On a Full Moon, we gathered at the shore of the ocean. It was only slightly cool on the South Florida winter night and the ocean had barely a ripple, seeming more like a lake than the sea. The guys stayed further up the beach and drummed for us, while all of the women sat with watermelons between our legs and carved spaces in the melon to insert candles.
One of the women was a Daughter of Yemaya (Orisha and Mother of Oceans) and she instructed us on the proper preparation. We breathed our prayers and requests for blessings into the watermelons, anointed them with molasses, and lit the candles. Wading into the ocean with our melons, we chanted “YEMAYA ASSESSU, ASSESSU YEMAYA, YEMAYA OLODO, OLODO YEMAYA”.
When the water reached chest level, we released our offerings to Yemaya and watched them float away. We continued the chant as we came out of the water and stood with our arms wrapped around each other. It was a profound and powerful moment that united all of us in the primordial energy of Goddess and Woman Ritual.
Orisha is the generic Yoruban word for “god”. Many of the Orishas were regional African deities who traveled with the slaves to the Caribbean and sparked the variations of Afro-Caribbean worship, like Santeria and Lukumi. Yoruba tradition says that before souls are born, they choose an Orisha as a guardian for their human life. A portion of that Orisha’s cosmic essence lives in the human’s head and that is where the phrase “owning a head” comes from. Sons and Daughters of particular Orishas also tend to embody some of the characteristics of the Orisha.
Yemaya is the All Mother Orisha who birthed all of the other Orishas, as well as the Sun and Moon. She is the nurturing Mother that listens to our troubles and washes away our sorrow and she is also the Mother with her hands on her hips that can bring us to proper behavior with a look.
“She is judgement and reason, but she can also be inflexible when she punishes. Majestic Queen of the Oceans, she is presumptuous and haughty. She protects her children in her skirt, feeds them, and raises them with absolute motherly rigor.” (Creole Religions of the Caribbean)
In Africa, Yemaya’s name comes from the Yoruban phrase “Yeye omo eja” that means “Mother whose children are like fish”. Yemaya is the owner of the Ogun River and a lake that is named for her. Her “hidden” aspect, Olokun, is considered to be the owner of Oceans (and in some traditions, Olokun is a separate Orisha from Yemaya). As the African diaspora occurred and Yemaya traveled west with her children to the Americas and Caribbean, the Mother of Waters became more known as Mother of Oceans. Olokun resides in the deepest depths of the ocean, guarding the source of life and a sacred shrine to the Ancestors. I have always experienced Olokun as a sister of Yemaya, much like Isis and Nepthys, but understand that is my personal opinion and there are many stories that are different.
Yemaya is primal feminine power – watching over women and their birthing cycles. She is a popular Orisha with many children, one book said that it is possible that as many as 25% of children are of Yemaya. This speaks to her fertility and immense capacity for mothering and dispensing love and compassion to her children. She is alert to those who are in need and applies her motherly tendencies to all who cross her path. Yemaya is strong-willed and independent and her daughters tend to be the same.
Non-initiates are always welcome to approach the Orishas devotionally. I worked with and devoted to the Orishas for many years without taking formal initiation and have just this year began a formal initiatory path within Lukumi. For those who are interested in approaching the Orishas and/or are attracted to the African Yoruba practices, I encourage you to do your research. We all carry within us ties to areas of the world and connections to deity that transcend our current place, time, genetic roots and outer rationale. These urges, spiritual “wonderings” or instincts of connection do not always seem explainable to the outsider but they could be a missing piece to your spiritual puzzle.
Orishas have very specific likes (and dislikes in some cases) and Yemaya is no exception. Her favorite colors are blue and white and she is frequently depicted as a mermaid. In Santeria, she is syncretized to Our Lady of Regla and she is the guardian of the Bay of Cuba in that form. Saturday is her day of the week and her number is 7. If you are near the ocean, take 7 copper pennies to leave as an offering for Yemaya, particularly if you take something from the beach like rocks or seashells. Any type of rock or seashell that you find on the beach is a wonderful addition to an altar for the Mother of Oceans. For non-initiates, they will keep a glass bowl for Yemaya with water and all of the things that she likes, including a rubber duck. Add seven pennies to this bowl, change the water frequently, and Yemaya will bring blessings to your home. Here is a picture of my non-initiate altar to Yemaya:
Yemaya loves watermelons, as well as other tropical fruits, and molasses. Her feast day is September 7 and there are massive ceremonies and celebrations around the world in her honor. Herbs and plants that she favors are marjoram, cilantro, watercress, parsley, lettuce, aloe vera, ferns, lotuses, violets, and vervain. Taking a bath with watercress is said to bring a blessing of health from Yemaya and a bath with parsley invites a blessing of money.
Her tools and symbols include a sword, a fan, a half moon, an anchor, and a silver or white metal sun.
Yemaya is a potent All Mother Goddess and for those in need of nurturing, blessings, healing, and cleansing, she is available.
If you would like to learn more about Yemaya and other Orisha Goddesses, join Kimberly for the Orisha Goddesses online course.