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In certain cosmogonies, it’s not strange to find deities that are considered older than the universe itself. These divinities are usually associated with the beginning of creation. This is the case with Nana Buluku, the supreme African goddess.
Although Nana Buluku originated within Fon mythology, she’s also found in other religions, including Yoruba mythology and African diasporic religions, such as Brazilian Candomblé and Cuban Santería.
Who is Nana Buluku?
Nana Buluku was originally a deity from the Fon religion. The Fon people are an ethnic group from Benin (localized particularly in the southern part of the region), with a well-organized system of deities that constitutes the Vodou pantheon.
In Fon mythology, Nana Buluku is known as the ancestral deity who gave birth to the divine twins Mawu and Lisa, respectively the moon and the sun. It’s noteworthy that sometimes these two divinities are simply addressed as the primal-dual god Mawu.
Despite being associated with the beginning of creation, Nana Buluku didn’t participate in the process of ordering the world. Instead, after giving birth to her children, she retired to the sky and remained there, far from all earthly affairs.
Besides being a primary deity, Nana Buluku is also linked to motherhood. However, some Fon myths also suggest that Nana Buluku is a hermaphroditic divinity.
The Role of Nana Buluku
In the Fon account of creation, the role of Nana Buluku is important, but also somewhat limited, as she created the universe, gave birth to the gods Mawu and Lisa, and soon after withdrew from the world.
Curiously enough, Nana Buluku doesn’t even try to govern the earth through other minor deities, as the supreme and heavenly Yoruba god Olodumare does.
In Fon mythology, the real protagonists of the creation are Mawu and Lisa, who after their mother’s departure, decide to join forces to give form to the Earth. Later on, the two gods populate the world with lesser deities, spirits, and humans.
It’s worth noting that Nana Buluku’s divine twins are also the embodiment of the Fon belief regarding the existence of a universal balance, created by two opposite yet complementary forces. This duality is well-established by the attributes of each twin: Mawu (who represents the female principle) is the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and forgiveness, while Lisa (who represents the male principle) is the god of warlike strength, virility, and toughness.
Nana Buluku in Yoruba Mythology
In the Yoruba pantheon, Nana Buluku is regarded as the grandmother of all the orishas. Despite being a common deity for many west coast African cultures, it’s believed that the Yoruba assimilated Nana Buluku’s cult directly from the Fon people.
The Yoruba version of Nana Buluku is similar in many ways to the Fon goddess, in the sense that the Yoruba also depict her as a celestial mother.
However, in this reimagination of the deity, Nana Bukulu’s background story becomes richer, due to her leaving the sky and going back to the earth to live there. This change of residence allowed the goddess to interact more frequently with other divinities.
In the Yoruba pantheon, Nana Buluku is considered the grandmother of the orishas, as well as one of Obatala’s wives. For the Yoruba people, Nana Buluku also represents the ancestral memory of their ethnicity.
Nana Buluku’s Attributes and Symbols
According to the Yoruba tradition, once the goddess returned to earth, she began to be considered as the mother of all deceased people. This is because it’s believed that Nana Buluku accompanies them during their journey to the land of the dead, and also prepares their souls to be born again. The notion of reincarnation is one of the fundamental beliefs of the Yoruba religion.
In her role as the mother of the dead, Nana Buluku is strongly associated with mud, a connection based on the idea that mud resembles the maternal womb in many aspects: it’s humid, warm, and soft. Moreover, in the past, it was in muddy areas where the Yoruba would traditionally bury their dead.
The main ritual fetish linked to Nana Buluku is the ibiri, a short scepter made out of dried palm leaves, which symbolizes the spirits of the dead. No metal objects can be used in the ceremonies by Nana Buluku’s cult. The reason for this restriction is that, according to myth, on one occasion the goddess had a confrontation with Ogun, the god of iron.
In the Cuban Santería (a religion that evolved from that of the Yoruba), the isosceles triangle, a yonic symbol, is also widely associated with the goddess’ cult.
Ceremonies Related to Nana Buluku
A common religious practice among the Yoruba people involved pouring water on the earth, whenever worshippers tried to appease Nana Buluku.
In Cuban Santería, when someone is being initiated into the mysteries of Nana Buluku, the initiation ceremony involves drawing an isosceles triangle on the floor and pouring tobacco ashes inside of it.
The aleyo (the person who’s being initiated) has to wear the eleke (the bead necklace consecrated to Nana Buluku) and hold the iribi (the goddess’ scepter).
In the Santería tradition, food offerings to Nana Buluku consist of dishes made primarily with saltless pork fat, cane, and honey. Some Cuban Santería ceremonies show respect to the goddess by also including the sacrifice of chickens, pigeons, and pigs.
Representations of Nana Buluku
In Brazilian Candoblé, Nana Buluku’s portrayal is similar to that of the Yoruba religion, the only significant difference being that the goddess’ dress is white with blue motifs (both colors associated with the sea).
Regarding Nana Buluku’s connection to the animal kingdom, in the Cuban Santería it’s believed that the goddess can take the form of the majá, a large, yellowish snake, from the boa family. When disguised as a snake, the goddess protects other creatures from being hurt, especially with iron weapons.
Nana Buluku is an ancient deity worshipped by many west coast African cultures. She is the creator of the universe in Fon mythology, although she later decided to adopt a more passive role, leaving her twin children in charge of the task of shaping the world.
However, according to some Yoruba myths, the goddess abandoned the sky after some time and moved her residence to the Earth, where she can be found near muddy places. Nana Buluku is associated with motherhood, reincarnation, and bodies of water.