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.”
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.
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.”
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.
Yemaja and the Birth of the Oriṣas
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. 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.
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.” 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.