The Myth Of The Water Spirit Mami Wata

In a way, the name "Mami Wata" tells us everything we need to know the figure's history, character, and myth. A part-woman, part-fish mermaid-like water spirit that can bestow upon people either good or ill fortune, Mami Wata is fundamentally African in origin, but arose as an aggregated cultural, ethnic, and religious figure during the Transatlantic Slave Trade starting in 1502, as the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art describes. This is why the name comes from pidgin English for "Mother Water," the kind of English that arose amongst the entire multinational and multilanguage cross-oceanic trade.

It might seem hard to define Mami Wata, but that's only if we forget that people have associated protective, powerful deities with specific locations, terrain, springs, mountains, rivers, groves, etc., going back thousands of years. Greek nymphs and dryads, used to explain nature, are a good comparative counterpart, as Theoi describes. They preside over particular land or waterscapes, can be invoked or entreated according to specific rituals, and are powerful enough to cause either mayhem or prosperity depending on personal whims or if a human bungles an encounter with them. Similarly, some Icelanders still remain keenly conscious of not disturbing the huldufólk — hidden folk — who live in this or that mound, hill, rock, etc., per the BBC

In the end, Smithsonian Magazine describes Mami Wata — or Mama Wata — as dangerous, beautiful, a snake handler, and a controller of money. To approach her and her waters, supplicants must remain clean of body and intention. 

Mami Wata's entangled origins

It ought to make symbolic sense that a mythological, magical figure like Mami Wata arose during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. She's a deity of water, the medium that conveyed both people and goods across the Atlantic Ocean for hundreds of years. She's also a figure of money, which makes sense for the time. As for the snake connection, that likely points to her earlier African roots. The African continent is home to a variety of water snakes like the brown water snake, per the African Snakebite Institute. Land-dwelling snakes like the black mamba are far more dangerous, but whether walking on land or approaching a pool it makes sense that a spirit like Mami Wata could offer protection by wrangling dangerous wildlife.   

And yet, curators for the African art-and-history exhibit "Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas" from the University of Washington describe a much more entangled history for Mami Wata. Mami Wata is most likely an evolved version of a simpler ancestral spirit recognizable to African peoples across various tribes. Portuguese traders in particular took a liking to her double-tailed, breasted artwork amongst the Yoruba-speaking, Owo and Ijebu tribes in the Kingdom of Benin in modern-day Nigeria. They promoted this art to curious Westerners, which influenced her development from the 16th to 19th centuries. At the same time, as an appetite for all things "exotic" grew in Europe, snake handler shows came into fashion and cemented Mami Wata's visual image.

Unifier of cultures and peoples

Nowadays, Mami Wata is a part figure of folklore, part fragment of shared cultural history, and part entity approached in for-reals magick rituals — and we use the "k" to denote the non-stage, non-card trick, non-rabbit-out-of-the-hat variety of the mystical arts. In fact, author Benito Torres in the book "The Rituals of Mama Wata" outlines precisely how to conduct specific magick rituals for the purpose of invoking Mami Wata, complete with a Mami Wata altar picture. But as always, the author says, the reader shouldn't mess around with such stuff except "at his own risk." Even out of mere respect to Mami Wata's legacy within various African and cross-Atlantic African communities, it's probably a good idea to adhere to such precautions.

But as the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art describes, there's no single "homogenous" conception or worship of Mami Wata uniting all believers. She's more of an archetype that takes on different roles for different people and groups, kind of like how many cultures have a "sky god:" Amun in ancient Egypt, Zeus in ancient Greece, Shango to the Yoruba, Viracocha to the Incans, Ukko in Finnish mythology, and more. Mami Wata is a unifier of peoples, the kind of unifier needed amongst African tribes from the 16th to 19th century. In fact, worship of Mami Wata even incorporates elements and iconography from Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and more, just to establish "multiple insurance policies," as curator John Drewal says via Smithsonian Magazine.