With Valentine’s Day come thoughts of love. To many of us, this means chocolates, hearts, and the goddesses Aphrodite, Venus, and maybe Freyja. But what of the rest of the world, far from Europe?
Goddesses, as their people do, get transported, mixing and mingling in new countries, cultures and clusters. They remain much loved, providing colossal strength to their people, even interspersing with other religions. Take the Yoruba spiritual system Ifa, for example, and its Orishas (types of spirit). The Yoruba people are among the three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, also found in Benin and Togo. Yoruba practices have travelled around the world with their people because of slavery. Just as stolen lives survived, so did Yoruba religion; underground for a long time but never cowed. It melded with Catholicism in Brazil to be Candomblé, in Cuba it became Santeria and Regla de Ocha, while Sango Baptism is gaining followers amongst Black people in the USA. Europe and Asia also have Ifa Orisha communities. Though you rarely hear about it in the West, Yoruba religion is one of the ten largest world’s religions, with 10 million-plus followers.
In a world where situations and circumstances can quickly shift, religion and family offer a sense of home and community. For many people who arrived in the UK between 1948-1973 from countries in the Caribbean – the ‘Windrush generation’ – this has been especially true. Their belongingness was not enough to confer acceptance as they soon discovered under the UK government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy. Where do you turn when your country abandons you? Maybe you seek a deeper home, an unbroken line, a place and culture where you always belonged.
Yoruba practices deeply connect people with their distant pasts, via ancestor reverence – they mirror the resilience of its people in the face of generational trauma, be it the legacy of slavery, or the UK’s Windrush scandal. One of Yoruba’s most powerful and popular Orishas is Oshun, who is called on throughout the African and Caribbean diaspora.
Oshun is a goddess of rivers and water; an owner of the qualities of femininity, love, sensuality and beauty. Although she is one of the wives of the important sky father, Shango, though there are many stories about her own power and effect on her followers and the world. One such story is that Oshun was one of the original 17 deities sent to Earth to populate it, the only female. The men felt they didn’t need Oshun, so she left them to it. The males failed, reporting back to Olodumare, the god of all gods. Olodumare asked what they had tried and why they hadn’t asked for Oshun to help them, as only cooperatively could the world be made. They returned to the unsuccessful world creation and begged Oshun to return. She came, looking over the dryness and barren landscape, utterly devoid of water and moisture, unable to sustain life. She let forth her sweet waters to run all over the Earth, and only then did Earth bloom, and all life was capable of rising into being.
She is seen as a protector and saviour for women, who call on her to help them out of poverty or from barren relationships, and to restore them to personal power. Oshun’s story shows her necessity for the modern world – for the cooperation between the sexes and for the need to nurture the land, lest it goes barren again. In terms of love, the ability to walk away when unappreciated, while knowing your worth as Oshun did is vital: you are not empty, you carry all kinds of creation within you. You can be a gift for this Earth.
Erzulie is a primarily Haitian goddess transported from Dahomey (an African kingdom from 1600-1904 now part of Benin) in West Africa along with her people when the slave traders came. She has several aspects of loa (meaning sacred force), one named after her homeland – Erzulie Freda Dahomey. With colours of soft pinks and blues, this loa cries and mourns the sadnesses of the world and all the wrongs humans have committed. Another aspect is Erzulie Danto/Dantor, a warrior and defender of the abused, be they children, women or men. Her colours of red, blue and gold hark back to the Haitian flag.
There are lots of Erzulie aspects – a kindly grandmother, advising her grandchildren (Grandma Erzulie, often thought of as Saint Anne); a gagged Erzulie who keeps secrets for you (Erzulie Balianne); the vengeful Erzulie who punishes unfaithful lovers (Erzuli Yeux Rouge) and the Erzulie who protects small children and is the mother (Erzuli Mansur). Often multiple Erzulie aspects are worshipped by her followers.
Erzulie Dantor was said to have begun the revolution in Haiti in 1791 (then the French colony of Saint-Domingue), by calling on the enslaved people of Africa to rise against their French masters. She was tortured when captured and her tongue cut out for inciting rebellion; for this reason, when she is personified by one of her followers, she cannot speak clearly. In the artworks identifying her as the Black Madonna, the child in her arms is either Anais, her daughter, or Erzulie Freda as her younger sister, as her interpreter who speaks for her.
The revolution succeeded, and Haiti became the only state ruled by Black people and free from colonial influence; its effects so profound it set the seed for the fight against slavery throughout White-ruled stolen lands. European enslavers were caught off guard by both the organisational prowess and discipline of the uprising leaders. It became impossible to see them as inferior when the rebellion lasted, and the state in 1804 gained official independence.
Erzulie is a powerfully fierce and gentle goddess, understanding the deepest of pain. Her vèvè – a geometrical drawing representing the loa that calls them to come for ritual when asked – is one of the most beautiful and recognisable. Erzulie’s is a love that knows your pain and defends you.
These are but two of a vast range of goddesses that travelled with their people over the seas. They comfort and sustain their people through illness and hardship and inspire them to love and create. They provide both continuity and adaptation to the lands their people eventually lived in.
In part two (to be published on 21st February), we’ll look at goddesses on other continents, and how they shaped and succoured their people – as well as their relevance today.
Featured image: A statue signifying yeye osun at the Sacred Grove Of Oshun. Image by Yeniajayiii, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons