A magico-religious rite practiced by slaves

A magico-religious rite practiced by slaves

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Title: Mama Sneckie or Water-Mama doing her conjurations.

Author : BENOIT Pierre Jacques (1782 - 1854)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 12 - Width 18

Technique and other indications: Drawing taken from Voyage à Surinam, [...] by P.-J. Benoit, one hundred drawings taken from nature by the author. Brussels, Soc. des Beaux-Arts, 1839. In-fol, 69 p.

Storage location: Mazarine Library website

Contact copyright: © Mazarine Library website

Mama Sneckie or Water-Mama doing her conjurations.

© Mazarine Library

Publication date: January 2007

Historical context

Pierre Jacques Benoit, Belgian painter (1782-1854) made a long stay in Surinam in 1831, part of Guyana colonized by the Netherlands; he is interested in the vegetation, the fauna and, above all, the customs of the inhabitants. In the midst of the Romantic period, he published in Brussels, in 1839, a work in which are reproduced, by lithographic process, a hundred drawings he sketched from life among the population, in particular black, brown and Amerindian; he accompanies them with in-depth observations, marked by his training in the "humanities", that is to say in classical antiquity.

Image Analysis

This lithographed drawing is one of the few drawings in the book that shows the interior of a dwelling. Benoit wanted to be a careful observer of this fascinating scene, of which he gives a detailed account [1].

In a large room, an elderly woman initiated into an African cult or, more likely, into a syncretic cult, performs conjurations. Kneeling on the ground, she wears a ritual veil over her head; her breasts are bare. A large light loincloth covers the rest of his body. On her left hand, she is holding a small cup from which she will undoubtedly take a little of the drink which is waiting in the large container placed on the ground, in the center of the room. With her right hand, she holds up a ceremonial staff. She looks up, her eyes bulging, probably in a trance. She put a branch on the ground to her left, "after having hit herself with it for a while."

Standing to her right, the slave woman who introduced the artist, is dressed in the same way; undoubtedly assistant of the initiate who officiates ("quiet woman" as one says for many assistants in animist cults in West Africa, of which these two women undoubtedly originate, themselves or their ancestors).

"On the floor," says Benoit, "was a large earthenware pot filled with water in which [Mama Snekie] kept some of those little snakes that all Africans know how to tame." A piglet stands in front of the large container on the ground: perhaps the next animal to be sacrificed. A cat remains motionless, to the far right of the drawing; behind him, a carafe, probably a water reserve; two chests are closed, arranged against the planks of the walls. On a shelf, three fetishes, probably in carved wood, effigies necessary for the rite. Against the back wall, a snake a meter and a half long, the rigid skin of a sacred reptile: it visibly impressed Benoit. From the ceiling hangs, very high, a beautiful European chandelier, with four candles. Finally, on the left, hanging on the wall, a rectangle: image, lithograph, mirror? The whole room is neat, tidy and tidy. Benoit wanted to make firm the opposition between the energy of the initiate in a trance, stick held up at the end of her raised arm, and the stillness of the rest of the room. Domestic light, powerful for the time, splashes onto the stage.


Benoit was struck by this ritual scene which does not correspond to any of the European ritual or religious customs. He sees what is happening, without fully understanding. He therefore draws the initiated woman, possessed, with one knee on the ground: he gives her a real plastic force. But the rest of the piece, static, is drawn with a seriousness that is more of an ethnographic inventory: the composition then loses all dynamics, if not even unity.

Benoit is a European designer who travels with his artistic talent and his romantic taste (this is the era!) Of the exotic, the sentiment and the attraction for the "savages". It is the officiant who fascinates him, and perhaps the great serpent as well.

It is true that for the black slaves as well as for the Maroons, these animist cults, original or syncretic, are fundamental. It is they who perpetuate, rebuild and revive unceasingly the relations with the gods and the ancestors. Benoit has also noted what is called, in a Creolisant mixture of French, Dutch and English, the officiant; perhaps she is only the officiant of a great deity of the waters, "water-mami" (as they say for example in Ghana). It is rites analogous to this rite of healing against a disease or a spell that ensure the balance of the world and the permanence of life.

These rites, essential to the conscience of this part of the population, are even less visible in the slave colonies than in Africa itself: if only because the Christian churches repress and forbid them. Hence this interior scene, a scene in a closed environment, therefore hidden, very rare in Benoit's book of drawings; elsewhere he is very sensitive, romantically sensitive, to the extravagance of plant forms.

The room where this rite takes place is clean and tidy; the light of the European chandelier illuminates it and, symbolically, dominates it. This could not be so in reality. Animist practices proceed by accumulating objects, by sedimentation of ceremonial pastes on fetishes, on containers, on the ground itself. Benoit, perhaps without quite realizing it, staged an animist ceremonial gesture in an enclosed European space - a well-constructed and well-lit room - and mastered by a rationality that romanticism tends to embrace. move away.

  • religion
  • slavery
  • witch
  • rite


Sally PRICEPrimitive arts, civilized gazesENSBA Editions, 2006.William PIETZThe Fetish. Genealogy of a problemEditions Kargo and L’Eclat, 2005.Guide to the sources of the slave trade, slavery and their abolitionDirectorate of Archives de France, La documentation française, Paris, 2007.


1. P. J. BENOIT, Voyage à Surinam, […], Brussels, 1839, p. 25-26.

For a long time I had wanted to know one of those women who are called sibyls in Europe, who in the country are called Mama Snekie, Mother of Serpents or Water Mama, and whom the negroes regard as oracles. But I was made to fear that, as a white man, it would be very difficult for me to see them. A negress whom I knew and to whom I expressed my desire, promised to tell one of her acquaintances. At the end of a month, she told me that she was going to consult the Water Mama on the fate of her child, who was ill. [...] At the end of the street, she took a few small roundabouts, crossed a hedge and walked towards a very thick grove. After she had spread the large leaves of a banana tree, I saw a very low hut covered with leaves. My driver knocked on a small door, which opened and let me see an old, gaunt negress whose face, neck and chest were tattooed. Her head was wrapped in a long sheet of white cotton, the two ends of which were tied to her back. A white skirt came down from her back to her mid-legs, and all other parts of her body were bare. This woman, who was only lit by the very faint glow of a lamp which she held in her hand, offered the living image of one of those furies so well described by ancient poets. […] The door s 'opened and we were admitted into this sort of sanctuary which was only lit by a lamp in which spirit burned or voorloop. Under this lamp, on the floor was a large terracotta pot, filled with water and in which she kept some of those little snakes that all Africans have the art of taming. The wall was covered with small idols of men and animals, roughly modeled in earth, and stuffed snakes. After striking herself for some time with a branch, and having made convulsive contortions, the sibyl took a stick and repeatedly stirred the water in the vase, addressing herself to a small figure of earth which was next to it. 'she. My driver, more dead than alive, was standing, facing Mama Snekie who was speaking to her; but she only responded in her terror by nodding her head, and rolling her eyes. She remained motionless like a statue. The witch took the water from the pot in a calabash and gave the negress to drink. She made him drink more and gave him some herbs to be administered to the child. All being finished, we went out, and I placed my offering in the hands of the sibyl. Tankie, massa (thank you, master) she replied. […] We came back by the same way. The negress told me that her child would not die. I gave him my present, and I promised him that I would never let a white man know the way of the witch, which would have been very difficult for me. The cannon shot separated us, for she was a slave and obliged to return to her negro.

To cite this article

Yves BERGERET, "A magico-religious rite practiced by slaves"

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