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Yemaya, Goddess of the Ocean and the New Year

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They call her the goddess Yemaya, Ymoga (Mother of the Fishes), Iamanga, and Balianne. She traveled with them from Yoruba to distant lands, comforting them in the holds of the slave ships that took them far away from their homeland in Africa. Today she is also celebrated under many other names, including the virgin Mary (Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception), Stella Maris (Star of the Sea), and Our Lady of Regla...to name but a few.

Originally Yemaya was a river goddess of the Yoruba in Nigeria, far from the ocean. She was a nature spirit, an orisha, a powerful guardian spirit that reflects an important aspect of the God of the Ife religion. An orisha manifests itself as a force of nature. When her people were hoarded onto the slave ships, Yemaya went with them, thus becoming the Goddess of the Ocean.

Actually Yemaya shares responsibility for the ocean with another orisha. Olokun rules the dark and turbulent depths of the ocean. Her domain is the upper level, the part of the sea that the light strikes, where water evaporates to be carried to land by her daughter Oya (the wind) to make rain for the crops. Yemaya's gentle waves rock the watery cradle of the abundant life forms of the sea.

Yemaya is a mother goddess, the goddess of home, fertility, love and family. Like water she represents both change and constancy--bringing forth life, protecting it, and changing it as is necessary.

In the creation myths of the Yoruba, the creator Olodumare first created a mortal god-human, Obatala, and gave him a wife. Their children were Yemaya and Aganyu, who had a son together. They named him Orungan. As a teenager Orungan rebelled against his father and brutally raped his mother. When he tried to rape Yemaya a second time, the river goddess fled to a nearby mountaintop where she cursed her son until he died.

In sorrow she chose to end her own life on the summit of the mountain. As she died she gave birth to fourteen powerful orisha. When her waters broke it caused the great flood that inundated the world and created the seven seas. Obafulom and Lyaa, the first human male and female and the ancestors of all humans, arose from the bones of the goddess. According to legend, Yemaya is the mother of all life.

According to legend, Yemaya's first gift to humans was a sea shell in which her voice could always be heard. To this day we honor Yemaya when we hold a shell to our ear in order to hear her voice, the ocean.

Olokun, the orisha of the bottom of the sea where the light does not shine, inspires respect and fear, for the powers of destruction that can be unleashed from the ocean depths are vast.

In The Secrets of the Sea, Gloria Rolanda tells of a time that Olokun, feeling unappreciated, decided to punish mankind.:

At his orders, immense waves began to invade the land...the ocean swelled up, darkened, infinite, and people who lived furthest from the coast saw, terrified, a horizon of water mountains running towards them.

Fortunately Yemaya was able to calm the fury of Olokun just in time, and the wave settled gently into the shore, leaving mounds of coral and pearls when the water receded.

Olukun demands respect for his ominous power that is unbounded, but it is the goddess Yemaya that is associated with creation and with life itself. When each of their dual aspects, (such as male and female, power and compassion) is held in proper balance, these two orisha unite to offer enormous gifts and unlimited energy.


Often depicted as a mermaid, or simply a beautiful woman standing amidst the waves, Yemaya is a goddess of comfort and inspiration. When it comes to caring for others, her impulses are sincere and comforting. And she has a love for children that is unequalled.

Yemaya reminds us that even the worst catastrophes can be endured and that, with her help, we can learn to negotiate the ebbs and flows of change in our lives with her wisdom, courage, and grace.

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