On April Fools Day I had my first encounter with Santeria, a religion derived from the Yoruba religion Ifa. A week earlier I had asked an African drummer if he could help me solve some inner problems with faith. My African religion class had opened my eyes to the possibility of following an African religion. Until this semester I had no idea of the existence of African religions. For many years I have been struggling with questions of faith and spirituality. I definitely believed in a higher creator and in my guardian angel, but I could not subscribe to a religion because to do so would be to accept certain stipulations. For instance when I was younger I was an acolyte in an Episcopalian Church. Images of a white God and white saints were constantly pressed upon me. Finally I rejected the whole notion of religion. For the first time in over ten years I have considered the idea of joining a religious faith. For some reason I have been experiencing an inner turmoil or desire for spiritual guidance. Even now it is difficult to explain my feelings. For these reasons I went to Charles, a friend of mine who drums for my African Dance class. At the time I believed he could help me. I was honestly surprised at how seriously he listened to my questions of faith. He walked me back to my room and told me that the first thing I needed to do was starting thinking of my ancestors. "Make a little altar with a clear glass of water and put out a white candle," Charles said. I must confess that it took me several days to actually do it; I kept making excuses. During that time I was waiting to get an appointment with a santero that Charles knew. Only after I finally started talking with my ancestors and lighting the candle did I receive my appointment.

On a rainy night Charles and I drove into the heart of the worst, most dangerous latino neighborhood of Philadelphia. Stopping before a nondescript row house we made our way past the drug pushers on the corner inside. The interior of the house caught me completely off guard. Expecting to see the worst, I was pleasantly surprised by a beautiful home full of pictures, dolls and offerings to the Seven Potencias of Santeria. There was a large wall mural of Yemanya, a large figure of Shango as St. Barbara, many crosses above doorways for Eleggua, and a large wicker chair full of many colorful objects, bottles, and foods. I was greeted by Lazarus, a short, stocky, man with large brown eyes and his wife. While I talked with their little son the two of them started making preparations for my divination. Lazaurus unfurled a straw mat from underneath a table. He also pulled out a basket with three large stones, each covered with markings. Next, Lazarus put on a pink bonnet and lit a cigar. After puffing furiously on the cigar, he took out a handful of cowrie shells and motioned me to sit on a stool in front of him. From this point I watched Lazarus undergo a complete transformation of character. He began chanting very fast in Spanish. The words I recognized were the names of the orishas, especially Eleggua. Occasionally he would kiss the shells. Suddenly, he asked me my name in the middle of a chant. Next he asked the names of all my ancestors. He then instructed me to touch the shells. The chanting went on for some time as his wife accompanied him. I sat transfixed and a little frightened as I watched this man become possessed with a penetrating, powerful stare. When he stopped chanting the room was charged with expectation, with a forceful movement he threw the cowrie shells on the mat. He did this several times, muttering to himself and his wife. Finally he looked up at me and started making blunt, powerful statements about my life which completely threw me off balance. Much of what he said was very personal; however I will share some of my divination.

As Canizares points out in his book, Walking with the Night people with the Santeria faith have both mother and father orisha. My divination indicated that Yemaya is my protectress, and benefactor. After enduring a large amount of suffering Yemaya asked the other orisha to bless me. The other orisha conceded and now give me their blessing as well. According to my divination, I have the benediction of all the orisha as well as the blessing from my ancestors. Possessed by Eleggua, Lazarus was able to see that I had already set an altar in my room, correctly describe my intestinal disorder, correctly recount my family history, and expose my fears. Lazarus threw the cowrie shells a countless number of times. After each throw he muttered something to his wife who wrote everything down. All communication was in Spanish. The whole experience was very unsettling, intriguing, and powerful. He told me that I am very spiritual and that I will enter the Santeria religion to become a powerful santero. My experience as a santero will solve my health problems and bring happiness to others. He returned to the orisha by telling me again the Yemaya looks out for me and so does Ochun. He ended the session by giving me instructions on how I must offer libations to these orisha. I will return to his advice, but first let me outline the history and mythology of Yemaya within Yoruba Ifa and Cuban Santeria.



Yemaya lives and rules over the seas and lakes. She also rules over maternity in our lives as she is the Mother of All. Her name, a shortened version of Yey Omo Eja means "Mother Whose Children are the Fish" to reflect the fact that her children are so numerous that they are uncountable. As modern sciences has theorizes and ancient cultures have known, life started in the sea. As an embryo we all spend the first moments of our lives swimming in a warm sea of amneotic fluid inside our mother's womb. We must transform and evolve through the form of a fish before becoming a human baby. In this way Yemaya displays herself as truly the mother of all, since she is the seed of all the paths or manifestations. Joined with Yemaya in the Yoruba tradition is Olokun, the source of all riches and unfathomable power. Yemaya dresses herself in seven skirts of blue and white and like the seas and profound lakes she is deep and unknowable, but also caring and nurturing. In Candomble, Santeria and Ifa Yemoja is considered the ultimate matriarch symbol. Yemoja embodies all characteristics of motherhood, caring and love. This maternal source of divine, human, animal, and plant life is most widely symbolized by the ocean. However, in Yoruba land, Yemonja is the deity of the Ogun river, which is the largest river within the territory of the ancient Yoruba. In the new world Yemonja is the deity of the top part of the ocean and has incorporated many of the characteristics of Olukun. In all cases Yemoja represents the birthplace of life on earth. In ancient Yoruba river was the largest, most powerful body of water; therefore belief held that in the rivers was life spawned. As Africans of the Ifa religion came in contact with the ocean during their forced migration to the New World, Yemoja evolved with greater proportions, and consequently, the ocean became her symbol, the womb of the world. As a result of the middle passage Yemonja became one of the most prominent and worshipped deity in the New World. For instance in Brazil, specifically in the African derived religion, Candomblé, Yemaya is considered a national deity and savior for having protecting their ancestors during the middle passage. Among the Orisha, she is the mother of the most powerful orishas including: Shango (God of thunder and lightening), Ogun (God of iron), Oya (goddess of the winds) and many others. Interestingly some of her orisha children did not endure the middle passage or were simply left behind in Yoruba land. In general these lesser children of Yemonja were more obscure, or location specific so that when Africans in the New World consolidated their orisha many of these smaller orisha were forgotten or blended with other, more powerful orisha. As a result of the middle passage, Yemoja changed from goddess of the great Ogun river to goddess of the ocean. With the forced infusion of Catholicism and the resulting sycrentism of African religions, Yemanya has been canonized in the form of the Virgin Mary. In the Gelede Cult Yemaya is considered the ultimate female power. In general Yemaya's ocean domain is confined to the top layer which contains the most life and is universally considered the womb of life. The origin of Shango, Oya, and Ochun can easily traced back to the ocean. As water evaporates from the ocean surface because of the sun's heat, it rises and forms clouds. Winds (Oya) carry theses clouds across the land. These clouds transform into thunderheads and lightening providing rain for everything to live. This rain is then brought back to the ocean via her daughter, Ochun. Although barely noticed and perhaps incorporated within Yemanya is her male counterpart, Olukun. Indeed without Olukun much of Yemanya power would not be known.



In Yoruba culture Yemonja is directly linked to a male energy- Olukun. According to Niemark, both orisha compliment each other. Where Yemonja is worshipped as being caring and motherly, Olukun balances her strong feminine powers with his steadfast male energy. In Santeria and Candomblé Olukun and Yemonja have been separated into two orisha. In both religions Yemonja has a much stronger following. A possible explanation for Yemonja's popularity is the strong connection with the ocean and the Africans who were brought over. In any case, according to Niemark, a Yoruba priest, " There is great danger in separating the characteristics of the single Yemonja/Olukun; quite simply, each half is incomplete. (pg. 117)" According to the Ifa religion those who connect solely with Yemonja tend to be passive and easily taken advantage of. Interestingly the opposite can be said for those who connect too strongly or exclusively with Olukun. Niemark uses Joan of Arc as an example of a person too connected to the Olukun aspect of Yemonja/Olukun.

Olukun is the orisha who resides in the dark depths of the ocean underneath Yemonja who stays within the upper layer of the ocean. While Yemonja is associated with life, fertility and creation, Olukun is respected for his ominous power that has no perceived limits or boundaries. In the Ifa tradition, Olukun is connected with wealth, and untold treasures. Therefore the ominous energy and power of Olukun balances the motherly and compassionate qualities of Yemonja. Properly combined and respected, these two orisha unite to form Yemonja/Olukun. United Yemonja/Olukun offer enormous protection, love and unlimited energy. An Ifa myth told by Niemark illustrates this dynamic duality:

...Orunmila, who, during a time when the water orisa were said to be angry with men, was informed in a dream to go to the ocean shore and offer sacrifice. Others had been afraid to approach the awesome angry ocean energy, but Orunmila did as instructed. After he had offered sacrifice, a huge wind began to whip the ocean in to mountainous waves. Suddenly one wave, so huge that it blotted out the sky and sun, rose directly in front of Orunmila. He was afraid that he would be swept away to his death by it. Instead of sweeping him away, however, the wave hovered directly over his head and then seemed to settle gently to the shore at his feet. As the water receded back in to the ocean, Orunmila looked down to see mounds of pearls and precious stones left by the water. Once again, the orisa had been appeased and humankind had been rewarded. (pg. 117)



One transcendental theme carried from the Ifa religion throughout Cuba, Brazil and the New World is the personification of African gods. Each orisha has unique characteristics, both good and bad, that manifest in human life. The aforementioned story illustrates the deep, powerful anger of Olukun offset by the caring and generous attitude of Yemonja. Those individuals who associate with Yemonja/Olukun exhibit these characteristics. Some other characteristics associated with Yemonja/Olukun are:

love for children
a very strong temper which is slow to erupt
a sincere caring feeling for others
ability to see other perspectives
very domestic
very protective of offspring
attraction for streams, oceans, and lakes
able to forgive easily
a calm attitude
money comes easily and without worry
emotional well being is most important
very caring and comforting
a quiet sense of sensuality

By exploring Yemaya's symbol as the ocean we notice these characteristics. The tides represent Yemaya desires to protect and nurture all her children, by rocking the world as if it were a cradle. The tides demonstrate that Yemaya is "sometimes still, sometimes violent." Since Yemaya is considered the greatest mother there is no surprise that she is very sexual. The motion of the tides is reflective of her seductive hips which she moves side to side. In many cases she is portrayed as having large buttocks and healthy hips. This duality of beauty and destructive power illustrates the widely held view that Yemaya represents the dynamic play of opposites. Yemaya is very moody and protective. Since nothing can resist water she is also respected for her strength. Yemaya drowns those who hurt her children.

Besides the fish, peacocks with their beautiful blue iridescent feathers and ducks also represent Yemaya. Blue is her color and those who worship Yemaya wear a necklace of clear and blue beads. In addition to a necklace, those who worship Yemaya wear a blue dress complete with seven layers to represent the seven seas. In a Yemaya ceremony everyone dances in a circle and the altar is in the form of a circle. A circle represents the eternal cycle of life. Both the half moon and a star are symbols of Yemaya to show that her beauty can't be represented by just one heavenly body. Since Yemaya is very vain, she appreciates jewelry, perfume, and flowers. Anything that come from the sea is a symbol of Yemaya. It is said that her axé, her energy comes through rocks and shells from the sea.



To return to my divination. Lazarus's wife a daughter of Yemaya gave me a detailed list of instructions of how to respect and worship Yemaya. First she said that Yemaya hates death and must stay away from violent atmospheres. "We are creators of life therefore we must avoid death," she said. She warned to stay away from fights and knives. Also, she told me not stand on the corners of streets. When the weather was windy and wet I should go outside unless I wear a white or blue hat. I must go to the ocean and her thanks to Yemaya by giving her pound cake, her favorite food. Since Yemaya loves me I must always talk with her when swimming in the ocean and remind her that I am human and must stay on land. Apparently, Yemaya is very protective and sometimes likes to hold onto her worshipers. Because Yemaya is my mother I am very creative, sensitive, and have a talent for making money and caring for others. While being sensitive I also have an enormous amount of power which I can access through worship of Olukun. Soon I will go to the ocean to offer thanks and give offerings like flowers and pound cake. Until then I can communicate with Yemaya though Ochun by going to the nearest river to offer gifts of fruits, namely oranges. At the river I speak to both Yemaya and Ochun for guidance and protection.

To conclude I started this semester which a deep feeling of unrest and unfulfillment. I knew at that point that something in my life needed to change. I regard much of this semester as journey or quest to resolve certain aspects of my life, like my faith and spirituality before I move to the next stage in my life. My experience and exploration of Santeria and Ifa both on a academic and personal level has made a profound impact on my future goals and my present relationship with my family, my friends and myself. In short, with the aid of Yemaya, I will continue to develop my relationship with Santeria and Ifa as I strive to be a santero.