Mami Wata




This article is about the goddess Mami Wata. For other uses of the name and its variants, see Mami Wata (disambiguation).

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.


* 1 Appearance
* 2 Religion
* 3 Attributes
o 3.1 Water
o 3.2 Sex
o 3.3 Healing and fertility
o 3.4 Other associations
* 4 Origins and development
o 4.1 Spread through Africa
o 4.2 Modern development
o 4.3 Across the Atlantic
* 5 Mami Wata in popular culture
* 6 Other names
* 7 References
* 8 See also


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.

Followers typically wear red and white clothing, as these colours represent the goddess's dual nature. Especially in Igbo iconography, red represents such qualities as death, destruction, heat, maleness, physicality, and power. In contrast, white symbolises beauty, creation, femaleness, new life, spirituality, translucence, water, and wealth. This regalia may also include a cloth snake wrapped about the waist. The Mami Wata shrines may also be decorated in these colours, and items such as bells, carvings, Christian or Indian prints, dolls, incense, spirits, and remnants of previous sacrifices often adorn such places.

Frenzied dancing accompanied by musical instruments such as African guitars or harmonicas often forms the core of Mami Wata worship. Followers dance to the point of entering a trance. At this point, Mami Wata possesses the person and speaks to him or her. Offerings to the goddess are also important, and Mami Wata prefers gifts of delicious food and drink, alcohol, fragrant objects (such as pomade, incense, and soap), and expensive goods like jewellery. Modern worshippers usually leave her gifts of manufactured goods, such as Coca-Cola or designer jewellery.

Nevertheless, Mami Wata is unpredictable. She craves attention, and her followers must be prepared to be called to service without warning. She can give her devotees boons based on her attributes: beauty, an easy life, good luck, and material wealth. However, she can also takes these things away on a whim. Nevertheless, she largely wants her followers to be healthy and well off. More broadly, people blame the spirit for all sorts of misfortune. In Cameroon, for example, Mami Wata is ascribed with causing the strong undertow that kills many swimmers each year along the coast.



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.

Other tales describe river travellers (usually men) chancing upon the goddess. She is inevitably grooming herself, combing her hair, and peering at herself in a mirror. Upon noticing the intruder, she flees into the water and leaves her possessions behind. The traveller then takes the invaluable items. Later, Mami Wata appears to the thief in his dreams to demand the return of her things. Should he agree, she further demands a promise from him to be sexually faithful to her. Agreement grants the person riches; refusal to return the possessions or to be faithful brings the man ill fortune.

In parts of the Caribbean, in contrast, meeting with the water goddess prompts the mortal to flee, not the spirit. In the folklore of Trinidad and Tobago, for example (where she is called Maman Dlo), one can escape the deity by removing his left shoe, laying it upside down on the ground, and then running home backwards.


Mami Wata's association with sex and lust is somewhat paradoxically linked to one with fidelity as well. Male followers may encounter the goddess in the guise of a beautiful, sexually promiscuous woman, such as a prostitute. Should the man have sex with her, he often contracts venereal disease (this leads to the African slang term "Mami Wata" for prostitutes). A related tradition says that Mami Wata may seduce a favoured male devotee and then show herself to him following coitus. She then demands his complete sexual faithfulness and secrecy about the matter. Acceptance means wealth and fortune; rejection spells the ruin of his family, finances, and job. Nevertheless, Mami Wata has a strong phallic nature. She is frequently depicted with snakes, and even some female followers report sexual relations with the goddess in their dreams.


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.


West Africa possessed a multitude of water-spirit traditions before the first contact with Europeans. Most of these were regarded as female, and dual natures of good and evil were not uncommon, reflecting the fact that water is both an important means of providing communication, food, drink, trade, and transportation, but at the same time, it can drown people, flood fields or villages, and provide passage to intruders.

Scholars have proposed several theories for Mami Wata's light-skinned, mermaid-like appearance. One theory is that she is based on the West African manatee; in fact, "Mami Wata" is a common name for this animal in the region. Another proposal is that the mermaid image came into being after contact with Europeans. The ships of traders and slavers often had carvings of mermaid figures on their prows, for example, and tales of mermaids were popular among sailors of the time. In addition, the goddess's light complexion and straight hair could be based on European features. On the other hand, white is traditionally associated with the spirit world in many cultures of Nigeria. The people of the Cross River area often whiten their skin with talcum or other substances for rituals and for cosmetic reasons, for example.


Liberian traders of the Kru ethnic group moved up and down the west coast of Africa from Liberia to Cameroon beginning in the 19th century. They spread their own water-spirit beliefs with them and helped to standardise conceptions in West Africa. Their perceived wealth also helped establish the goddess as one of good fortune.

This period also introduced West Africa to what would become the definitive image Mami Wata. Circa 1887, a chromolithograph of a female Samoan snake charmer appeared in Nigeria. The poster, entitled Der Schlangenbandinger (The Snake Charmer) was originally created sometime between 1880 and 1887. It may have been intended to advertise a company of itinerate entertainers who were performing in Nigeria at the time, the girl depicted being one of the acts. Another proposed explanation is that the girl was the wife of a zookeeper from Hamburg. Alternately, Indian traders may have brought the image to Africa and then posted it in their shops. Whatever its source, the image – an enticing woman with long, black hair and a large snake slithering up between her breasts – caught the imagination of the Africans who saw it; it was the definitive image of the goddess. Before long, Mami Wata posters appeared in over a dozen countries. People began creating Mami Wata art of their own, much of it influenced by the lithograph.


During the 20th century, the various West African cults came to resemble one another, especially in urban areas. The homogenisation was largely the result of greater communication and mobility of individuals from town to town and country to country, though links between the goddess's nature and the perils of the urban environment have also been proposed. This led to a new level of standardisation of priests, initiations of new devotees, healing rituals, and temples.

The 20th century also led to Mami Wata's adoption in much of Central and Southern Africa. In the mid-1950s, traders imported copies of The Snake Charmer from Bombay and England and sold them throughout Africa. West African traders moved her to Lumbumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in that same decade. There the goddess became a popular subject of Congolese folk painters, who placed her on the walls of bars, stores, and marketplace stalls. Senegalese traders and Congolese immigrants brought her cult to Zambia by the 1970s. Meanwhile, Congolese and Zambian artists spread Mami Wata images throughout public places in Zambia. Further diffusion occurred during the Biafran Secessionist War in Nigeria, which began in 1967. Refugees fled to all parts of West and Central Africa, bringing with them their belief in the water spirit.

Modern DRC, Lesotho, South Africa, and Zambia today form the current boundary of the Mami Wata cult, albeit a blurred one. The pan-African water deity is assimilating native water spirits in this region, many of them serpent figures. Some examples are the Congolese-Zambian chitapo or nakamwale, the South African umamlambo, and the Sotho mamolapo or mamogashoa. The most visible evidence of this absorption is that many of these creatures are today viewed as mermaids rather than snakes, their traditional form. These adoptions often lead to confusion when aspects of more than one being become amalgamated under the name "Mami Wata". In Southern Africa, for example, Mami Wata is sometimes said to be able to fly around in the form of a tornado, an adopted aspect from the khanyapa water spirit.

Across the Atlantic

West African slaves brought tales of Mami Wata with them to the New World. The new environment only served to emphasize the slaves' connection to water. In Guiana, for example, slaves had to fight back swamp waters on the plantations they worked. She was first mentioned in Dutch Guiana in the 1740s in the journal of a colonist. According to the anonymous man, the slaves in the colony often claimed that "Watermama" appeared to them and told them to skip work or to perform sacrifices to avoid her wrath. Slaves worshipped the goddess by dancing and then falling into a trancelike state. In the 1770s, the Dutch rulers outlawed the ritual dances associated with the goddess. Amerindians of the colony adopted Watermama from the slaves and merged her with their own water spirits.

By the 19th century, an influx of slaves from other regions had relegated Watermama to a position in the pantheon of the gods of the Surinamese Winti religion. When Winti was outlawed in the 1970s, her cult lost some of its importance in Suriname. Furthermore, a relative lack of freedom compared to their African brethren prevented the homogenisation that occurred with the Mami Wata cult across the Atlantic.

Mami Wata in popular culture

Mami Wata is a popular subject in the art, fiction, poetry, music, and film of the Caribbean and West and Central Africa. Visual artists especially seem drawn to her image, and both wealthier Africans and tourists buy paintings and wooden sculptures of the goddess. She also figures prominently in the folk art of Africa, with her image adorning walls of bars and living rooms, album covers, and other items.

Mami Wata has also proved to be a popular theme in African and Caribbean literature. Authors who have featured her in their fiction include P. Chamoisseau, Alex Godard, Rose Marie Guiraud (Côte d'Ivoire), Flora Nwapa, and Véronique Tadjo (Côte d'Ivoire). Mamy-Wata is also the title of a satirical Cameroonian newspaper.

Other names

In addition to numerous variants of the name "Mami Wata" (Mammy Wata, Mamy Wata, Mami Water, Maame Water, Mamaissii, etc.), numerous cultures call the goddess by alternate names. What follows is only a partial list.

* Antilles: Maman de l'Eau, Maman Dlo
* Benin: Mawa-Lisu (sometimes seen as an aspect of Mami Wata)
* Democratic Republic of the Congo: La Sirène, Madame Poisson, Mamba Muntu
* Dominica: Maman de l'Eau, Maman Dlo
* French Guiana: Mamadilo
* Grenada: Mamadjo
* Guadaloupe: Maman de l'Eau, Maman Dlo
* Guyana: Watramama
* Jamaica: River Mama
* Martinique: Lamanté
* Nigeria (Igbo): Ezebelamiri, Ezenwaanyi, Nnekwunwenyi, Nwaanyi mara mma, Uhamiri
* Suriname: Watermama, Watramama
* Togo: Mawa-Lisu (sometimes seen as an aspect of Mami Wata)
* Trinidad and Tobago: Maman de l'Eau, Maman Dglo, Maman Dlo, Mama Glow

In addition, several non-Mami Wata figures have taken on aspects of the goddess or show signs of being absorbed by the Mami Wata figure:

* Brazil: Yemanya (or Yemaya)
* Cuba: Yemanya (or Yemaya)
* Haiti: Erzulie, Simbi


* Bastian, Misty L., Ph.D. "Nwaanyi Mara Mma: Mami Wata, the More Than Beautiful Woman".

* "Modernity and mystery, Mami Wata in African art".

* van Stipriaan, Alex (2005). "Watramama/Mami Wata: Three centuries of creolization of a water spirit in West Africa, Suriname and Europe". Matatu: Journal for African Culture and Society 27/28, 323-337.