Thursday, September 6, 2012

Jeudi: Great Spirits

The water spirit who has taken on the collective, and perhaps unfortunately generic, moniker of Mami Wata is far more than the sum of her parts. A spirit venerated as far afield as the entire Atlantic coast of Africa, most of South America, Central America, the Caribbean and in the Cuban and Haitian diasporas, one is hard pressed to find a more frequently worshiped form of water deity than she.

In my personal frame of reference, Mami Wata most resembles the Voudon lwa known as La Siren/La Balen. La Siren is the light-skinned, either blond or brown-haired mermaid who imparts wealth and beauty upon those who are devoted to her. La Balen, her Petwo personification, is the whale who may appear at first as a beautiful woman, but has come only to lure those who have offended her to a cold, dark death in deep water.

Mami Wata in all her transmogrifications has a similar light and dark aspect. Stories are told of her appearing near the ocean, usually in the guise of a beautiful woman and usually - but not always - to a handsome young man. She is combing her hair with a silver comb, or admiring herself in an expensive mirror, or adorning herself with pearls when the human comes upon her. Startled, she slips into the water and disappears leaving her treasures behind. The young man may gather up these costly treasures but he is warned to return them immediately when he again, invariably, encounters the beautiful mermaid. Failure to do so will bring untold misfortunes and sometimes even a withering, miserable death.

In other stories, which show a similarity to the Voudon lwa Erzulie Freda Dahomey, Mami Wata demands sexual fidelity from the young men she encounters. They must join with her and shun human women. Failure to do so will mean the worst possible luck for not only the young man, but his family as well. Agreeing to the mermaid's terms, however, ensures health, wealth and happiness. One also assumes a continuing conjugal relationship with Mami Wata as well.

Like a third Voudon lwa, Grande Erzulie, Mami Wata is designated as the protectress of prostitutes in some of the cultures that worship her. In this aspect, and in her aspect as a bringer of fertility to both the land and its people, her symbol is a snake. This aspect also bares a striking resemblance to Ix Chel, the Mayan protectress of women and she who bestows them with fertility.

The names given to Mami Wata are as numerous as the forms she takes. Her African names, such as Watramama, have a similar ring to Mami Wata; that name is also sometimes found in Africa. In Brazil she is syncratized with the Orisha of the oceans, Yemaya; this is also the case in Cuba and the Cuban diaspora. On previously French-speaking Caribbean islands such as Guadalupe, Martinique and Trinidad and Tobago, she is Maman de l'Eau or simply Maman Dlo. In Haiti, of course, as in New Orleans, she is La Siren.

Her various aspects are so numerous, and her worship so far-flung, that she is a testimate to the enduring power of the water goddess all over the world. Even the Catholic Church gave in when it came to Mami Wata and assigned a particular aspect of the Virgin Mary to look after the oceans. Known as Stella Maris - Star of the Sea - her picture is often used to represent any of Mami Wata's many faces.

That's a back-handed complement from a patriarchal religion many a modern theorist would opine. Be that as it may, those of us who straddle that fence, as our ancestors have done for centuries, will take it where we can get it.

Header: Mami Wata of Trinidad and Tobago by Zofia Bogusz via American Gallery


Timmy! said...

"La Siren" certainly has a better ring to it anyway, Pauline.

I like the painting, though...

Pauline said...

I agree on all counts (everything sounds better in French, after all.)