Yemaya: Santeria Goddess Of The Ocean

They call her the goddess Yemaya, Ymoga (Mother of the Fishes), Iamanga, and Balianne. She traveled with African slaves from Yoruba to distant lands. Comforting them in the holds of the slave ships that took them far away from their homeland in Africa. 

Today she is also celebrated under many other names. Among those are; the Virgin Mary (Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception) and Our Lady of Regla.

Yemaya Origins

Yemaya
PaulAdogaOgbolo, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

​Originally Yemaya was a river goddess of the Yoruba in Nigeria, far from the ocean. She was a nature spirit, an orisha. A powerful guardian spirit that reflects an important aspect of the God of the Santeria religion. An orisha manifests itself as a force of nature. When her people were hoarded onto the slave ships, Yemaya went with them, thus becoming the Santeria Goddess of the Ocean.

​Yemaya is a mother goddess, the goddess of home, fertility, love, and family. As such she shares the role and place of importance with other goddesses like the Norse goddess Freyja and the Egyptian goddes Hathor to name a couple. Like water, she represents both change and constancy–bringing forth life, protecting it, and changing it as necessary.

The Birth and Family Life of Yemaya

​In the creation myths of the Yoruba, the creator Olodumare first created a mortal god-human, Obatala. Next Olodumare gave Obatala a wife. Their children were Yemaya and Aganyu, who had a son together. They named him Orungan. Yemaya also had two sisters, the goddesses Oya and Oshun.

As a teenager, Orungan rebelled against his father and brutally raped his mother. When he tried to rape Yemaya a second time, the river goddess fled to a nearby mountaintop. There she cursed her son until he died.

Yemaya’s Jump to Death

​In sorrow, she chose to end her own life on the mountain’s summit. As she died, she gave birth to fourteen powerful orishas. When her waters broke, it caused the great flood that inundated the world and created the seven seas. 

Obafulom and Lyaa, the first human male and female, ancestors of all humans, arose from the bones of the goddess. According to legend, Yemaya is the mother of all life.

Yemaya’s first gift to humans was a seashell in which her voice could always be heard. To this day, we honor Yemaya when we hold a shell to our ear hearing her voice, the ocean.

Yemaya and Olokun

​​Yemaya shares responsibility for the ocean with another orisha. Her domain is the upper level, the part of the sea where the light strikes. There water evaporates to be carried to land by her sister Santeria goddess Oya (the wind) to make rain for the crops. Yemaya’s gentle waves rock the watery cradle of the abundant life forms of the sea.

On the other hand, Olokun rules the dark and turbulent depths of the ocean. As the orisha of the bottom of the sea where the light does not shine, he inspires respect and fear. Everybody understands that the powers of destruction that can be unleashed from the ocean depths are vast.

​In “The Secrets of the Sea”, Gloria Rolanda tells of a time when Olokun, feeling unappreciated, decided to punish mankind. “At his orders, immense waves began to invade the land…the ocean swelled up, darkened, infinite, and people who lived furthest from the coast saw, terrified, a horizon of water mountains running towards them.”

​Fortunately, Yemaya was able to calm the fury of Olokun just in time. Then the wave settled gently into the shore, leaving mounds of coral and pearls when the water receded.

​Olukun demands respect for his ominous power that is unbounded. However, it is the goddess Yemaya that is associated with the creation and with life itself. When each of their dual aspects (such as male and female, power and compassion) is held in proper balance, these two orishas unite to offer enormous gifts and unlimited energy.

Symbiotic relationships between a god and a goddess

In many religions we find the same kind of symbiosis. This is were a male god has a female goddess counterpart and they together are stronger, more in balance and seen as a unity.

In the Hindu faith, the goddess Parvati is the wife of the god Shiva. Their love literally knows no bounds as they reincarnate and are together again and again.

Depiction and Legacy

​Often depicted as a mermaid or simply a beautiful woman standing amidst the waves. Yemaya is a goddess of comfort and inspiration. When it comes to caring for others, her impulses are sincere and comforting. And she has a love for children that is unequaled.

​Yemaya reminds us that even the worst catastrophes can be endured. With her help, grace and wisdom, we can learn to negotiate the ebbs and flows of change in our lives.

Yemaya Symbols

Yemaya is often represented by symbols associated with water. It is not surprising that many of our icons representing enduring beauty and simple goodness are derived from the ancient goddess symbols of Yemaya.

General

Since Yemaya is the goddess of rivers and, later, the ocean, it is expected that the ocean and rivers are her main symbols.

Her other symbols are mermaids, the Virgin Mary, New Year’s Eve, February 2, the North Star, half moon, dreams, pound cake, boats and ships, fans, sacred dance, and the number 7.

Animals

Fish are animals that are most often associated with Yemaya because they live in rivers and oceans, basically areas over which Yemaya rules. 

Other animals that symbolize Yemaya are also connected to bodies of water, and some of them are ducks, doves, peacocks, feathers, chickens, snakes, and all sea creatures.

Plants

Oranges symbolize hope, optimism, and positivity. When you think about it, these fruits are perfect symbols of Yemaya, as she provided comfort, protection, and hope to people that were taken away into slavery during the transatlantic slave trade.

Other Yemaya plant symbols are tropical flowers, yams, grain, seaweed, and other plants that are growing in the ocean.

Perfumes/Scents

When it comes to perfumes and scents that symbolize Yemaya, there are scented soaps, raspberry, cinnamon, and balsam.

Gems and Metals

Since they come from the ocean, pearls are often associated with Yemaya. They also carry a special meaning and symbolism that can be associated with Yemaya. Pearls symbolize wisdom, experience, good luck, and wealth, and they offer protection to those that wear them.

Silver, mother of pearl, coral, moonstone, crystal quartz, turquoise, and any blue gem or bead.

Colors

Sky blue, silver, white, and green are all colors that symbolize Yemaya because these are the colors of the ocean and the ocean’s waves. Yemaya is often depicted as wearing clothes in one of these colors, especially a blue dress with a full skirt of 7 layers to represent ocean waves or the seven seas.

Other Goddesses

We hope you enjoyed this post about Yemaya. If you did we are sure you will find more interesting reading among some of the other goddesses we have written about.

You will find a list of all goddesses sorted across regions and religions here.

Photo of author

Liz Turnbull

Sharon and Elizabeth Turnbull, mother and daughter team and the website's midwives, had over 45 years of combined work and continuous study in psychology when they decided to create the Goddess Quiz and goddessgift.com. In 2001, we launched our mission to provide visitors with tools for personal insight, self-knowledge, inspiration, and refinement. Sharon, the bestselling author of Goddess Gift (a book about finding the goddess in yourself) worked as a senior partner in a consulting firm, a speaker at seminars and conferences, and as a professor and administrator at four universities during an academic career that spanned over three decades. Liz is also a published author who works as a healthcare provider, an instructor in communication skills for healthcare providers, and leads workshops on multiple subjects including health/healing, communication, and personal growth. It is our greatest hope that our gift may help the Sacred Feminine within and all around us thrive and bless us all with Her Gifts.