In the beginning of time Yemonja/Olukun reigned as the primal waters that covered the uninhabitable surface of the Earth. The Creator god, Olódùmarè, caused the Sun to descend upon them, merging forces to produce the sixteen original male òrìṣà (African deities) along with the sweet, fresh waters of Ọṣun. Thus Yemonja, the compassionate ocean goddess, became the mother of all (Neimark 115).

In this story, retold by Philip Neimark, Yemonja is a distinctively female deity with a masculine aspect—Olukun. Together they exemplify the balanced character of the complete mother archetype, both nurturer and warrior. It is this morpheus gender play that appears in African art and religious expression. The gender of Odùdúwà, for instance, who is the progenitor of the Yorùbá race, is ambiguous. Èṣù, who was transformed from female to male while still inside Ọṣunʼs womb, displays properties of both sexes. Ọṣun, herself, by association with Orúnmila sometimes blends with his male nature in a hybrid of gender. Mami Wata (female) is sometimes worshiped as Papi Wata (male). Male spirits, including Ogbuideʼs own husband, Urashi, dwell within rivers and streams all along the regions of the Igbo.

The water goddess in all her forms, occasionally appears as a man. In fact, for some practitioners of Haitian Voudoun, the spirit of the Sea—Agwé —is a decidedly masculine force. He is “both immediate and enduring, a ready strength and a deep peace;” a description Maya Deren uses to express his ideal nature as husband for Erzulie/La Sirene.
 
Although she is married to Agwé, Erzulie has relations with other Voudoun deities and is not bound by her identity as his mate. Ọṣun, too, complicates African folklore, both in the mother land and the Americas, with intriguing (even incestuous) love triangles and familial associations. Trickster figures, such as Legba, Ghede and Èṣù seem no more androgenous than hermaphroditic—a male character with more than a touch of feminine àṣẹ (energy).

I am led to wonder if this feminine àṣẹ is that same force called Shakti Devi in India. In Hindu Tantra, Shakti is the underlying principle of all the major cosmic powers. The animating force of the animating force, nothing can be accomplished without her. Sixteen male spirits, or sixteen thousand, need her light to illumine their way and her kinetic energy to awaken their potential.

Perhaps Shakti is Ọṣun, Mami and Ogbuide. Perhaps she is Erzulie in a sari.

She is the catalyst for evolution in nature and transformation in society. She is the waters that mold a seed into a sequoia...or a child, the baptismal fluids that transform a human heart. She is the imagination that begets all deities. She is the beauty and abundance springing forth as Venus/Aphrodite, Ganga or Lakshmi.

Monotheistic and patriarchal religious opposition has dammed the flow of widespread water worship, but the tides are always turning. The deities of water thrive on human imagination as well as inspire creativity. They yoke humanity to natureʼs sovereignty and significance. If we listen, we may hear her Siren song, beckoning to follow the path of beauty and grace; to celebrate the abundance of the Earth and to preserve itʼs healing waters.

The African òrìṣà have spanned across the sea, unifying races, cultures, and genders. The world is turning its attention toward the empowerment of women, the protection of children and the preservation of our natural environment. Perhaps we stand to gain from the mythic expression of the water goddess, as she bridges the chasms that separate us, one from another and reunites humankind with the abundant flow of Nature.

READ MORE:
Abiodun, Rowland. “Hidden Power: Ọṣun, the Seventeenth Odù” Ọṣun across the Waters: A Yoruba Goddess in Africa and the Americas. Ed. Joseph Murphy and Mei-Mei Sanford. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 2001.

Badejo, Diedre. “Authority and Discourse in the Orin Ọdún Ọṣun” Ọṣun across the Waters: A Yoruba Goddess in Africa and the Americas. Ed. Joseph Murphy and  Mei-Mei Sanford. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 2001.

Beier, Ulli. Yoruba Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1970.

Castellanos, Isabel. “A River of Many Turns: The Polysemy of Ochún in Afro-Cuban Tradition” Ọṣun across the Waters: A Yoruba Goddess in Africa and the Americas. Ed. Joseph Murphy and Mei-Mei Sanford. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 2001.

Cohen, Peter F. “The Orisha Atlantic: Historicizing the Roots of a Global Religion” Transnational Transcendence: Essays on Religion and Globalization. Ed. Thomas J. Csordas. Berkeley: U of CA P, 2009.

Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. New York: McPherson & Co, 1953

Doumbia, Adama and Naomi Doumbia. The Way of the Elders: West African Spirituality and Tradition. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 2004.

Drewal, Henry John and Margaret Thompson Drewal. Gelede, Art and Female Power among the Yoruba. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1990.

Drewal, Henry John. Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of UCLA, 2008.

Grillo, Laura. “African Religions.” Encyclopedia of Women and World Religion. 2 vols. Macmillan Reference USA, 1999.

Houlberg, Marilyn. “Water sprits of Haitian vodou: Lasirèn, Queen of Mermaids” Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas. Ed. Henry John Drewal. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of UCLA, 2008.

Jell-Bahlsen. The Water Goddess In Igbo Cosmology: Ogbuide of Oguta Lake. Trenton: Africa World P, Inc, 2008.

Murphy, Joseph. Santeria: African Spirits in America. Boston: Beacon P, 1988.

Murphy, Joseph. “Yéyé cachita: Ochún in a cuban mirror” Ọṣun across the Waters: A Yoruba Goddess in Africa and the Americas. Ed. Joseph Murphy and Mei-Mei Sanford. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 2001.
   
Neimark, Philip John. The Way of the Orisa: Empowering Your Life Through the Ancient African Religion of Ifa. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993.

Ribeiro dos Santos, Ieda Machado. “Nesta cidade todo mundo é d’Oxum: In this city everyone is Oxum’s;” Ọṣun across the Waters: A Yoruba Goddess in Africa and     the Americas. Ed. Joseph Murphy and Mei-Mei Sanford. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 2001.

Vega, Manuel. “Mãe Menininha;” Ọṣun across the Waters: A Yoruba Goddess in Africa and the Americas. Ed. Joseph Murphy and Mei-Mei Sanford. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 2001.

 


Comments

04/16/2013 7:35am

Yoga purifies the body and mind. The training program from RR Shakthi is very effective. The caption ‘Soul Artist’ is very much suits for Shakthi. She has 15 years of experience in this field and a certified massage therapist. Thanks for the story given above.

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03/09/2014 2:03pm

Really a nice effort!

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