So back in my high school days, during one of those lazy periods between classes, myself and several other classmates sat along the corridor in front of our empty classroom chatting about everything and nothing. The topics changed from one to the next in rapid fire succession, with no end in sight to the myriad of out-of-classroom topics before the next bell. Then quite suddenly and out of the blue, one girl said she once saw a Rivah Mumma by the historic Cast Iron Bridge in Spanish Town.
The response was, as you can imagine: Really now? With raised eyebrows for special effect!
Faced with varying looks of outright disbelief, my friend went on to describe in great detail her Rivah Mumma sighting (and also those of others she knew who saw a real, live Rivah Mumma!).
So what exactly is a Rivah Mumma?
According to Jamaican folklore, the Rivah Mumma or River Maid as she is also known, is the Jamaican equivalent of the North American and European mermaid. But she is much more than that.
Water in Jamaican folklore is believed to be inhabited by powerful spirits, who are usually female since water is a female element. According to Rev. R. Thomas Banbury, the Rector of St. Peter’s Church in Hope Bay, Portland, who took it upon himself to pen the Jamaican Superstitions or the Obeah Book: A Complete Treatise of the Absurdities Believed in by the People of the Island Jamaica (1894, p. 35), the Rivermaid:
… is believed to inhabit every fountainhead of an inexhaustible and considerable stream of water in Jamaica. For this reason the sources of such streams were worshipped and sacrifices [and rituals] offered to the “Rubba Missis.”
These sacrifices and rituals were meant to appease these water spirits so that they may bring rain during times of drought and provide many fish in their catch. Rev. Banbury (1894, p. 35) further noted that:
… 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.
Have you ever seen a Rivah Mumma?
So apart from my classmate who was deeply convinced that she had actually seen a Rivah Mumma, have you ever seen one? I know I haven’t and maybe this is why: the legend goes that she immediately disappears if she senses someone approaching and she usually only comes out around mid-day. Those who claim to have seen a River Maid may claim to have observed her sitting by the river, combing her long black hair. However, if you and the Rivah Mumma’s eyes were to meet and mek four den dawg nyam yuh suppah! She will “call” to you and, hypnotised by her call she will then drag you down to the depths of the river to your death!
The Rivermaid is also a powerful female spirit in, for example, Revival worship. She is sometimes brought into worship and, when she does appear, becomes the most important spirit during the ceremony. The Most Honourable Edward Seaga, the former (and fifth) Prime Minister of Jamaica, wrote a poem called “River Maid, River Maid”, which poetically captured the calling out of the River Maid during such a Pocomania ceremony. The piece was a gold medal winner in the 1969 Festival Literary Competition and was originally published in the Jamaica Journal, Vol 3 No. 2 (1969). The poem’s introductory note states the following:
The poem relates the possession experiences of a river maid, one of the functionaries of Pocomania Revival; under possession, she confronts and deals with hostile water spirits who impede the spiritual journey of possessed brethren through a river, her spiritual territory.
Whatever name she may go by in our folklore – Rivah Mumma, River Maid, Ribba Mumma, Ribba Missis or Ribba Mammy – this water spirit is the guardian of the river and is now the subject of folk tales and legends in Jamaica’s history and cultural heritage.
Do you have a Rivah Mumma story to share? Drop Jamaican Echoes a line or two in the Comment box below!
Until next time…
Banbury, Rev. R. T. (1894) Jamaican Superstitions or the Obeah Book: A Complete Treatise of the Absurdities Believed in by the People of the Island Jamaica. Kingston: Mortimer C. DeSouza Printer.
Senior, O. (2003) Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St. Andrew: Twin Guinep Publishers Ltd.
Seaga, E (1969) River Maid, River Maid. Jamaica Journal, 3(2), pp. 16-20.