I think if you read my blogs by now you know I am all things Afrika! So…
This past semester I took a course called “Feminist theory” and you can imagine we talked about a lot of depressing things covered in equality and oppression. I had decided that I was going to have positive vibes throughout last semester and nothing was going to ruin it. You can imagine the struggle it was when my bubble was busted. But lucky enough my professor was on a similar path of positivity. I loved my professor because she always made it clear that while there was so much injustice going on, there are some outlets; areas to find the sun or the moon.
So, we were talking about places where and how women can find power. We started off reading about women in Algeria who talked about the safety and power from sanctuaries and religious shrines. And on that, our professor thought it would be fun to research about goddesses. She wanted us to find a goddess (from any culture) that we identified with, who told a similar story like ours or reflected our personalities. This is when I discovered Orishas. The all-so-powerful Afrikan Orishas from the Yoruba tribe.
You all have no idea how excited I was when I was reading about these Black gods and goddesses. This was such a powerful moment for me because I was reading about the stories of Black gods and goddesses that shaped the communities our ancestors thrived in. It was a new world unfolding in front of me. I had been trying to learn more about indigenous Afrikan religions and I guess this gave me a push to do more research. And I did.
End of Story!
The worship of Orishas dates long before Islam or Christianity was introduced to the Nigerian community (some books date it back 5000-20000 years ago). Today, a lot of the information, practices and beliefs regarding Orishas can be found in communities in South America like Brazil, Cuba and Ecuador as well as various communities in New York and Chicago that belong to the Santeria or Candomblé religion. Unfortunately, Orishas are not as prevalent in Yoruba or Afrika in general. Of course, there are few people that still practice the religion but they are outcasted and live in small hidden villages (all thanks to colonization, we now outcast our own cultures).
“Everyone is believed to have an Ori thus we all have an Orisha” (Altar of My Soul; Vega Moreno).
Before one can understand Orishas, they must understand what an Ori is. An Ori is the well of life; the source of life; where life flows and stems from. Orishas are energies; forces of and among nature that allow us to tap into our Ori. In ancient Yoruba, these are represented as Black bodies. However, with colonization and slavery, the exportation of Orishas in some regions ended up whitewashed (I will discuss this in another post).
In various Yoruba communities, stories of the Orishas were gender neutral. It is really hard to say what Orishas were male or female or both (because these too existed). Overtime, as our societies became more gender specific so did the stories of the Orishas. However, what is beautiful is that in these communities, they still had ways to break the gender expectations.
While there are many Orishas, for the purpose of this blog, I will be talking about Oya (or Yansan), Oshun (or Ochun or Oxun) and Yemaya (or Yemanja). I chose to write about these Orishas because in Yoruba societies, there are numerous ways to celebrate Orishas in which women play a significant role. This is through different art forms like music festivals, paintings, and theatre in forms of masquerades. It is believed that through [speaking, feasting, and dancing with the Orishas, human beings are brought to worldly success and heavenly wisdom]. At these functions, women’s strength and power is publicly made aware for all to respect. The growth and development of the community is addressed as feminine because all accomplishments and growth are attributed to women’s powers. Women are vital in this process of worshipping the Orishas even more without them, the transfer of wisdom from different Orishas into the diviner would not happen.
Oshun is Oluwa [god]; the highest and most powerful Orisha in some communities. Oshun can be young, old, rich or poor- in some communities Oshun has no gender as well. Oshun tears down binaries; in communities whose functionality remains even today in binaries. Oshun tackles issues of class by manifesting herself in any person of any socio-economic class and fights for against ageism by giving them power of wisdom to either the young or old. Everyone in the community becomes worthy of respect and has the chance to significantly contribute to their communities in the presence of Oshun.
Oshun is the goddess of immense love but is also able to be rational and can also be destructive. Oshun has contrasting characteristics and in our world today, where women who are usually labeled as “too emotional to be rational”- Oshun challenges this and shows that knowledge can be emotional and rational. Oshun mastered both joy and pain and sees them as both necessary in the paths to self-discovery. This promotes a new way of acquiring knowledge that allows both men and women to trust, express and use their emotions when making decisions.
Oshun empowers women by giving them guidance when raising children, teaching them how to love unconditionally and protect them like Oshun does with the children. Even more, Oshun empowers women to be confident, to have their voices heard, gain respect and empower them economically.
Yemaya is the Orisha of the living ocean. All life begun with Yemaya! Yemaya can be swift and benign but vicious like the storm of the sea. Yemaya is soft like the breeze by the waves and destructive like the storm of the sea. Yemaya in some communities is the Orisha that gives advice on domestic violence, violent love, child abuse and sexual abuse. Oya helps women who go through abuse by their husbands. Yemaya gives strength and voice to these women and protects them while making decisions on what to do.
Audre Lorde expresses her love of and gratitude to Yemaya in her poem titled “From the House of Yemanja”,
Mother I need
mother I need
mother I need your blackness now
as the august earth needs rain.
In this poem, Audre Lorde expresses her desire for Yemaya’s presence and shows how as a Black goddess this is fundamental for her success as a Black woman.
Oya is the Orisha of the winds. Oya can be soothing and fresh but can also be violent and destructive depending on the circumstances. All rivers and lakes from Niger to the Nile are all Oya’s creations. Oya’s strength is compared to that of Ogun and Shango combined ([male] Orishas). Oya is the great protector of women that demands for women’s respect in communities.
The different tales of Oya all indicate resistance of male domination. Additionally, Oya’s existence emphasizes the importance of egalitarianism in the community. In some communities, Oya is the one half of the calabash and Shango is the other half. Calabashes are important and symbolic of life in Yoruba (and majority Afrikan) communities. The complementarity of Shango and Oya was important in ensuring that communities understand the significance of women’s work and voices in advancing life.
Oya is the goddess of female eroticism. In our time today full of slut-shaming and policing women’s sexuality, Oya operates in a different manner that encourages and supports women to explore sex and view it as a powerful tool. Sex becomes something that both men and women should benefit from and a woman having the power to ask for this pleasure is the voice Oya’s existence creates and maintains.
Orishas are important to the modern day Afrikan, African America and Afro-Latino because they address identity issues and inequality such as racism, sexism, gender-based violence, homophobia, ageism, and so forth. Furthermore, they help to redefine womanhood and motherhood to reflect the social, economic and political responsibility of raising children.
This is a little background on the three Orishas that I will be expanding on in my next post. I will be sharing one tale on each Orisha and explaining how this is embodied in the Yoruba community.
**There are no pronouns attached to the goddesses in order to preserve the gender neutral existence they have in the communities even if they are presented as [female] Orishas**