By: Mamaissii Vivian Hunter Hindrew, M.Ed.
(Mama Zogbé, Chief Hounon-Amengansie Priest)
From Myth to Divine Reality
Ancient African God/dess Reawakens in the Soul of the Diaspora
F rom the outset, it must be emphatically stated that the name Mami Wata is plural, meaning it refers to a pantheon of ancient water deities. Mami Wata are not part of the Yoruba pantheon of Orishas (i.e., Yemoja, Oshun etc.,), nor are their initiation ceremonies or means by which they are identified the same. The history of the priesthood of Mama Wata is overwhelmingly matriarchal, meaning that the Mami Watas are a part of the old African matriarchal, sacerdotal religious systems that once ruled and denominated Africa and many parts of the ancient world for thousands of years.
Anyone, from anywhere (the world over) can be born to Mami Wata, for any number of reasons. This article briefly discusses its ancient presence in Africa, and more particularly, Togo, West Africa and other West African regions where many Africans in the North American Diaspora descend. .
The mystical pantheon of Mami Wata deities are often pictured in their most ancient primordial aspects as a mermaid, half-human or either half-fish or half-reptile. Mermaids are not a recent phenomena in African history. For example, according to the Dogon’s creation myth, they attribute the creation of the world to mermaid/mermen like creatures whom they call Nommos. They claimed to have known about the existence of these mermaid-like divinities for more than 4000 years.
Also according to Dogon mythology, the ancient home of these (originally crude) reptilian (half-woman/half-men/fish) pantheon of water spirits is believed to be the obscure and celebrated star system in the belt of Orion known as Sirius (or Sopdet, Sothis), more popularly known as the “Dog Star” of Isis.
When asked where their ancestors obtained these stories of mermaids and mermen, they quickly point to ancient Egypt (Griaule, 1997, Winters 1985, p. 50-64, Temple 1999, p.303-304). Mermaid/mermen "nymphs" worshiped as goddesses and gods born from the sea are numerous in ancient African cultures history and spiritual mythology. Most were honored and respected as being "bringers of divine law" and for establishing the theological, moral, social, political, economic and, cultural foundation, to regulating the overflow of the Nile, and regulating the ecology i.e., establishing days for success at sailing and fishing, hunting, planting etc., to punishment by devastating floods when laws and taboos were violated.
However, just as not all serpents were revered, not all mermaids/mermen were considered "good." In one story, the famed London, Naturalists Henry Lee (1883) recounts that "in the sea of Angola mermaids are frequently caught which resemble the human species. They are taken in nets, and killed . . . and are heard to shriek and cry like women (p. 22)."
Poster of a Mami Wata, "serpent priestess" painted by Hamburg, German artist Schleisinger, ca. 1926. "Inspired by the ancient image of Isis", it is displayed in shrines as a popular image of Mami Wata in Africa and in the Diaspora. (Jell-Bahlsen 1997, p. 105, Chesi 1997, p. 255)
Precursor to mermaid/mermen in Egyptian and Afro-Babylonian cosmology: ca. 1700 B.C.E. symbol of "Dag-Aun/Dagon" known as "Nommos" to the Dogon,and is claimed to have taught the African the art of civilization. British Museum Temple, 1998, p. 276,Brown 1872, p.111).
More contemporary stories and images show the deity as a human-like figure dressed in the latest fashions. Despite these manifestations being almost universally female in appearance, Mami Wata is actually a pantheon of water deities consisting of both male and female, such as the ancient Densu in the Togo Mami Wata pantheon, and Olokun of the Yoruba.
These deities are understood to be non-human, so those who are born and initiated to them consider questions of gender and race unimportant. Today, the most frequently encountered image of Mami Wata is a long-haired woman with a snake circling her torso, based on a 19th century chromolithograph of a snake goddess.
This [Santa Marta ] image created by an artist from Hamburg, Germany named Schleisinger, was actually inspired by the ancient imagery of Isis (rt) in her role as “Virgin (meaning unmarried) Mother” where she is sporting the young solar child Horus.
This iconography is considered the oldest manifestation of Mami (Isis). Just as the ancient African, Ishtar, Artemis, Cybelle, and Hathor, Isis was originally portrayed with braided hair accompanied by two serpents draped around her neck. To the ancient Egyptians, she was known as RENN, meaning “born from the place of the fishes”, and her son Horus, was known as “RENNU,” meaning an “unnamed fish/serpent child.” (Massey 1994, p. 238).
(Saint Martha, Santa Marta,Dominican, Filomena or Lubana) "Martha" a name of Afro-Asiatic Aramaic [Ethiopian] origin, meaning "lady or mistress of the house." Her worship and image was brought to the Dominican Republic (Hispaniola) by enslaved Africans.
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The name “Mami Wata,” was believed by Western scholars to be a derivative either directly from pidgin English, or is an anglicize version of the two words “mommy/mammy” and “water.” However, though phonetically similar to the English words, the name “Mami Wata” does not have its linguistic roots nor any cultural, mythological or historical origins in the West.
Mami Wata are ancient, African deities whose primordial origins and name can be traced linguistically through the languages of Africa. According to some renowned scholars, the name “Mami Wata” was originally formulated in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and is derived from a composite of two African words, “Mami,” and “Wata.” Both words are rooted in the ancient Egyptian and Ethiopian (Coptic), Galla and Demotic languages.
“Mami” is derived from “Ma” or ”Mama,” meaning “truth/wisdom,” and “Wata” is a corruption of not an English, but the ancient Egyptian word “Uati,” (or "Uat-ur" meaning ocean water), and the Khosian ("Hottentot") "Ouata" meaning “water.” Further, we discover from Mesopotamian myths that the first great water goddess in the story of the Creation Flood was known as "Mami," (Mami Aruru) as she was known in ancient Babylonian prayers as being the creator of human life (Dalley 2000, p. 51-16, Stone 1976, p. 7,219).
“Uati” is perhaps the first of more than ten thousand appellations of Isis (logos/wisdom) in her oldest generative form as the Divine African Mother, or Sibyl (Mamissii/Amengansie) prophetess. Furthermore, Massey (1994, p. 248) informs us that the word “Wata, Watoa, Wat-Waat” which means “woman,” are all exact spellings in the ancient Sudanic languages spoken by the Baba, Peba and Keh-Doulan groups.
In ancient Egypt, Uati was Isis’ oldest appellation, and was the first Mami goddess worshiped by the Egyptians as “the Holy Widow”, “the Genitrix,” the “Self-Creator”, “the one who reigned alone in the beginning”, “the one who brings forth the gods,” “she who was mateless”, and “the Virgin (meaning ‘unmarried’) Mother.” Thus, we have Isis originally worshiped as “Mama Uati” in ancient Egypt, and as Mami (Uati/Aruru) in ancient Mesopotamia, where she is first addressed and immortalized in prose by the gods. (Massey 1992, p. 204, 227).
Mami Uati, is an ancient and sacred name which remarkably, after thousands of years, has survived as “Mami Wata,” in West African Vodoun and other African religious systems, having changed little in its original phonetic form.
In Togo, West Africa, and in the United States, the priestesses of Mami Wata are called Mamisii (Mamissi, Mamaissii, Mammisi). Certain paths of high-priestesses who are called to open an Egbé (spirit house) are known as "Mamaissii-Hounons" which translates as “queen of the ship,” or literally “mother wisdom” (Alapini 1955, Massey 1994, p. 227, Rosenthal 1998, p. 116-117).
This is an ancient name probably having its etymological roots in ancient Egypt, where we find the name Mammisi meaning “motherhood temple,” as the sacred shrine where the queen/ priestesses gives birth to spirit. (Walker 1983, p. 572-573).
1540 B.C.E. Minoan, faience image of Mami, "snake goddess" found in the Palace of Knossos in ancient Crete. Archeological Museum, Herakelion, Greece. (Bazin 1968, p. 118)
Totemic images representing Mama-Uati/Isis and Osiris. Worshiped around the world. for thousands of years.
Mammisi temples are traditionally built as attachments to the main shrines. Above, temple of Hathor at Dendera, (Egypt) The names “Mammissii” and “Hathor” are actually one and the same, both symbolizing the sacred womb which only part of their sacerdotal function was giving birth to the solar gods who ruled as kings. These temples are credited to the Greco-Roman Ptolemaic period. However, they were actually refurbished by them, or are exact copies of the more ancient temples designed by the indigenous (black) Egyptian themselves.
CLEOPATRA (THE GREEK) BUILT MAMMISI SHRINE
In a political ploy probably designed to legitimize her reign, after inheriting her father's expanding colonial kingdoms at the age of 17, the Macedonian (Greek) Cleopatra IV and her 10 year old brother (Theos Philopator)-Ptolemy XIII, installed as the new rulers of Egypt, in imitation of the African queen mothers, reputedly built herself a (now destroyed) Mammisi shrine at Erment (Upper Egypt), when giving birth to her first son.
She even had inscribed in her shrine the traditional priestly attributes including depicting herself giving birth to Julius Caesar's son, being assisted by the seven Netjers (divine African ancestors, including Isis and Osiris).
However, lacking the ancestral connection to the divine spirits, she thought she could fake it by trying desperately (without success) to obtain the sacred prophetic poems of the Eastern Masses, authored by the great Sibylline (Mami) prophetesses'.
Undeterred, she ordered her conquered African subjects to address her as the "New Isis." Ironically, she met her demised when she was fatally bitten by one of the sacred asp (serpents). (Walker 1983, p.573, Britannica 1974, Vol. 6, p.484, Vol 8, p. 386, Vol. I p. 261, VIII p.282, Nicholson, p.264,269,Lindsay 1971, p. 384).
MAMI’S PRIMARY ROLE
On a basic level, in the family, Mami Wata's primary role in the life of the devotee/initiate is "healing," by helping the initiate to achieve wholeness both spiritually, and materially in their lives.
Mami is also responsible for protection, emotional, and mental healing, spiritual growth/balance, and maintaining social order by assuring that sacred laws imposed on both the initiate and the family in which she/he lives is maintained. When these requirements are met, Mami often blesses the initiate (and family) with material wealth.
"Wealth" being relative to assuring that the family has the basic needs of survival, such as shelter, food, clothing, medicine and funds to maintain them. Or, wealth could mean achieving great riches through some profession or spiritual gifts the initiate might possess.
Far from being the over-embellished, “seductress” or “god/dess of love” so over-emphasized by western anthropologists, Mami Wata is primarily known to produce Africa’s great seers, prophetesses, prophets, scribes, herbalists, healers, orators, mystics, etc.,.
They are also known as the protector of mothers and children, and of abused women, and the “bringer of fertility” to both men and to barren women. They are even known in ancient history as being the “protector of sacred prostitutes”, meaning those African priestesses whose role was to subsume the “uncivilized invader/foreign groups” by “spreading the ache” of the African god/desses.
Photo: (rt) Togbui (grand) Hounon, "Papa" Akuété Durchbach.
An example of a male high priest of Mami Wata in Togo, West Africa. A medical doctor (ophthalmologist) by profession, Papa Akuété was born to Mami Wata. He was called from his medical residency in Tübigen, West Germany by his family’s (more than) 300 year old Mami Wata Vodoun and Tchamba spirits.
They were demanding that he serve them. He returned to Togo, and underwent extensive and expensive initiations establishing his shrines in Baguida, West Africa. Mami blessed him with enormous divinatory skills, and healing powers. His clients often came for healing as far away as West Germany.
Far from being a “cult” of women, in Ewe Mami Wata cosmology and history, Mami Wata is an ancient deity, and is known to have been the sacred deity of most of the most powerful male diviners, healers, prophets and African kings.
Certain women high-priestesses known as Mamissiis are called and appointed by the Mami deities to initiate. It is important to note that although it is popular to classify all water deities honored in African and Diaspora religions as "Mami Wata", not all are recognized as being part of the actual ancient pantheon of specialized water dieites known in Ewe cosmology as "Mami Wata."
Above: Typical shrines consecrated to Mami Wata in Togo, and U.S. These shrines can vary from elaborate to quaint depending on the income of a Mamissii priestess. What remains constant is the sacredness of the shrines and the constant devotion attended to its care.
Although the size and location of a Mami Wata shrine may vary, Mami's appreciation of perfumes, powders and fine statuary appears universal. According to Mami Wata Vodoun Priestess, Mama Zogbé: "In Togo, income is low, many shrines consecrated to Mami Wata are small and sparse. In the United States where access to monetary and material wealth is more abundant, shrines are typcially more elaborate."
ANCIENT ORIGINS OF NAME “MAMI WATA”
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