Yemaya Assesu, Assesu Yemaya
Yemaya Olodo, Olodo Yemaya.
That’s a song I know—one tiny sliver of knowledge pertaining to the great orisha, Yemaya, the lady of the sea, “she whose descendants are as numerous as the fish.” Today, 7 September, is one of her feast days (as well, I have just learned, as International Goddess Day….nice combination, eh?)
While I do not have any initiations into la Regla de Ocha/Lucumi/Santeria or any other path that venerates Yemaya, I nevertheless have a particular devotion to Her.
Not having initiations means that I cannot teach any but the most superficial knowledge about Her, because I don’t know anything that would cause scandal for me to know.
There is a good post over on the Patheos blog Voodoo Universe that describes some of Yemaya’s worship, the offerings she likes, the jewelry she appreciates, and foods that she appreciates. Check it out here, if you’re interested.
African diaspora religion
I take this opportunity to mention Yemaya, not only because I love Her, but because she is part of many traditions that span hundreds of years, the African diaspora traditions. African traditions like Ifa came to the Americas, mixed and mingled with each other and with other indigenous and European traditions and became Santeria/la Regla de Ocha, Palo, Condomble, Umbanda, Voodoo, and other traditions. They are a hugely important part of the development of countries like Cuba, where Ocha is very prevalent. And while there are more and more white practitioners, the traditions come out of Africa, and those roots are of paramount importance. The religions are ways that African-American and Afro-Caribbean maintain connections to their ancestors.
Ancestor veneration is the first order of business in Ocha. Understanding and honoring one’s ancestors, where one comes from, the people who are blessed to have known, the people you have not known, the ones whose names you know, and those who are lost to history…all these are your eggun, your dead, your ancestors.
Ancestors belong to everyone
But ancestor veneration is not limited to Ocha, Espiritismo, or any other particular tradition. We all have ancestors. We all came from bodies, spirits, histories. We have all been influenced, even in large measure created by those who came before us. Whether we approve of their choices or not—whether they were moral and compassionate or violent and manipulative—their choices, their beings have made us who we are in part.
According to the santeras and babalawo’s (practitioners and priests) I know in Ocha, honoring ancestors is good for everyone.
Honoring the dead
Collecting photos, books, fabric, anything that belonged to any ancestor you know is a powerful way to honor them. Reading about what was done to or done by those who came before us allows us to integrate our history with our present.
And of course, me being me, I think that making altars—little spaces to light a candle or leave a cup of coffee (or, for my father, a glass of gin)—is a great way to showcase what you collect. Altars provide focus. They needn’t be big or showy. They needn’t even look to anyone else like “altars.” They may just be a photo and a candle. Just something that you know is for your beloved dead.
Another way that some honor the dead is by veneration of the saints. In this case, one honors those one admires, those who are ancestors of the Spirit, of the religion one practices. Saints have particular bailiwicks, like St. Jude and lost causes, St. Anthony and lost objects, St. Francis and animals, Our Lady of Sorrows and bereaved parents, etc. And each saint has particular colors, images, and prayers associated with them. Saints are like hybrids between orishas (like Yemaya) and our particular family ancestors. And while particular religious traditions claim the saints for their own, I tend to believe that those who have lived for kindness, compassion, learning, and love do not turn away from their living devotees, whatever dogma the living espouse.
So I encourage you to develop some way of honoring those who have gone before you. I especially encourage ALL of us, me included, to find some way to include ancestors whose choices and lives you judge unworthy of veneration. Accepting their role in the development of who we are today is a spiritual practice all its own.
Discovery and Deepening
In the Discovery and Deepening class, starting in six weeks, we will spend some time talking about ancestors. About how both tradition and more customized ways of engaging them can benefit our hearts, minds, and souls.
Click here to find out more information about the class, and to sign up! I want to hear about your ancestors, what you think about them, and what you think they might have to say to you.
(The photo above is a print of Yemaya, called “Ocean Spirit,” by Patricia Robin Woodruff. I commend her Etsy site to you, as her art is fantastic! )