Hi there. Oh, don’t worry, the snakes won’t bite. Here, babies, have a mouse that Mami brought for you. See? They’re harmless, unless you’re a mouse.
I’m Mami Wata, a highly esteemed water spirit in over 20 countries across West, Central, and Southern Africa, and African diaspora cultures in North America. My name comes from West African pidgin English meaning ‘Mama Water’. I’m renowned for my powers, which include healing illnesses, bringing good fortune, and even, to a lucky few, granting of magical powers.
And my snakes? Ah, well, there’s a story behind them.
Although I appeared in different forms many years earlier, most artistic renderings of me today are inspired by a German lithograph print from the 1880s. It depicted a French snake charmer by the stage name of Nala Damajanti. When the print circulated around Africa, people assumed it was me because snakes were already associated with water spirits. Also, the portrait’s framing made it look like I could be hiding a mermaid tail. This mistake is common knowledge now, but the print remains my most famous image, and continues to inspire other artwork of me.
But, you know, many African water spirits were portrayed as snakes long before the mermaid image became more popular. Over time, as African stories blended with imported European mermaid legends, our water spirits eventually started to look more like the half-woman, half-fish seductresses. So, yes, I am a mermaid of sorts. And like most mermaids, I’ve got a hot temper.
I can transform fully into either fish or human form, you see. In Nigerian folklore, I might just disguise myself as an ordinary woman or a prostitute in order to seduce an unsuspecting man. After the deed is done, I’ll reveal my true self and make him swear fidelity to me. If he agrees, good for him; I’ll bestow upon him wealth
and prosperity in business. If he refuses, he dies and I’ll wreak suffering and destruction on his family.
Sometimes, I simply drown those who anger me, both men and women. There’s a strong undertow that frequently kills swimmers along the coast of Cameroon, and is frequently said to be my doing. Sometimes, though, my followers emerge from the ocean depths injury free, and with newfound powers to boot. What can I say? I’m temperamental. And my volatility is an important part of my dual-natured identity. I’m the personification of conflicting qualities: beauty and danger, wellness and disease, luck and misfortune.
Many times, I both cause the maladies and offer a cure. In Nigeria, for example, I’m often blamed for a myriad of illnesses, diseases, and conditions that only I can heal. I also frequently cause infertility in women. On the other hand, I’m also credited with curing it, as you can see from the many images of mothers with children placed at my shrines.
Got an idea of who I am now? I’m healer and infecter, lover and killer, bringer of fortune and despair. My one quality that remains constant is my enduring popularity. I continue to appear as a subject in art, literature, music and film. I even have an African surf brand named after me.
Famous, powerful, beloved, and feared. It’s nice to meet you. Just stay on my good side, okay?
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons