo ivory carvers were probably the primary sculptors working for the courts in Owo and Benin City between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries (Abiodun 1989:104). An intricately carved armband (Fig. 10) with dangling ivory bells depicts fishand-crocodile-legged figures that refer to Olokun as well as to the mystical aspects of the divine king. These alternate with mythical snake-winged bats that hang upside down (see Willett 1988:121–7, Drewal 1989:120ff.). Such an alternating arrangement suggests multiple perspectives and the fluid, liminal space between worldly and otherworldly realms.
An intricately carved Oshugbo lodge (iledi) door panel presents a fabulous array of intriguing images, among them a fishtailed figure that holds in its large hands two mudfish. This is Olokun. The themes of life and death, sacrifice, transformation, continuity, and infinity run through the three major divisions of this door panel. Three is an Oshugbo/Ogboni sacred number, referring to woman, man, and creator/witness (Drewal
1989a:243, n. 54, Drewal 1989b:70; see also Lawal 1995). At the top a huge coiled snake devours a man with a sword, while another diminutive warrior rides his steed. A frog and a chameleon suggest liminality and transformation. Intricate interlaces, signs of infinity, have no beginning and no end. In the center section, a
mounted warrior grasps two kneeling figures who wear amulet gourds suspended from their belts. At the bottom of the panel is Olokun, the fish-tailed figure with oblique lines radiating from the head and mirroring the fish tail. These lines suggest the feelers (barbells) that issue from the heads of mudfish.
Half-human, half-serpent images for water spirits, widespread throughout Africa—like the half-human, half-fish creatures discussed above—set the stage for the arrival and incorporation of a very particular European image of an “Oriental other” that resonated deeply within African water spirit arts: a snake charmer.
The West has had a long and enduring fascination with the “exotic.” By the second half of the nineteenth century, this European interest in the exotic had spread beyond the European upper and middle classes to a much wider audience. During the Victorian era, with its rigid social norms, people turned to the exotic to provide a “temporary frisson, a circumscribed experience of the bizarre” (Clifford 1981:542). Institutions such as botanical and zoological gardens, ethnographic museums, and especially circuses provided vehicles for such escape.
One of the most significant centers for such developments was the northern German port and trading center of Hamburg, which was in many ways Europe’s gateway to the exotic (cf. Bitterli 1976, Debrunner 1979). There, a man named Carl G.C. Hagenbeck worked as a fish merchant in St. Pauli in the port area of Hamburg, an area that was also a popular “entertainment” center for sailors and others. In 1848, a fisherman who worked the Arctic waters brought some sea lions to Hagenbeck, which he in turn exhibited as a zoological “attraction.” The immediate success of this venture led to a rapidly enlarged menagerie of exotic animals from Greenland, Africa, and Asia (Niemeyer 1972:247).
Contemporary poster of a Mami Wata, "serpent priestess" painted by German (Hamburg) artist. Schleisinger, ca. 1926, displayed in shrines as a popular image of Mami Wata in Africa and in the Diaspora
Sensing the public’s enormous appetite for the bizarre, Hagenbeck decided to expand his imports to include another curiosity—exotic people. This was the modest beginning of a new concept in popular entertainment known as the Volkerschauen, or “People Shows” (Benninghof-Luhl 1984). In order to advertise his new attractions, Hagenbeck turned to Adolph Friedlander, a leading printer who quickly began to produce a large corpus of inexpensive color posters for Hagenbeck.
Hagenbeck hired a famous hunter named Breitwieser to travel to Southeast Asia and the Pacific to collect rare snakes, insects, and butterflies. In addition to these, Breitwieser, brought back a wife, who under the stage name “Maladamatjaute” began to perform as a snake charmer in Hagenbeck’s production. A
chromolithograph poster made for Hagenbeck by Freidlander’s company in the 1880s featured her; Malhotra 1979:99). A Hamburg studio photograph taken about 1887 shows Maladamatjaute attired for her performance.
Mermaid which is found in Beaufort, SC that was part of a 2006 art project, “Beaufort’s Big Swim”.
It is entitled:Mami Wata
The style and cut of her bodice, the stripes made of buttons, the coins about her waist, the armlets, the position of the snake around her neck and a second one nearby, the nonfunctional bifurcated flute held in her hand, and her facial features and coiffure: all duplicate those seen in a snake charmer chromolithograph from the Freidlander lithographic company, the original of which has not yet been found.What we do have, however, is a reprint, made in 1955 in Bombay, India, by the Shree Ram Calendar Company from an original sent to them by two (Indian?) merchants in Kumasi, Ghana. In a letter to me dated June 17, 1977, the manager of the Calendar Company stated that the print had been copied “without changing a line even from the original.”
There can be little doubt, therefore, that Maladamatjaute was the model for the image. Her light brown skin placed her beyond Europe, while the boldness of her gaze and the strangeness of her occupation epitomized for Europeans her “otherness” and the mystery and wonder of the “Orient.” As Maladamatjaute’s fame
as a snake charmer spread, her image began to appear in circus flyers and show posters for the Folies Bergère in Paris (see, for example, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, no. 480), as well as in the United States. Soon after, and probably unknown to Maladamatjaute, her image spread to Africa—but for very different reasons and imbued with very new meanings.
Not long after its publication in Europe, the snake charmer chromolithograph reached West Africa, probably carried by African sailors who had seen it in Hamburg. European merchants stationed in Africa, whether Germans or others, may have also brought Maladamatjaute’s seductive image to decorate their work or domestic spaces.
For African viewers, the snake charmer’s light brown skin and long black wavy hair suggested that she came from beyond Africa, and the print had a dramatic and almost immediate impact. By 1901, about fifteen years after its appearance in Hamburg, the snake charmer image had already been interpreted as an African water spirit, translated into a three-dimensional carved image, and incorporated into a Niger River Delta water
spirit headdress that was photographed by J.A. Green in the Delta town of Bonny (Fig. 15).
The headdress clearly shows the inspiration of the Hamburg print. Note especially the long, black hair parted in the middle, the garment’s neckline, the earrings, the position of the figure’s arms and the snakes, and the low-relief rendering of the inset with a kneeling flute player surrounded by four snakes. The image of Maladamatjaute, the “Hindoo” snake charmer of European and American renown, had begun a new life as the primary icon for Mami Wata, an African water divinity with overseas origins, joining and sometimes replacing her manifestation as a mermaid.
Mami Wata Icons in the Twentieth Century
Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, the vast majority of visitors from overseas that Africans encountered were European or American. By the early twentieth century, however, as Europeans established a colonial presence in Africa, other peoples from European-influenced areas, such as Lebanon and the British colony of India, began to arrive. They came as traders and, like the Europeans before them, were associated by Africans with wealth from overseas. In the 1930s and 1940s (possibly inspired in part by Mahatma Gandhi’s successful campaign for India’s independence and by African soldiers serving in South Asia during World War II), Indian material culture in the form of images in books, pamphlets, films, and popular devotional chromolithographs (Bae 2003), as well as the votive practices of Indian traders in Africa,
came to have a profound impact on Mami Wata worshipers, their icons, and their ritual actions.
Joseph Kossivi Ahiator (b. 1956, Aflao, Ghana)."Indian King of Mami Wata," 2005
Pigment, cloth; 267cm (105")Fowler Museum X2005.5.1; Museum Purchase
Ghanaian artist Joseph Kossivi Ahiator, inspired by a Hindu print of Vishnu, created
this complex painting of a host of Mami Wata spirits that he calls “India Spirits.” Kossivi was
born with India spirits and he visits India often, sometimes in his dreams, sometimes while at
the beach along Ghana’s coast. In 2005 Kossivi had vivid dreams of a nineteen-headed Indian
king spirit together with his nine-headed queen. He dreamed that he was swimming
with them in the ocean and thereafter called the male “King of Mami Wata” and his queen
“NaKrishna.” He has gathered these spirits under the ancient African celestial rainbow
serpent deity Dan Aida Wedo, thus forging links between Africa, India, the sea, and
ultimately the African Atlantic where Dambala Wedo continues to be venerated by Haitians and others.
Amuia Ata (Mami Wata), the mother water (Avrekétê in Ewe)
A new episode in the development of the visual culture of Mami Wata began in the 1940s–1950s. The popularity of the snake charmer lithograph and the presence of Indian merchants (and films) in West Africa led to a growing fascination with Indian prints of Hindu gods and goddesses. In various places, especially along the Ghana-Nigeria coast, people began to interpret these deities as representations of a host of mami wata spirits associated with specific bodies and levels of water.
Using these prints as guides for making icons in wood, clay, and other media, performing rituals, and preparing altars known as “Mami Wata tables,” devotees expanded the pantheon of water spirits, fostering an ever-growing complexity in Mami Wata worship, which includes elements of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, astrology, European spiritualist and occult beliefs and practices, and so forth (Drewal 1988a,b,c, 2002b).
ADJA - Togo / Benin
( Mami Wata "masculine")
Wood, pigment, patina
h32 cm x L12 x p11
The openness of such belief systems offers “eternal potential” (Rush 1999:61, 1992). As Dana Rush notes, the Hindu chromolithographs that have flooded vodunland (i.e., Ghana, Togo, and Benin) possess both external and internal mobility. They are easily reproduced and transported, and they are “inwardly mobile” since their “inherent forms and meanings do not remain stationary” (1999:62). They continually move, change, shift, and multiply.
Nana Densu the husband Of Mami Wata made by Sowanou Ambedo from Togo in 1994.
Take for example, the chromolithographic image of the triple-headed, multi-armed Hindu deity Dattatreya. For Ewe Mami Wata worshippers, it represents Densu, a papi wata spirit associated with a river in Ghana. He is called the “triple gift giver” and is a source of enormous wealth as explained by the artist of the mural in the shrine of renowned Mami Wata priestess Affi Yeye in Benin. An Ibibio (?) variant copies the print closely and another, from the Ewe, combines Hindu and mermaid elements.
(This particular Densu carving was done by a Togolese artist, whose only job is to carve images of the Vodoun Gods.
Because of its three-headed characteristices, many anthropologists have mistakenly attributed this divinity as a "borrowed" aspect of the Indian Hindu pantheon. Nothing could be further from the truth. Densu is an ancient and major feature in West African & Diaspora Mami Wata Vodoun.
Densu (day-su), is a major aspect of the many anthropomorphic forms that the Mami Wata Spirit takes. He/she is androgynous, and is known and venerated throughout all of Togo and Benin, Ghana, Burkino Faso etc.,, as the crowned divinity of its royal priesthood.
This particular aspect of Mami is often inherited through the bloodline. It is infamous as the diety of "bi-location, in which it is known to take on the outer persona of its servant . Being one of the most awed, feared, amd most powerful divinity in the entire West African & Diaspora Mami Wata Vodoun pantehon, Densu rewards its servant with wealth, knowledge and spiritual transformation.)
As Mami Wata’s popularity increased and spread from the colonial period to the 1970s, many devotees came to conceive of her as resembling a Christian saint who used her spiritual powers for the benefit of her followers. Seeking to strengthen this resemblance, they modeled their arts and devotional practices on those of Christianity and a generalized “European” etiquette (see Drewal 1988c:176–80 for a description of The House of the Holy Trinity [La Maison de la Sainte Trinité] in Togo). In the Republic of Benin (the former Dahomey), “Papa Nouveau,” the Christian “prophet” of an independent church, became very influential because he was believed to be the husband of Mami Wata (Auge 1969:184–6, 195).
Within the last twenty to thirty years, however, Mami Wata’s engagement with modernity, morality, Christianity, and Islam has led to dramatic transformations in the ways she is depicted and understood. For some, her dangerous and seductive attributes align her with the forces of Satan. Mami has thus become
a primary target of a widespread and growing religious movement led by evangelical (Pentecostal) Christians and fundamentalist Muslims who seek to denigrate and demonize indigenous African faiths; see Gore forthcoming and Nevadomsky forthcoming for more contemporary disputes and negotiations
between Mami Wata followers and Pentecostal Christians in Benin City, Nigeria).
For these groups, Mami Wata has come to personify immorality, sin, and damnation. She is considered one of the most powerful presences of Satan, one whose work is to seduce women and men away from the “path of righteousness”(See essays on this topic in Drewal forthcoming: Meyer, Gore, Elleh, Hackett, Kisliuk, and Moyer; see also Michelle Gilbert 2003:353–79 and n. 17, who cites a similar situation in Cameroon, the DRC, and Sierra Leone in the works of Geschiere 1997, De Boek 1999, and R. Shaw 1997).
Voodoo ritual related to Mami Wata sea Godess in Grand Popo. South Benin. Benin-Travel
Mami Wata in Cultural Context
Cultural case studies complement the visual history overview to demonstrate how, why, and where persons and communities have created arts honoring Mami Wata for their own specific purposes. Both historical and cultural perspectives help us comprehend the extraordinary diversity and complexity, similarities and differences, of the circumstances that shape artistic, religious, and cultural practices and the lives of people. What follows are a few examples of works to give you a sense of the richness and diversity of art for Mami Wata and other water spirits in Africa and beyond.
Mami Wata Priestess and FriendBenin, 2000.Photography by Henry John Drewal
Masks and sculptures depicting Mami Wata are made by a wide diversity of artists in south and central Côte d’Ivoire, and their late twentieth-century styles are often indistinguishable from each other.
African Mami Wata mermaid statue from the Baule people
These artists, who include Baule, Guro, Yaure, Wan, Anyi, and Attie peoples, work for a varied clientele composed of locals and foreigners. Ivoirians use these artworks for dances, shrines, divination sessions, or as interior decor in modern homes, and foreigners acquire them as souvenirs and for decorative purposes.
tMami Wata Worship mask - Yaoure - Côte d'Ivoire - Voodoo Cult
This market situation seems especially appropriate for a subject like Mami Wata, for she herself is a product of transcultural and transnational encounters and commercial transactions. Created for such a diverse market, these masks and sculptures reflect the ingenuity of artists who are able to combine indigenous aesthetics with a sensitivity to international tastes and to incorporate fantastic new imagery, including that inspired by a variety of Hindu chromolithographs sold by itinerant African merchants since the 1950s (Holas 1969:116)
Yaure peoples, Côte d'IvoireCirca 1970s. Wood, paint, rubber
Fowler Museum at UCLA.Photo by Don Cole
Jolly Masquerades—Freetown, Sierra Leone
Jolly masquerade societies developed in Freetown in the middle of the twentieth century as an amalgamation of varied traditions. They continue to be composed of young men who perform—primarily at Christmas, New Year’s celebrations, and occasions such as weddings—in exchange for funds. Their masquerades are held in the streets, private residences, city parks, and other public spaces. Performing in ornate female attire, Jolly masqueraders have taken the “fancy” aesthetic of young men’s masquerades to new artistic heights, splicing together materials and motifs from around the globe (Below; Nunley 1981:52–9).
John Goba (b. 1944, Mattru Jong, Sierra Leone).Headdress, 1980s (?)
Wood, pigment, fabric, netting, beads, metal fiber; 75cm (29½").Collection of Jeremiah Cole;
L2007.9.1The lively imagination of Temne artist John Goba brings together ferocious horned animals, dancing snakes, a mother with children, and a multiheaded, rainbow-necked Hindu goddess to evoke a fantastic swirl of forces surrounding Mami Wata in this masquerade headdress from Freetown,
Sierra Leone. Mami’s fish tail is visible at the back of the headdress.)
Ghana, Togo, and Benin
The peoples who live in the coastal region ranging from Ghana to Togo and Benin are culturally and linguistically related and include the Ga, Ewe, Akan, Mina, Aja, Gun, Fon, and Tori. These groups have an intimate association with the sea and with water divinities, and they worship a vast pantheon of spiritual entities generally known as Vodun (Blier 1995).
AKAN AFRICAN ASHANTE FEMALE ANCESTRAL FIGURE MAMI WATA RIVER SPIRIT GHANA
Mami Wata exists as part of, yet apart from, the Vodun. The Fon, for example, have their own freshwater deities called Tohosu, and they consider these to be distinct from Mami Wata, who is regarded specifically as a saltwater divinity. Others believe Mami represents a vast “school” of female and male water spirits (mami watas and papi watas), while still others see her as the source of all Vodun. Given these diverse conceptions, Mami Wata, who is generally acknowledged to be an African divinity with overseas origins, is honored in arts that bring together ancient and indigenous rites; images, beliefs, and practices from near and far; and elements from the global marketplace.
Ewe Mamiwata figure, water spirit.
Tori potter Akpogla Togbo Ekpon is a devotee of the Vodun spirit Dangbe, a deity who deals with psychological issues and is associated with the python. She creates wares for a very diverse, urban clientele seeking flowerpots and decorative items for their homes, as well as elaborate “modern” shrine sculptures for their guardian spirits.
Mami Wata Voodoo women prepare themselves for the Epe Ekpe ceremony, in Aneho, Togo. Epe Ekpe marks Voodoo New Year in Togo. During the ceremony, Voodoo priests look for a stone in the sacred forest; depending on the color of the stone, a prophecy for the New Year is made. Voodoo is a very complicated religion; often not understood fully by westerners. It is estimated that Voodoo is about 4000 years old. Voodoos' cradle in West Africa is Benin and Togo.
Ekpon, who works in the outskirts of Porto-Novo, Benin, in a small commercial pottery factory that produces utilitarian ware, is renowned for her ritual vessels for the Vodun. Her work is highly detailed, naturalistic, and “modernized,” as she describes it, compared to the older, more abstract vessels that were made by her aunts and grandmothers. She has emphasized how she strives to decorate and refi ne her forms, create a pleasing symmetry and proportion, and finish the work with a smooth, finely polished surface. One of her piece, a mermaid with a comb, mirror, and clay cowries in a clay shell for divination is Mami Apouke.
AMI WATA ANNUAL CEREMONY IN TOGO WEST AFRICA
One of the cultural traditions Agudas brought from Brazil was the masquerade known in Benin as Bourian. It probably derives from two eighteenth-century Brazilian masking traditions, the Burrinha (Little Donkey) and the Bumba-meu-Boi (Bumba-my-Ox), which combine Portuguese, Brazilian, and Afro-Brazilian elements. In Brazil these masquerades are associated with Catholic celebrations of Epiphany, or the day of the Three Kings (January 6). In Ouidah, however, Bourian has become a largely secular entertainment that may occur any time of the year to celebrate Aguda family events such as baptisms, marriages, graduations, funerals, and reunions. Th e humorous and oft en bawdy performances poke fun at human foibles. Th e de Souza and de Nevis families, both Aguda, perform Bourian in Ouidah, and it is here that Mami Wata makes her appearance.
For the Igbo peoples of southeastern Nigeria, the name “Mami Wata” refers to a specific water spirit and to a “school” of indigenous water spirits with specific local names and attributes. Such water deities, related to, yet separate from, a vast pantheon of gods and goddesses (agbara), are considered “free spirits” who exist outside the public cult system (Cole 1982:62). Mami Wata works with diviners and priest/healers helping clients with physical and psychological ailments. She also intervenes in money matters, since she is thought to have “been brought by white men, whom people believe to have endless supplies of paper money and coins”
(Cole 1982:64–5; see also Cole and Aniakor 1984:75–7, 104–6; Jones 1984:89).
Mami Wata altar in Nigeria
A mask honoring spiritual forces in the Igbo cosmos depicts Mami Wata with three Christian images: Jesus on the cross, a robed priest or saint, and a Madonna-like figure. Such juxtapositions recall conversations I had with Mami Wata devotees in 1975 and 1978. One Igbo woman related that Mami Wata was a Christian and compared the preparation of a church altar with its candles, flowers, statues, incense,and chromolithographs to that of a Mami Wata shrine. Alphonsius Njoku, a Mami Wata priest and healer,
explained the presence of a Madonna and Child print in his shrine by asserting that Mami Wata was a Christian. When I asked what type of Christian, he replied that she belongs to “every church, she is nondenominational.” Another priestess—who, while in a trance, sang a song evocative of a Christian hymn to me in a mixture of Igbo and pidgin English—remarked that Mami Wata was a Christian and “beat” those who failed to go to church. Before the 1980s, Mami Wata very much resembled a Catholic saint to her devotees, and these masks, probably carved in the 1950s or 1960s, visualize local religious and ideological debates, dialogues, and negotiations of a particular era (see Elleh forthcoming for a discussion of these religious contestations and their impact on Mami Wata icons). The Igbo’s northeastern neighbors, the Ejagham, borrowed Mami’s image to signify their own spiritual entities for local purposes (Fig. 26).
Among the Ibibio, although Mami Wata could bestow great riches, she could also wreak havoc according to her whim. She could possess men and women and lure them to her watery kingdom while they were bathing or entice them to follow her through fantastic dreams.
Her devotees might take on an other worldly appearance and behave strangely. While they could become wealthy, they would be unable to bear children, a decided disadvantage in a culture that prizes fecundity. Some people, however, reveled in their communication with the spirit and became Mami Wata priests or priestesses in their own right.
Ibibio Mami Wata priestess Mary Magdalena with white chalk markings on her face.Oron,
Nigeria 1989. From Mammy Water: In Search of the Water Spirits in Nigeria bSabine Jell-Bahisen.
Great wealth and prestige could accrue to priests and priestesses from creating private “hospitals” where impotent men, barren women, and those suffering from mental problems would pay high fees to be treated using various modalities, including drugs, electric shock treatment, and lengthy counseling sessions. Furthermore, traditional Ibibio society is male dominated, and the ability of a woman to be possessed by Mami Wata offered her nearly her only chance to achieve the status accorded to men (Salmons 1977:10).
The commissioning of carvings for these many Mami Wata adherents explains their prevalence in the 1970s. Members of the Chukwu family, who produced many such carvings, perpetuated Akpan’s unusual
carpentry style of using precise measurements to carve individual segments of Mami Wata, which were then nailed together. Other carvers, however, such as Udunwa Matthew Ekpe and John Onyok, adopted a much freer approach, while still incorporating key elements such as the entwining snake, the bugler/snake charmer, the elaborate jewelry, and the long flowing hair of Mami Wata (Fig. 28). Variations, such as Mami Wata riding in a canoe flanked by paddlers, or atop a box tableau surrounded by her devotees, were commissioned both for the shrine context or for local entertainment groups and were also sold to tourists or other ethnic groups through the craft markets of Ikot Ekpene and Calabar.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
In the social imaginary of the western Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a wide expanse of water separates the world of the ancestors from that of the living. It also separates Mputu (Europe) from Africa. The siren or mermaid, whose element is water, is preeminently a mediator between these worlds. More a lover than a goddess, she assists men in their quest for power and wealth within a universe set in motion by colonial modernization. Her assistance, however, comes at a terrible price.
Abdal 22 (active 1980s-early 1990s, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo)
Mami Wata, 1989. Acrylic on canvas. Private Collection
The earliest stories of encounters between sirens and local men appeared after World War II, written for literary competitions. At this time urban music inspired by the Cuban rumba was obsessed with seduction and consumption (early songs advertised cigarettes, margarine, and Coca-Cola). Musicians sang of men and women forlorn in the urban world and desperate for money to spend on consumer goods. While men were wage earners, those described as “free women” (residing in urban centers away from their families) were excluded from the workforce and offered men domestic and sexual services in exchange for money. These negotiated sexual relationships were typically temporary and almost contractual. The social space of men was the bar, where clothing, the consumption of beer and music could make a reputation.
Sacred waters bathe the histories of African peoples, sometimes as tears of deep sorrow, sometimes as drops of soothing and cooling liquid sustaining life and hope. Water connects—world with otherworld, life with afterlife—for many African and African Atlantic peoples—Yoruba, Kongo, Fon, and others. And among Africans dispersed across vast oceans, those waters are emblematic of the ultimate journey back home to all those distant yet living ancestors. In Haiti, it is the journey home to Guinee, across the rippling kalungaboundary of existence, imagined as a vast expanse of water, between life and afterlife. This is the abode of Mami Wata, Simbi, Olokun, Yemoja, La Baleine, La Sirene, Watramama, Maman d’Eau, River Maids, and all the water divinities of Africa and the African Atlantic.
MAMI WATA Santa Marta Dominadora
The Haitian religion of Vodou may be very roughly characterized as moving back and forth between cool and restrained (Rada) aspects and hot and energetic (Petwo) characteristics. Water enters the Vodou cosmology in many forms and via many paths. Marine spirits can be contacted through bodies of water
ranging from the sea to the tubs found in Vodou temples.
Roudy Azor (b. 1980, Port-au-Prince, Haiti).Lasirene-marassas trois (Lasirèn-Twins [and the One Who Follows the Twins Making Three]), 2006Satin, beads, sequins. Private Collection. Photo by Don Cole
Fish, whales, and snakes, particularly the rainbow python Danbala, join fantastic composite creatures, such as the mermaid Lasirèn, to symbolize the spirits, or lwa, of the water. Some water spirits are associated with the cool and sweet Rada divinities; others are Petwo, hot and volatile. Some, like Lasirèn, switch back and forth as they please.
Every February 2, along the Northeast coast of Brazil that reaches out toward Africa, descendants of those enslaved, as well as many others, turn their eyes and thoughts toward the vast watery horizon and pray to the “Queen of the Sea,” “MotherWater,” the “Mother-of-Fish,”
Painting of Yemanja Goddess
Yemanja, seeking her love, support, protection, and guidance. People come from all parts of Brazil and every corner of the world to pray for good fortune in
the coming year and to give offerings to Yemanja at her principal shrine in Bahia, Brazil near the mouth of the Rio Vermelho.
On the eve of Yemanja’s festival, her sweet-water sister Oxum is also honored with offerings at her sacred lake. This is a time for renewal. Families and friends, devotees and tourists come bearing gifts—bouquets of flowers, perfume, sweet fruits, soft drinks, candies, talcum powder, soaps, beads, mirrors, dolls, candles, and many other items to please the goddess.
Making offering for Yamanja (Mami Wata), the Goddess of The Sea
offering for Mami Wata (Yemanja)
These offerings are loaded into large woven baskets, placed in boats, and carried out to sea to be given to Yemanja. When she has accepted them—her sign of blessing—the party begins with singing, dancing, and drinking into the night and next morning, when the sun’s first rays sparkle on Yemanja’s waves.
Afro-Brazilian Yemanja devotee praying at the beach to the Goddess (Mami Wata)
Mami Wata as Artist` Muse
In addition to their continually transforming histories of influence in Africa and its diasporas, Mami Wata and other African and African Atlantic water spirits have gained an even wider audience, as well as new meanings and import, by capturing the imaginations of a number of contemporary artists—women and men from Africa, Europe, North America, and the Caribbean—who have found in Mami Wata and her cohorts a highly intriguing subject matter.
Mami Wata altar
Even though they may not worship her, Mami Wata has entered the dreams and waking hours of these artists, seducing them into creating extraordinary works that open our eyes, minds, and imaginations to wonderful possibilities (Cover, Figs. 37–41). The unique understandings and involvements of contemporary artists with water spirits also allow them to employ Mami Wata and other underwater denizens to address issues of gender, race, morality, identity, economics, politics, and the environment
Boy at the Mamai Wata Vodun Priest. Posted in Villa Karo, Benin, Grand-Popo,