Discovering the Rich History and Symbolism of Yemoja, the Mother of All Orishas
Updated: Mar 16
Every year in October, the Yoruba people of South-Western Nigeria give thanks to the water spirit known as Yemoja. She is ancient goddess, believed to be the maternal figure to the hundreds of nature-based orisha's the Yoruba people revere. The special day is called 'Odun Yemoja', set aside by her followers to remember and celebrate their beloved goddess.
Yemoja is a pivotal part of ancient Yoruba pantheon. Her name comes from the words 'Yeye-omo-eja' translated as 'Mother whose children are fish', and she is associated with water and the ocean. She is often depicted in lore as a mermaid with androgynous features and her followers stretch far, from West Africa, Cuba, Brazil and many others.
Bode market, Molete is the setting for the occasion - here is where the Yemoja shrine can be found. The community is made up of narrow passageways and interconnected buildings, as is conversant with the classic mode of building for the Yoruba, and these passageways house tales, rituals and relics as old as the Yoruba pantheon itself.
The faces of the community reverberated warm auras. They were preparing to honor the beloved goddess, whose presence is associated with peace, prosperity, and good fortune for those who honor her.
Adults were dressed in blue and white regalia, the colors the goddess is associated with, and they accessorized with colorful beads, cowries and flamboyant hairstyles. They shared cheerful greetings and prepped for the ceremony, while the laughter of children lulled through the corridors.
The Yemoja shrine was the hub of all the activity, and it was our first stop for the day. It is customary to pay a visit to the Yemoja shrine to pay respects, and offer prayers and sacrifices to the deity and in return she blesses, protects and guides. People offer all kinds of things from flowers, fruits, cooked food and live animals. Sacrifices are a big part of Nigerian spirituality and I go deeper into that here.
The excitement grew steadily fueled by the music and dancing and songs in the goddess' honour. Yemoja worship brought the community together in a warm way and I was touched. The celestial being is seen as a caring, protective and healing figure, plus her association with water and the seas gives one a sense of calmness despite how powerful she can be. The rituals and ceremonies are done in the open and gives a sense of community because they are practicing it together, so there is a strong sense of hope and optimism.
Another interesting thing to note, is the depiction of the Goddess. Her imagery shows characteristics that blur the lines between male and female. For example, the statue below show male characteristics in the face and shoulders, but also features breasts used in nursing one of her children. This blending of traits suggests that ancient African spirituality creates and has always created spaces for the intersex, the trans and all other in between children.
Too often, especially in Nigerian societies, we tend to think in the binary - things must either be this or the other - but the world and the humans in it are way more complicated than that. Leading with love and showing no prejudice are the only way to coexist and I was pleased to discover that the ancient Yoruba not only do that, but also elevate them to demigod status in their society.
When it was time to move the party to the waterside, we paraded excitedly alongside a crowd several hundreds strong. Fruit, cooked meals, yams, small birds and goat in hand; she would be eating well on this day! We followed the drainage canal to the point where it connected to the stream, and this was the point the head priest offered these items to Yemoja.
Once this was done, parents eagerly dunked their children into the water, as they prayed for protection in the months and years to come. It filled me with so much joy as a witnessed perhaps the greatest show of love on this day, a nurturing love that makes it apparent to the children that they are cherished and they are whole. One of the best experiences I have ever had.
These fantastic pictures are courtesy of Ugochukwu Emebiriodo and you can find his work @Hitchoflife.
To see video content of the celebration, you can watch it on TikTok or on Instagram.
My only concern is the level of hygiene of this waterway and I think effort should be put into keeping it clean all year round. It is a holy site that children are being put in contact with so as not to expose them to harmful organisms, but other than that, an experience that I would never trade for anything. Don't forget to like, share, and put your thoughts in the comments!