Artistic depiction of Yemaja.

Yemaja, also known as Yemoja, depending on the traditions of the local area, is the deity of the Yoruban people found in Nigeria, Benin and Togo. The Yoruba people are one of the three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria and as of the beginning of the 21st century, were made up of 20 million people. They are predominantly found in Nigeria, particularly in the south western area. Smaller, scattered groups can be found in both Benin and Togo.

Yemaja is believed to be the daughter of the earth goddess Odudua, as well as being the sister-wife of Aganju. Their child was Orunjan, the deity of the midday sun. The Yoruba’s myth of Yemaja and Orunjan is synonymous with the Greek myth of Oedipus. An ancient African tradition tells of Orunjan killing Aganju and raping his mother; producing 15 Orisha from the union. An Orisha in the Yoruban religion is believed to be a spirit that is a manifestation on earth of one of the Supreme Divinity. Before giving birth, her waters broke and inundated the world with water thus creating the Seven Seas. This establishes Yemaja as the creator goddess of the lakes, rivers and oceans but predominantly, as the chief deity of the Ogun River.

According to African tradition, all life was believed to have been born out of the sea. By extension Yemaja was believed to have created all life on earth in her role as ‘Mother of the Ocean’. During the Transatlantic slave trade in place between the 16th and 19th centuries, African traditions and deities were carried to the ‘new world’ and established in areas such as South America and the Carribbean. For example, Yemaja can be found in the Voodoo religion of Haiti, the Candomblé tradition of Brazil and the Santería religion of Cuba.

In all of these religions, Yemaja is believed to be a caring and nurturing deity whose power would increase fertility. She is believed to protect children, as well as watch over those who are travelling across her oceans. Due to this, many of her followers are sailors, fishermen and women who are either pregnant or infertile. Yemaja is depicted as a beautiful woman with large breasts and full hips; emphasising her fertility and status as the mother of all life. She is usually shown wearing blue, white or silver to stress her connection with the sea.

Yemaja is occasionally shown as a half woman, half fish hybrid which gives some cause to see her as a Mermaid deity in African religion.

-Devon Allen
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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