Tamil (India)

Mariamman, Goddess of Smallpox, a Tamil tribal goddess with dominion over wind, rain, and moisture, is among Earth’s guardian spirits. Popular and powerful, she was incorporated into the Vedic Hindu pantheon, eventually traveling around the world.

According to Hindu myth, Mariamman’s husband, ascetic sage Jamadagni, perceiving that his faithful wife had momentarily lusted in her heart for another and had thus become impure, ordered their son to behead her. The son did as told but was overcome with grief and depression. The father, feeling sympathy for the son, eventually relented. Telling his son to gather Mariamman’s head and body, he taught him a secret resurrection formula. The son, nervously hurrying, immediately recognized his mother’s head on the pile of recently executed female corpses but accidentally joined it to the body of a low-caste woman allegedly killed for committing all kinds of unspeakable (sexual, violent, transgressive) vices. The result was that Mariamman’s Brahman mind was overwhelmed by her tribal body. (Is a metaphor intended? You bet.)

Her husband expelled her from her home. Mariamman then revealed herself as a wrathful, rampaging goddess. Ravaging the region, she was unstoppable until deities seeking to propitiate her offered her dominion over smallpox. With the ability to cause and cure this dread disease, she was assured constant worship. She remains among the most popular goddesses of Southern India, the southern counterpart to northern Sitala.

Mariamman’s myth is a forerunner of horror movies like Peter Lorre’s Mad Love, in which an executed murderer’s hands are surgically grafted onto someone else, who then feels overwhelmingly compelled to kill.

In the early twentieth century, South Indian traders brought Mariamman to Vietnam where she found new devotees, mainly of Vietnamese and Chinese descent, especially female entrepreneurs, transport workers, service industry workers, and students. After several generations, she is considered a local goddess, associated with success and prosperity more than illness. Venerated outside a traditional Hindu context, she is considered a powerful purveyor of miracles.

Mariamman heals all illnesses associated with redness, heat, and rashes, including chicken pox and measles. She is invoked for virtually everything, including protection, progeny, and prosperity.

• In India, she is syncretized to Durga and Parvati.

• In Vietnam, Mariamman is identified with Ba Den and Kwan Yin.


As a tribal goddess, she is sometimes venerated in the form of a stone tipped with a sharp point and/or dyed red. In Hindu context, she is envisioned as a very beautiful woman, seated on a throne or a lion; sometimes her face is red.


Trident, bowl, spear, sword


Red, yellow




Snake, lion


Incense, oil lamps, red flowers, pumpkins


Ba Den; Babalu Ayé; Jari Mari; Kwan Yin; Manasa; Sitala


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.