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Angry Black Goddesses

I practice a West African religious tradition known as Ifa or Orisha.  It’s very closely related to Vodun, Santeria, Lucumi, and similar traditions in the Western Hemisphere.

Among the Ifa pantheon are many goddesses.  One could say they are black, as they originate in black Africa.  And at times one could say that they are angry.

Oya is the owner of the whirlwind.  A rushing river.  A copper current.  She is electricity in the air, the crackle of tension as it builds, the sizzle as it releases.  Her name means “she tore.”  Oya cleans away dirt and decay with her powerful broom.  To quote my godmother, Luisah Teish, she is “a warrior against stagnation.”

Yemaya is the mother of fishes.  She dances on the surface of the ocean, silver and blue and pearly white in the sun and moon.  But in a storm–watch out! And like any mother she is ready to defend her children to the death, stashing a kitchen knife in the pocket of that June Cleaver (!) apron.  Don’t make her pull it out.

Oshun is sweetness personified.  She owns erotic love, money, culture, and the finer things in life.  Oshun is honey and oranges, cool spring water and trilling birdsong.  She is also the vulture soaring high, casting her shadow over what is spoiled and needs work, over all that must be changed.  From her I learned that engaging others with my anger is a blessing, a precious gift I give them.

Some divinities in the Ifa pantheon are asexual, and appear not to have sexual characteristics.  Others seem to embody both sexes, either simultaneously or via different “faces” or “roads.”  I’ve written here about three of the Orisha who are primarily seen as female, but there are others.

Even the briefest discussion of Angry Black Goddesses would be incomplete without mention of the Iyami.  This is a word in the West African Yoruba language meaning “our mothers.”  The Iyami of any community are that community’s witches.  They act in secret to further women’s interests.  They are able to disguise themselves as birds when going about their business.  They are very dangerous to oppose.

Those who follow my tradition believe that each of us is closest to one Orisha in particular, and that Orisha is said to rule one’s head.  Men may be ruled by female Orisha, and women by male Orisha.  In fact, each of us has a father and a mother; the Orisha who rules our head and another of the complementary gender.

This is true of all people, no matter one’s race, origin, or religion.

Do you know who your Angry Black Goddess is?  If you want to find out, you can ask a diviner.

12 thoughts on “Angry Black Goddesses”

  1. dressoffire says:

    Thank you for sharing this.
    It’s always fantastic to hear about anyone’s traditions, but especially those that don’t get as much… attention? coverage? as others.

  2. Nina says:

    From her I learned that engaging others with my anger is a blessing, a precious gift I give them.

    An awesome concept, one I just encountered in thinking about psychology and philosophy — it’s an expression of respect, to share your feelings and your thoughts (your soul!) with others.

  3. Nina says:

    P.S. Given the state of the world, I’m not sure I’d trust a goddess who wasn’t angry. ;)

  4. Zahra says:

    I’ve most memorably encountered Yemaya through fiction–the pages of Helen Oyeyemi’s fantastical The Opposite House and Irete Lazo’s autobiographical The Accidental Santera, specifically.

    If at some point you’re ever moved to talk about the way these goddesses and the religions with which they are associated appear in fiction, or whether you as a writer feel their angry black divine touch, I’d be an eager reader.

  5. Nisi Shawl says:

    Zahra, I can only speak for how these goddesses have appeared in my fiction, at this point.

    Yemaya is very evident in two stories in my (ahem–award-winning!) collection Filter House. I write about her in “Wallamelon” and “Good Boy.” She’s also evident (at least to me) in “Momi Watu” and “The Water Museum” in that book.

    Oya had a deep influence on another story in Filter House, “The Beads of Ku.” And one aspect of her is the basis for Amma in “Shiomah’s Land,” also collected in that book.

    Oshun inspired “But She’s Only a Dream.” That’s available online as well as in Filter House. Oshun is also a large part of how I came to write “Women of the Doll.” That’s not in Filter House, though it’s one of my favorite stories. It’s in GUD #1. And “Vapors,” my only published erotica so far, is Oshun through and through. “Vapors” appears in AquaErotica 2.

    I didn’t realize it when I wrote “Bird Day,” but that story owes a lot to the Iyami, as my godmother pointed out to me when I did a reading from Filter House in San Francisco last autumn.

    Other Orishas, other elements of Ifa are tangible in my work, always. Don’t know how I’d do it if they weren’t with me.

    Does that help?

  6. Foxessa says:

    My path to Ifá is via Cuba, where are my babalawo and madrino — the house.

    I know who I am.

    Love, C.

  7. Zahra says:

    Thank you. Filter House is waiting for me on my to-be-read shelf; I must read the stories soon.

  8. Nisi Shawl says:

    Yay, Foxessa! I was hoping someone else from the tradition would read this. Do you have anything else to add to my descriptions?

    Zahra, I sure hope you enjoy my book.

  9. Foxessa says:

    I could add so much because this is the most sophisticated, elegant cosmology ever devised by the mind of woman, methinks. So here are few additional observations:

    1) Lucumi or Ifá or Santería is about achieving harmony, how to live productively as an individual within a family and a family within a community. Each part is necessary. Thus the readings in Ifá do not confine solutions to one orisha, one camino of an orisha, but several combinations of caminos and orishas. Each affects each. They fit like jigsaw pieces to make the whole picture. Or like a kalidescope, each shake changes the pattern.

    2) Nor are any orisha confined to a single a gender.

    3) Ochun is the baby orisha, for she is the orisha of art — she also rules witchcraft and witches.

    4) Oyá is the orisha who rules the cemetery and the crossing from this world to the other. She is the head of the societies of egunguns (the dead ancestors)– which never came to the Caribbean, but did come to Brasil. They remain vastly important in Nigerian’s Yorubaland to this day.

    She is the ruler of the marketplace. Not only is she one of the Warrior orishas with her spear and Changó’s horse, but she provides the fundamental service to the family and community of mercantilism.

    As Buffalo Woman she is an animal woman – shapeshifter too.

    5) Ochun is the baby orisha, the last; as such she presides over creativity and art, as well as romantic love and sexual obsession. So therefore it is easy to understand why she presides also over witches and witchcraft.

    There is no end, but not in the sense that all dissolves into some fuzzy hash. It’s not like that. The deeper and longer one studies the orishas, Ifá, the deeper your understanding and appreciation of life and the world becomes.

    Love, C.

  10. Foxessa says:

    I’ve also written several things that deal with the orishas in various ways, particularly the Della stories.

    Love, C.

  11. Nisi Shawl says:

    Belated addition from an Elder in my Ile, Iya Fakayode:

    “The female Orisha you talked about are part and parcel of Iyami in this role of justice. And the actions that are necessary for justice and for communal restoration often appear to be ruthless. However, the Iyami are the most compassionate. It has been observed that when someone has come before Iyami’s justice the Elder women will often weep and beg Iyami (the spirit) to help the person right the wrong by completing all ebo in the proper time frame. If the violator still does not satisfy Iyami and is deemed a danger to the community, the Elders will carry out the necessary action even if that means death to the perpetrator. If ever the Iyami act out of revenge or out of dislike of a person, they too are subject to immediate repercussions from the Iyami forces. The Iyami Elders are the most disciplined, thoughtful, and calm of the community. They are held to the highest standards by the Orisha.”

    One ceremony I attended held by my spiritual community included the presence of the Iyami in the form of sacred objects dedicated to them. These objects were sheltered by a temporary roof, with mats hanging from the roof’s eaves to delineate the Iyami’s space. It would have been possible to dance below these mats and into the space reserved for the Iyami. However, our chief priest explained that anyone who did so, “inadvertently” or not, would be seen as asking for initiation into the Iyami’s mysteries, with the expectation that they were prepared to conform to the high standards Iya Fakayode mentions above. During the four-hour ceremony, no one danced under that roof.

  12. Nisi Shawl says:

    Foxessa, if it’s not asking too much, please list some of your Orisha related works, and maybe even say a word about them?

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