The River Mumma: Part 2 – an African connection?

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.

Next time….
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
Image credits: Yemoja by Abayomi Barber


On the naming of Jamaican plants: no. 1

It’s a year since Nature and Supernatural Nature hit the internet so after a slice of birthday cake, a sip of rum and a blowing-out of candles, on to this month’s post. This entry focuses on Martha Warren Beckwith’s take on how Jamaican plants got their names

 Beckwith wrote: “Most of the local plant-names here collected are evidently English – some applied by the whites, like ‘Rosemary’, others are used to name a plant to which they bear a fancied resemblance, as in the case of ‘Dandelion’, or ‘Batchelor’s-button’… Color, or leaf-shape, or seed-pod suggest the analogy for ‘Milk-tea’, ‘Bat-wing’, ‘Rattleweed’.”

“Other names derive from the disease which they cure, such as ‘Fever-grass’, ‘Worm-weed’, ‘Snake-weed’, or ‘Consumption-weed’.”

She noted how plants with ‘duppy’ or ‘spirit’ in their name were used to ward of unwelcome entities (see duppy-pumpkin).

Some flora was named by what Beckwith described as a ”riddling form” known as “Cromanty talk”. These plants include See-me-contract and Dead-and-wake. Other plant names had more obvious links to Africa, for example, Guinea-weed. African names for children born on particular days of the week (see below) can been found in plants such as Juba-bush and Quaco-bush.


Beckwith’s list of African day names

Day                   male              female

Sunday            Quashe            Quasheba

Monday           Cudjo               Juba

Tuesday           Cubena            Benaba

Wednesday     Quaco              Cooba

Thursday         Quao               Abba

Friday              Cuffee             Fee-ba

Saturday         Quamin           Mimba


Next time….

I look at the criminal-catching properties of Broom-weed.



Martha Warren Beckwith, “Jamaica Ethnobotany” in Martha Warren Beckwith, with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928), pp. 6-7

list of African days names in 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. 59


Cotton trees: the African connection

It is possible that cotton trees (ceiba) came to be associated with African-Jamaican spiritual beliefs because of the significance of the tree in West African religions. Robert Voeks notes how today it “remains one of Africa’s most sacred species”. In the Caribbean the earliest Africans would have seen the tree growing there and continued to venerate it.

In parts of Africa the cotton tree was regarded as the abode of spirits. The Victorian explorer Mary Kingsley commented how the Twi peoples of Ghana believed that Sasabonsam and duppies lived in cotton trees. Forest travellers could tell if a tree was inhabited by Sasabonsam because it had red earth around its roots. Red seems to be a colour associated with Sasabonsam as the creature/spirit was covered in long red hair. I think I need to look into what significance red as a colour has amongst African peoples i.e. does it have any specific connections with the spirit world?

A slightly different take on how the cotton tree found in the Caribbean came to have links with the spirit world appears in Cassidy and Le Page’s Dictionary of Jamaican English. They believe that such associations arose because of similarities with the Akata tree which was held sacred in Ashanti religion. They don’t provide a Latin name for the Akata. However, I think it belongs to the Bombax genus, possibly Bombax buenopozense which is native to Ghana. This tree has associations with the spirit world in the form of being the abode of spirits and used as a shrine to ancestors.



Robert Voeks, “African Medicine and Magic in the Americas”, Geographical Review, Vol. 83, No. 1 (Jan., 1993), p. 73.

Mary Kingsley, Kingsley, Mary, Travels in West Africa (reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 2003, of orig. edn, London & New York: Macmillan, 1897), p. 509.

F.G. Cassidy & R.B. Le Page, Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd edition, Barbados: University of the West Indies Press, 2002), p. 124.

James Fairhead, Svend E. Holsoe and Melissa Leach, African-American Exploration in West Africa: Four Nineteenth Century Diaries (Bloomingdale and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003), p 313.