Mermaids in African & Caribbean Mythology
The myth of the mermaid is a universal cultural staple. They feature in fairytales, fantasies, adventures, and the like. The concept of mysterious beings who live in the sea and other bodies of water has captivated the minds of those who live on land for milenia. The myth of the mermaid is layered, diverse, and dynamic. This can be attributed to the fact that the myth varies from culture to culture, and even by region on the same continent. Like other mainstream mythological creatures, mermaids have roots in many cultures around the world, from China to Russia to Senegal – several cultures across the world have legends of these aquatic beings. In this blog, we will be exploring the long-standing mermaid mythology of Africa and the Caribbean.
Although they may be referred to by different names, plenty of what we would call mermaids around the world have the same, or at least similar, physical traits. Many of them feature a being with the upper body of a woman and the elongated bottom half of a fish, with a tail and fins replacing legs. In West and Central-West Africa, mermaids are generally referred to as Mami Wata, a name which has unclear origins. This blanket name refers to mermaids, and the deity which resembles a mermaid.
Since the myth of the mermaid is one that features in so many cultures across the world, it is no surprise that the appearances of mermaids vary. Despite the popularised image of mermaids being white, Black people have always had their mermaid myths and legends albeit without the involvement of tridents, princes and ‘happily-ever-afters’. Black countries in Africa and the Caribbean in particular have a unique relationship with the myth of the mermaid. Generally, in these areas, those who live near bodies of water (rivers, lakes, seas) are aware of her existence. Reactions on mentioning Mami Wata could range from wariness to indifference, the sort of indifference that comes from talking about something that is a known fact or a part of life.
Interestingly, it is also generally agreed upon that mermaids are inherently supernatural, with equally supernatural abilities such as hypnosis. In West and Central West Africa, Mami Wata is not only the blanket name for mermaids – it is also a deity, meaning that there are people who worship her. She has a multitude of abilities, including healing the sick, increasing female fertility by ‘blessing’ women with baby girls, as well as providing wealth and other material rewards. As a goddess, she is described as jealous with a potentially fatal wrath when angered. She can also cause sickness, and bad luck which ranges from failure in important aspects of life, to the more drastic – death. There is a certain unpredictability associated with mermaids and Mami Wata, who is said to be hostile and dangerous at times and welcoming at other times. There are some aspects of her lore which involve luring men to their graves – similar to European mermaid myth. However, unlike the European mermaid myth, African and Caribbean mermaid mythology can be argued as being more complex as mermaids in these places are believed to have supernatural abilities, are worshipped, and are associated with curses and blessings.
Mami Wata is said to favour women and seek them out to ‘bless’ or influence them to worship her. Her priests are also commonly women, high priestesses who dedicate their lives to her worship. She, and other mermaids in general, are also referred to as water spirits. It is important to remember that she is an integral part of lore and is a vital part of traditional religions in the continent as well as variations and denominations that were created in the African diaspora, particularly in the Caribbean. She is associated with good luck, fertility, beauty, material gain, success, and the like and is said to bestow these to her followers. Mami Wata and mermaids in general are feared and revered by many people, but they are also a source of captivation due to the mystery that surrounds them. Although they are the subjects of fairy tales, mermaids are very real to many Black communities. In some of these communities they are responsible for random drownings, disappearances and other sudden and inexplicable events. It is common to hear anecdotes about them, about a strange and mysterious beautiful woman who offered children, wealth, and beauty to another woman, or about a mysterious being who was trying to beckon someone, and so on.
During the Transatlantic Slave Trade, enslaved Africans who were kidnapped and sold into slavery carried their religions, practices and folklore with them to their destinations. As mentioned earlier, Mami Wata is a deity who has been worshipped for an immeasurable amount of time. As she is also heavily associated with rivers, lakes, and seas it was no wonder that her legend quickly spread into the Caribbean with the arrival of enslaved Africans who wished to preserve their religions and myths. Interestingly, she is not the only deity to have been transported into the Caribbean and the Americas. The Ghanaian deity and folklore character of Anansi, who is commonly represented as a spider, was another deity worshipped and incorporated into folklore in the Caribbean with African roots. Although she may also be called La Sirène in the Francophone parts of the Caribbean, she is still venerated in a very similar manner that she is in Africa.
Mermaid imagery is commonly used in art in Africa, particularly along the West African coast. They usually represent Mami Wata. It is not unusual to see her image in a mural outside of buildings such as gambling houses, temples, and other general buildings. She is commonly depicted with a comb or handheld mirror (sometimes, even a combination of the two) which are symbols of beauty and vanity. In addition to this, her image is also associated with snakes. She can be depicted with a large snake draped across her shoulders, or carrying one above her head. In African and Caribbean lore, Mami Wata has the ability to shapeshift, but it’s said that her preferred form is a beautiful young woman. She also has the ability to turn into a large snake, hence why she is associated with them.
There has been more of a discussion about the appearance of mermaids and a subsequent dive into their diversity. As mentioned earlier, the mermaid is a universal cultural staple – it features in several cultures around the world, particularly those in countries with coastlines. Mermaids do not have a default appearance, and they do not all have features commonly associated with white Europeans. The mermaid myth in Black countries is ancient, rich, and complex. Mermaids, particularly the deity Mami Wata, are venerated as well as feared. Her lore and status was transported during the Transatlantic Slave Trade and spread across communities of people of African descent. Although the image of mermaids that is mainstream and widely popularised in film and other media does not resemble Black people, Black people have always had mermaid myths and legends which are rich, layered, and longstanding.