Swahili boy with model boat on a beach in Lamu, Kenya © Eric Lafforgue
Today’s tale of cetaceans in world folklore comes to us from the Swahili people of Africa’s east coast. Occupying modern-day Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, the Swahili have been predominantly Muslim since the early Middle Ages. While the influence of the Qur’an can be felt everywhere throughout their culture, local versions of internationally popular Islamic stories take on a character distinctive to this coastal people. One such story uses a legend of the mighty King Sulemani (the Swahili name for Solomon) to explain the origins of the dolphins that frolic in the Indian Ocean.
Late 16th century illuminated manuscript by the Persian Master depicting Solomon presiding over a court of djinn and animals
Sulemani is one of the most popular characters in Swahili folklore. While King Solomon is an important figure in all Abrahamaic religions, his veneration in Islam has some unique characteristics. The Bible’s Solomon turns to idolatry under the influence of his hundreds of foreign wives, building temples and statues dedicated to the pagan gods of their homelands. He remains a figure of great wisdom and, in Judaism, an important political figure as the last king of a united Israel, but his overall portrayal is rather ambivalent. By contrast, Islam maintains a more positive outlook on Solomon throughout his reign. As one of Allah’s prophets, he is gifted with special supernatural powers. He rules over all spirits, people and beasts, and can even understand the language of animals. His power is contained in a special signet ring Allah gave him which bears “the seal of Solomon”. Solomon’s decline into idolatry is blamed on a djinn who stole the ring and impersonated the great king.
Born of a fusion between West African Vodun and Roman Catholicism, Haitian Vodou is a rich religious tradition full of drama and devotion. Vodou is syncretism at its finest. Catholic saints have been seamlessly incorporated into the iconography of Vodou’s own roster of spiritual personalities, the lwa who serve Bondye the creator and who are served in turn by human beings. Many of the lwa can be traced back to gods of West Africa and the Kongo, but in crossing the Atlantic with the millions brought over on slave ships, they have taken on new attributes and character reflecting local concerns.
Mami Wata figurine by an Ovimbundu artist, c. 1950s – 1960s
One of these goddesses who has transformed into a Haitian lwa is Mami Wata. Venerated across much of Africa, Mami Wata is an exotic merwoman associated with wealth and fertility. Her half-fish, half-woman form represents the dualism of the sea over which she presides: The sea can offer its bounty to fishermen, but it can take lives in a storm. Similarly, Mami Wata can be a benevolent promoter of fertility or a cruel withholder of wealth. Although both men and women give Mami Wata her dues, women have always played a special role in her worship, some becoming mamisii, her priests. For hundreds of years, European mermaids have heavily influenced depictions of Mami Wata, which fits her connection to the liminal Mediterannean. Today her iconography in Africa has undergone further changes thanks to posters of Hindu goddesses that began to circulate in the mid-20th century, visually distancing her from her incarnations in the Americas, where she retains her nautical association but has taken on many new names. In Haitian Vodou she is called La Sirene and La Baleine, the siren and the whale, so it is this iteration which we will feature today.