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Orisha Worship religions and Iemanjá

Allyana's picture

Orisha Worship

Orishas (Spanish) or Orixas (Portuguese) are spiritual energies worshipped in the religion of the Yorubas (Western Africa -- current day Nigeria and Benin). Yoruba religion was brought by the slaves to the new world and is known under many different guises, among them Santería in Cuba and Puerto Rico, Candomblé, Umbanda and Quimbanda in Brazil, Regla de Ocho (or Orisha), Regla Lukumi, etc.

These different currents have not written canon or formal texts of their religion. It is passed on orally to the initiates. This is because of the thick tradition of stories being told to convey the beliefs and ways of worship of the religion.

With the amount of Cuban and Latin immigration into the United States, this religion spread there as well. It is estimated that the number of practitioners of Lukumi Orisha Worship in the United States surpasses five million.


The Orisha worship originated in Cuba and Brazil as a combination of the Western African Yoruba Religion and Iberian Catholicism. "It is one of the many syncretic religions created by Africans brought to South America as slaves." It was developed out of necessity for the African slaves in order to continue practicing their native religion in the New World. Slave masters discouraged and sometimes prohibited the practice of their native religions.

The slaves were forced to follow the practices of the Catholic Church, which went against the beliefs of their native religions. Noticing the parallels between their native religion and Catholicism, and in order to please their slave-masters and fulfill their own religious needs, they created a secret religion. Santería uses Catholic saints and personages as fronts for their own god and Orishas (spiritual emissaries). Thus, when a slave prayed to an Orisha, it looked as if they were praying to a saint.

Beliefs of the Group

There are five different levels of power in the Yoruba cosmology: Olodumare , the Orisha, human beings, human ancestors, and the lowest group (which includes plants, animals, natural entities, and manufactured items).

Olodumare or Olorun
They believe in one supreme god, Olodumare (also known as Olorun ). He is the supreme source of ashen , the spiritual energy that makes up the universe, all life, and material objects.

Olurun interacts with the world through emissaries called Orisha. Orishas rule over every force of nature and every aspect of human life. They can be approached through prayer, ritual offerings, and trance possession, and can be counted on to come to the aid of followers and guide them to a better life and spirituality. Each Orisha is attributed a special number and color, among other "favorite things," such as a food or day of the week. The member utilizes the colors by making beaded necklaces according to which Orisha they wish to worship, these necklaces are called 'ilekes'. These distinguish the Orisha from one another when someone wants to make an offering to a certain one.

Each Orisha is guardian over a certain aspect of human life. Some of the significant Orisha are listed below, as there are literally thousands of Orisha. The first three Orisha listed - Eleggua, Ogun, and Oshosi - are guardians over battle affairs and are called the Guerreros or Warriors.

(Note: The following names are the Santerians versions, Brazilian names for the Orishas are different, but the deities themselves are the same. I'm choosing Cuban over Brazilian because the amount of Cuban immigrants in the United States makes it more logical for us to use them)

Eleggua - the owner of the roads and doors in this world. He stands at the crossroads of humanity and the divine, the intermediary between Olorun and the Orisha and humans. When one wants to pray, they call on Eleggua first, as he opens the doors of communication between this world and the other. Nothing can be done in either world without his permission. He lives at the crossroads, and is behind the opportunities and choices made in life.

He is often depicted as a mischievous child, and has a definite reputation as a trickster. Eleggua is one of the three Warriors. The Catholic saint he represents is Saint Anthony . His colors are red and black and his number is 3. Followers of Eleggua wear necklaces with black and red beads, in a sequence of three black beads and three red ones, and then one black and one red repeated three times. The pattern continues till the desired length. (All the different 'Ilekes' (necklaces) follow this pattern, according to the colors and number of the Orisha the practitioner wants to revere).

Ogun - the ruler of iron, war, and labor. He clears the roads with his machete after Eleggua opens them. He embodies violence and creativity, yet also integrity. He is the only Orisha with the right to control life and death. He depicts St. Peter. His colors are green and black and his number is 7.

Ochosi - the hunter, scout, and protector of the warriors. He is the provider of direction to human life -- he advises humans to follow the rules of the social institutions in which they find themselves. He represents St. Norbert. His colors are blue and yellow and his numbers are 3 and 7.

Oya - ruler of winds and whirlwinds. She rules over the dead and the gates of the cemeteries. She is a fierce warrior. She represents Our Lady of the Presentation of Our Lord and St. Theresa. Her colors are maroon and white, and her number is 9.

Yemaya or Yemana (Iemanjá) - rules over seas and lakes. She is the Mother of all and the root of all riches. She is deep and unknowable, like the waters which she rules. She is also the queen of witches and of secrets. She is considered the Orisha of mercy, while she never turns her back on her children. Her saint is Our Lady of Sailors (Brazil), in Cuba she's Our Lady of Regla (the Havana port). Also with Stella Maris (Mary Star of the Sea). Her colors are blue and white or crystal and her number is 7.

Communication with the Orisha is accomplished through several means, including prayer, ritual divination, and offerings or Ebo (sacrifice). Here are a list of different Ebos to solve a lot of situations. Although ebo sometimes refers to the practice of animal sacrifice, it encompasses a larger definition. Animal sacrifice is usually only used in important situations, such as death, sickness, or misfortune. Offerings can be made to the Orisha, with items such as candy, candles, and fruits, to name a few. A participant can give up things, such as a Roman Catholic would for the season of Lent. They can also heed advice given by the Orisha in this manner.

The numbers, colors, and also certain animals instruct the person on how to sacrifice to each Orisha. Because each Orisha represents a different aspect of life, a person can selectively pick an Orisha or several Orisha to pray to, depending on their needs. A person wears a beaded necklace with elaborate patterns of beads of the colors of the Orisha they wish to pray to.

Trance possession plays an integral part in the religious life. This occurs during a drumming party known as a bembe . "The purpose of a bembe is to honor the Orisha by playing specific drum rhythms, performing specific dance postures, and acting out in pantomime of the behavior of the Orisha." An Orisha may be persuaded to enter the body of a person, if enticed by the proper drum rhythms associated to that spirit. The songs, rhythms, and dances are calculated to entreat the specific Orisha. "The drum rhythms and the dance postures are not ends in themselves, but are utilized to attain a sacred state of consciousness, manifested as a trance state or spirit possession. Spirit possession is desirable because it opens the channels of ashe as the dancers merge with divine rhythms."
(This is an Eleggua summoning recording i found while researching. Click here to listen to it)

White and Black magic.

The difference between good or bad magic in the Orisha worship religions is mostly a difference in emphasis. Umbanda in Brazil (or Santería in Cuba) supposedly works "for good," while Quimbanda is distinguished by its intention to work "for evil." (note: I didn’t find the Cuban counterpart of Quimbanda)

Quimbanda, also known as Macumba, is a ramification of Umbanda that practices black magic. They worship the same Orishas and the same entities, and perform the same ceremonies but there are some very marked differences. One of them is that they perform spells with animals like black cocks and hens, animal or human teeth, nails or hair. Also, they usually perform their ceremonies at night in places such as crossroads or cemeteries. In addition they use dolls similar to the Voodoo ones (which is not strange since Voodoo has the same religious root than Umbanda and Quimbanda)

Some links
http://www.brasilfolclore.hpg.ig.com.br/candomble.htm (in Portuguese, but it has a lexicon of Santería words)

Yemaya or Iemanjá

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Yemaya or Iemanjá (from Yoruba Jeye mother and eja fish)

Yemaya was a riverine Orisha in Africa, but became associated with the Sea after the "Middle Passage" (a euphamism for the terror of the slave trade). She is the Orisha of the phototropic ocean (as opposed to Ologun, who is the Lord of the Deep). She is also the ultimate mother figure and the "national" Orisha of Brazil.

Her Brazilian name is Iemanjá, her Cuban name is Yemaya or Yemana, but she is also called Janaína, Water Princess, Mermaid, Sea Queen, Water Lady and Stella Maris. Yemaya is the great mother goddess of Santería; the maternal force of life and creation. She has many aspects, one of them being Yemaya Okute, a fierce warrior. (Note: I think that if we use the Cuban names we should stick to Yemaya, even if i really like Iemanjá better. It'd be like mixing Greek and Roman names for the Gods otherwise)

She is said to be the mother of many other Orishas, and is believed to live in the ocean.She's associated to pregnancy and procreation, and she's the protector of children.

Yemaya loves children. All children. It doesn't much matter to her who their parents are. She will be a mother to them. As Olorun is considered everyone's "father" because he created humans, Yemaya is considered everyone's "mother" because she is the essence of motherhood.

Anthropomorphic representation: a white lady with large breasts and long blue or black hair, even if according to the current black movement she should be black since she's an African Orisha. She wears a crown and handles a sceptre with a fish and shell design. She wears blue and white robes.

Characteristics: maternal feelings, sweetness and kindness, but also temperamental like the sea and a little stubborn. Strenght. She's very feminine and loves feminine things.
She carries with her all the serenity of the tropical seas, as well as the power of the Typhoon.

Syncretism: she's associated with a lot of Virgins of the Roman Catholic religion. Our Lady of Regla in Cuba, the Virgin Stella Maris in Uruguay, and Our Lady of Sailors. She's worshipped in many dates. In Uruguay and Salvador in February 2nd white boats are sent into the sea with presents. In Brazil the same is done on January 1st in Rio, and on August 15th in Santos.

Number: 7

Colors: White or crystal and light blue.

Ilekes: (necklaces) alternate seven blue beads with seven crystal or white ones, separated by one blue and one crystal bead repeated seven times. The pattern is repeated till the desired length.

Offerings: feminine things like perfume, brushes, mirrors and jewelry, sea products like fish and shells, rice, corn, coconuts.

Places: sea and beaches

Greeting: Odôia!

Day of the week: saturday

Simbol: Abebé (sceptre) of white metal in fish form or decorated with fishes, shells or waves. Sometimes with a white or blue crystal on it.

(I suggest you go to the video store and rent 'Women on Top' with Penelope Cruz, it's an American movie with a Brazilian touch, and it features Iemanjá as one of the key elements of the story. :) Besides, it's very good and the Brazilian cutie... well, he's hot. :wink: )

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