International Folktale Character: Mamy Wata



Woohoo!  It’s almost summer!  Let’s go SWIMMING! Did you bring your bathing suit?  Oh yeah…um…I totally left it at home…plus you know, I ate less than half an hour ago…I don’t want to get a cramp…

You’re looking decidedly shifty. What’s the real reason you don’t want to go swimming?  Ok, to be honest, it’s because I’ve been doing some reading up on popular African deity Mamy Wata.

Who?  Mamy Wata, which means “Mother Water”.  She’s a water entity worshipped by many people in West, Central and Southern Africa and in the African diaspora around the world.  She’s known for her powers of divination and clairvoyance, and her seductive but protective nature. She also goes by Mamadjo, Maman de l’Eau, La Sirene, Yemanya, Yemoja…I could go on…

What does she look like?  She’s a serpent priestess or mermaid with long, curly black hair who often carries a mirror, comb, or watch.  She can also appear fully human and stroll through the streets and markets.

Why should all this stop you from swimming?  Well, she could abduct me.  She’s very into abducting both her followers and random people while they’re swimming or boating.

Why would she do that?  She would bring me to her realm in the spirit world underwater.  When I returned I’d be completely dried off and I’d have new spiritual understanding.  I might even grow wealthier, more attractive, and more easy-going.

You know what, that doesn’t sound so bad.  Yeah, I guess not!  But she might also haunt my dreams and demand my everlasting faithfulness to her.  Like water itself, she is both good (she can protect you and cure you from your illnesses) and bad (she can be dangerous and cause illness too).  She generally wants her followers to be healthy and well-off but is also associated with fatally strong undertows.

Sounds like I should make sure I keep her happy if I happen to meet up with her.  What kind of gift would she like?  Having emerged and gained popularity during a time of great trade and wealth for Africa, Mamy Wata loves her trinkets and baubles.  She is a real capitalist deity and adores anything shiny, expensive, and modern.  She’ll also happily accept perfume, alcohol, delicious food, Coca Cola, and anything with a designer label.  Her largely matriarchal priesthood and her initiates worship her by dancing feverishly until they fall into a trance, so she might appreciate it if you try your hand at that too. 

I haven’t seen you dancing yourself into another state of being lately.  How did you hear about her?  Her legends were brought to America by slaves.  In fact, her worship was recorded (and outlawed) by Dutch slavers in the 18th century.  But she must surely have seemed to retain her power as the slaves fought back swamp waters on New World plantations. 

Anything else I need to know before I strap on my goggles and flippers?  Just make sure you’re keeping your eyes peeled for her at all times; in southern Africa people believe she can fly around in a tornado, so keeping dry won’t necessarily save you!


Don’t say: Are you a manatee or a mermaid?

Do say: Where can I read more? 

Language Lizard carries Mamy Wata and the Monster in many popular languages.


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