Last month’s post concerned the Jamaican water spirit, the River Mumma. This month I’m looking at where her origins may lie.
Some late 19th and early 20th century commentators on African-Jamaican folk culture such as Martha Warren Beckwith and Thomas Banbury, described the River Mumma as being a type of mermaid. There could well be some truth in this as Jamaican folk culture contained a number of British or Irish influences. Northern European mermen and mermaids were part fish, part human creatures. Mermaids were commonly described as having long hair, which, like the River Mumma, they spent hours combing. Also like the River Mumma, they could be generous to humans. Similarly, like the River Mumma, at times they were feared. Folklore writer Marc Alexander notes that sailors, in particular, viewed mermaids “as harbingers of misfortune”.
Aside from mermaids, other types of female spirit are connected with bodies of water in British folklore. In an examination of British hauntings from the Early Modern period to the present day, historian Owen Davies gives examples of links between female ghosts and rivers, lakes, and ponds. For instance, spirits described as White Ladies are associated with “deep pools and other watery places”. Although some White Ladies are believed to be the spirits of drowned women, others, such as one Shropshire White lady who “lived in a pool and would come out and dance on the green at night”. This is more akin to fairy lore rather than ghost traditions.
So there is a strong argument that the River Mumma may have British or Irish origins.
However, not all writers on African-Jamaican folk beliefs agreed with the idea that the River Mumma had her roots in the concept of the European mermaid. The American anthropologist Joseph John Williams argued instead that her origins lay in the Ashanti belief in “the divine origin of water”.
Aside from the Ashanti, other African peoples, such as the Ifa and the Yoruba attributed deities or important spirits to bodies of water; spirits which have to be propitiated by the people using the water of those seas, rivers, streams and lakes. Yoruban water goddesses include Yemoja/ Yemanji, Ọbà and Oshun. Yemoja is often depicted as a mermaid.
Although Thomas Banbury believed that the River Mumma arose originally from the idea of the “mermaid or water nymph of England”, he went on to mention that during the era of slavery in Jamaica that sacrifices were made to her:
“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.”
So far I’ve yet to find any examples of sacrifices being offered to mermaids in British folklore. And the sacrificial offerings which appeared in Banbury’s account fits more with the idea of the River Mumma as a powerful goddess who must be propitiated than with the coquette-ish European mermaid. So whilst the River Mumma may contain elements of British mermaid lore, I feel that her roots lie more in Africa than in Europe.
Back to terra firma with a look at the mysterious Mammy plant.
Sources (in order of appearance in post)
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), p. 101.
Rev. Thomas Banbury, Jamaica Superstitions; or the Obeah Book: A Complete Treatise of the Absurdities Believed in by the People of the Island (Kingston: Mortimer Co. De Souza, 1894), p. 35, cited in Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica, pp. 172, 173.
Marc Alexander, A Companion to the Folklore, Myths and Customs of Britain (Sutton Publishing, 2002), p. 193.
Owen Davies, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 23.
L.H. Hayward, “Shropshire Folklore of Yesterday and To-Day”, Folklore vol. 49, (1938),s p. 239, cited in Davies, The Haunted, p. 22.
Joseph John Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: Dial Press, 1934), p. 173.
Image credits: An Irish mermaid by Trounce https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AClonfert_mermaid_crop.jpg
Image credits: Yemoja by Abayomi Barber https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AYemoja_Abayomi_Barber.jpg