We fight for equality today and have a women’s history month because the stories of women have been neglected and hidden over the years. Take Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti for instance. If you do not take out time to do some research, all you probably know about her would be that she was the first woman in Nigeria to drive a car or that she birthed the great Fela. These stories derive validation from an association with men. I bet you didn’t know she founded the Abeokuta ladies’ club (Abeokuta women’s union), one of the most powerful women organizations in the world with a membership estimated to 20,000 women. In 1949, these women fought to end unfair taxation imposed on women. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti also founded the first adult education programme for women in Nigeria. These achievements are quickly swept under the rug. This is why it is important that we lift these rugs and celebrate femininity and its prowess now and always.
Where stories about regular women are ignored, stories about goddesses are often buried never to resurface again. The empowerment of women can come in many forms, including the rediscovery of ancient cultural beliefs and stories that glorify the divine feminine. And while many women have been strengthened by watching the amazing feats of Captain Marvel on screen, at JuJu, we are connecting the present to the past as a way to direct our future. We want to bring stories a little closer to home, celebrating African superpowers and sisterhood. We are talking about the Òrìṣàs Yemọja and Oṣun.
In Yoruba culture, Òrìṣà is roughly translated to god/deity but it is incomplete to narrow down Òrìṣà to a single word. Deity infers superhuman qualities bestowed upon a human being to make them exceptional. Ori itself is a concept that exceeds the physical. In Yoruba mythology, there are two Oris, the visible one and the invisible one. The visible Ori is the one we all see. It serves as a barrel for the invisible Ori, Ori-inu. Ori-inu is the spirit of a person. It exists even before birth. It is God ordained. It is a person’s destiny, their spiritual intuition. In Yoruba culture, it is believed that a person can heal themselves by calling on their Òrìṣàs. The concept of Ori in Yoruba culture can be compared to that of Chi in the Igbo culture. Òrìṣà is said to come to life when divine power meets a natural force, a deified ancestor and an object that serves as a witness to the union. Òrìṣà are messengers of Eledumare, the Almighty. He put them on earth to watch over and protect the realm.
As it is for regular women to be multiple things at once, so it is for goddesses. Yemọja is an Òrìṣà yet mother of all Òrìṣàs. She is the protector of women as well as of children. Yemọja is a water goddess, guardian of the Ogun river, Odò Ògùn, which is the largest river in the Yorubaland territory. Yemọja is abundance personified. Yemọja is a healer. She provides both comfort and security to those who live and work around water. According to Olòrìṣàs, Yemọja is the amniotic fluid in a pregnant woman. She is the goddess of fertility. Her name is a shortened version of Yeyé Omo Eja, which means “Mother Whose Children are the Fish”. That is to say, her children are as uncountable as the fish in the sea. She is said to have the ability to reside in different water bodies like sea, lakes and lagoons but her home remains Odò Ògùn.
She is said to be multifaceted as she can be both soothing yet violent if the occasion calls for it. Lore says that she assisted Sango, god of thunder in stopping the practice of killing twins.
She is represented in various shrines around Africa with sacred stones — Ota — which is placed in a calabash containing river water.
Yemọja is not peculiar to the Yorubas only, she spans across continents. In Brazil and Cuba, she is worshipped as a sea goddess while in Yoruba culture, she is worshipped as River goddess while Olokun takes the sea goddess title. Her worship spread during the transatlantic slave trade to various places including but not limited to Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, etc. In cuba, Yemọja is Yemaya. In Brazil, she is Yemanja. The number 7 is often used to represent her as it refers to the seven seas. Her colors are blue and white.
In Yoruba mythology, Yemọja is older sister to Oṣun, the goddess of love.
Oṣun /Oshun/ is the Òrìṣà of love and beauty. She is the goddess of all freshwater, of luxury, of pleasure and of sexuality. Those who seek children may pray to Oṣun as she is also a goddess of fertility like her sister, Yemọja. She is also a healer. She uses her sweet waters and honey which belongs to her too. She also provides financial help. Oṣun is all femininity as she governs the female genitalia and the lower abdomen. She is also associated with human relationships.
Oṣun is governor of Osun river, whose source is in Ekiti state. Her first interaction with humans happened in Osun river. It is said that she granted the people who visited her permission to build the city while promising to protect and provide for them if they made offerings to her and rituals to honour her. The river passes through Oshogbo, where the. Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove, Oṣun’s sanctuary is located. It was chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005. Oṣun is honoured every august for two weeks at the sanctuary on the river banks. At these festivals, they pay due homage, make sacrifices and ask for their heart desires; money, children, long life and prosperity.
Lore says that once upon a time the Òrìṣàs felt that they did not need Eledumare anymore. When Eledumare found out about this, he cursed earth with drought. Try as they might, the Òrìṣàs were unable to reverse the curse. In her manifestation of Ibú Ikolé (Ikolé means Messenger of the House, of Eledumare), Oṣun turned herself into a peacock and flew into Eledumare’s realm to beg for his forgiveness. He agreed and restored water to earth. It is said that humanity may not exist if Oṣun had not intervened.
Stories also tell of the time Eledumare gave all Òrìṣàs a task to complete. Initially, the males started the work, ignoring Oṣun and the other female Òrìṣà. Oṣun then gathered the women. together forming Iyami Aje, a cult of women with special powers who protested the men’s behavior. When the men started failing at their work, they looked to Eledumare for help. He told them that nothing can be done without Oṣun’s input. Even among gods, the impact of women is still important. It is why she is referred to as Iyalode, even though she is the youngest of Òrìṣàs. When priests are to be initiated, they must visit and express submission to her, by visiting the river to give an account of their proceedings. They say she is Eledumare’s favorite Òrìṣà because of her beauty and her sensuality.
According to the stories, while she was a mortal being, she went to drum festival one day. There, she met and fell in love with Sango, the god of thunder. She married him even though he had two other wives, Oba and Oya. Oṣun was his favorite. Others say that she was also married to Orunmila, the god of wisdom. We stan a polyamorous goddess.
Like Yemọja, Oṣun is worshipped in foreign places too. In Cuba, she is associated with the Virgin Mary, where she is called Ochun and in Brazil, she is called Oxum.
Oṣun may be represented by peacock feathers, fans, mirrors or boats. Her colors include white, yellow and green, in Nigeria, gold in most of diaspora and pink in Trinidad. Her number is five.
Our bestselling Ala beads are named for the goddess Ala, who many may have first encountered in Akwaeke’s Freshwater, where Ada, the protagonist was born as a response to their parents from Ala.
Ala is a female Alusi, the goddess of fertility, mortality, and creativity. She is the ruler of the underworld and holds the souls of dead ancestors in her womb. Her name literally means ground, which denotes her power over the earth and her position as the ground itself. It is believed that she can swallow you whole by opening up the ground. She is also the guardian of harvest. She is the highest Alusi in the Igbo culture. She is said to be married to Amadioha, the sky god.
According to Igbo culture, she puts the child in the woman’s womb and watches over it till it becomes an adult. And when the child eventually dies, she collects them into her pocket, her womb. As goddess of morality, she presides over social affairs of men as she teaches her people the way to go. She emphasizes on moralistic behavior such as honesty at all times. Her laws and customs are referred to as Omenala. Crimes committed against Omenala are called Nso Ala.
She is worshipped at the center of the village in a large square house called Mbari. People offer her sacrifices like first fruits and harvests there. They build life-sized figurines of Ala, with a child on her knees, holding a sword are painted in bright colors like red and yellow. Around her, other sculptures representing other gods and goddesses are placed.
An Mbari isn’t just built randomly, Ala has to send a sign. Usually, she sends a snake or a bee’s nest to tell her priests where to set the Mbari up. Men and women from the village gather to build the Mbari which could sometimes take years. It is considered a sacred act. The act of building the Mbari is more important than the building itself. This explains why they are never occupied. When the Mbari is built, it is left to decay and new ones are built. This ensures that younger generations partake in the sacred task and the tradition can live on. However, as time goes on Mbaris are built less frequently because of war and poverty.
Ala’s messenger on earth is the python which Akwaeke talks about in Freshwater. Pythons are revered in the Igbo community. Another of her symbols is the moon. She is paid homage to during the new yam festival.
The African Divine Feminine is not limited to these three, there are many other goddesses, the most popular of which may be known from Egyptian mythology. I encourage you to take some time to look into powerful women, both in mythology and in real life. It is commonly said that feminism is un-African, but our own history challenges that lie. Women have always been powerful and important. Women are not the weaker vessels, but rather the cornerstone without which a great society can never be built.
In celebration of Women’s History Month and in celebration of Women, who shouldn’t only be celebrated for one month per year, but everyday.
Think equal, build smart, innovate for change”