While we in the West insist on dividing stories into “historical fact” and “superstitious nonsense” neither category is as airtight as we would like to think. As a Christian, I am not about to start worshipping nature deities, but I agree with those Christian literary geniuses J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis: stories passed on for thousands of years have something important to tell us about the human condition, especially when the same story reappears down through time and all over the world.
The Woman in the Water is a story that reappears down through time and all over the world. Women appear as mermaids, personified as the oceanic source of life and as water nymphs inhabiting lakes and rivers, such as the Lady of the Lake in the legends of King Arthur.
African and African diaspora legends tell of Mami Wata and the stories are many and varied.
“Mami Wata’s primary role in the life of the devotee is “healing,” by helping the initiate to achieve wholeness both spiritually, and materially in their lives…Mami Wata is primarily known to produce Africa’s great seers…They are also known as the protector of mothers and children, and of abused women…”
I get this on some deep intuitive level. When I lived on Florida’s St. Johns River I was at times startled by flashes of creatures as large as a rowboat, swirling near the surface and then descending to the tea-colored depths again. The river itself was alive; it breathed with the tides and its mood changed with the weather. Beneath the broad, deep, brackish waters of the St. Johns a person has the rare opportunity of being eaten by either a shark OR an alligator.
Eighty-seven year-old Corabelle lived alone at the end of a long, dirt driveway in a tiny, unpainted cottage. She was sitting on her porch in a rocker and she smiled and lifted her cane in greeting as I approached. Corabelle had been saved by Mami Wata when she was a little girl. We exchanged greetings and she offered me iced tea and then she got down to the story.
“I was seven years-old and you know how foolish children are,” she began. “The Withlacoochee was flooding and I thought it would be fun to watch the logs swirling in the whirlpools. I leaned over the bank and fell in. It was cold and I couldn’t swim and the current carried me downstream into the flooded forest.
That’s when I saw Mami Wata. She was crossing in the river grass and saw me and turned…Time stopped, time had no…passing, you know?”
Mami Wata looked at me. She was beautiful and frightful at the same time, her hair trailing off in the current like the grasses at the bottom of the river.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said, “’I will save you.’ She said it without talking, just from her thoughts to mine. You know?”
“Tell me,” she asked, “Are you a good person?”
I thought maybe she only saves good people, maybe I should just say “Yes.”
“Is that what you said?” I asked.
“No,” I couldn’t say that.”
“Because of her little smile and the way her eyes looked straight into mine. You see, Mami Wata already knew the answer to that question. She knew the truth.”
“What did you say?” I asked.
I said, “I try to be, but no, not always.”
“Then what happened?”
“She caught me in her strong arms-her skin was so smooth! She took me to the edge of the river and set me, as gentle as the brush of a butterfly wing, on the sandy river bank.”
“Then what happened?”
“She smiled-just a little smile and sank back down into the river. She left just a little ripple on the surface. And then she was gone.”
“Did you tell anyone what happened?”
“Yes, I told my mother, who was mad that I went to the river without telling anyone, but glad that Mami Wata had saved me. I told my Granny, who just looked off into the distance–and her eyes were all shiny. I told my pastor and he said Mami Wata was a guardian angel.”
“After all these years, what do you think about what happened that day?”
“I think I have tried to be a better person. But I think I would have to answer the question the same. Am I a good person? No, not always.”