The River Mumma – part 1

For this month’s entry the watery theme continues with a look at the River Mumma (aka the Rubba Missis, Fair Maid, River Maid or Sea Mahmy). Martha Warren Beckwith described this Jamaican spirit as a kind of mermaid who inhabited bodies of water, sitting on the banks at midday, combing her long black hair. George Parkes, one of Beckwith’s African-Jamaican informants, told her that River Mummas “live in deep pools away from where people pass. There may be more than one in a pool, but they all look alike. The waters were made for them, and if you catch one the rivers would dry up”.

Parkes said that he had seen a River Mumma himself at a wide pool near St Ann’s Bay. She and two other Mummas had been living there since “ancient times”. Beckwith heard of River Mummas living in the Black River, the Rio Grande, the Great River, the Cabaritta and the Rio Cobra. Writing in the 1960s, 35 years after Beckwith’s Jamaican fieldwork, American folklorist MacEdward Leach stated that the “most famous… sea mahmy” lived “in the great blue hole near Port Antonio.”


Aside from her Jamaican informants, Martha Beckwith gleaned information about the River Mumma from the writings of Thomas Banbury. Banbury called the Mumma the “Rubba Missis” and noted that sometimes her comb had been found at fountainheads. Myalists would take food to the river for the Rubba Missis and performed songs and dances there in her honour. Banbury also mentioned that sacrifices were made to the Rubba Missis.

“It is a well-known fact that the slaves on water-works used to persuade their overseers or masters, to sacrifice an ox at the fountain-head of the water turning the mill in times of much drought, in order to propitiate the mistress of the river, that she may cause rain and give an adequate supply of water to turn the mill. It is said a bullock was yearly killed on some sugar estates at such places for this purpose.’”

Thomas Banbury was writing at the end of the nineteenth century but much of his material concerns folk beliefs from nearly 40 years earlier. In Neither Led Nor Driven (2004) which examines African-Jamaican culture in the early 20th century, Brian Moore and Michele Johnson elaborate on the reverence in which River Mummas were held during that period:

“In some communities, where the river mumma made her appearance, people did not eat the fish that came from those rivers, because they were believed to be the children of the river goddess and whoever ate them would suffer.”

Martha Beckwith too had been told that the fish from bodies of water where River Mummas were supposed to live were considered “sacred”. However, George Parkes disagreed with the notion that River Mummas were worshipped, saying that “they can do nothing for people. They cannot talk, and they disappear the moment one sees them”.

His view appears to be an isolated one as other commentators often mentioned the River Mumma’s ability to interact with people. Banbury stated that people could come to harm if they looked into the Mumma’s eyes and anthropologist George Eaton Simpson found a number of beliefs that River Mummas (who he called “River Maids”) could cause misfortune. Conversely, they could also assist people. For example, to gain the River Mumma’s aid in wreaking vengeance on an enemy, a person was instructed to concentrate on the Mumma and then fill “his mouth with river water” and walk:

“downstream in the river, thinking constantly of his enemy. He spits the water in his mouth into the river, and gets out of the river on the same side he entered the stream. After coming out, he makes a wish, the wish being that every morsel of food his enemy eats and every drop of water he drinks “should be evil germs to him”’

In addition, the River Mumma could help people through her capacity to heal. In one example, Simpson was told that if a stone from a river which contained the spirit of the Mumma was placed in sacred water, it was said “to increase the curative powers of the water”.

For a more in depth examination of Jamaican River Mumma beliefs in 19th and 20th century ethnographic accounts check out my article in Shima journal. It’s free to read online here:

Next time…
I delve deeper to try and locate where the watery origins of the River Mumma lie.

Martha Warren Beckwith, Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969, of orig. edn, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1929), pp. 101, 102.
MacEdward Leach, “Folklore of Jamaica: A Survey”, Schweizerisches Archiv für Volkskunde = Archives suisses des traditions populaires, vol. 59, (1963), pp. 59-81, p. 72.
Brian L. Moore and Michele A. Johnson, Neither Led nor Driven: Contesting British Imperialism in Jamaica, 1865-1920 (Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2004), p. 35.
George Eaton Simpson, “Jamaican Revivalist Cults”, Social and Economic Studies, vol. 5, no. 4 (December 1956), pp. i-iv, 321-442, v-vii, pp. 358, 391, 357.
Joseph John Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: Dial Press, 1934), p. 172.
N.B. Citations from Thomas Banbury’s Jamaica Superstitions; or the Obeah Book: A Complete Treatise of the Absurdities Believed in by the People of the Island taken from the following books: Black Roadways, p. 101; Psychic Phenomenon of Jamaica, p. 172; Neither Led Nor Driven, p. 35.
Image credits: Wildlife on the Black River by Johannes49 at English Wikipedia: