Yemanja is an orisha, originally of the Yoruba religion, who has become prominent in many Afro-American religions. Africans, from what is now called Yorubaland, brought Yemaya/Yemoja and a host of other deities/energy forces in nature with them when they were brought to the shores of the Americas as captives. She is the ocean, the essence of motherhood, and a fierce protector of children.
Because the Afro-American religions were transmitted as part of a long oral tradition, there are many regional variations on the goddess's name. She is represented with Our lady of Regla and Stella Maris.
- Africa: Yemoja, Ymoja, Yemowo, Mami Wata
- Brazil: Iemanjá, Janaína
- Cuba: Yemaya, Yemayah, Iemanya, Madre Agua
- Haiti: La Sirène, LaSiren (in Vodou)
- USA: Yemalla, Yemana, Yemoja
- Uruguay: Iemanjá
- Suriname: Watra Mama
- Dominican Republic: Yemalla or La Diosa del mar (sea goddess)
In some places, Yemaja is syncretized with other deities:
Yemaja is said to be the mother of all orisha. She also is the spirit of water, and her favorite number is 7.
In Yorùbá mythology, Yemoja is a mother goddess; patron deity of women, especially pregnant women; and the Ogun river. Her parents are Oduduwa and Obatala. There are many stories as to how she became the mother of all saints. She was married to Aganju and had one son, Orungan, and fifteen Orishas came forth from her. They include Ogun, Olokun, Shopona and Shango. Other stories would say that Yemaya was always there in the beginning and all life came from her, including all of the orishas.
Her name is a contraction of Yoruba words: "Yeye omo eja" that mean "Mother whose children are like fish." This represents the vastness of her motherhood, her fecundity and her reign over all living things.
Yemaya is celebrated in Ifá tradition as Yemoja. As Iemanja Nana Borocum, or Nana Burku, she is pictured as a very old woman, dressed in black and mauve, connected to mud, swamps, earth. Nana Buluku is an ancient god in Dahomey mythology.
The Umbanda religion worships Iemanjá as one of the seven orixás of the African Pantheon. She is the Queen of the Ocean, the patron deity of the fishermen and the survivors of shipwrecks, the feminine principle of creation and the spirit of moonlight. A syncretism happens between the catholic Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes (Our Lady of the Seafaring) and the orixá Iemanjá of the African Mithology. Sometimes, a feast can honor both.
In Salvador, Bahia, Iemanjá is celebrated by Candomblé on the very same day consecrated by the Catholic Church to Our Lady of Seafaring (Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes). Every February 2, thousands of people line up at dawn to leave their offerings at her shrine in Rio Vermelho. Gifts for Iemanjá usually include flowers and objects of female vanity (perfume, jewelry, combs, lipsticks, mirrors). These are gathered in large baskets and taken out to the sea by local fishermen. Afterwards a massive street party ensues.
Yemanjá is also celebrated every December 8 in Salvador, Bahia. The Festa da Conceição da Praia (Feast to Our Lady of Conception of the church at the beach) is a city holiday dedicated to the Catholic saint and also to Yemanjá. Another feast occurs on this day in the Pedra Furada, Monte Serrat in Salvador, Bahia, called the Gift to Yemanjá, when fishermen celebrate their devotion to the Queen of the Ocean.
On New Year's Eve in Rio de Janeiro, millions of cariocas, of all religions, dressed in white gather on Copacabana beach to greet the New Year, watch fireworks, and throw (white) flowers and other offerings into the sea for the goddess in the hopes that she will grant them their requests for the coming year. Some send their gifts to lemanjá in wooden toy boats. Paintings of lemanjá are sold in Rio shops, next to paintings of Jesus and other Catholic saints. They portray her as a woman rising out of the sea. Small offerings of flowers and floating candles are left in the sea on many nights at Copacabana.
In São Paulo State, Iemanjá is celebrated in the two first weekends of December on the shores of Praia Grande city. During these days many vehicles garnished with Iemanjá icons and colors (white and blue) roam from the São Paulo mountains to the sea littoral, some of them traveling hundreds of miles. Thousands of people rally near Iemanjá's statue in Praia Grande beach.
In Pelotas, Rio Grande do Sul State, on February 2, the image of Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes is carried to the port of Pelotas. Before the closing of the catholic feast, the boats stop and host the Umbanda followers that carry the image of Iemanjá, in a syncretic meeting that is watched by thousand of people on the shore.
Cuba and Haiti
In Santería, Yemayá is seen as the mother of all living things as well as the owner of all waters. Her number is 7 (a tie into the seven seas), her colors are blue and white (representing water), and her favorite offerings include melons, molasses ("melaço" is sugar cane syrup), whole fried fishes and pork rinds. She has been syncretized with Our Lady of Regla.
Yemaja has several caminos (paths). At the initiation ceremony known as kariocha, or simply ocha, the exact path is determined through divination. Her paths in Voodoo/Candomble include:
- Ogunte: In this path, she is a warrior, with a belt of iron weapons like Ogun. This path lives by the rocky coastliness. Her colors are crystal, dark blue and some red.
- Asesu: This path is very old. She is said to be deaf and answers her patrons slowly. She is associated with ducks and still or stagnant waters. Her colors are pale blue and coral.
- Okoto: This path is known as the underwater assassin. Her colors are indigo and blood red and her symbolism includes that of pirates.
- Majalewo: This path lives in the forest with the herbalist orisha, Osanyin. She is associated with the marketplace and her shrines are decorated with 21 plates. Her colors are teals and turquoises.
- Ibu Aro: This path is similar to Majalewo in that she is associated with markets, commerce and her shrines are decorated with plates. Her colors are darker; indigo, crystal and red coral. Her crown (and husband) is the orisha Oshumare, the rainbow.
- Ashaba: This path is said to be so beautiful that no human can look at her directly.
In popular culture
- The worship of Iemanjá by the fishermen of Bahia, Brazil, is a central element of the 1936 Modernist novel Mar Morto (Dead Sea) by the famous Brazilian writer Jorge Amado, himself a native of that state. The book's wide publicity and translations to various languages made this goddess well-known to many people around the world - for example in Israel, where Hebrew books and songs make references to Yemaja, inspired by Amado's work (see Hebrew Wikipedia page he:ים המוות (ספר)).
- Amado also collaborated with his friend and fello-Bahian Dorival Caymmi in writing the famous song É Doce Morrer no Mar (It's sweet to die on the sea) where the drowned fisherman is described as having "made his rest in the confort of Iemanjá's arms" (Fez sua cama de novo no colo de Iemanjá)  - a reference to the belief that drowned sailors and fishermen become "Iemanjá's sons and lovers" and wander forever with her on the sea bottom.
- In 1966, carioca guitarist and composer Baden Powell de Aquino created an "Afro-Samba" which he called "Canto de Iemanjá", which he recorded together with Vinicius de Moraes.
- In 1980, Héctor Lavoe performed "Para Ochún" on his album El Sabio. It featured Willie Colón on trombone and background vocals. The main verse repeats "Para Ochún y Yemaya" over and over.
- In 1994, a house music track was produced, arranged and written by Little Louie Vega and his wife at the time, La India, called "Love & Happiness (Yemaya Y Ochún)" which features a Cuban chant/prayer dedicated Yemaya and her sister Ochún. The song can be found on Cream Classics Volume 2, or Renaissance: The Mix Collection [Disc 1].
- As Yemanja, the goddess is also a very prominent subject of veneration by a Brazilian chef in the 2000 romantic comedy Woman on Top.
- Yemaja, called with her Haitian name Lasirèn, plays an important role in Nalo Hopkinson's novel The Salt Roads.
- In 2009, GaiaOnline released Yemaya's Pearl, an evolving item designed after her.
- In the first episode of Tales of Monkey Island, the Voodoo Lady has a crystal ball she refers to as "The All-Seeing Eye of Yamalla".
- In Helen Oyeyemi's 2007 novel The Opposite House, the frame narrative character is Yemaya or Aya for short, and the protagonist of the novel, who is of African and Cuban descent, is named Maja.
- In the episode of the TNT series Saving Grace titled "Mooooooooo", Yaani King's character is seen apparently making an offering to Yemanjá after Earl transports her to Brazil.
- The novel Keeper makes references to her.
- English rock band Queen Adreena composed a song called "Yemaya" on their debut album Taxidermy.
- In the HBO series True Blood, Season 4 Episode 6, Lafayette heals his boyfriend Jesús while channeling a Hispanic healer saying, "May Yemaya protect and heal you with the waters of the ocean of life. May the waves of her healing energy wash over you."
- The novel The Invisible Mountain makes references to her.
- On May 28th, 2012, Grammy-nominated jazz singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Melody Gardot released her third studio album, "The Absence". Track 11 is entitled, "Iemanjá".
- "Mother of the Waters" (1988) a film by Elisa Tesser offers a poetic evocation of this ceremony with interviews in which devotees describe their relationship to the goddess and how she has appeared to them.
- Pelo Rio Grande - Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes é homenageada com procissões
- A. De LA Torre, Miguel; La Torre, Miguel A., De (2004). Santería: the beliefs and rituals of a growing religion in America. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. pp. 97–98. ISBN 0-8028-4973-3.
- Lloyd Weaver and Olukunmi Egbelade.,"Lloyd Weaver and Olurunmi Egbelade, Yemoja: Maternal Divinity, Tranquil Sea, Turbulent Tides" Athelia Henrietta Press (1998) ISBN 978-1-890157-10-4
- Charles Spencer King, "Nature's Ancient Religion: Orisha Worship & IFA" ISBN 1-4404-1733-4
- Charles Spencer King, "IFA Y Los Orishas: La Religion Antigua De LA Naturaleza" ISBN 1-4610-2898-1