Sacred stories of the Orishas

I did a previous blog introducing the worship and culture of Orishas. I noted that I would be going through some of the stories of the Orishas. In some societies, these stories are called Patakis- sacred stories that provide lessons and teachings to the community and aid them with maneuvering life and how to stay connected to their surroundings. These stories explain the cosmologies of the societies who believe in them, so this is, they explain their relationship to nature, space, soul and to the gods and goddesses.

Having noted that there are over 400 Orishas, it is also important to note that there is no sacred books or scriptures for those who practice the worship of Orishas. Even within particular tribes, depending on location and upbringing, the practice may vary. This means not every Santeria practices worship the same and not every Yoruba practices worship the same way. This, to some, is a positive thing. It allows more flexibility in terms of acceptance of difference. For example, in Afro-Cuba, people that identify with the LGBTQ community have indicated that their communities are accepting of this in relation to religion. In other communities (as mentioned in the previous blog on this), some sacred stories do not label Orishas with gender and some with multiple genders. Of course, the alternative is possible. To oppress certain identities as a result of religious beliefs.

Majority of the sacred stories of the Orishas in Yoruba societies are tied to marriage and motherhood. It is important to understand that in order to truly capture these lessons, you unlearn all that you know about marriage, womanhood, and motherhood now as it very much exists within patriarchal boundaries. Motherhood, especially, is an important factor in Yoruba societies (in various Afrikan communities and Afro-birthed societies as well).

Womanhood carries a “legacy” of successful reproduction, business acumen, and social responsibility

[Murphy and Sanford, Ọ̀ṣun Across the Waters : A Yoruba Goddess in Africa and the Americas]

Basically, womanhood represents all the activities- economic, political and social- that occur in order to sustain a community. Additionally, Yoruba motherhood and womanhood are identities of strength, independence and givers of life. It is also within the frameworks of womanhood and motherhood, that the worth of one’s ancestry is determined.

Orisha OYA

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In this sacred story of Oya, Orisha Oya was married to male Orisha Shango, the Orisha of fire. In the book Oya: In Praise of an African Goddess, author Gleason explains the relationship between the two Orishas “Oya’s winds precede thunderstorms. Shango’s rain seeds fertilize the earth” and “Oya’s electrical charge is so intertwined with Shango’s that it would be perilous to speak of it without first…” showing how both Orishas complemented each other’s talents and both were necessary in maintaining order on earth.

In Yoruba society, calabashes symbolize life. Oya being the Orisha of the Sky and Shango being the Orisha of earth is symbolic to two halves of a closed calabash. This is to show that life exists because of their two forces being combined. In marriage, this shows that neither man nor woman holds a more important position and both their energies are necessary to ensure that the family grows. It is believed that daughters and sons of Oya are very sexual and enjoy multiple partners.

Orisha OSHUN

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Orisha Oshun demands respect and those who disrespect her have to seek forgiveness. To Afro-Cubans of the Santeria religion believe that Oshun was so mighty and powerful but her male counterparts did not think so. One time the male Orishas had an important meeting and did not invite her, when Oshun found out she became so angry that she caused chaos in the world and made all women infertile. The male Orishas could not do anything about it so they sought help from Olodumare (the high god) and when he found out they had not invited Oshun he also became furious with them. He said the only way they could reverse the world was to call another meeting and invite Oshun.In the book, The Altar of My Soul: The Living Traditions of Santería, author and practitioner of the Santeria Vega says, that Olodumare told the male Orishas that, “Without women and children, the world could not function. Without Ochun, the world would always be in a state of confusion” Furthermore, this tale of Oshun, “ teaches us that the world will be in disorder as long as women and children are neglected, disrespected and abused”. This emphasizes how important the voices, the decisions of women in community matter and allows women to hold men accountable should they feel disrespected or silenced. It is powerful that Oshun is the goddess of immense love but is also able to be rational and can also be destructive. She 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. This promotes a new way of acquiring knowledge that allows both men and women to trust, express and use their emotions when making decisions.

Orisha YEMAYA

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In some communities, Yemaya was also married to a male Orisha, Ogun. Yemaya was the most beautiful woman but she was insecure because she only had one breast. This stopped her from falling in love and in turn made her dislike the idea of marriage. However, Ogun loved her so much. He did everything in his power to please her and show her appreciation. One day he decided that the only way to please her was to cook for her, he went into the kitchen and tried to cook but he ended up breaking one of Yemaya’s pots. Yemaya was so angry and confronted him- in doing so, he got angry and struck her across the face. Furious Yemaya disappeared, taking with her a big piece of Ogun’s powers and leaving him restless. This story in many communities is an indication of the taboo of domestic violence. Yemaya in some communities gives advice on domestic violence and helps women deal with being abused by their husbands. Yemaya gives strength to these women and protects them.

You can read the following books for more Patakis and more about Orishas in Afrika and the Afro-Americas.

  • Oya : In Praise of an African Goddess. by Gleason, Judith Illsley. 
  • Ọ̀ṣun Across the Waters : A Yoruba Goddess in Africa and the Americas by Murphy, Joseph M., and Mei-Mei. Sanford
  • The Altar of My Soul : The Living Traditions of Santería by Vega, Marta Moreno. 
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