Monday, November 08, 2010
Mami Wata Loves You
This is one of my favorite syncretic images, the woman who has mastered the snakes. I've had this posctcard for years: Wikipedia's entry for Mami Wata says this image dates from pre-war Europe. That wikipedia entry is full of detail about the deity Mami Wata, but it could kind of be shortened to say "powerful archetypal image that means a lot of contradictory things to whoever sees it." Mami Wata can be connected to the Yoruba ocean orisha Yemaya, a true "mother of the waters." But she can also be connected to a host of other syncretic folk deities that have combined with the myths of Africa, Latin America and the U.S. suggesting some powerful symbolic resonance. If you go to Botanicas in New York City you can find this image transformed into a plaster statue; sometimes with a baby in its lap sometimes without. That's Santa Marta la Dominadora, St. Martha the Dominator, and she'll protect your family and help you get your man back or help you take control of an unruly life. And there's the connection to the loa of Haitian vodoun Damballah, the snake god who reveals the mysteries of the universe travelling deep underground and yet encircles the world above us to bind reality together. To me the image is suggestive of Marie Laveaux, the patroness of New Orleans voodoo. And yet all these identities snatched from disparate religions and traditions reveal something about the nature of religion itself: it's a doorway to perception, a way of explaining and categorizing the human experience of spirit. But the thing it explains and categorizes is universal, powerful beyond description. You can't really take a picture of God, and yet, meditate on a cheap prayercard image like this and, well, there it is.