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Ọṣun ~ Yoruba River Goddess: Bridging the Gap with African Myth PART THREE.
Picture “She is the wisdom of the forest She is the wisdom of the river Where the doctor failed She cures with fresh water Where medicine is impotent She cures with cool water.” ~ Oríkì Ọṣun (Beier 33).
The word Ọṣun (Oshun) means Source. It refers to the “source of a river, a people, or of children*” Ọṣun is the mysterious presence of potentiality, the possibility of life which springs forth from the waters of creation. She is the flow of universal wisdom expressing the secrets and mysteries of the Universe.
The geographical origin of Ọṣun traditions—Nigeria—lies in the country of the Ijesa in West Africa. Ọṣun is the living energy of the river that runs through the settlement of Osogbo, where each year the largest Ijesa festival is dedicated to her worship. This river, however, is not her only river. Springs flow wherever she is revered and her essence is considered the sacred vitality of each one.
Ọṣun communicates and is communicated through multifarious stories, symbols, and rites. Her nature is as fluid and amorphous as the water through which she travels. Associated with sensuality, love, abundance, motherhood and conception, Ọṣun overflows with beauty and dynamism.
For the Yoruba communities of Bahia, Brazil, Ọṣunʼs compassion and motherly love bloomed incarnate in the sweet social servant, Mãe Nenininha (1849-1986)*. In Cuba, she is found in the face of La Caridad del Cobre, the copper-colored virgin of charity who protects all Cuban people, regardless of ancestral origination*. She may be found in the South Bronx of New York City or in a Santería community in Miami, Florida as a living expression of universal dichotomy: mother and prostitute, vengeance and compassion, beauty and crone. For Ọṣun, like all òrìṣà (African deities), morphs and evolves to assist the devotees who honor her, developing a complexity of character along the way. In Cuba, she is Yéyé Sorodo, “mother bubbling with the sweet waters of life. But she is also Yéyé Kari, “a raging flood that overwhelms those who donʼt respect her” (Murphy and Sanford 96).
For the tradition of Santería, Ọṣun (there, transcribed as Ochún) is a multifaceted being with five distinct caminos, or paths of personality.
Ochún Ibú-Akuaro is a young and beautiful dancer, joy-filled and scandalous within a love triangle. She is found at the percolating point where the rivers meet the ocean. Ochún Ololodí is the serious, divining homemaker; ruler of waterfalls and wife to Orúnmila, the god of divination. Ochún Ibú-Kolé the ugly, yet powerful, sorceress waits for the buzzards to nurture her powers. Ochún Yumú is the blind crone, living at the depths of the rivers rippling currents. Ochún Ibú-Dokó is the goddess of sexuality.
Other, less common, caminos are expressed throughout Afro-Cuban art and ritual. The myriad forms of her nature encompass lifeʼs complex experiences of love, erotica and material abundance. For her devotees she retains wholeness within her complexity, as the governess of all sweet waters who celebrates the sensual joys of life (Castellanos 35-37).
The àṣẹ (or energy) of Ọṣun is often a metaphor for the concealed female power.
When the Supreme god, Olódùmarè, sent the òrìṣà to Earth to complete the mission of creation, he sent sixteen male spirits and one female—Ọṣun, “the keeper of all good things." In their efforts to organize the world, the sixteen male òrìṣà ignored Ọṣun's presence among them. As a result, their endeavors failed, epidemic plagued the earth and healing rains refused to fall.
The Creator admonished them. They would never succeed without that one who cures with cooling water. This story is a reflection of the complex relationship between men and women in African myth and society, particularly the deep indispensability of the discrete feminine power. For no matter what her countenance or demeanor, her potent undercurrent cannot be denied.
Ọṣun is infinite in her àṣẹ, balanced in her character and able to represent the comprehensive and incomprehensible depth of feminine life force. Her energy and expression within a society cultivates a sisterhood—a female legacy—of “successful reproduction, business acumen, and social responsibility” (Badejo 138). She is the portal between birth and ancestry, securing the rights (and rites) of women within a communityʼs politic: economically, socially and spiritually.