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What More Do We Really Need to Know About Mammy Water?

What More Do We Really Need to Know About Mammy Water?

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In traditional beliefs, Mammy Water is often shown as a benevolent spirit that bestows riches on people that swear allegiance to her. But she is also shown to have a dual nature, sometimes exchanging benevolence for malevolence when offended with impurity…

By Chimezie Chika

The Myth and the Deities

Once upon a time, goes an urban tale from Togolese Ewe secular culture, a fisherman was pulling his boat onto the beach one morning, after spending long gruelling hours at sea, when he saw an extremely beautiful woman standing not too far away from him on the deserted beach. Their eyes met and, for a moment, he was blinded. When he was able to look towards her again, she was not there anymore. Trying not to think too much about what he just saw, he dragged his tired body home and immediately slept off. He had a long dream. In the dream, the beautiful woman came to him and they slept together. She promised that if he remained faithful to her, she would make him very rich. Years passed and the fisherman became very rich and became the most eligible bachelor in the town. Women were all over him but he remained chaste. Then one day, he gave in to pressure and married a woman. Suddenly, he began to experience difficulties in his life and soon lost all his riches. The beautiful woman came to him again in his dream, breathing venom. Because he was not faithful to her, she cursed him with poverty, illness and early death.

(Read also: The Legend of the Ogbanje: Superhuman Abilities, Wanderlust Between Life and Death)

Ask many Africans today who they think the beautiful woman in the tale is and the answer would surely be plain. This is certainly not the first time they have heard a story about a very beautiful woman; but the combination of pointers such as an extremely beautiful woman, the sea, seduction, riches and vindictive anger, digs up the images of a similar figure within the folklore of many tribes along the West African coast—Mammy Water.

In common parlance, Mammy Water (also spelt Mami Wata) is a spirit or deity that is generally believed to control water bodies. Its common name comes from the Pidgin English term for “mother” and “water,” meaning, “mother of water.” The beliefs and myths surrounding Mammy Water developed in urban lore. Mammy Water is often described as an extremely beautiful woman residing primarily in the depths of sea, appearing with the upper part of her body naked and bedecked in gold, pearls, and diamond jewelries, and the lower part body, from her waist down, completely fish. There are versions in which the lower part of the body is in the form of a huge python.

The common definition does not adequately cover the entirety of wide-ranging beliefs about water spirits and water deities in Africa. The urban coastal lore identifies a single spirit that controls the seas and all subordinate water bodies. In traditional African religion and spirituality, this is not always the truth. There is a large coterie of marine deities and spirits worshipped for various reasons. Among the Igbo, there is an exclusive pantheon of water deities whose spheres of influence are limited to certain rivers, lakes or streams, usually bearing the local name of the river or stream. An example is Oguta Lake, which is controlled by the lake goddess, Ogbuide. The River Niger is regarded as the mother of all water bodies in Igboland and is identified as Oshimiri, its local name and also the name of the river deity that owns it. In short, in Igbo cosmology, a water body (Mammy Water) is a spirit which can choose to manifest in many ways—in most cases, as a very beautiful woman, not half human, half fish, but fully dressed in expensive clothes. In Igbo cosmology, all water bodies are linked, each complementing the other. They are all mmuo mmiri (marine spirits/deities).

In Yoruba religion, the orishas (gods) that control the waters are Olokun and Yemoja. But there are also other lesser deities such as Osun. Each water body is a spirit on its own in a large family of water spirits; but taken collectively, they are all often characterised as female. The Ijaw, who are perennial coastal dwellers and seafarers, see Mammy Water as a water spirit that possesses human beings. “To the Ijaws, they are not half-fish, as some people claim,” says Tares Oburumu, an Ijaw poet. “They are water spirits that are worshipped because they own the creeks and the seas. They also possess human beings, mostly women, for many reasons. Take it that when you want to go to a person’s house, you must seek permission.” Ewe people in Togo and Adja people in Benin Republic have similar beliefs, with a traditional hierarchy of priests and priestesses that worship the marine goddesses and deities.

Mammy water
Source: Twitter

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The Symbol of Water

Throughout human history, water has been regarded as both life-giving and destructive. Water has sustained human civilisations in the same way it has destroyed them. In folklores around the world, stories abound in which strong armies and great cities are drowned through sea storms, flooding or tornadoes. In one sorrowful historical twist, in 1803, a group of Igbo slaves on a slave ship bound for Georgia in the United States, mutinied and killed the white sailors and slave merchants on the ship, freeing themselves. Realising that further enslavement awaited them on the shores, they drowned themselves, singing, “From water we came and to water we shall return.” This toe-curdling story has reverberated through history and is immortalised at the Igbo Landing site in Dunbar Creek, in the state of Georgia, United States (an important film adaptation of this story is also currently in the works.)

The vagaries of the sea are well-documented. In antiquity, storms and tempests were not ascribed to natural phenomena but to gods and goddesses who have a higher hand in human affairs. The Greeks made sacrifices to the sea god, Poseidon; the Romans, after a successful campaign at sea, offered sacrifices to Neptune. In classical Greek mythology, there are female spirits (Mammy Water) known as sirens, who sit on rocky promontories by the seaside and tempt sailors away from their destination. Sirens (Mammy Water) later developed into the European myths of mermaids, or half-human sea creatures. All over the world the idea of spirits that control the seas continue to prevail in the folklore of different cultures. Mammy Water  in the West are quiet common in popular culture; there is a pointed celebration of these water spirits in entertainment, music and movies. There are pixies in Cinderella and other movies. There are also movies such as The Little Mermaid and Aquaman. In Africa, water spirits are still seen as evil spirits by people within and outside the continent.

The Fealty of Allegiance

In the worship of water spirits, great powers are usually attached to them. There is a belief in many African cultures that the spiritual power that comes from water is greater than all other kinds of spiritual powers. Fishermen and sundry devotees would usually make sacrifices before venturing into the sea or embarking on a project. Worshippers usually dress in white (a sign of purity) and offer fruits, sweet drinks, white fowls or goats and money to the water deities.

I have listened to many stories featuring Mammy Water or water spirits over the years. There seems to be two iterations: the sacred and the non-religious stories. The sacred stories of the deity show power and modes of worship; the non-religious stories are often urban tales around popular events and trending beliefs. In traditional beliefs, Mammy Water is often shown as a benevolent spirit that bestows riches on people that swear allegiance to her. But she is also shown to have a dual nature, sometimes exchanging benevolence for malevolence when offended with impurity. As a result, the deity may resort to jealousy and destruction. In one urban tale from Ghana in the sixties, Mammy Water entered the world in human form in order to punish men. This story has different versions of it. In a version from the late eighties and nineties Nigeria, Mammy Water is known as Karashika, often posing on the roadside, flagging down men in cars, who would carry her home. In the men’s bedroom, as the lustful men hastily removed their clothes, Mammy Water  would turn into a huge python.

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Mammy Water: Real or Imagined?

Is Mammy Water a real figure? Having great respect for traditional African religions and belief systems, I cannot, in all decency, debunk the existence of these spirits. There are people in Africa and around the world who have readily dismissed it as mere myth. Lamin Fatty, a Mandinka from The Gambia, concluded that they are just mysterious animals that do not exist in real life; “they are just a figment of the imagination.” Sopuluchukwu, a pastor, wondered why I should even be curious about evil demons like Mammy Water. “They are demons,” he declared. “Beings that dwell in satanic kingdoms of darkness and principalities and powers. Christians have no relationship with darkness.”

Iruoma Uzoegwu, a female priestess from Anambra, has told me several times that Nne Mmiri (Mother of Water) is her all-powerful spiritual mother. “My water family is my family,” she says. “They are the reason I am here. They are the reason I have been given this work to do.” It is clear that while for some people Mammy Water is evil, for others she is benevolent and essential to their spiritual life. These last two opinions conceive of the spirit as real—by virtue of bestowing qualities as morally provoking as “good” or “evil”—but there are others who are agnostic towards the existence of Mammy Water and all the stories surrounding her existence. “Nobody can be sure of anything,” says Ruth (not her real name), who is based in the UK.

As all such stories go, opinions will remain divided, new stories will spring up, movies, books and businesses will be created out of it, and the machinery of humanity will keep moving, whatever anyone chooses to believe.


Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in, amongst other places, The Question Marker, The Shallow Tales Review, The Lagos Review, Isele Magazine, Brittle Paper, Afrocritik and Aerodrome. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1.

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