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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. [1][2]

Mami Wata is a pantheon of water spirits or deities, venerated in West, Central, and Southern Africa, and in the African diaspora in the Caribbean and parts of North and South America. Mami Wata spirits are usually female, but are sometimes male.[3]


Attributes of Mami Wata


Some initiates and devotees have reported to anthropologists that Mami Wata is usually described in excesses. She possesses an inhuman beauty, unnaturally long hair, and a lighter-than-normal complexion. Some report that her hair texture ranges from straight, curly to kinky, and either black or blonde, and combed straight back. Her lustrous eyes gaze enticingly, which only enhances her ethereal beauty.[4][5] In many parts of West and Central Africa, "Mami Wata" thus serves as a slang term for a gorgeous woman.

In more ancient text Mami Wata is often described as a mermaid-like figure, with a woman's upper body (often nude), and the hindquarters of a fish or serpent.[6][7][8] In other tales, Mami Wata is fully humanoid (though never human). During anthropologist, Misty Bastian, (1987-88) field research in Nigeria on the Onitsha Market System, it was reported to her that Mami Wata is female, and that she flaunts her unimaginable wealth with jewelry that blinds those who view it.[5] Bastian also believes that in both mermaid and humanoid form, Mami Wata 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.[4] She may also manifest in a number of other forms, including as a man.[5]

Mami Wata is represented in many different African religious systems, such as the Vodou in the southern parts of Togo and Benin, and Southern Ghana, where there exists an actual consecrated body of lineal priests and priestesses of the Ewe, Anlo-Ewe, Mina, Kabye and other African ethnic groups, whose worship of these ancient deities predates their arrival in their present locations.[9][10][11] In the Yoruba tradition, the mother goddess Yemaja has been recently associated with Mami Wata in popular culture.[citation needed] Africans Slaves from what has been notoriously referred to as 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. As the Mami Wata traditions continues to re-emerge, 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 spirits and deities.[12]


According to Bastian and German photographer, Van Stiptiaan, as their name would imply, the Mami Wata deities are closely associated with water. Traditions on both sides of the Atlantic tell of the spirit abducting her followers or random people whilst they are swimming or boating.[citation needed] She brings them to her paradisiacal realm, which may be underwater, in the spirit world, or both.[4] The captives' release often hinges on some sort of demand, ranging from sexual fidelity to the spirit to something as simple as a promise that they do not eat fish.[citation needed] Should she allow them to leave, the travellers usually return 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.[5]

Van Stipriaan further reports that other tales describe river travellers (usually men) chancing upon the spirit. 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.[citation needed] 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.[4]

In parts of the Caribbean, in contrast, meeting with the water spirit 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.[citation needed]

Religious tradition

The Mami Wata tradition is strongly associated with all matters involving spirit and psychic phenomena, including divination and spiritual healing. Worship practices for these deities vary, but in some branches of the tradition depending on the deity, it might involve for some initiates of wearing the colors red and white (sacred to some Mami Wata's deities) and dancing until seized by their particular Mami Wata deity, popularly known as spiritual possession.

Priesthood and worship

Mami Wata priestess dressed in traditional ceremonial attire.

Priesthood of certain Mami deities is inherited matrilineally. Many can trace their family lineage back four or more generations. In Togo and 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 Edge (spirit house) are known as "Mamaissii-Hounons" which translates as “queen of the ship,” or literally “mother wisdom”.[13][14][15]

Although the Mami Wata tradition is deeply rooted in African and Diaspora tradition and culture, initiation and worship of Mami Wata is open to all races, religions and sexual orientation. Mami Wata is known to have children from every race and creed and delights in the universality of its worship. Historically, practitioners and adherents of traditional African religions, Santeria, and Vodou comprise Mami Wata's devotees. Her worship is as diverse as her initiates, priesthood and worshippers,[12] although some parallels may be drawn. Groups of people may gather in her name, but the deity is much more prone to interacting with followers on a one-on-one basis. She thus has many priests and mediums in both Africa, America and in the Caribbean who are specifically born and initiated to them.

In Togo, Mami Wata's devotees wear all white clothing at all time. In some traditional houses in Nigeria, devotees typically wear red and white clothing, as these colors represent that particular Mami’s dual nature. According to Bastian, especially in Igbo iconography, red represents such qualities as death, destruction, heat, maleness, physicality, and power. In contrast, white symbolises death, but also can symbolize beauty, creation, femaleness, new life, spirituality, translucence, water, and wealth.[5] This regalia may also include a cloth snake wrapped about the waist.[12] The Mami Wata shrines may also be decorated in these colors, and items such as bells, carvings, Christian or Indian prints, dolls, incense, spirits, and remnants of previous sacrifices often adorn such places.[12][5]

According to Van Stipriaan, intense 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.[4] Offerings to the spirit are also important, and Mami Wata prefers gifts of delicious food and drink, alcohol, fragrant objects (such as pomade, powder, incense, and soap), and expensive goods like jewelry.[12] Modern worshippers usually leave her gifts of manufactured goods, such as Coca-Cola or designer jewelry.[4] Mami Wata shrines can vary from elaborate to quaint depending on the income of a Mamissii priestess. Although the size and location of a Mami Wata shrine may vary, Mami's appreciation of perfumes, powders and fine statuary appears universal.

Nevertheless, some initiates reports that their Mami Wata deity 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.[citation needed] However, she can also takes these things away on a whim.[citation needed] Nevertheless, she largely wants her followers to be healthy and well off.[5] 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.

Primary function

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.


According to Bastian, Mami Wata's association with sex and lust is somewhat paradoxically linked to one with fidelity as well. According to a Nigerian tradition, male followers may encounter the spirit in the guise of a beautiful, sexually promiscuous woman, such as a prostitute. In Nigerian popular stories, 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.[5] In Togo, Mami Wata is also associated with female promiscuity with some pastors going so far as organizing exorcism sessions to purify their followers from her spirits. As such a beautiful woman with many suitors will often be suspected of being possessed by the spirit of Mami Wata.

Healing and fertility

Another prominent aspect of the Mami Wata deities is their connection to healing. If someone comes down with an incurable, languorous illness, Mami Wata often takes the blame. The illness is evidence that Mami Wata has taken an interest in the afflicted person and that only she can cure him or her. Similarly, several other ailments may be attributed to the water spirit. In Nigeria, for example, she takes the blame for everything from headaches to sterility.[5]

In fact, barren mothers often call upon the spirit to cure their affliction. However, according to Bastian, 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 spirit'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 spirit.[5]

Other associations

As other deities become absorbed into the figure of Mami Wata, the spirit 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.

Origins and development

It is believed that all of ancient 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.[16]

Bastian, and other western scholars have proposed their theories for one particular Mami Wata's deity light-skinned, mermaid-like appearance. Van Stipriaan suggests that she may be based on the West African manatee;[16] in fact, "Mami Wata" is a common name for this animal in the region. Salmons argues that the mermaid image may have come 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.[17] In addition, the spirit'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.[5]

Van Stipriaan speculates that 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 may have spread their own water-spirit beliefs with them and helped to standardise conceptions in West Africa.[citation needed] Their perceived wealth also helped establish the spirit as one of good fortune. [18]

Van Stipriaan further believes that this period also introduced West Africa to what would become the definitive image of Mami Wata. Circa 1887, a chromolithograph of a female Samoan snake charmer[citation needed] appeared in Nigeria. According to the British art historian Kenneth C. Murray, the poster was entitled Der Schlangenbändiger ("The Snake Charmer") and was originally created sometime between 1880 and 1887. Dr. Tobias Wendl, director of the Iwalewa-Haus Africa Centre at the University of Bayreuth, was unable to confirm this after extensive searching (as Der Schlangenbändiger is a masculine term, the title seems rather suspect), but he did discover a very similar photograph titled Die samoanische Schlangenbändigerin Maladamatjaute ("the Samoan Snake Charmer (fem.) Maladamatjaute") in the collection of the Wilhelm-Zimmermann Archive in Hamburg.[19][20] Whichever the original image, it was almost certainly a poster of a celebrated late 19th-century snake charmer who performed under the stage name "Nala Damajanti" (apparently a combination of the names of two husband-and-wife characters from the Indian epic the Mahabharata, which appeared in several variations, particularly "Maladamatjaute") at numerous venues, including the Folies Bergère in 1886. Despite various exotic claims of her nationality, she was later identified as one Émilie Poupon of Nantey, France.[21] This image—an enticing woman with long, black hair and a large snake slithering up between her breasts—apparently caught the imaginations of the Africans who saw it; it was the definitive image of the spirit. 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.[22]

Reemergence in contemporary times

According to photographer Van Stipriaan and some western anthropologists, during the 20th century, the various West African religions came to resemble one another,[citation needed] 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 spirit's nature and the perils of the urban environment have also been proposed.[citation needed] This led to a new level of standarisation of priests, initiations of new devotees, healing rituals, and temples.[4]

The 20th century also led to Mami Wata's reemergence 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 Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in that same decade. There the spirit 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 probably brought her worship to Zambia by the 1970s. Meanwhile, Congolese and Zambian artists spread Mami Wata images throughout public places in Zambia. Further diffusion might have 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 Africans transported and enslaved in the New World, brought tales of Mami Wata with them. The new environment only served to emphasize the enslaved's connection to water. In Guiana, for example, slaves had to fight back swamp waters on the plantations they worked.[16] She was first mentioned in Dutch Guiana in the 1740s in the journal of an anonymous colonist:

It sometimes happens that one or the other of the black slaves either imagines truthfully, or out of rascality pretends to have seen and heard an apparition or ghost which they call water mama, which ghost would have ordered them not to work on such or such a day, but to spend it as a holy day for offering with the blood of a white hen, to sprinkle this or that at the water-side and more of that monkey-business, adding in such cases that if they do not obey this order, shortly Watermama will make their child or husband etc. die or harm them otherwise.[23]

Slaves worshipped the spirit by dancing and then falling into a trancelike state. In the 1770s, the Dutch rulers outlawed the ritual dances associated with the spirit. The governor, J. Nepveu, wrote that

the Papa, Nago, Arada and other slaves who commonly are brought here under the name Fida [Ouidah] slaves, have introduced certain devilish practices into their dancing, which they have transposed to all other slaves; when a certain rhythm is played . . . they are possessed by their god, which is generally called Watramama.[24]

Native Americans of the colony adopted Watermama from the slaves and merged her with their own water spirits.

By the 19th century, an influx of enslaved Africans from other regions had relegated Watermama to a position in the pantheon of the deities of the Surinamese Winti religion. When Winti was outlawed in the 1970s, her religious practices lost some of its importance in Suriname. Furthermore, a relative lack of freedom compared to their African brethren prevented the homgenisation that occurred with the Mami Wata cult across the Atlantic.[25]

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 spirit. 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.[26]

Mami Wata has also proved to be a popular theme in African and Caribbean literature. Authors who have featured her in their fiction include Patrick Chamoiseau, 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.

The character Mami Watanabe from the comic book Factionalists is the physical manifestation of the spirit entity Mami Wata. The author utilized a number of features to convey this. Her name Mami Watanabe is a play on Mami Wata. Despite being Japanese her skin is darkened in Japanese ganguro style. She also has a tattoo of a snake on her body and receives a watch and a mirror as gifts in the series, two items generally associated with Mami Wata.

Names of Mami Wata

State / Territory / Region Name used
 Benin Mawa-Lisu (sometimes seen as an aspect of Mami Wata)
 Brazil Yemanya (or Yemaya; becoming popularly identified with the spirit)
 Republic of the Congo Kuitikuiti, Mboze, Makanga, Bunzi, Kambizi
 Colombia Mohana, Madre de agua
 Cuba Yemanya (or Yemaya; becoming popularly identified with the spirit)
 Democratic Republic of the Congo La Sirène, Madame Poisson, Mamba Muntu
 Dominica Maman de l'Eau, Maman Dlo
 French Guiana Mamadilo
 Grenada Mamadjo
 Guadeloupe Maman de l'Eau, Maman Dlo
 Guyana Watramama
 Haiti La Sirène, Erzulie, Simbi (latter two becoming identified with the spirit)
 Jamaica River Mama
 Martinique Lamanté, Manman Dlo
 Netherlands Antilles Maman de l'Eau, Maman Dlo
 Nigeria Yemoja{yoruba version},Ezebelamiri, Ezenwaanyi, Nnekwunwenyi, Nwaanyi mara mma {Igbo Version, literally means "good/beautiful woman"}, Obanamen or Oba n'amen {among the Benin of Edo State, means King/Queen of the waters,}
 Suriname Watermama, Watramama
 Togo Mawa-Lisu (sometimes seen as an aspect of Mami Wata) However, their main principle deities are the ancient Mami Awuzza/Awussa, Mami Iyensu, Mami Densu, Mami Ablô.
 Trinidad and Tobago Maman de l'Eau, Maman Dglo, Maman Dlo, Mama Glow
 Zaire Mamba Muntu, Madame Poisson, Sirene


  1. ^ Jell-Bahlsen 1997, p. 105
  2. ^ Chesi 1997, p. 255)
  3. ^ Drewal, Henry John (2008), "Introduction: Charting the Voyage", in Drewal, Henry John, Sacred waters : arts for Mami Wata and other divinities in Africa and the diaspora, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, ISBN 9780253351562 , p. 1.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Van Stipriaan 325.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Bastian, Misty L. "Nwaanyi Mara Mma: Mami Wata, the More Than Beautiful Woman". Department of Anthropology, Franklin & Marshall College.
  6. ^ Higgins 1836, p. 105-106,113, 117.
  7. ^ Griaule 1997
  8. ^ Winters 1985 p. 50-64
  9. ^ Keya 1988, p.15.
  10. ^ Asamoa 1986, p. 2-8.
  11. ^ Ajayi 1967, 160-161.
  12. ^ a b c d e "Modernity".
  13. ^ Alapini 1955.
  14. ^ Massey 1994, p. 227.
  15. ^ Rosenthal 1998, p. 116-117.
  16. ^ a b c Van Stipriaan 324.
  17. ^ Paraphrased in van Stipriaan 324.
  18. ^ Van Stipriaan 329.
  19. ^ Hamburg 1887, from Paideuma XI, 1965
  20. ^ Tobias Wendl, "Trajektorien einer Ikone, Hans Himmelheber und die Erforschung des Mami Wata-Kults", About Africa, Accessed 19 Jan 2010.
  21. ^ Edmond Antoine Poinsot, Dictionnaire des Pseudonymes, Slatkine Reprints: Geneva, 1971, p. 486
  22. ^ Van Stipriaan 329-30.
  23. ^ Anonymous. Ontwerp tot een beschryving van Surinaamen, c. 1744. Quoted in van Stipriaan 327.
  24. ^ J. Nepveu (c. 1775). "Annotaties op het boek van J. D. Herlein 'Beschryvinge van de volkplantinge Zuriname'". Quoted in van Stipriaan 327-8. Emphasis in original.
  25. ^ Van Stipriaan 328.
  26. ^ Van Stipriaan 331.


  • Drewal, H. J. (1988b). "Interpretation, Invention, and Re-presentation in the Worship of Mami Wata", Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 25, Nos. 1-2, 1988.
  • Drewal, H. J. (1988a). "Mermaids, Mirrors and Snake Charmers: Igbo Mami Wata Shrines", African Arts XXI, 2, 1998: 38-45.
  • Hunter-Hindrew, Mamaissii V. Mami Wata: Africa's Ancient God/dess Unveiled. 2nd Edition. New York: MWHS, 2005. ISBN 0971624542.
  • "Modernity and mystery: Mami Wata in African art". ArcyArt Original Oil Paintings. Accessed 9 June 2006.
  • Nicholson, Paul and Ian Shaw. British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press, 1995. ISBN 0714109827.
  • 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.

External links

See also


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Mami Wata (also known by variant spellings and by many other names), is known by its adherents in Togo, Benin and in the USA, as a pantheon of ancient water spirits or deities of the African diaspora who is worshiped in West, Central, and Southern Africa, and in the Caribbean and parts of North and South America.


  • It sometimes happens that one or the other of the black slaves either imagines truthfully, or out of rascality pretends to have seen and heard an apparition or ghost which they call water mama, which ghost would have ordered them not to work on such or such a day, but to spend it as a holy day for offering with the blood of a white hen, to sprinkle this or that at the water-side and more of that monkey-business, adding in such cases that if they do not obey this order, shortly Watermama will make their child or husband etc. die or harm them otherwise.
    • Ontwerp tot een beschryving van Surinaamen, c. 1744. Quoted in van Stipriaan 327.
  • Papa, Nago, Arada and other slaves who commonly are brought here under the name Fida [Ouidah] slaves, have introduced certain devilish practices into their dancing, which they have transposed to all other slaves; when a certain rhythm is played . . . they are possessed by their god, which is generally called Watramama.
    • J. Nepveu (c. 1775), "Annotaties op het boek van J. D. Herlein 'Beschryvinge van de volkplantinge Zuriname'". Quoted in van Stipriaan 327-8. Emphasis in original.

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