Mami Wata stands for a pantheon of water deities found primarily in the Vodun tradition practiced in Benin and Togo. However, manifestations and variations of Mami Wata, particularly as a female water deity, along with her devotees, are found in at least 20 African countries, the Caribbean, and North America.
Among the Igbo, she is Ezenwaanyi (“Queen or Chief of Women”), Nnekwunwenyi (“Honorable Woman”), Ezebelamiri (“Queen who lives in the Waters”), Nwaanyi mara mma (“More than Beautiful Woman”), or Uhamiri, “which has mmiri, or water as its root.” In parts of former Zaire, she is Mamba Muntu, “Crocodile Person.” In the diaspora, she is known as Watramama in Suriname and Guyana; Mamadjo in Grenada; Yemanya/Yemaya in Brazil and Cuba; La Sirène, Erzulie, and Simbi in Haiti; and Lamanté in Martinique. This entry offers a description of the Mami Wata and looks at their impact.
The name Mami Wata is thought to derive from the English word mommy or mammy and water, or “mother of the waters.” Devotees in this ancient tradition trace the origin of the name back to ancient Egypt: ma or mama, meaning “truth” or “wisdom,” and uati for “water.” Also, in many Sudanic languages, wat or waat is “woman.” The spread of the specific name Mami Wata has been attributed to the Kru of Liberia who, at the end of the 18th century, traveled extensively along the west coast of Africa on behalf of European traders and took Mami Wata with them.
Mami Wata deities are both male and female, but are nonhuman and have never been human. Mami Wata spirits are born of Nana Buluku, the great mother of the mountain, and head a subpantheon of deities known as Vodun. Other interpretations place Mami Wata deities below the rainbow serpent pair of Dan Aido Wedo. As part of a pantheon, each Mami Wata deity has a specific ceremony, food, drink, taboo, color, and sacred day. In addition, there are beads for each deity, called danmi, or “excrement of the rainbow serpent.” The color, order, and material of the bead indicate a specific deity. Those worn on the left hand represent a male spirit, and those on the right are a female spirit.
Mami Wata deities are the source of Earthly wisdom, human creativity, genius, divine inspiration, and sacred paths to enlightenment. Priestesses are mamisii, mamissi, mamaissii, or mammisi. Mammisi means “motherhood temple” in ancient Egypt and could indicate a relationship with Isis. People enter into a relationship with Mami Wata by having an encounter as described earlier or through Ifa divination or dreams. In recent times, future devotees often experience a crisis that requires the assistance of a mamisii. In the past, villages would initiate a young girl who would then be responsible for maintaining their shrine to Mami Wata.
As a specific deity, Mami Wata appears as a beautiful creature, half woman, half fish, with long hair and a light brown complexion, and she lives in an exquisite underwater world. She is often depicted with a snake around her waist or across her shoulders or with a comb and a mirror. The snake is the immortal messenger of deities and a symbol of divination, which is important to devotees and mamisii. The comb and mirror are symbols of her beauty or vanity. Mami Wata’s colors are red and white, which reflect her dual nature as aggressive and yet healing and nurturing. She kidnaps people who are swimming, riding in boats, or walking along the shore and takes them to her underwater world. If a man walking along shore comes across, she will quickly return to the water leaving her comb and mirror behind. She will return to the man in his dreams demanding her items. If he returns them, promises to keep their encounter a secret, and swears to be a faithful lover, she will make him rich. If he does not, she will bring misfortune or death to him and his family. Mama Wata can also appear among humans disguised as a beautiful woman. Hence, her most popular associations are water and beautiful women.
Impact of Worship
The deities’ association with water was a major influence on the manifestation of Mami Wata during the enslavement of African peoples. The transatlantic voyage left a traumatic impression on enslaved Africans, and often their most difficult task was to work in the swampy lands, particularly in the coastal areas in Suriname and Guyana, where devotees to Watramama were documentedduring enslavement. Water also provided a source of food to supplement the often scant food rations of the enslaved, and it was often the best means to escape. This multifaceted relationship with water created a powerful water deity that was both celebrated and feared.
In Suriname, the first mention of Mami Wata by name occurs in the 1740s, where the observer noted that if proper rituals were not performed, “Watermama” would harm her husband or child. Both Africans and Indigenous peoples feared the Mother of the waters. Thirty years later, dances to Watermama were banned in the country because of the “dangerous effects” they were having on the enslaved Africans. Over time, as Suriname society shifted to a land-based system, the prominence of Watermama gave way first to Earth spirits.
Because of the inclusive and fluid nature of indigenous West African religious practices, Mami Wata has incorporated perspectives and iconography from Hindu, Muslim, and European traditions, as well as modern urban living. In the Vodou of coastal Benin, images of the Hindu Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, beauty, and happiness who emerges from seafoam, appear in shrines to Mami Wata as do Islam’s al-Buraq, the winged horse with a woman’s head that the prophet Mohammed rode from Mecca to Jerusalem. An image of a Samoan snake charmer girl from a traveling German show made in 1887 arrived in coastal Benin and was quickly appropriated into Mami Wata iconography. Artist renditions of this picture have since come to be the dominant image of Mami Wata.
Also during this time, the popularity of many local and regional versions of female water deities increased as urbanization severed ties to a distinct rural geographical community and fostered a sense of individualism. In this new urban environment, the desire for community still exists alongside distinctly individualistic aspirations for beauty, wealth, and well-being. Mami Wata meets these
needs. New Mami Wata deities emerged that deal with prostitution, birth control, and abortion. In the diaspora, Mami Wata offers a way to reconnect with African ancestral spirituality, and it also provides personal healing.