I spent the winter holidays in Rio de Janeiro with my sister. It was wonderful to experience the warmth of both the Brazilian people and summer in the Southern Hemisphere but a little odd to miss the quiet, dark time of winter back home. One huge bonus to the trip was to be in a place where the worship of Yemayá is alive and active. I was blessed to witness a ceremony to her on New Year’s Eve held by Afro-Brazilian practitioners of the Candomblé religion on the beach of Copacabana.
Yemayá, also known as Yemoja and Iemanjá, came to Brazil, Cuba and Haiti with the Yoruba people of Nigeria in the 1600’s during the African diaspora. Her most ancient and full name, Yeyé Omo Ejá, means “Mother whose Children are the Fish.” She rules over the Seven Seas and large lakes. Her domain is the upper waters of the ocean, where life originated and continues to be concentrated. Fishermen call on Yemayá to bless their nets, providing food for their families. The woman ask Yemayá to protect their men while fishing and return them safely home to their families.
According to the Yoruba myth, Yemayá was the daughter of Odudua, Earth, and Obatalá, Sky, and the elder sister of Ochún. When her waters broke, giving birth to all the Orishas, her waters caused a great flood on Earth, creating the oceans from which the first man and woman were born. Her male counterpart Olukun rules the depths of the ocean, the unconscious. Together they create a balance from which to protect all life. She is both the sister and wife of Aganju, God of the Soil and the mother of Oya, Goddess of the Winds.
Yemayá is also known as Lady of the Rain, Constantly Changing Woman and Creator Mother. Some call her “Sirena” in which aspect she is depicted as a mermaid or a black woman on the seashore wearing a long dress of seven skirts with blue and white ruffles, representing the waves of the ocean and the seven seas. She is also known as Mama Watta, – Mother of the Waters.
She is associated with ducks, peacocks, saltwater, rain, healing, fertility, the full moon, the stars, the subconscious, creativity and female mysteries of reproduction. Her colors are blue and white; seven is her sacred number.
Pregnant woman call on her for help with childbirth. She is the patroness of artists and poets, the inspiration of visions and dreams, the primal Mother. She offers her love and aid to those who are lost and lonely. She grants protection, security, love and healing to all her children.
Yemaya is slow to anger but she can be fierce. When angered her punishments are severe yet just. In her angry aspect she is associated with perfection, hard work, subordinate occupations, service, health, efficiency and tame animals.
Yet she forgives easily and she loves to dance. She twirls around and around, slowly at first but then gaining momentum – her movements reflecting the rhythm of the waves.
Known in Brazil as Iemanjá, millions of Cariocas (the locals of Rio) honor her with offerings of flowers.They all come dressed in white to the Copacabana beach where they greet the New Year with fireworks, music and with the offerings of flowers they throw into the sea. Their offerings are given with the hope that Iemanjá will help fulfill their dreams for the coming year.
For the practitioners of the Candomblé religion their interaction with the goddess Iemanjá is a bit more intense.Their deities are called Orishas. Each one is celebrated on their sacred day with hours of singing and dancing in a circle. Certain kinds of herbs and drink might be imbibed. Suddenly the Orisha comes down and possesses the chosen among the faithful. Those who become possessed by the deity writhe, shout and moan. The deity is within them providing a link between the world of spirit and the human world.
Here are some photos of the ceremony on the beach of Copacabana I was lucky enough to stumble upon.
In another region of Brazil – Salvador, Bahia where the Candomblé religion is strong – Yemaya is celebrated on February 2. It begins at dawn with thousands of people lined up to leave their offerings at her shrine in Rio Vermelbo. Their offerings of flowers, perfume, jewelry, combs, and mirrors are gathered into large baskets and taken out to sea by local fishermen. The rest of the day the participants enjoy a huge street party full of dancing and fun.
In Brazil, Yemaya’s story mixed with the native indigenous beliefs of water nymphs and with the European ideas of the mermaid. As Sea Mermaid she is depicted as a slender, caucasian mermaid dressed in a blue robe, emerging from the sea with pearls in her outstretched hands. Her more ancient African image is one of a mature dark-skinned woman with long black hair and very large breasts.
Over time the African religion of the Yoruba became syncretized with Catholicism. Yemayá merged with the Virgin Mary and is often called Star of the Sea, one of the Virgin Mary’s names. She is also celebrated on the Virgin Mary’s feast days. Ancient myth recounts that Yemayá is the Goddess Isis, who originated in Egypt.
In one shop I found this little assemblage to Yemaya. Right across the aisle, in another shop, was this statue to the Virgin Mary.
In Haitian Vodou she is known as La Sirèn. She is worshipped as a Moon Goddess who protects mothers and their children. She is associated with the mermaid spirits of Lasirenn who brings seduction and wealth. From Haiti she migrated to New Orleans where in New Orleans Voodoo she is known as Yemana or Yemalla.
In Havana, Cuba, Yemayá is celebrated on September 7th with a procession. The ceremonies begin on September 6th when the priests and priestesses keep vigil through the night for Yemayá. She is celebrated frequently in the Afro-Cuban dance tradition.
Yemayá is the Great Primeval Mother. Call on her for protection, prosperity, nourishment, help with fertility issues and for creative inspiration. She is ever with us dancing on the waves of the sea.
Judith’s deck of Celtic Goddess Oracle Cards is available now. You can order your deck on Judith’s website. Experience the wisdom of the Celtic Goddesses!
Judith Shaw, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has been interested in myth, culture and mystical studies all her life. Not long after graduating from SFAI, while living in Greece, Judith began exploring the Goddess in her artwork. She continues to be inspired by the Goddess in all of Her manifestations. In recent years Judith became very interested in the Goddesses of her own ancestors, the Celts, creating a deck of Celtic Goddess Oracle Cards. Originally from New Orleans, Judith now makes her home in New Mexico where she paints as much as time allows and sells real estate part-time. Give yourself the gift of one of Judith’s prints or paintings, priced from $25 – $3000.