(Cross-posted at Skepticality)
This is Bob Blaskiewicz from skepticalhumanities.com.
Last month, a really weird story came out of Nigeria, in what was reported as a “panic” surrounding reports of a “mermaid” appearing in Ibadan. I read about it on Doubtful News. A woman found a strange critter in a batch of frozen fish she was going to cook and sell from her home. It was reported that she shouted out in fear and a Muslim cleric was called in. As Sharon Hill reported it:
News of the mini-mermaid swept through the city causing a big commotion. It was reported in the local news that the first person who took a picture of the creature experienced a broken phone. Then it gets weird. The mermaid, described as “very small in size initially, grew bigger and was fish from waist downward and human being from waist upwards, with mouth, nose, eyes and long hair” was now said to have spoken, begging the woman who found it (also called Ramota Adeyemo or Ramota Salawu) not to reveal it. She was taken to the police station for questioning.
That night, the house in question was vandalized and her daughter was beaten up. The police have since confirmed that what was seen was an octopus. At the end of Sharon’s piece there is a little commentary, she did a little summary:
I’m not clear why the villagers thought it was something extraordinary unless they had never seen one either. A strong superstitious nature of the people led them to believe the finding would bring bad luck upon their village. But notice how the story grew so fast and caused what appears to be near panic!
What makes this so interesting for a skeptic is the way that this story has been presented, as a story of scared people converging on the site of the strange happenings and then how rapidly an intricate and bizarre story spread. And for a Westerner encountering a weird story like this without context it will seem exceedingly crazy. Honestly, I found it hard to believe that mass psychogenic illness could lead to a mermaid panic, though, to be fair, in France there outbreak of nuns meowing in 1844. When you look into the Nigerian case, there is a reason, actually several reasons, and the explanation is very, very cool.
First, however, I am going to tell you what I consider to be the most authoritative version of what actually happened, that of Ramota, the woman who found the creature. She bought frozen fish in the morning and found the critter in there when it thawed. Initially, she threw it out, but then decided to retrieve it and show it to her sister, who had sold fish for years to see if she had ever seen it’s like. An “Alfa”, the muslim equivalent of a pastor, happened to be there–he just came up behind her, she said–and tried to take a photo but couldn’t because the phone went dead. The brother who was there also could not take a photo because his phone went dead.
Ramota then took the critter to her elder brother’s house to show him. He is also an “Alfa.” While Ramota was with this brother, a crowd was forming at her house and she was called home to show them the octopus and disperse the crowd. I’ll tell the next part of the story in her words:
“But by the time I got home, there was a twist in the story. I learnt that the president of traditionalists in Ibadan had gone to report at the police station that I had a strange creature with me, which was inimical to the well-being of the people of the state.
“They had threatened that if the creature was not handed over to them, Ibadan would experience a serious flood disaster and that the 1980 experience would be a child’s play when compared to it.
“I was invited to the station by the police where I met the traditionalist. I told the police that it was a lie that nothing disastrous would happen because what I saw was just dust and not any miracle. I made them realise that I am also a water devotee from the popular family in Osogbo, Osun State. “
While she was at the station, Ramota’s house was ransacked by hooligans (they stole the fish for sale) and her daughter was beaten up. Her day ended at 9:00, and her brother, who had run off with the octopus when the pressure from the crowd got too great, brought the critter to the police the next morning where it was identified.
So what was going on? There are two principal elements to the story. The first element is the way in which Nigerian reporting seems to have been conducted–sources seem not to be ranked, so that the implied authority of the chief of police is not as far removed from that of bystanders outside of the house as it would be in the US. This may just be a style issue, but when the West picks it up it sounds like there is a lot more parity between the two versions than the native readership would probably give it.
The second contributing element is cultural background. Both of these conspired to give us the strange story that we received here.
It turns out that the idea of a water-woman is part of a local, and actually widespread diasporic traditional religion, the tradition of the “Mami Wata,” a word which is apparently a pidgin form of “Mammy-Water.” These are river spirits associated with a very feminine sect. The mami wata is often represented as a woman holding snakes or a half serpent as a half-fish. So this story of the mermaid was not brewed up on the spot. The story basically preexisted the appearance of the octopus, and the sect was in a sense waiting for something like this to appear.
Before I look at the beliefs surrounding the mami wata, I should mention that she is a highly variable figure, understood differently in many regions of west Africa and the diaspora. Her character varies from region to region. This is likely because the name “mami wata” has come to be applied to local water deities who retain their distinct characteristics. Honestly, there is enough disagreement in the academic literature about the origins and interpretation of the character, that one would do well to consult with an expert in West African religion and culture to have a full understanding of mami wata. I would say that it appears that most scholars have focused on one or two regional variations of the character, though there have been a handful of art exhibits that sought to bring together mami wata art from different regions.
What I can say however, mami wata has become increasingly popular over the last century. The stories and images associated with water spirits associate them with feminine beauty and prosperity. They also are reported to appear in human form to seduce young men. If they stay faithful to the mami wata, they are rewarded with wealth; if not, they suffer consequences. However, when misfortune is ascribed to her, those who have attracted her attention join her cult to propitiate her. Mami wata is thought to interact directly with followers, and some of the rituals associated with involve channeling the spirit, who is mostly benevolent. She dispenses health and fertility (but fertility costs you your prosperity). This actually seems to square with what one of the devotees outside Ramota’s house said, that the deity would make Ramota a healer.
It’s hard to say how faithful to the original indigenous water spirit beliefs the modern form of worship is. The current form of worship has clearly been influenced by colonial and economic forces, the same forces that allowed her to spread throughout West Africa and the diaspora. Mami wata has been incorporated into both Christian and Islamic beliefs in this part of Nigeria, adding another layer of complexity. However, I suspect that the figure, and certainly the term “mermaid,” is an interpolation of Western mythologies rather than an expression of a native one.
The takeaway for skeptics, I think, is that no matter how completely bizarre an event may seem, even in the case of a riot over a mermaid, if you dig down, you can usually find an explanation that makes it seem a lot less mysterious.
This is Bob Blaskiewicz from skepticalhumanities.com.
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