In Ibadan, Oyo State, in a shrine revered and feared for its sacredness, sits a 400-year-old statue of a woman breastfeeding a baby. Every year, women and men, young and old, kneel before the statue and speak in song and prayer. They express gratitude for their lives and pray that they get to see another year. In front of the statue sits calabashes where they drop their offerings, hoping that the spirit would bring them favor and blessings. The statue is of the goddess Yemoja.
Of the hundreds of gods in the Yoruba pantheon, she is regarded as the “Mother of All.” Her spirit runs through rivers, lakes, streams, and creeks. Her home is the Ogun River, which her followers deem divine. She is celebrated in many parts of Yorubaland, but the most prominent celebration is the Festival of Yemoja, held in Ibadan, a 17-day religious ceremony that ends on October 31 every year and attracts hundreds of people from around the world.
During the grand finale, devotees converge at the Yemoja Temple near Bode Market, Popo Yemoja, Ibadan. The chief of young herbalists, known as the Aare Adimula fun Odo Babalawo Ilu Ibadan, prepares sacrificial items to be presented to the goddess. The chief priest, Baale Yemoja, then prays on the items, accompanied by the devotees.
A group of arugba—young women supposedly handpicked and assigned roles by the goddess herself—carry the calabashes, all dressed in white, and lead the procession to the nearby river.
After the calabashes are offered to the goddess, the chief priestess takes some water from the river and sprinkles it on the devotees, some of whom scoop the sacred water in bottles and take back home to their families.
Who is Yemoja?
Her three-syllable name can be broken down into a full sentence which captures part of her essence: “ye” or “yeye” means mother; “mo” or “omo” means children; and “ja” or “eja” mean fish. Her name literally translates to “mother of children who are fish.”
This naming is linked to her portrayal as a water-dwelling mermaid who presides over the rivers of the earth. But her most important duty was during Creation, when she assisted Obatala in creating humans under the orders of Eledua.
The reverence of Yemoja spans religions and geographical boundaries. She is not worshipped only in the Yoruba religion—she is central to the pantheons of many Afro-disaporic faiths such as Santeria, Umbanda, Candomble, and Haitian Vodou. The Middle Passage caused her to cross borders as West Africans who were trafficked to the Americas held on to her. There are shrines in her name in Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil, Cuba, Uruguay, and the USA.
Yemoja has taken various forms across cultures and become syncretized. Gradually, she is entering Western pop culture. In 2021, she was played by Bridget Ogundipe in the television adaption of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
Kanyinsola Olorunnisola is a journalist, social critic and literary enthusiast. He is the recepient of the 2017 Fisayo Soyombo National Essay Prize, the 2020 Speculative Literary Foundation’s Diverse Writers Grant and the 2020 K&L Prize for African Literature. He is the founder of SprinNG, a platform dedicated to the development of young African writers.