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The Book of Images: Reflections on Archetypal Symbols
OYA SHRINE SCULPTURE Priestess of Oya with symbols of air and fire dwarfs the priest of Shango riding behind her. Yoruba, Africa.
She is an Orisha, a divine container of primal patterns of existence as perceived by the Yoruban folk of West Africa (Gleason, 307). She traveled with West Africans on their forced crossing of the Atlantic. In this New World the Yoruban myths, legends, and rituals syncretized with those of the indigenous populations and the conquering Spanish Catholics. They evolved into Condomble' in Brazil where she is called "Yansan"; Voudun in Haiti where she is called "Aida Wedo"; Lacumi (Santeria) in Cuba and Puerto-Rico where she is called "Yansa" (Thompson, 161). Her Catholic namesakes are La Nuestra de la Candelaria, St. Catherine, and St. Theresa (Teish, 114).
Oya is the experience of the purifying power of Air, a domain to which belongs feminine intelligence, relationship and communication (Gleason, 1-2). Her priestesses dance in a twirling motion, fanning their skirts, wielding fan and whisk. She is the ever changing, unexpected Goddess of Wind and Weather. Her voice is in the rustling breeze. Her face is in the violence of the tornado. She is the emotional catharsis of a storm. Her winds can clear the atmosphere, and sweep our lives clean of clutter and confusion, ignorance and injustice. She speaks her mind and so she is patroness of strong women negotiating in the market place. Hers is the final power, for she is the first and the last breath.
Oya is the experience of the dynamic power of Fire, a domain of feminine Eros. Her priestesses dance wildly, dressed in red, brandishing a saber. They sometimes wear the zigzag of the lightning bolt upon their hem or headdress, or thunderax upon their brow. She is wife-sister, Warrior Queen of Shango, God of Fire. Some say she stole Shango's fire magic (Courlander, 201-3). Truth be known, she is his vitality, the wind that feeds the flame, the lightening that precedes the thunder, (Gleason 60-3) the skirts behind which he rides into battle (Nunez, 53-4). She strikes us without warning in passion, in valor, in rage, in genius. She is the heroic surge of adrenaline, the electrical charge between lovers. She is the dangerous power of pure impulse.
FUNERARY ALTAR TO OYA A banner of nine colors symbolizes Oya-Yansan, Mother of Nine ancestral spirits presiding over death, Cuba. Photograph by Christopher Munnelly, 1992.
Oya is the experience of the tumultuous power of Water, a domain that includes feminine feeling, psychic ability, and the female blood mysteries. Her priestesses trace her fluid spirals with their feet, her undulating currents with their bodies. Goddess of the Niger River, her raging floods may fecundate, ritually cleanse, protect against invasion, or wash life away. Just as the rushing river of our emotions might heal or drown us (Gleason, 47ff). She is "Yansan", Mother of the Nine. This refers both to her nine estuaries and to her nine children, all ancestral spirits. Because of her unusual progeny, she presides over the dead, funerary practices, and cemeteries (Thompson, 192-5).
This is Oya, Orisha of the uncontrollable feminine forces of nature; terrifying Goddess of the Edges, who guards the roads into life and death.
Gleason, Judith. Oya: In Praise of an African Goddess. San Francisco, 1992.
Thompson, Robert Farris. Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas. New York, 1993.
Teish, Luisa. Jambalay. San Francisco, 1985.
Courlander, Harold. A Treasury of African Folklore. New York, 1996.
Nunez, Luis Manuel. Santeria: A Practical Guide to Afro-Carribean Magic. Dallas, TX, 1992.