The Brazilian Great Mother by Mirella Faur (Part 1)


This article was originally published by The Beltane Papers issue #30 February 1998. FAR is republishing it with permission from the author in order to digitally archive this important work.

Brazil is traditionally known as a Roman Catholic country, with a great influence of African cults and a growing number of various Protestant sects and different spiritualist, new age and esoteric groups. One of these, Wicca, has been catching up the public attention, appearing lately on the media and making us ask ourselves many questions such as – with so many myths and legends in our origins, why do we have to import from abroad, through books and especially virtual information, other cultures’ traditions and practices?

There are not, yet, reliable written records or academic research, except a few private studies, proving the existence of an ancient cult of a Brazilian Great Mother. On taking possession of Brazil’s primitive land, European conquerors discarded and destroyed the ancient universe of the native people. Modern archaeological discoveries prove that the rock art,  anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines and the ceramic objects left by the  people that inhabited Brazil 15.000 years ago, have magical and religious attributes, similar to those found in Europe. There are also plenty of native myths and legends left, some of them disguised in folklore or children’s stories, that can be, in the future, used to translate the country’s pre-history, shedding more light on the lost past and recovering the vestiges of an Ancestral Mother. For the time being, we must count upon the Afro-Brazilian cults and the hidden meaning of legends to discover images of a Mother Goddess, as the ones below.

Despite of its fundamentalist official religion and patriarchal society, Brazil concentrates, with the exception of India, the greatest amount of worshipers of one of the manifestations of the Divine Mother, which is Yemayá, the ancestral Goddess of Water, and Lady of the Ocean.

Every year, on New Year’s Eve and on February second, millions of Brazilians, dressed in white, take their offerings and prayers to the sea shore or sail in boat processions. These processions, similar to the Egyptian and Roman ceremonies called Navigium Isidi, dedicated to Isis, the protectress of the seafarers, who, like Yemayá, is also called “The Lady of the Navigators”. Although this huge Brazilian devotion to Yemayá, her cult is not an indigenous one, being brought to Brazil by the Yoruba slaves, in the XVIII century.

Known as Yemojá or Yeyé Omo Ejá, “The Mother whose children are fish”, Yemayá was the Orisha (Deity) of the Egba nation, a Yoruba tribe who lived near the Yemojá River, in Benin, now known as Nigeria. Due to wars, the Egba migrated and established themselves near the Ogun River, place from where the Yemayá cult left to Brazil, Cuba and Haiti.

In the Yoruba myth, Yemayá was the daughter of Odudua, the Earth, and Obatalá, the Sky. Raped by her son, she gave birth to all the Orishas and, from her voluminous breast, gushed forth two rivers, which formed a big lake.

In Brazil, her myth mingled with the native indigenous beliefs of the water Nymphs and with the European images of the Mermaid. Sometimes called Sea Mother, Sea Mermaid or Lady Janaina, she is usually described as a slender, young European-like mermaid, dressed with a blue robe, coming out from the sea with outstretched hands holding pearls, although her real African origin portraits her as a mature, dark skinned woman, with black hair and very big breasts. In the syncretism with the Catholic Saints, Yemayá is identified with various aspects of the Virgin Mary and celebrated on these festive Catholic saint days.

In Brazil, the original Yoruba myths and traditions have been adapted in several different ways, according to the place of cult and the interpretations made by the local priests and priestesses, following their personal visions and knowledge.

The more complete definition of Yemayá’s archetype is given by the Esoteric Umbanda, a spiritual path which studies, classifies and relates seven of the many African Orishas with the Universal, Cosmic and Planetary principles. In this cosmology, Yemayá is considered the feminine and receptive principle of fertility and life generation, the primeval womb, the source of primordial water. She incarnates the Great Mother’s attributes of gestation and motherhood, the phases and cycles of the Moon, the rhythms of the tides. She is the nurturer and protector of women and children, of the animal and vegetal life, the patroness of artists and poets, inspiration of visions and dreams, the primal and loving Mother who sustains, soothes and mitigates the suffering of her followers and worshipers. Despite Yemayá’s massive worship in Brazil, she is not the native Ancestral Mother and her cult only appeared after the country’s colonization and the African slaves’ arrival.

Unfortunately, very little is known about the myths and deities of the Tupi-Guarani tribes, the primitive inhabitants of Brazil. Converted by force by the Jesuits, their religious practices were prohibited and the ancestral oral tradition called Tuyabaé-cuaá (“the wisdom of the shamans”), hidden in a sacred language, Nheengatu, was forgotten little by little and distorted by later interpretations.

It is known that the native Tupi-Guarani tribes believed in the existence of a Divine Creator, a Great Spirit which manifested itself as Guaracy, the Sun, and Yacy, the Moon. From their union, Ruda was born: its  name meant “love”, and, by extension, the human beings. While Guaracy was worshiped by men, who wore a special talisman called Tembetá on their lower lips, Yacy was worshiped by women, and their amulets were called Muyraquitans, made from green clay.

The contemporary dualistic mystical conceits  consider the Sun as the personification of the masculine principle. But, when analyzing the nheengatu syllables of the name Guaracy, we discover that Guara means living and Cy means mother, thus Guaracy represents the generating and vital energy which animates all vegetal, animal and human life. In the Japanese, Northern, Slavic, Baltic, Egyptian, Native American and Australian cultures, among others, the Sun is also found to be a Goddess, and not a God. Therefore, we may assume that originally the Ancestral Solar Mother of the Tupi people was a Goddess, afterwards transformed in a masculine Sun, worshiped only by men.

Yacy means Mother Nature because her name is composed by Ya, which means Lady, and Cy, which means Mother. As the origin of everything in the Universe, as the personification of the Nature, the phases and cycles of the Moon and the flow and tides of water, Cy represents the womb of creation, the very source of life. In the Tupi cosmology, everything and every living being has a mother, who gives birth, nurtures, maintains and protects her offspring.

The Tupi-Guarani tribes had different names for the different qualities of motherhood: Yacy was the Mother Moon; Amanacy, the Mother of Rain; Aracy, Mother of the Day and Birds; Iracy, Mother of Honey; Yara, Mother of Water; Yacyara, Mother of the Moonlight; Ceiuci, Mother of Stars, among many other Mothers, which could be of cold and warmth, of fire and gold, of the woods, swamps and beaches, of rivers and lakes, of silence and sounds.

This piece is continued in Part Two.

Mirella Faur is a writer and priestess of the Great Mother, leading a pioneer work on the Goddess Path in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital. She  has conducted women’s circles, public Full Moon rituals, Sabbat celebrations, rites of passage and shamanic workshops for women.  After she moved away from Brasilia her work is continued by her disciples and adepts in the same way at the Unipaz (University for Peace Work) in Brasilia. She now lives in a small rural town and occasionally gives lectures and  has a private astrological counseling work. Mirella was initiated in the Esoteric Umbanda by the priest and writer W.W. Matta e Silva, having received the initiatory name Cynayá. She is author of six books  about the Sacred Feminine, Northern Mythology, Runes, Moon Astrology and Shadow Archetypes.

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Categories: Goddess feminism, Goddess Spirituality

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7 replies

  1. Reblogged this on Project ENGAGE and commented:
    A good read for sociology, transtheorectical model of change, cultural appropriate in health care

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  2. Yemaya, the Mother of Fishes may be imported but we can be sure She is living in Brazil through Indigenous cultures in some form. I too am discouraged when I think of all the female goddesses that were made invisible and stolen from the people – BUT they live on as your fascinating story demonstrates… I will be looking for the next installment.

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    • Thank you Sara for your comment, you are right about the indigenous Water Goddesses, very few of them are known nowadays by their ancestral names and attributes.One of them is Uiara or Tauva, revered as the Mother of the Flowing Waters and Juriti, the Mother of the Rivers. Both symbolizes the vitalizing and purifying power of the the water, the very blood of Mother Earth.They teach us how to flow over the obstacles in our life, without repressing our emotions or stagnating due to our fears, feeling free to choose our way and express the truth of our Sacred Self.

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  3. Where have all the goddesses gone? I don’t mean ancient or historical worship of goddesses, I mean do we have a modern day persona, or a modern concept we can work with that could stand in for the great goddess? I also think our acceptance of support for caring for the environment has roots in mother worship as earth worship. When we consider how much we do to support environmentalism, and especially protecting the Earth from different forms of pollution, we are close to a type of worship, or a caring for the Earth, or a great love for the planet we live on.

    The Million Tree planting project in New York City was completed last year, and now there isn’t a single street in New York without trees growing huge and spreading magnificent canopies. Also amazingly, right now the number of different bird species in New York City, including Brooklyn, is estimated to be about 386, according to a website called citybirder.blogspot.com

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    • Sarah, good question. Since returning 2 years ago to the land of my birth (and the land of 150+ years of ancestors), I’ve begun a journey into your inquiry of “do we have a modern day persona, or a modern concept we can work with that could stand in for the great goddess” … and, for me, it does stem from the land. For instance, these are rocky hills where I live and Her name has become TildTe; it is a land of vast networks of caves so listening to Cave Mother’s voice is part of being present to the Goddess. Overall, she is Gaia, but she speaks in special landscape voices that I am seeking to hear. As I merge this into my own veganism, animal rescue work, and concerns for the environment, I feel her within AND without. And, while I also use some of her ancient names, I am listening for her new, perhaps more personal images and energies as well.

      Is this a little of what you mean? Or have I missed your point?
      And how wonderful about the trees in NYC!

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  4. Mirella, thank you for this beautiful and important post. You weave together shared stories of the Great Mother as she manifests in Brazil now, in West Africa a few centuries ago, and in Egyptian and Roman customs of antiquity. Vestiges of the Navigium Isidi honouring of Isis can also be seen in the pilgrimages bringing images of Catholic saints to the sea, as at Stes Maries de la Mer in France where I know you have been, and in the Orthodox custom of throwing an icon into the sea at Theophania or Epiphany, the Feast of Light on Twelfth Night (January 6th. This holiday is connected to the rebirth of the light after the winter solstice, themes also found in the rituals of Isis and Yemaya. I love your emphasis on the ancient and current rituals which unite, rather than divide, the children of the Great Mother of all different races and religions. We need more of this in our time!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Beautiful, thank you and reblogged on the divine feminine app as well <3

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