Iemanjá is perhaps the most popular orixá in Brazil. A country with a gigantic sea coast, this makes a lot of sense. In every house of any riverside towns there will be a Catholic image and another of Iemanjá on the altar. In addition to the celebrations on February 2, we also have the tradition in Brazil of wearing white at NYE and launching requests, offerings or simply “jumping the seven waves” into the sea.
For this reason, I want to start this text by talking about how Iemanjá is celebrated in Africa and how it arrived in Brazil, especially in Bahia.
The first thing to know is that we are talking about the people Ioruba in Africa, which according to Biobaku (1958, apud Verger, 2018) is the term that applies to a linguistic group, united by the same culture and traditions of common origin, in the city of Ifé, but they did not build a single political entity and were unlikely to be called like this before the 19th century.
“The term “Ioruba” seems to have been attributed by the Hausas [people] exclusively to the people of Oyó. Ademakinwa (1956, p. 60) writes that “the extension of this word is due to the initiative of Samuel Ajayi Crowther, born in 1810 in Oxogun (…). Imprisoned by the Fulanis in 1821 and sold into slavery in Lagos, he was freed by a British cruiser from the repression group against slavery. Brought to Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1822, where he studied, he then went to England and returned to Africa, where he ended his career as an Anglican bishop. He wrote, in 1852, his Ioruba Vocabulary, which was their language as defined by the Hausas. As early as 1830, Reverend John Raban of the Church Mission Society had published, with the help of Ajayi Crowther, a vocabulary which he still called ‘eyo’, but in which he declared that “ioruba is the general domination of a great country with five regions: Oyó, Egbwa , Ibarupa, Ijebu and Ijexá.” (Verger, 2018, p. 23).
There were actually more than five regions, but there was an interest on the part of the missionaries to unify the understanding of this culture.
When we talk about orixás (Òrìsà) we are referring to the Ioruba’s religion and there isn’t an unique type of practices nor even the same hierarchy among the orixás. There are places that demonstrate that certain orixás occupy a dominant position in some places, and in others they are totally absent. Iemanjá, for example, which is sovereign in the region of Egbá, is not even known in the region of Ijexá.
“Faced with extreme diversity and countless variations of coexistence between the orixás, it becomes disbelieving of certain overly structured conceptions. The religion of the orixás is linked to the notion of family, the living and the dead. The orixá would be, in principle, a divinized ancestor, who, in life, established bonds that guaranteed him control over certain forces of nature (…) or else ensuring him the possibility of performing certain activities such as hunting, working with metals or even acquiring knowledge of the properties of plants and their use. The power, aé, of the ancestor-orixá would have, after his death, is the possibility of being momentarily incarnated in one of his descendants during a phenomenon of possession provoked by him.” (Verger, 2018, p. 26).
Iemanjá (Yèyè omo ejá — Mother whose children are fish) is the orixá of the Egbá, people established in the region between Ifé and Ibadan in Nigeria, near a river called Yemoja (I couldn’t find this river on the map, you can easily find the Osun river, which I believe is the one referred to in Verger’s text as Ògùm).
“The wars between the Ioruba nations led the Egbá to emigrate westward (…) at the beginning of the 19th century. Evidently, it was not possible for them to take the river, but on the other hand, they carried with them the sacred objects, supports of the asé of the divinity, and the river Ògùn, which crosses the region, became, from then on, the new address of Iemanjá.” (Verger, 2018, p. 196).
According to Verger, Iemanjá’s main temple is in Ibará, in the region of Abeokutá, Nigeria, but I couldn’t find it on google map. I believe that in order to have more precise information, it would be necessary to have an update of Verger’s texts, which were written in 1981. But what is relevant about this historical part is that during the celebrations in this temple, the worshipers go every year to get salt water to wash their divine objects, in the tributary of the Ògùn river. These waters are collected in jars, through a procession with people holding wooden sculptures and drums. The procession on the way back will greet all the important people in the neighborhood, starting with Olúbàrà, King Ibará (Verger, 2018).
It is believed that many Egbá (or their descendants) were enslaved and brought to Brazil, mainly in Bahia. It was the main place of study by Verger, who reports that this region had an intense contact with people of Angola and Congo, until approximately the end of the 17th century. Then came more people located on the east coast of the São Jorge de Minas Fort, located in the Olphus of Benin, between the Volta River and the Lagos River. “Such relationships were later limited to the central part of that region, known by the sad name of “Slave Cost”, whose main one was Ouidá (…).” (VERGER, 2018, p. 30–31).
In Africa, each people and each region had specific practices for some orixás (sometimes just one). When these different peoples were brought to Brazil, many regions were mixed, bringing different rituals to different orixás.
I have to say that writing this part of the text brought me a very heavy energy (of course). Because despite bringing how Candomblé was built in Brazil as a resistance to the culture and religion of the enslaved people of Africa, I am also talking about one of the greatest violence and extermination ever committed in the world. We Brazilians owe a huge karmic debt to this (not to mention the extermination of our native people). It is history, but it is also a spiritual, social and economic debt.
That said, with great respect I will make an energetic turn in the text here to bring some mythologies of Iemanjá recorded by Reginaldo Prandi in his research that gave rise to the book “Mythology of the Orixás”. My intention is to bring the myths and each reader can make their connection with this energy, and I’m not going to mention the archetypes, celebrations etc. Just the myths.
Yemanja helps Olodumare in the creation of the world
Olodumare-Olofim lived alone in the Infinite,
surrounded only by fire, flames and vapors,
where he could barely walk.
Tired of your dark universe,
tired of not having to talk to,
tired of not having anyone to fight with,
he decided to put an end to that situation.
He unleashed the forces and the violence
from them he caused a storm of water to flow.
The waters struggled with rocks that were born
and they opened deep and great hollows in the ground.
Water filled the hollow crevices,
making up the seas and oceans,
in whose depths Olocum went to dwell.
What was left of the flood was made the earth.
On the surface of the sea, close to the land,
there Yemanjá took his kingdom,
with its seaweed and starfish,
fish, corals, shells, mother-of-pearl.
There Iemanjá was born in silver and blue,
crowned by the Oxumarê rainbow.
Olodumare and Iemanjá, the mother of the orixás,
mastered the fire from the bottom of the earth
and handed him over to the power of Aganju, the master of volcanoes,
where the imprisoned fire still breathes.
The fire that burned on the surface of the world they put out
and with its ashes Orixá Ocô fertilized the fields,
favoring the birth of herbs, fruits,
trees, woods, forests,
that were given to Ossaim’s care.
In places where ashes were scarce,
the swamps were born, the plague,
which was donated by the mother of the orixás to her son Omulu.
Iemanjá was enchanted by the Earth
and adorned the rivers, waterfalls and ponds.
This is how Oxum, owner of fresh waters, emerged.
when everything was done
and each nature was in the possession of one of the sons of Iemanjá,
Obatalá, responding directly to Olorum’s orders,
he created the human being.
And the human being populated the Earth.
And the orixás by humans were celebrated.
(PRANDI, 2001, p. 380–381)
Iemanjá is raped by her son and gives birth to the orixás
Of the union between Obatalá, the Sky,
and Odudua, the Earth,
were born Aganju, the Firm Land,
and Iemanjá, the Waters.
Marrying her brother Aganju,
Iemanjá gave birth to Orungan.
Orungan nurtured an incestuous love for his mother.
One day, taking advantage of his father’s absence,
Orungan kidnapped and raped Iemanjá.
She afflicted and given over to utter despair,
Iemanjá freed herself from the arms of her incestuous son
and ran away.
She chased after her Orungan.
When he was about to catch her,
Yemanja fell fainting
and his body grew immeasurably,
as if her shapes were transformed into valleys, hills, mountains.
From her breasts, huge as two mountains, two rivers were born,
that later came together in a single lagoon, giving rise to the sea.
Iemanjá’s immense womb ruptured
and from them the orixás were born:
Dada, goddess of vegetables,
Xango, god of thunder,
Ogun, god of iron and war,
Oculum, deity of the sea,
Olossá, goddess of lakes,
Oia, goddess of the river Niger,
Oshun, goddess of the Oshun river,
Oba, goddess of the Oba river,
Ocô, orixá of agriculture,
Oxóssi, orixá of hunters,
What, god of the mountains,
Ajê Xalugá, orixá of health,
Xapanã, god of smallpox,
Orum, the Sun,
Oxu, the moon,
And others and more orixás were born
of the violated womb of Iemanjá.
And finally, Exu, the messenger, was born.
Each Yemanjá child has its story,
each has its powers.
(PRANDI, 2001, p. 381–383)
Yemanja drowns her lovers in the sea
Iemanjá is an owner of rare beauty
and, as such, a capricious woman with extravagant appetites.
She once left her abodes in the depths of the sea
and she came to earth for the pleasure of the flesh.
She found a handsome young fisherman
and took him to her liquid bed of love.
Her bodies knew all the delights of the encounter,
but the fisherman was just a human
and he drowned in the arms of the morning.
When dawn came, Iemanjá returned the body to the beach
And so it always happens, every night,
when Iemanjá Conlá is enchanted by the fishermen
who go out in their boats and rafts to work.
She takes the chosen one to the bottom of the sea and lets herself be possessed
and then she brings him back, lifeless, to the sand.
The brides and wives run early to the beach
waiting for the return of his men who went to sea,
begging Yemanjá to let them come back alive.
They take many gifts to the sea,
flowers, mirrors and perfumes,
so that Yemanjá always sends lots of fish
and let the fishermen live.
(PRANDI, 2001, p. 390–391)
PRANDI, Reginaldo. Mitologia dos Orixás. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2001.
VERGER, Pierre. Orixás: deuses iorubás na África e no mundo novo. Salvador-BA: Fundação Pierre Verger, 2018.