African Goddess wearing gold jewellery around her neck and hands. The moon behind her represents power.

The Mythical Origins of the African Goddesses in West African Societies

African Goddesses and West African societies is an exploration of African religion for the sake of understanding what African Goddesses are and how Western African societies relate to them. In this post I explore the existence of African Goddesses, which Nigerians refer to as the Orisha, and their connections with the inhabitants of West Africa.

Who are the African Goddesses ?

An African goddess holding a skull with glowing eyes

Orisha or Africans Goddesses came into being, into the nature of things through the divine ordering of the universe. Therefore, they are creative beings. And as creative beings, they are subordinate to the Supreme Being. In essence, African Goddesses cannot survive without the Supreme Being. This is because they depend, derive power and under the order of the Supreme Being. Furthermore, they are the manifestations of the characteristics or attributes of the Supreme Being.

Who is the Supreme Being to West Africans?

The Supreme Being sitted above the skies, holy and adorned by a tiger and the moon

The Supreme Being to West Africans is ‘Olorun’: the King of the heavens, the Gods, the sky, the earth, and the universe. It is a king who guards, guides and helps his people in times of trouble. There are various names that Africans use to describe the Supreme Being . For instance, the Yoruba of Nigeria calls this force ‘Olodumare’.  Meaning the king or a unique chief who holds the spectre,  wields authority,  and has the quality which is transcendent with worth . And at the same time,  permanent,  unchanging,  and reliable. In addition, Africans believe the Supreme Being is ALL, and neither he or she.

The creation of  Orisha or African Goddesses

So why did the Supreme Being create African Goddesses?  Oral stories and recently published articles state that Africans believe that the Supreme Being used to live among its people. But then, the people were committing many sins and then, the Supreme Being decided to ascend heaven. As a result, the Supreme Being created Goddesses and Gods to take care of the people while in heaven.

According to the indigenous people of  West Africa, there are many Orishas that exist among them. The reason is because there are many problems, activities and experiences of people that the Orishas attend daily. The Orisha have vested powers, such as the power to control the earth, rain, fire and many other related spirits. But in this post, I look at eight Orishas who have relationships with the people of West Africa.

Orisha explained from the West African societies perspective

The African goddess called Orisha,dressed in golden colours,with a crown on her head and hold a mirror

Orisha is the African Goddess of the Yoruba of southwest Nigeria. The sole purpose of the Orisha is to maintain peace between humanity and natural forces which ordinary people cannot control. She governs the waters such as rivers and lakes and other related natural forces.

Yoruba is one of the ten largest religions in the world, which comprises over a hundred million global priests. The Yoruba looks at the head of Orisha and explains the head in the following terms: firstly, the main, which refers to the visible physical head of a person. According to them, the visible physical head acts as the vessel for the invisible head. The invisible head is the indwelling spirit of the person and the deepest part of a person’s personality. Therefore, the invisible head rules, guides, and controls the person’s actions.

Secondly, the Witness, who they call the house of the head. The witness is the crown that covers the head’s house and, therefore,the crown is a shrine. This crown is covered with shells and its colour indicates purity and the Supreme Being’s character. Thirdly, the shells, which symbolize wealth. The Yoruba use a head as a metaphor for supremacy and chieftaincy. And West African societies worship the Orisha that dwells within the natural phenomena.

Three categories of Orisha

The Nigerian scholar Omosade Awulalu divides the Orisha into three categories, which are: 1. Primordial divinities; 2. Deified ancestors; and 3. Personified natural forces or elements.

1. Primordial divinities existed long before the creation of the world.

2. Deified ancestors are kings, heroes, heroines,warriors and founders of the city who lived amongst the people. These deities have a major influence on the lives of the Yoruba through their contribution they made to culture and social life. These deities had a unique way of controlling the natural forces by making offerings and sacrifices. They disappeared on earth by sinking underground,rising to the heavens in chains and later turning into stone.

The people of West Africa interpret this transformation as the birth of Orishas. After the transformation, their children continued to make offerings and sacrifices like them. And this tradition still continues to this day.

3. Personified natural forces or elements of the natural world are Orishas that West African people relate with on a daily basis. They play an important role and  perform various functions for the Yorubans. As peacemakers, they maintain and keep the peace between humanity and the forces of the natural world.

Osun-Osogbo Festival

A Yoruba boy attending a Osun-Osogbo Festival. He is wearing ceremonial clothes and holds a big white artefact on top of his head.
Wikipedia. Org

Osun is an Orisha that resonates with the manifestations of the Yoruba of West Africa in Nigeria. The Yorubans worship and respect the Osun because she serves as the mediator between them and the rivers. She also helps them with matters such as divinity, femininity, beauty and love. Understandably, the Osun river in Nigeria bears her name and the people believe she protects and guides the river. Hence, up to this day, the Yoruba of Nigeria celebrates her every August at the Osun-Osogbo Festival which runs for two weeks. During the two-week-long celebration, her devotees leave her offerings and perform ceremonies on the bodies of the fresh water.

Osun heeded the call from the Supreme Being

Let’s take a look at how Osun became an important deity for the people of West Africa. Assuming that the Supreme Being is somewhere out there and looking at the earth. Then, after some thinking, the Supreme Being calls Osun and sends her to the earth to create a world with male deities.

On arrival on earth, the male deities admire her beautiful looks and do not appreciate and accept her abilities. Osun gets offended and goes to the moon . As a result, the earth dries out and the male deities seek advice from the Supreme Being.  For this reason, the Supreme Being shouts at them and reminds them that the earth needs Osun’s help. Consequently,  The Supreme Being summons Osun to the earth and, like the love, beauty and abilities she resembles, Osun restores the earth back to life. That is why people honour and respect her because of her contribution to the world.

Oya is an Orisha of change

The African goddess in a spirit realm and the yellow glow of the sky sorrounds her..

Contrary to popular belief that Ancient African stories are a myth, African Goddesses and West African societies continue to practice the culture in their immediate context. For instance, the Yoruban women call on Oya the Orisha, to settle disputes in their favour. Oya is the Orisha of the weather and the most powerful. As a result of her story and what it means, women look up to her to bring change in their circumstances. Hence, they call her an Orisha of change who uses her sword to clear the path for new growth.  They also believe that Oya watches over the newly dead and helps them transit from life.

The Symbolic Meaning of Oya to Yoruban women

The Yoruban women put their trust in Oya based on the story of Oya. As it happens in the spirit realms, the great Sea mother, also known as goddess Yemaya, gives birth to Oya. Then time passes by and Oya finds out she is barren. Like in all situations that women experience , this information does not sit well with her. And she comes up with a plan and trusts her abilities to change her situation. Decidedly,  she takes a sacred cloth and makes a sacrifice . Miraculously,  Oya gives birth to nine children, thereby changing her situation. Thus, Yoruban women trust and honour her.

Olokun rules the Water Spirits

Olokun worshipers re-enact Olokun at the Eya Olokun Festival in Lagos, Nigeria

In spite of the misconceptions based on mythologies , a look at African Goddesses and West African societies opens the door of untold and hidden meanings. For example, Olokun is an Orisha of water spirit in the Yoruba religion. The Yorubans believe Olokun is the ruler of everything that lives in water and has authority over the water deities. And the Yorubans respect water deities because of their omnipresence. Especially importantly, the Yorubans praise Olokun for her ability to keep them wealthy, healthy, and prosperous.

The Edo people of southern Nigeria still worship Olokun in festivals yearly. It must be noted though, that the West African people view Olokun as male, female,  or androgynous. For instance, in West African areas next to the coast,  Olokun turns into a male form among his worshippers. Whereas in the hinterlands she becomes a female deity to her followers.

Nana Buluku, an African Goddess endorsed with power by West African societies

An old woman wearing a purple headscarf and matching dress. The shell beads sorrounds her neck.

Evidently, African Goddesses and African societies have mutual understanding and we see this by the way the people continue this relationship. Similarly, Nigerians see Nana Buluku as a female Supreme Being. Nana Buluku is the most influential Orisha in West Africa because many ethnic groups in Nigeria worship her. As a female Supreme Being, the Nigerians endorse her as the creator of the moon spirit, Mawu, and the sun spirit, Lisa. Hence, Mawu and Lisa are famous for creating living beings and other minor deities after their mother’s retirement.

Like I said earlier, different ethnic groups respect Nana Buluku. The Fon people, especially , describe the creation of living beings by Mawu, the moon spirit, looking at the personality of living beings in general. First, Mawu teams up with the trickster and the snake. Secondly , Mawu creates living beings that imbue the good, the bad, and a Destiny.

The Fon people use the trickster to change their destiny. They believe that a person can change their destiny if they appease the relevant goddess. Thus,they appease lesser goddesses and ancestral spirits because they believe they are the goddesses’ of  favor.

Aja, the Medicinal Doctor of the People of Nigeria

A woman dressed in green and birds appreciate her.

The green colours that the artist used to capture Aja, resonate with what this Orisha represents. As a matter of fact , it reveals the significance of African Goddesses and West African societies.  In this case, Aja is the Orisha of the trees and everything that lives in it. Her home is in the forests, where she makes herbs to heal the sick. She is one of the unique Orishas. For instance, she reveals herself to human beings, especially the shamans,to teach them about the healing herbs.

There are cases where she carries a person to stay with her. During that time, Aja trains this person for a duration of between seven days and three months. In such cases, the Nigerians believe the person has visited the land of the dead. Then, when the person returns, they believe that person is a powerful healer.

Ala is the Orisha of Earth and West African societies

An Orisha with cow horns on the top of the head. She sits before the white cow, her legs crossed.

To claim that some traditional methods or approaches is a fallacy without proof or much needed research, is to put the advancement of social life in jeopardy.  Looking at Ala the Orisha, the West Africans and the significance of Ala, I must say,  Ala is relevant and, if given a chance, she has the potential to change lives.

For this reason, the Igbo people of Nigeria call Ala the mother goddess of earth, ruler of the underworld and guardian of the harvest.  She is, in fact, the mother of all things to the Igbo of Nigeria. As a goddess of fertility for both humans and animals,  Ala’s presence is necessary for various reasons which makes African Goddesses and West African societies a relevant study.

Ala’s presence in life cycles

The Igbo of Nigeria revere Ala because she is life and, therefore,  is present from the beginning until the end and continuously. According to the Igbo of Nigeria , Ala is present at the beginning of a life cycle in order to make children grow in their mother’s wombs. But not only the beginning,  but Ala’s presence is seen at the end of a life cycle. Meaning , when a person dies, she receives the souls of the dead in her womb before they can be transferred to another life.

Ala communicates with the people

Despite misconceptions held by many people that beliefs in goddesses are insignificant, the ceremonial practices of the Igbo of Nigeria prove beyond doubt. And this emphasizes the concept of African Goddesses and West African societies.  According to the followers of Ala, she sends a sign such as a snake or bee’s hive to signify to the priest where to erect a ‘Mbari’. A ‘ Mbari’  is a ceremonial clay shrine filled with clay models of humans or deities. Once the sign is in the open, Igbo men and women erect the ‘Mbari’, which takes years to finish.

The longer years it takes to erect the ‘Mbari’ is seen as a sacred act to the Igbo of Nigeria.  And most importantly,  it preserves the ‘Mbari’ tradition as the older people pass it on to the younger generation.

Significance of Ala to the Igbo Law

Likewise,  Ala is also the goddess of morality.  She rules over human morality and, as a result, dominates the Igbo law known as ‘ Omenala’. Meaning, if an Igbo commits a crime or an  immortality act, that person insults Ala personally, spiritually and otherwise. And an act which is shunned.

On the brighter side, the Igbo of Nigeria pay respect to Ala by lighting a candle in the morning to welcome and honour the presence of Ala. They say when a person practices this ritual, that person will receive blessings of fertility and creativity.

The Sinificance of African Goddesses in Anthropology

Doing research in the above post reminds me of the stories I read while doing my first year at university. Stories of how African ways were disrupted in the name of European superiority over other nations. This superiority attitude scrapped many African cultures and traditions.   As a result, they were declared null and void;  unnecessary.  Although such is the case, it is interesting to learn that there are other African nations that practice ancient, indigenous traditions despite the destruction of African cultures during the Scramble for Africa.

One thought on “The Mythical Origins of the African Goddesses in West African Societies

  1. You forgot Yemoja. Both Afro-Latinos & Nigerians traditionally agree about the first 5 points concerning Yemoja’s attributes. Yemoja is 1) “the metaphysical mother of all orishas”, 2) she is the orisha of water in general especially rivers such as the Ogun river – the largest river of Yoruba Land, 3) she is the orisha of motherhood, the fetus(developing baby/babies in the mother’s womb), 4) she is the Orisha of amniotic fluid, & 5) she is the “counterpart” of Olokun. It seems that she is also sometimes referred to as the “giver of life”, in Yoruba land. Her name roughly translates in Yoruba to English as being “Mother whose children are the fish”.
    What is “unique” about traditional Yemoja (Yemaya) recognition in Latin America, from Brazil to Cuba, is Yemoja as being the “orisha of the oceans/seas”. Throughout South America & the Caribbean Yemaya is recognized as being the ruler of “ocean/sea levels closest to the sun’s light, thus areas that have the most life” ex: coral reefs, schools of fish, shores, kelp forests, dolphins etc. Yemoja is often depicted in the Americas as walking on the oceans/seas. As Olokun wasn’t forgotten & within the Ifa traditions of Latin America he remains the ruler of the dark depths of the oceans/seas” with the “least amount of life”, that hold “secrets” beyond humanity’s comprehension. Though Yemoja can easily traverse the ocean/sea depths too, apparently she doesn’t like the salt. lol. Yemoja is said to have followed the cries of chattel-enslaved Africans who called her name, being sent to South America & the Caribbean in bloody race-based bondage.

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