ODD TRUTHS: THE MERMAIDS OF CONGO
Images of mermaids first appeared in European bestiaries in the early Middle Ages. At the time, firsthand encounters with the legendary creatures were rare. Nevertheless, mythographers and chroniclers, no doubt inspired by Greco-Roman art, described merfolk as capricious water spirits that were usually up to no good. Like aerial demons, they were capable of copulation, and occasionally sired children who became the founders of royal dynasties. The most famous of these aquatic parents were Mélusine and the Quinotaur.
During the early modern era however, eyewitness reports of mermaids came pouring in from all corners of the globe as mariners sailing beyond the Pillars of Hercules journeyed into uncharted territory. Christopher Columbus famously crossed paths with three sirens in the Caribbean in 1493. On this occasion however, Columbus did not hear the siren song. He writes that they “were not as beautiful as they are painted”.
A “black-haired” mermaid was spotted much further from the equator in 1608, by the crew of the English navigator Henry Hudson as his ship coursed by Greenland. Hudson says that she was “pale” and had a tail like a “Macrell”.
In 1682, more mermaids were described by an Italian priest named Girolamo Merolla. The sighting occurred in yet another geographical zone: Congo. In his book, Viaggio nel regno di Congo nell’Africa meridionale (“Journey in the Kingdom of Congo in Southern Africa”) Merolla frankly notes that the River Zaire (the modern-day Congo River) teems with “woman-fish”. He admits that the ancient poets called them “sirens”.
Without a doubt, most, if not all of these early modern mermaids were whales, seals, or manatees. Nonetheless, the lore of the mermaid brought to the African mainland by European voyagers had a tremendous effect on Central and West African religious cultures. Interestingly, these extensive traditions still thrive today. One of the main representations of the African mermaid is a protective and fearsome water goddess named Mami Wata. According to scholar Henry John Drewal, Mami Wata is “worshipped by Africans in at least fifty cultures in more than twenty countries from Senegal to Tanzania”.
Mami Wata appears to have her origins in the mercantile relationships of Portuguese traders and Sapi artisans who lived and worked near modern-day Sierra Leone. The artists combined the classic half-fish, half-woman imagery with local geographic symbols of water spirits, such as crocodiles. Over time, Mami Wata spread throughout Africa and made her way to the New World. In Haiti and Louisiana, she surfaced in the pantheon of Vodou spirits as the austere La Sirène.
In Zimbabwe (where the popularity of mermaids is somewhat comparable to the appeal of elves in Iceland), mermaids are sometimes blamed for industrial accidents or social misfortune. On the other hand, traditional healers have historically claimed that they obtain their powers through mermaids called njuzu. Tabono Shoko describes the initiation as a kind of shamanic experience, fraught with danger and violence:
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, some Christian evangelists have cast mermaids as demonic forces and agents of effeminacy and promiscuity. The most famous account, Snatched from Satan’s Claws, implicates mermaids in a world conspiracy run by Satan. Unsurprisingly, the book is a bestseller. The writer, pastor Mukendi, claims that before he was converted, he was a top-notch sorcerer who had been trained by a magical mermaid.
It’s likely that the African mermaid mythos will continue to evolve as cultures continue to exchange ideas. For example, in the 1950s, the depiction of Mami Wata was greatly influenced by prints of Hindu deities and snake-charmers. Like the borderless ocean, the mermaid of Africa is destined to be a mysterious, Protean figure for the foreseeable future.