Rubba Mumma: The Strange Superstition of Jamaica's River Mother

Jamaican plantation workers cutting sugarcane in 1891


Of the many odd superstitions from the West Indies, the superstition of Jamaica's river mother, or Rubba Mumma, is perhaps the most famous and bizarre of them all.

While many Jamaicans might scoff at the idea of mermaids, many Jamaicans are adamant in their belief that water nymphs live at the heads of the island's mountain streams. In previous centuries the sources of these streams were considered sacred places; Jamaican plantation slaves persuaded their masters to allow them to sacrifice oxen or other livestock at the head of the waters as an offering to the Rubba Mumma, to ensure good fortune. Owners of sugar plantations gladly went along with this custom, since it was these mountain streams that powered the wheel of their sugar mills. On most sugar plantations a bull or calf was sacrificed annually to ward off droughts.

Ruins of an 18th century sugar plantation in Trelawny, Jamaica


These sacrifices to the Rubba Mumma continued well into the 20th century, long after the closing of the island's last sugar plantation. In rural regions of Jamaica this superstition may very well still be practiced.
Jamaican peasants, even after the days of slavery, sacrificed goats and chickens in time of drought to appease the Rubba Mumma. This mythical river mother is often described as being stunningly beautiful, with lily white skin, long black hair and soft blue eyes. She rises from the water at noon every day, it is said, and sits down on a rock to comb her hair. If any mortal sees her and their eyes meet, the unfortunate mortal is struck down on the spot. But if their eyes do not meet, the mortal can expect fantastic good fortune.

A sugar plantation circa 1905


Food is often prepared and taken to the headwaters of rivers and streams and left for the Rubba Mumma. The natives will not eat fish from any of the rivers where she lives, as these fish are considered children of the river mother.


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