Yoruba Goddess

Yemaja

A figure of Yemaja (Iemanja), photographed by Sailko (2013).

An ibeji or figure of Yemaja (Iemanja) from the Museo Afro Brasil carved by a Yoruba artist and dated to the 20th century. Image photographed by Sailko, (2013).

Wikimedia CommonsCC BY 3.0

Overview

Yemaja is a primordial deity, worshipped as the mother of the entire Yoruba pantheon and the patroness of birth and fertility. She thus serves as a powerful symbol of motherhood. Her worship is widespread throughout Yorubaland and the Americas, where she is called by many names, including Yemaya, Yemanya, Yemanja, and Iemanja, among others. She is best known as “the giver of life.”[1] 

Yemaja is considered the source of all water, including oceans, rivers, and lakes, though she is most closely associated with the Ogun River, the largest river in Yorubaland. The goddess is especially worshipped by women, as it is believed that the waters of the Ogun River can cure the infertility of her followers.[2]

As a water goddess, Yemaja protects all who move in the water, including fishermen and sailors. She also protects mothers during childbirth in her capacity as the goddess of motherhood. Yemaja herself has been likened to amniotic fluid because her waters “protect her children from a predatory world.”[3]

When Yemaja is happy and satisfied, she provides humans with an abundance of food and fertile lands. But when angered, she can be destructive, causing devastating floods and other natural disasters.

Pronunciation

  • English
    Yoruba
    YemajaYemọja
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    yey-maw-dgahjē.mɔ̄.d͡ʒā

Yemaja and the Birth of the Oriṣas

Statue of Yemoja, photographed by Paul R. Burley (2017).

A statue of Yemoja,or Terreiro Pilão de Prata in Salvador, Brazil, photographed by Paul R. Burley (2017).

Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA 4.0

Myths about Yemaja are extensive and varied, but the story of the birth of the Yoruba gods is particularly memorable (and cruel). 

According to this myth, Yemaja married the god Aganju and gave birth to a son named Orungan.[4] One day, while Aganju was out hunting, Orungan seized his mother and raped her. Yemaja ran away in horror, but Orungan pursued her with the intention of committing the vicious act again. Exhausted from running, the goddess fell backward onto the ground.[5]

As she lay on the ground, streams of water began to gush from her breasts, “inundating the earth [and] creating lakes in low places, rivers, intricate brooks and hidden sources.”[6] Sixteen oriṣas then emerged from her body, including Olokun, Shango, Ogun, and Obaluaiye. In this way, Yemaja gave birth to the Yoruba pantheon and assumed her place of honor as the goddess of motherhood.

References

Notes

  1. Molefi Kete Asante and Ama Mazama, Encyclopedia of African Religion (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2009), 735.

  2. Patricia Ann Lynch and Jeremy Roberts, African Mythology, A to Z (New York: Infobase, 2010), 123.

  3. Asante and Mazama, Encyclopedia of African Religion, 735.

  4. Judith Gleason, Orisha: The Gods of Yorubaland (New York: Atheneum, 1971), 7. However, some sources name Yemọja’s husband as the warrior god Ogun.

  5. Jonathan Olumide Lucas, The Religion of the Yorubas: Being an Account of the Religious Beliefs and Practices of the Yoruba Peoples of Southern Nigeria, Especially in Relation to the Religion of Ancient Egypt (Lagos: C.M.S. Bookshop, 1948), 111.

  6. Gleason, Orisha: The Gods of Yorubaland, 8.

Secondary Sources

  1. Asante, Molefi Kete, and Ama Mazama. Encyclopedia of African Religion. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2009.

  2. Awolalu, J. Ọmọṣade. Yorùbá Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites. London: Longman, 1996.

  3. Dorsey, Lilith. Orishas, Goddesses, and Voodoo Queens: The Divine Feminine in the African Religious Traditions. Newburyport, MA: Weiser Books, 2020.

  4. Gleason, Judith. Orisha: The Gods of Yorubaland. New York: Atheneum, 1971.

  5. Karade, Baba Ifa. The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts. Newburyport, MA: Weiser Books, 2020.

  6. Knappert, Jan. African Mythology: An Encyclopedia of Myth and Legend. London: Diamond Books, 1995.

  7. Lucas, Jonathan Olumide. The Religion of the Yorubas: Being an Account of the Religious Beliefs and Practices of the Yoruba Peoples of Southern Nigeria, Especially in Relation to the Religion of Ancient Egypt. Lagos: C.M.S. Bookshop, 1948.

  8. Lynch, Patricia Ann, and Jeremy Roberts. African Mythology, A to Z. New York: Infobase, 2010.

Citation

Mackay, Danielle. “Yemaja.” Mythopedia, April 26, 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/yemaja.

Mackay, Danielle. “Yemaja.” Mythopedia, 26 Apr. 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/yemaja. Accessed on 6 Jun. 2024.

Mackay, D. (2023, April 26). Yemaja. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/yemaja

Authors

  • Danielle Mackay

    Danielle Mackay is a writer and scholar who received her MA in Classical Studies from Rhodes University in South Africa

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