Mami Wata is a water deity originating from the Niger Delta and Cross River. She embodies both the serpent iconography and the fish symbol. According to John Drewel: “Mami Wata is widely believed to have “overseas” origins, and depictions of her have been profoundly influenced by representations of ancient, indigenous African water spirits, European mermaids and snake charmers, Hindu gods and goddesses, and Christian and Muslim saints.” (Page 60- Mami Wata by John Drewel). Her image is multiple and transgresses various cultural realms.
]“The snakes that appear coiled on either side of the head are among the most frequent motifs depicted on Sowei/Nowo headdresses. Generally considered to be water creatures, snakes reveal a constellation of ideas about ancient African water spirits and, later, Mami Wata. They are the guardians of the medicines of Sande/Bondo, and shrine sculptures often depict a female-headed coiled snake or a female head and neck encircled by a snake (Phillips 1995:146, Fig. 7.6). Wall paintings of Tingoi/Njaloi sometimes show her as a serpent-fish with a human head adorned by elegantly arranged and luxuriant hair.“ Page 64.
Sometimes, she surfaces the rivers to possess individuals, empower them, and continue the ancestral bloodline. Those possessed are often female. Offerings and sacrifices from locals are left in the river as a way of redirecting her possession – those inflicted can experience convulsions, as she appears in dreams. Some become priestesses of the Mama Wata cult.
Sowei/Nowo headdress, depicting the coiling snake
From: The Fowler Museum, UCLA
Date: Late 19th Century
Materials: Wood and Pigment
Place of Origin: Sierra Leone