The Queen Who Lives in the Waters; Mother of the Waters; The More Than Beautiful Woman; The Crocodile Woman; The Laughing Water Goddess
Also known as: Mami Wata; Mammy Waters; Mammywater; Madame Poisson
Origin: West and Central Coastal Africa Mami Waters—a complex, volatile spirit—brings joy, wealth, ecstasy, success, and prosperity to her devotees. She causes and cures infertility, impotence, and various illnesses, especially chronic fatigue and venereal diseases. She bestows health, beauty, and musical prowess.
The snake charmer most commonly associated with Mami Waters is also identified with Lubana, Martha the Dominator, and various Bori spirits. In Haiti, the central snake charmer is identified as the lwa Reine Travaux “Queen of Works.” The big snake entwined around her is Damballah, and the smaller inset image is Ayida Wedo.
Mami Waters, snake goddess, emerged from her home in a lake to become the most successful traditional African deity of modern times. While other traditional deities are marginalized by Christianity and Islam, Mami Waters is more popular now than ever. Fifteen years ago, she was barely known outside Africa; now she is venerated worldwide. Mami Waters was prominently featured in New York City’s American Museum of Natural History’s 2007 exhibition on mythic creatures.
A specific image served as her portal from obscure rural goddess to world power: Mami is identified with an iconic image of a snake charmer, painted circa 1880 in Hamburg by a now-unknown artist. The model was a Hamburg zookeeper’s wife. Later rendered as a chromolithograph, it was distributed as a poster throughout Africa, evoking tremendous spiritual response. Even though it doesn’t resemble earlier images of Mami Waters, people looked at the picture and recognized her.
The image portrays a beautiful dark-skinned woman with long thick hair. Dressed as a snake charmer, she holds one large snake. Another twines around her. Because her whole body is not shown—the image terminates beneath her hips—she could be a snake-woman or a mermaid. A smaller inset image depicts what may be the same woman (same costume, different hairdo) playing a double flute and charming snakes.
Mami Waters is characterized by joie de vivre but is also described as emotionally remote, although not physically. She is a “living” spirit, meaning that she sometimes manifests as a flesh-and-blood woman, physically, not just in dreams or visions. Many people describe actual physical encounters with her, whether on a city street or by a stream or river. She has sex with those who appeal to her.
Although Mami also frequently manifests as a mermaid, in urban areas she may appear as a stylish young woman, so beautiful she draws gasps, stops traffic, turns heads. If bejeweled, her gold is blinding in its brilliance. Her hair is long and wonderful. Her skin may be literally white, like chalk, or she may be a very fair-skinned black woman.
Because of her skin color, some anthropologists consider Mami Waters a European importation, suggesting that she was inspired by ship figureheads in the form of mermaids. However, her devotees never consider her Caucasian. She is envisioned covered by or embodying the essence of the white clay or chalk traditionally used to delineate death or to demarcate sacred or forbidden territory. Mami Waters is a goddess of fertility and birth but also of death and danger, sometimes held responsible for drowning deaths, although she also rescues people.
Mami Waters heals impotence, but if she really likes a guy, she may permit him to be potent with her alone, thus cutting him off sexually from the human community. The men she most adores typically devote themselves exclusively to her, sacrificing other romantic or sexual ties. They achieve positions of tremendous wealth and power, thanks to Mami Waters, but in true fairy tale fashion, must keep their relationship with her a secret or their good fortune will evaporate.
Although now frequently portrayed as a classic mermaid with a fish tail, Mami Waters was originally a snake goddess: her lower half is serpentine. Her iconic images usually feature a snake somewhere in the picture.
Mami Waters typically Demonstrates interest in a person via illness, specifically medically inexplicable fatigue and malaise. The person becomes remote and distant. No medical cause can be found. Health doesn’t improve until the person contacts Mami Waters, either directly or through her clergy. This malaise is perceived as a kind of spirit possession but more like that of a Zar spirit than Western Demonic possession. The person may dream about Mami Waters or her symbols constantly. Alternatively, they just daydream compulsively. Sometimes infertility or the inability to bear a living child indicates Mami Waters’ attempts at communication with women.
Like a Zar spirit, Mami Waters can be transformed into an ally: she can reverse all negative ailments she causes. She does not intend them badly—she may not know a better way to signal someone’s attention. She may in fact be a Zar spirit. Some consider her a Simbi, and still others suggest that Mami Waters forms her own family of spirits and so there are many individual paths or avatars of Mami Waters, not all identical.
• In Latin America, Mami Waters is syncretized to Martha the Dominator. Elsewhere she is syncretized to Eve.
• Nigerian author Flora Nwapa’s 1966 novel, Efuru, explores a woman’s relationship with Mami Waters.
Favored people: She allegedly has a soft spot for harpists and other musicians.
Manifestation: Whether as woman, mermaid, or half-woman/half-snake, she is consistently gorgeous and charismatic. She may be accompanied by pythons that wrap themselves around her. She may wear an extremely expensive, even ostentatious, watch (even as a mermaid—the watch is waterproof). If she has a cell phone, it’s the most expensive model. Mami makes her presence known via the sound of merry laughter.
Iconography: Her image is painted on walls of lottery parlors to bring wealth and luck.
Attribute: Golden comb, expensive wrist watch
Colors: Red, white
Creatures: Snake, crocodile
Sacred sites: She has shrines throughout Western and Central Africa, Europe and South and North America.
Rituals: Those called by Mami Waters are encouraged to spend time in water, whether herbal or enchanted baths or immersion in living water (ocean, lake, river, spring).
Offerings: Traditionally, Mami Waters does not drink alcoholic beverages but accepts soft drinks. Her favorite is lemonade. However, recent reports indicate she has developed a taste for Campari. Mami Waters likes tropical fruit and exotic, luxurious food. She enjoys perfume, cosmetics, mirrors, and expensive sunglasses. She likes toys, especially Barbie or other fashion dolls.
- Aisha Qandisha
- Ayida Wedo
- Lalla Malika
- Lalla Mira
- Sarkin Aljan Suleimanu
- Sili Kenwa
- Simbi Spirits
From the Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.