Yemaya-Olokun by Stephanie Pope for
myth and poetry

Scholarly Essay


Yemayá -Stephanie Pope
O mother of waters! Great is your power, your strength, and your light...Let your greatness
 be the greatest wealth you dispense to me... surrounded by sweet melodies springing from
 your own self...Prayer to Yemanja--Zolrak

The moment Avey Johnson, in Praisesong For The Widow, sees the foresails of the Emanuel C inflate she recalls "the huge ecclesiastical banners the Catholics parade through the streets on the feast days of their saints." She cannot help but think of two things: first, the sign of the cross, in the name of the Father, and of the Son...and second, the sea smooth as silk (195).

This imagery catches fire in me. For the former is the Christian signifier for the opening and closing of ritual prayer. Yet, where I would expect to see the lines  
 "...and of the Holy Spirit," I see instead this reference to the sea. The imagery, in reaching back to reclaim a past still present in the African-American soul, reaches through the first image, the sign of the cross, into a second one, water, indicating a crossing over through the image of water.

One approach to the study of African-American literature suggests in premise that African-American writers use a literary technique of signification to create a repetition of motif that revises, modifies, and borrows the imagery of predecessors in a repetition signifying difference with particularity toward black difference (Olorounto 2). In the instance mentioned above, signifying links together the worship of saints, water, the crossing of water, and the cross of Christ or Christianity in a literary context whereby the main character, Avery Johnson, sheds a Black American identification to the experience of white, middle class community in the United States, and reconnects through the Harlem of her childhood to traditions of African ancestral, cultural inheritance. This search for Self infers a source of strength and protection that takes its source from ancient wisdom of Africa. The motif expressing this distinction is the motif of water.

And, it is under the cross of the Christian sails that Avey crosses into the symbolic gesture of "the inward-backward dimension of the here and now" (Campbell 190). She crosses in the memory of the Robert Fulton of her childhood days and in the Emanuel C of middle age. And, she crosses in the even more distant historical memories of the slave-ships of the Diaspora. She crosses over the waters of time into the timeless dimension of the eternal waters of life. Moving over the water signifies many things. She moves inward in her search for Self toward deeper, wider dimensions of meaning in her life. In moving inward, she also moves backward into her personal past and then further back (in a kind of forward-backwardness) into the not-too-distant historical past of the Middle Passage. She moves also in a mythic, imaginal dimension. Through the Christian inheritance she crosses the Red Sea, and even further through the fluidity itself, she moves into contact with the inherited archetypal forms of the ancient river goddesses of Africa. She crosses over through the rolling movement of the water. It is Yemayá who recalls this rolling of water in motion (Murphy 96).


In Western Africa the Sea Deity known as Yemoja (Yemayá), the Yoruban River Mother, is one of several riverrain goddesses (Thompson 72). Together with Oshun and Oya, guardians of the river Niger, she is supreme in "the arts of mystic retribution and protects against all evil." As Mother of the Sea (thought to be the source of all life) along with the attributes of sword and fan, Yemoja expresses "what Judith Hoch-Smith calls 'radical Yoruba female sexuality'" in the sense that this "power" of expression reveals Divine presence which is neither he nor she but an expression of pure and energetic essence, áshe (Thompson 74). Yemoja, then, appears to mediate between all pairs of opposites in conflict with each other. Yemoja represents itself archetypally through the image of the strongest tension, the "eternal struggle of the sexes in Yoruba society over control of the life force" (Thompson 74).

Yemayá belongs to an order of spiritual beings called orisha. Orishas, coming into being at the beginning of the world in the Yoruban holy city Ile Ife, are personifications of áshe (Murphy 11). Personified, they accent the expression of the essence of áshe in our lives. The essence itself is pure. The expression of the essence is our individual use and integration with that essence in our daily lives. While the essence of áshe remains pure, the expression of it will be ever changing, as all life changes over time. As this is so, a deity's powers and characteristics will redefine themselves over time and in answer to the needs of their worshipers. In this way, the riverrain goddess, Yemoja, during the period of the Middle Passage, gains dominion over the sea. Then, having acquired immense protective power, she becomes Yemayá of Macomble and Santería (De Vita 5).

Yemayá in Santería

The Yoruba of Africa did not come into contact with the ocean until they were forcibly taken as slaves and transported on ships over the Middle Passage. According to Murphy, no one knows exactly how many Yoruba slaves were brought to Cuba during the period of the Atlantic slave trade, although conservative estimates indicate more than half a million people made the journey (Santería 23). In Havana the Yoruba become known as Lucumi through their way of greeting each other, oluku mi, meaning "my friend" (Santería 27).

During this timeframe of passage from Yoruba to Lucumi religion, several important changes take place involving the cosmology and pantheon. The most important one pertaining to this paper regards the syncretism between the orisha and the saints of the Catholic Church. In both urban and rural settings the orisha become identified with particular saints and begin to be known as santos (Brandon 76). Also, because of their contact with the ocean, the Africans of the Ifa religion begin to honor the ocean as Yemayá's symbol, a symbol for the womb of the world.

Yey Omo Eja, "Mother Whose Children are the Fish," reflects Yemayá's maternal characteristic through the idea that her children are so numerous they cannot be counted. In other words, through her new symbol, the ocean, Yemayá becomes the mother of all living by displaying through her Self all things as the seed of all the paths or manifestations. It is said that Yemayá wears seven skirts of blue and white. Originally, these seven flounces announce the birth of man and gods. Then later, as Queen of the ocean these flounces represent waves of nurture and protection, whereby she delivers her children through the Middle Passage while protecting them under her skirts (Olmos 92).

Yemayá is like the ocean, full of richness and life, both nurturing and caring. And like the ocean, she is both deep and unknowable. As Protectress she may appear in the drumming that summons the gods to a ceremony (toque de santo) as Yemayá Okute, a fierce warrior. At other times she may "mount her horse" (Olmos 93) like a complacent mother revealing her nature as Regla de Ocha and Maria Stella. These twin powers form the dyad of Yemayá-Olukun and reflect both the upper layers of ocean and its ominous depths.

In the rhythm of the drums, in the rhythm of the dance, the orisha is said to mount its human initiate and direct them in much the same way a rider directs its horse. The manifestation or possession is abrupt, invisible, and electric. It is said that the external spirit mounts the internal person. The internal nature becomes transparent to the spirit. In this way the spirit becomes manifest to the community (Working 78).

According to Elpido Cardenez, a singer who has trained for forty years in learning the proper inflection to Ifa verse in the dance, the power of the orishas works along with nature. The power is born along with nature. This means Yemayá's power is found in the ocean coral, in the water, in the shells, the fish, the plants of the sea and in the ocean stones. It is not like the power of the Catholic Church, made by man, made as he says it, "with the power to take away rights" (Voices video). However, just as the Yoruba have become Lucumi in Cuba, the Yoruban religious vision has become Santería as an attempt to honor the gods of Africa in the land of the Catholic saints. Syncretism can be understood in this sense as a strategy of subterfuge for assimilation in the service of preserving while evolving the African ancestral inheritance. Images can do "double talk." The orishas by correspondence can function freely underneath the mask of a saint of coordinate value. Quite easily then, Olofi is honored behind the image of Christ. Ogun wears the mask of St. Peter. Yemayá, mother of the gods and man is equated with Mary, Mother of God and Mother Church.

However, it is behind this mask that Yemayá sits rocking the world cradle still buoyed by the titantic tides of life. As possessor of both great beauty and destructive power, Yemayá mediates between the dynamic play of opposites, swinging her seductive hips as she flows. The power of water is her strength. The force of water can be a deadly blow that drowns or the mountainous wave that recedes from the shoreline having left behind its riches in the sand. In her positive aspect she contains coolness. From her ominous depths pour forth witchcraft (Thompson 74). And, between these two poles Yemayá births forth a positive value in this negative, destructive potency of hers, if invoked by righteous devotion (Thompson 75).

In the myth of conflict that threatens the "end of the world" Yemayá's "fierce sexuality" can militate against human arrogance---such arrogance of which Yemayá must surly still sing as she sings over the human bones within the shell-strewn floor of her underwater province, human bones that mark the various routes of the Middle Passage.

                                    Works Cited

Brandon, George. Santería From Africa to the New World: The Dead Sell Memories.
Indiana University Press, 1993.

Campbell, Joseph. The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays 1959-1987. Ed. Anthony
     Van Couvering. New York: Harper San Francisco, 1991.

De Vita, Alexis Brooks. Signatures and Signs of African/Diaspora and Black Goddesses.
     Foreward. Ralph J. Hexter. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Marshall, Paule. Praisesong for the Widow. New York: PlumePenguin, 1983.

Murphy, Joseph M.. Santería: An African Religion in America. Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1988.

---Working the Spirit: Ceremonies of the African Diaspora. Massachusetts:
     Beacon Press, 1994.

Olorounto, Samuel B.. "Studying African-American Literature in Its Global Context."  

    VCCA Journal 7.1
(Summer 1992): 23pars. 28 Aug. 2001.

Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santería, Obeah, and the Caribbean. Eds. Margarite
     Fernández Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gilbert. New Jersey: Rutgers, 2000.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art &
New York: Vintage Random House, 1984.

Voices of the Orishas: Music Video. Singer. Elpido Cardenez. University of

     California Extension Center For Media and Independent Learning. Berkeley,
     CA 94704. Ph (510) 642-0460, 1993.

Zolrak, "Prayer to Yemayá." Yemayá. 26 Aug 2001.

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