The Yoruba tribe is one of the three largest ethnic groups in present-day Southwestern Nigeria. Smaller, scattered groups of the tribe live in Benin and northern Togo. Together, these areas comprise Yorubaland. Yorubaland was one of the biggest slave-exporting regions in Africa. European colonizers enslaved Yoruba tribespeople and distributed them throughout the Atlantic world. This forced dispersal led to large groups of enslaved Yoruba in Brazil, Trinidad, Cuba, Haiti, and the United States, to name a few.
Enslaved Yoruba people carried with them their language, customs and religion to the Western Hemisphere. The Yoruba faith is an ancient cosmology that consists of traditional religious and spiritual concepts borne from the Yoruba tribe. As a consequence of white supremacy, Yoruba cosmology became the basis for a number of branched off religions, including Brazil’s Umbanda and Candomblé, Trinidad’s Orisha, Cuba’s Santeria and Lucumi, Haiti’s and Louisiana’s Vodou, and the United States’ Ifa.
Yoruba involves a complex of songs, histories, patakis (stories), and other cultural concepts that center Blackness—particularly our connections to the Divine, personal purpose and our ancestors. In the Yoruba tradition, our Egun (ancestors) are the foundation of all things. They are the link between the physical and metaphysical planes. Because they were once alive, they understand our present-day struggles, desires, and afflictions. Contrary to what Christianity’s chorus would have us believe, our Egun do not haunt us. They, instead, speak to living descendants through dreams and intuition, like an inner voice. Because of their wisdom and love for us, our ancestors often send messages to help us achieve our dreams and destinies.
In Yoruba’s robust cosmology, all human beings possess a destiny of fate. Each person living on earth attempts to achieve a life of doing good for the self and others because, in so doing, we find our destiny in Orun-Rere— the spiritual realm of those who do good and beneficial things. In Yoruba, the dedication to doing good, having integrity and positive convictions will lead one’s consciousness in the physical realm to consummate with one’s spiritual self. This, eventually, will lead us to become one in spirit with Olodumare.
Olodumare is God — the divine Creator and Source of all energy, the most important state of existence, the Supreme Being who is all-encompassing and genderless. No one or specific gender can be assigned to the All. Hence, it is common to hear references to Olodumare as They, although this is meant to address something of a singularity. They are the breather of life. They are much more than any one gender, or thing.
It was Olodumare who sent the Orishas to Earth to develop its crust, create its lands and waters, and well as its inhabitants. The Orisha (otherwise spelled as Òrìṣà) are also considered manifestations of Olodumare, branches of Olodumare’s ever vast energy, spirit. Orishas are, then, intermediaries between humankind and the spirit-scape. There are hundred of Orishas— some say there are 441, others 201, and others give yet another number. Each of these deities, nonetheless, are revered for having control over specific elements of nature.
Yemaya (also spelled Yemọja) is one of the eldest of Olodumare’s Orisha, and one of the most widely worshipped. Like all Orishas, Yemaya has natural elements, numbers, colors, and animals associated with her. Her natural element is the ocean; and it’s believed that all of life comes from Yemaya’s deep nourishing waters. She’s associated with the numbers seven and ten, the colors blue and white, pearls, silver, conch shells, and doves. Revered as the most nurturing of all the Orishas, Yemaya is considered “The Mother of All”.
Researching Yoruba cosmology and, ultimately, Yemaya brought me closer to my west African spiritual origins. It also affirmed the strong connection I had to my ancestors since I was child, since Grandma Mabel died. In my discovery, I felt seen. Whereas Christianity demanded that I not convene with or pray to my ancestors, Yoruba encouraged it. But, despite my learnings, I was no closer to the shaman in my dreams. I also realized that Nia was wrong. The person who hovered above me was no woman. My shaman could not have been Yemaya.
When I was twenty years old and newly graduated from college, Mama’s twin brother Randy cornered me. In my bedroom, he used one of his hands to grab one of my own. His other hand fisted a dogeared Bible, the spine of which choked within his palm. “Get down here, and pray with me,” Uncle Randy demanded while taking a knee. Perhaps, he was going to thank God I’d made it through college and back home intact. Or, ask for my success now that I was entering a career for the first time. But something was off. His tone, his squeeze, his lack of robust laughter that usually took him over when we were in each other’s company were nonexistent.
My legs refused to budge.
I stood tall on both feet when Uncle Randy squeezed my hand tighter, thrusted the Bible before his face and bellowed, “Father God, Almighty! Relinquish this demon from her body.” Looking down at him, I was perplexed. What unfolded—the clash of familiality and phobia—was too unfamiliar to immediately comprehend. “Reject satan, I declare. Take from her the devil’s desire to lay with another woman!”
Though it was he who should’ve been, I was humiliated and ashamed. While squeezing my hand, Uncle Randy squashed me, small. Although I had been out since I was seventeen, had openly brought the women I dated home for holidays and knew that love could never be wrong, even if it was with and for other women, Christianity’s long and bruising tentacles were as real as Uncle Randy’s weighty grip.
I thought I’d resolved old questions that haunted me as a young girl—would I go to hell for my attraction to other girls? Then, later, when on my deathbead, will I be so frightened of hell that I’d repent for the “sin” of laying with and romantically loving women? I thought that my conviction in God’s love for me was solid. Uncle Randy’s prayer, though, stirred to the surface all the doubt I tried to bury over the years. Instead of telling him about the waywardness of his beliefs, I tugged my hand from his, and ran away.
Though Christianity’s Bible had been weaponized against me time and time again during my youth in my Grandmothers’ churches, as well as during my teenage and young adult years as a femme who held masculine-of-center women’s hands in supposedly liberal New York City streets, Uncle Randy’s commitment to praying my gay away was my first encounter with overt familial homophobia. It was the first time that Christianity was wielded as weapon against me in my own home. But it wasn’t the last.
A year or so later, Mama’s sister Genevieve asked, “Why date a woman if she looks like a man? Why not just date a man, then?” We stood in the second-floor hallway of her tall Brooklyn brownstone. She lived on the first two floors and rented the third-floor apartment to me and my partner. Looks like a man. I rolled my eyes. Here we go again. My then-partner wore fitted Yankees and loose jeans. She sported Timbs and a gold chain that dangled from nape to navel. Aunt Gen’s voice dripped with contempt cloaked as curiosity.
“You’re my niece. I love you. I don’t care who you’re with,” she tried.
Then twenty-one years old, I didn’t have the language to explain the homophobia inherent in her question, the bandwidth to help her see it was there. I shook my head, placed a foot on the rickety wooden stairs leading to the third-floor landing, and told her, “Goodnight.”
Though devastatingly hurtful, over time the shock of these comments began to dull. I had heard the same sermons that Mama and her siblings had. Read from the same Bible passages. Sat in the same churches where white Jesus scaled the walls and stained glass. All that accrued self-hate takes time to identify, and heal. So it wasn’t until I was well into my late thirties when I finally found the language, and calm, necessary to address homo- and transphobic preachings waged by Christian family members and strangers, alike.
A few years after my dream, in the midst of a heated argument over a boyfriend’s bicycle, Aunt Margaret thought she leveraged a dis when, “At least I know whether I want a man or a woman,” she said. The comment came from the left and intended to chin check me with an uppercut. I suspect she thought I should be ashamed of my queerness, and perhaps that my boyfriend didn’t know. Aunt Margaret hadn’t realized that I carried my queerness with me into every relationship proudly, and was able to do so largely because of the shaman in my dream. So, when I shot back, “At least I know I want either and both,” Aunt Margaret’s face bunched into a cross.
A few months after Nia schooled me about Yoruba and Yemaya, I ran into Leanne. Dressed in dazzling ivory threads that wrapped her head, covered her torso and laced her feet, Leanne sat next to me at an event in the City. It had been the first time in fifteen years since I saw her last. Her all white garb was an indicator that she practiced Yoruba, my research left me feeling pretty confident in this.
“He then said, ‘You know you need the twelve,’” I whispered as an emerging writer used a podium’s microphone to read their work. Leanne leaned in and listened to me intently. “A friend told me it was probably Yemaya. But the person in my dream was a man!”
It had been six months since the shaman came to me. Although I bought and read books, studied websites and soaked up all the information I could about Yoruba, I was still no closer to knowing who he was, and what Twelve he referred to. “Do you have any idea who he is?” I asked, hoping Leanne would be able to offer more than my previous studies.
Not missing a beat, “That was Olokun,” Leanne whispered.
Olo who?” I asked.“
“Oh-low-kooon,” she annunciated. “Olokun is the Orisha who governs the deep ocean. It was Oh-low-kooon who paid you a visit.”
Olokun? In the months of conversations and research, I hadn’t once heard or seen the name. Once home, I consulted the internet yet again. This time, I typed Olokun into the browser. Though there were dozens of books about Yoruba and Yemaya, only a handful about Olokun existed. Though scores of websites described Yemaya, her children, her patakis, and more, Olokun I found to be much more obscure.
Olokun (also spelled Olóòkun ), is the guardian of the deepest depths of the ocean, the darkest and largest expanse in our world, an area where no living human has ever been because we do not have the technology to get there. Though the deep sea is Olokun’s kingdom, Olokun is revered as the ruler of all bodies of water and the authority over other water deities.
In Yoruba, the ocean’s bottom is not only the realm of death, but also the spiritual staging area human souls must cross to be born or to return to the spirit realm at death. It is also home to many lost riches, and our ancestors who met death during the transatlantic slave trade. They reside in Olokun’s kingdom.
Olokun embodies the necessary darkness that is within us all— the drive that every living thing possesses in order to survive. Where Yemaya is the creative force of life, Olokun is the equally necessary destructive force. Like Yemaya, Olokun is associated with the colors blue and white. But, Olokun’s numbers are seven and nine. Because Olokun and Yemaya share the same natural element — the ocean — the two are often mixed up. Some people believe that the two are husband and wife, while others say that they are brother and sister. Some understand Olokun as Yemaya’s mother, father, brother, sister, or alter ego. This is because Olokun is considered as female, male, hermaphroditic, and androgynous. Indeed, Yoruba honors Olokun as gender-queer and –expansive while revering Them as one of the most commanding Orisha’s in the Yoruba cosmology.
“You. You embody masculine and feminine better than them all,” They said. “It was Olokun,” Leanne was clear. In time, I realized she was right.