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Yemaya (Yemoja) – Yoruba Queen of the Sea

Yemaya, also known as Yemoja, Yemanja, Yemalla and others, was the river or sea orisha of the Yoruba people, one of the largest ethnic groups of southwestern Nigeria. In Yoruba religion, she was considered as the mother of all living things and was among the most powerful and loved deities of all, and was also known as the Queen of the Sea.

Yemoja goddess of creation
By Brooklyn Museum, CC BY 3.0

Yemaya’s Origins

The Yoruba people often created stories to help them make sense of the world around them and these stories were known as the patakis. According to the patakis, Yemaya’s father was Olodumare, the supreme god. Olodumare was known as the Creator of the Universe, and Yemaya was said to be his eldest child.

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Legend has it that Olodumare created Obatala, a demigod who had two chidren with his wife. They were called Yemaya and Aganyu. Yemaya married her brother, Aganyu and they had a son together, whom they named Orungan.

Yemaya was known by many names including Yemalla, Yemoja, Yemaja, Yemalia and Iemanja.  Her name, when translated means ‘the Mother Whose Children are Fish’ and this could have two meanings.

  • She had innumerable children.
  • Her benevolence and generosity gave her many devotees, equivalent to the fish in the sea (also innumerable).

Originally, Yemaya was a Yoruba river Orisha and had nothing to do with the ocean. However, when her people boarded the slave ships, she didn’t want to leave them so she went along with them. Over time, she became known as the goddess of the ocean.

Yemaya’s worship spread beyond African borders, and was notable in Cuba and Brazil. In fact, the name Yemaya is the Spanish variant of the Yoruba name Yemoja.

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The Seven African Powers

The goddess of the seas had immense power and she was easily the most loved orisha of the Seven African Powers. The Seven African Powers were the seven orishas (spirits) who were most involved in every matters of humans and were often invoked as a group. The group consisted of the following orishas:

  • Eshu
  • Ogun
  • Obatala
  • Yemaya
  • Oshun
  • Shango
  • And Orunmila

As a group, the Seven African Powers provided the Earth with all their protection and blessings.

Yemaya As The Queen of the Sea

The patakis describe Yemaya as the most nurturing of all the Yoruba deities and it’s believed that she was the beginning of all life. Without the goddess, there would be no living things on the earth. As the Mother of All, she was very protective of all her children and cared for them deeply.

Yemaya was strongly associated with the sea, in which she lived. Like the sea, she was beautiful and filled with generosity but if anyone crossed the goddess by disrespecting her terrain or hurting one of her children, her anger knew no bounds. She could very fierce when angry and had been known to cause tidal waves and floods. Thankfully, she wasn’t one to lose her temper easily.

The goddess loved with all her heart and women often developed a close relationship with her but they had to be careful when communicating with her near the sea. While she never intended to cause harm to any living thing, Yemaya liked to keep everything she loved near her and would try to them into the sea, forgetting that her children had to live on land and not in the waters.

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Last update was on: June 17, 2024 4:44 am

Depictions and Symbols of Yemaya

Yemaya was often depicted as a spectacularly beautiful, queenly-looking mermaid or a young woman wearing a dress with seven skirts, which symbolized the seven seas. When she walked, her swaying hips would evoke the sea, causing waves. She typically wore corals, crystals, pearls or tiny bells (which tinkled when she walked) in her hair, on her body or on her clothes.

The goddess’ sacred number is seven, for the seven seas and her sacred animal is the peacock. Her favorite colors were blue and white, which also symbolize the sea. There are many symbols associated with the goddess including fish, fishnets, shells and sea stones since all of these pertain to the sea.

Yemaya as the Mother of All Living Things

As the mother of all living things, Yemaya loved her children and cleansed them of sorrow and suffering. She was extremely powerful and would cure infertility problems in women. She also healed emotional wounds and helped the mortals to solve any issues they had with self-love. Women often invoked her aid when they had problems and she would always listen to them and help them. She was a protectress of women and children, governing everything related to women, including childbirth, conception, pregnancy, child safety, love and parenting.

The Creation of Life

Some legends tell of how Yemaya brought life to the world by creating the first mortals. The story goes that her waters broke, causing a great deluge, creating all the streams and rivers on earth and then, from her womb, the first humans were created. Yemaya’s first gift to her children was a sea shell which contained her voice so that it could always be heard. Even today, when we hold a sea shell to our ear and hear the ocean, what we hear is Yemaya’s calm voice, the voice of the sea.

According to other legends, Yemaya’s son Orungan, an aggressive teenager, tried to kill his father and raped his mother. When he tried to do it a second time, Yemaya ran away to a mountaintop nearby. Here she hid and cursed her son continuously until he finally dropped dead. 

After this incident, Yemaya was so full of sorrow that she decided to take her own life. She jumped to her death from the top of a high mountain and as she hit the ground, fourteen gods or Orishas came out of her body. Sacred waters flowed from her womb, creating the seven seas and this was how water came to earth.

Yemaya and Olokun

Yemaya played a role in another myth involving Olokun, a wealthy orisha who lived at the bottom of the ocean. He was worshiped as the authority over all water deities and bodies of water. Olokun was angry because he thought he wasn’t being appreciated by humans and decided to punish all of mankind for it. He began to send gigantic waves to land and people, who, seeing mountains of waves coming towards them, began to run away in fear.

Luckily for humanity, Yemaya managed to calm Olokun down and as his temper receded, so did the waves, leaving behind mounds of pearls and corals on the seashore as gifts for the humans. Therefore, thanks to Yemaya, humankind was saved.

Worship of Yemaya

Yemaya’s devotees traditionally visited her at the ocean with their offerings and they also created an alter for her in their homes with saltwater when they could get to the sea. They decorated the altar with things like nets, sea stars, sea horses and sea shells. Their offerings to her were usually sparkling, shiny things like jewelry or fragrant objects such as scented soap.

The goddess’ favorite food offerings were lamb dishes, watermelon, fish, duck and some say she enjoyed eating pork crackling. Sometimes she would be offered bits of pound cake or coconut cake and everything would be garnished with molasses.

Sometimes devotees couldn’t get to the sea to make their offerings to Yemaya or they didn’t have an altar at home. Then, Oshun, her fellow water spirit and the orisha of the sweet waters, would accept the offerings on Yemaya’s behalf. However, in this case, devotees had to remember to bring an offering for Oshun as well to avoid making her angry.

In Brief

Yemaya was a kind and loving goddess who reminds her children that even the worst disasters in life can be endured if only they have the will to try and invoke her in times of trouble. She continues to rule over her domain with beauty, grace and maternal wisdom and remains an important orisha in Yoruba mythology even today.

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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.