Words by Amber C. Snider
PHOTOGRAPHS BY OLIVIA LIFUNGULA
STYLING BY Pierre-Alexandre Fillaire
Santería practitioners Lilith Dorsey and Raven Morgaine discuss the environmental and spiritual lessons we can learn from the Queen of the Sea, Yemayá.
There are things to be learned at the water’s edge. If you listen closely enough, in the vast stretch of blue space, you may hear a faint whisper, a hush of Spirit, a mother’s song, a warning. Water is a conduit, a vehicle for nature, a sacred vessel, our life blood—and it’s in danger.
Like the human soul, we’ve yet to explore the magic of the ocean and learn all of its mysteries. We go to the water’s edge to stare at our birthplace, our original womb, listening to the endless churning of waves, its full rushing sounds, and feel at peace. The ocean is a life-giver, but also a life-destroyer; it creates and takes. And according to Santería practitioners Lilith Dorsey and Raven Morgaine, the Ocean Mother Yemayá is angry at what we’re doing to her domain.
The ocean is the place from which all of life originates, and yet we know more about outer space than we do the depths of the seas. Water, which constitutes over half of our physical makeup and the majority of the planet, is inextricable from our very being. Nearly every culture and spiritual tradition across the globe places a sacred emphasis on water, from Christian water baptisms, Celtic water magic, cenotes in Mayan ceremonies, to modern witchcraft rituals.
In the Afro-Caribbean religions of Santería (or Lucumi) and Candomblé, Yemayá, known as the Queen of the Sea, was brought over the Atlantic Ocean by enslaved West Africans in the late 1500’s. Her name, which translates from the Yoruba language to “the mother of the fish,” has a variety of spellings and pronunciations depending on where she is celebrated and honored in the world, including Yemòja, Yemònja, and Iemanja. As one of the oldest and widely known orisha (powerful, primordial spiritual entities associated with the elements), Yemayá is known for her nurturing love, emotional healing, help with fertility, and protective energies. She’s associated with blue and white, the number seven, pearls, and conch shells, and her offerings include white flowers, white roses, and watermelon. Her domain is not only the ocean, but all water. Wherever there is water, there is Yemayá.
The Ocean Retaliates
Yet, the Mother of All Life is also known for her wrath and hard lessons. When angered, she manifests as tidal waves and floods. “Yemayá’s energy, especially for people who are new to the tradition, very often appears as calming and nurturing. They equate it with other Mother or Madonna figures they’ve seen growing up,” says Lilith Dorsey, author of Orishas, Goddesses, and Voodoo Queens and Water Magic. “There is a feeling of gentleness that can come with the ocean, but there’s also the other side of it. There’s that retaliation—Yemayá’s a fierce protector and we’ve seen that with some of the effects that are coming with climate change,” she adds.
Dorsey, who is initiated in Santería, emphasizes that as much as people say they care about honoring the Earth and environment, they continue to do things that go against that. Yemayá’s philosophy is about being accountable: “Being nurturing not only to ourselves, but also the planet. People continue to do things that make her sad,” says Dorsey. “When it comes down to it, there are more things that every single one of us could be doing [to protect the environment and her domain] and we’re not.”
“Being nurturing not only to ourselves, but also the planet. People continue to do things that make Yemayá sad.”
Raven Morgaine, an initiate in Santería and Candomblé, and the author of Yemaya: Orisha, Goddess, and Queen of the Sea, echoes these points. “Yemayá is everything. She’s the beginning and the ending. She’s the Mother of All Life on this planet and all the water. Without her we can do nothing,” he says. As a devoted child of Yemayá for 35 years, he finds a direct correlation with the way we’re moving about the world as physical beings and the way we’re treating the ocean: “She is the most widely worshipped orisha and her kingdom on land keeps growing, but her kingdom of the sea is getting worse,” he says. “Yemayá is not happy about what we are doing to the ocean. She is very angry.”
What can people do, both spiritually and physically, to help the ocean, in order to lessen the environmental disaster that we’re approaching? Dorsey says that it starts on the individual and community level: “Conserving water, using things like rain barrels and rain gardens, and learning how we can help keep the precious resource that we have. We can also find out what legislation is coming up and work with both local and governmental organizations to improve water for all of us, all over the planet,” she recommends. “There’s only so much water and we need it. It’s most of the planet, it’s most of our bodies, and we can’t ignore it anymore.”
A Student of the Sea
After the colonization of the Americas, African Traditional Religions (or ATRs), as well as the Indigenous spiritual traditions and practices across Latin America, were repressed and outlawed in favor of the dominant Roman Catholic Church. The orishas were kept secret and eventually syncretized with Roman Catholic figures and saints. Over time, Yemayá’s iconography merged with that of the Virgin Mary or Our Lady of Regla. In many places in the Caribbean, including Casa Templo de Santería Yemayá in Trinidad, Cuba, Yemayá’s altars depict her wearing a regal blue and white dress reminiscent of Mother Mary, and holding a small child in her arms.
As an initiatory religion, one cannot be considered a “child” of any orisha without first getting a reading by a Santero and then going through a rigorous initiation process. Dorsey recommends that those looking to go further in the practice, should seek out a local priest whom they trust for a reading. Morgaine also addresses this in his book on Yemayá: “These titles [of priest, priestess, or child] cannot belong to those who are complete outsiders to these traditions until they have gone through years of strict and rigorous study and been initiated by a consecrated priest or priestess of the tradition. But anyone can become a student or devotee of Yemayá and incorporate her into their spiritual practices.”
Other orishas associated with water include Olokun, who rules the depths of the ocean, the unknown and mysterious place beneath the water’s surface. Oshun, whose domain is freshwater and rivers, is referred to in some stories as either Yemayá’s daughter or sister. Dorsey, who is a child of Oshun, says there is a path of Oshun called Dos Aguas, which is Yemayá and Oshun together. “There’s this glorious mixing of where the river meets the ocean, this combination of waters. That’s one of the most beautiful things about water: You can add other water to it and it still molecularly remains the same,” she says. “There’s this—forgive the pun—ebb and flow of sacred energies.”
For uninitiated folks who seek to get closer to Yemayá, Dorsey recommends listening to her songs, going to the ocean, respectfully taking ocean water, and helping to clean the waters. “People always ask me, ‘What do I do if I don’t live next to the ocean?’ Well get there! My Santo godmother would always say, ‘What’s your next right action?’ Is there something that needs to be done at this moment that can bring benefit to everybody and everything? If you’re at the beach and it’s dirty, clean it up.”
A Student of the Sea
We can all make a significant impact by simply reducing our waste, recycling, and picking up trash at the beach when we visit. “All of that she appreciates,” says Morgaine. “If you’re going to worship her, if you’re going to bring her into your craft but you’re not doing anything to clean up the ocean, then you’re not following her. Your offerings are tainted. You can give her all you want, but if you’re poisoning her blood, who wants your gift?” Spirituality must be coupled with conscious action, including addressing ocean pollution and the destruction of the environment.
Morgaine emphasizes how all the orishas have been around since the beginning of time and that they’ve always been served and worshipped a certain way. There are protocols to be kept when approaching these powerful entities. Eleggua, the orisha of communication, crossroads, and the gatekeeper between worlds, must first be honored in order to facilitate communication between worlds. “Without going through Eleggua…you can only work with what’s on the surface,” Morgaine says. “You will never get any deeper, you’ll never know all that [Yemayá] is.” Other protocols must be respected, too: “Don’t use metal knives to cut up her offerings, if you’re giving her fruit or food. Don’t wear black when you approach her, she really prefers you be in white. Don’t let flowers die on her altar. Don’t turn your back on her altar: walk seven steps backwards, and then turn. She’s a queen. You have to wait for her to give you leave to go,” Morgaine says.
“The repercussions of all this pollution and dishonoring are storms at sea, tidal waves, hurricanes. That’s her physical response. People that get lost at sea, ships that sink—that’s all her saying ‘Wake up. Pay attention. Fix this because I’m not happy and it’s just going to get worse,” Morgaine adds.
Our bodies and livelihood directly depend on the sacred element of water, both plentiful and scarce, and yet we continue to turn a blind eye to its endangerment. This disregard for nature is also reflective of our spiritual, emotional, and societal conditions: as we pollute the Earth and water, we’re also polluting our spiritual bodies. The lessons we take from Yemayá are direct: we must take care of ourselves, the world around us, and learn the sacred flow of all life.
“Be compassionate to the other people on this planet. She’s the Mother of Compassion, she’s the Mother of Mercy and she doesn’t like how we treat each other,” says Morgaine. “And surrender. That’s the lesson of Yemayá: surrender. It doesn’t mean giving up, it means giving in and following the tide. Let it take you where it’s going to take you. Stop going against it. You can struggle against it all day long to stay in the same exact place and gain no ground; whereas if you surrender and go with that flow, it’s going to sweep you out to where your horizons are limitless.”
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