I read a post from a friend who posted a video from Youtube that focused on Oya as a dark witch, associated with death and fearful thngs. She advised folks to be mindful with the songs to Oya. I believe the video scared her a bit. I get frustrated with many of the depictions of Oya because of this negative projection of her essence. Like the other female Orisha she is vilified and people are taught to fear rather than respect her. Who is Oya and why is she associated so closely with death?
Oya is the Orisha of the Winds and the winds of Change. We say, “Iba Yansan, Ajalaiye, Ajalorun fun me ire, fun mi alafia.” “We give honor to Oya, the Mother of Nine (Rivers). May the Winds of Earth, may the Winds of Heaven bring me blessings and long life.”
All Orisha are aspects of Nature. All Orisha; all aspects of nature, can support life. All Orisha:all aspects of nature, can bring death. This is true of Oya. In Africa Oya, as the Owner of Winds, ruled the Harmattan season. The Harmattan is a dry and dusty West African trade wind that blows during the winter season and from the Sahara into the Gulf of Guinea between the end of November and the middle of March. The temperatures can be as low as 3 degrees Celsius (30-40 below zero).1 The blowing micro filament like sands linger in the air for days at a time creating a type of fog; dangerous to breath and dangerous to expose to the eyes. The Harmattan is considered the most dangerous season in Africa. Crops are destroyed, people and animals get sick, people and animals die if they are not protected and prepared for the winter sand storms.
We know that the flight pattern of birds change as the seasons change. In Africa the Kite; a raptor bird similar to eagles, would begin to migrate north and west as the Harmattan season approached. The Kite is the messenger bird for Oya. From this we begin to understand the saying in Odu Osa Meji 2 “The Kite is the omen of death…” meaning, the Harmattan (winter) is coming, get ready or perish.
When people saw the migrating kites, they would prepare by storing food, building shelters for selves and animals. Those that did not or could not, suffered severely and many died. This is not unlike the lives of people everywhere during the difficult seasons such as severe winters, tornado and thunderstorm season, etc. Our ancestors watched the weather, understood the messages of the migrating birds, and made preparation for winter. We, in the modern west, are very detached from the impact of nature because we have strong homes, heat and water and the ability to easily store food. This is not entirely true in Africa where most still live in small villages in “the wilderness.”
The knowledge of Orisha from the Yoruba spiritual system of Ifa was translated to the Americas with the captured slaves from Africa. In Cuba, Ifa and other African traditional religions, was syncreticized with Catholicism and several derivative systems developed. Santeria and Lukumi are the two most prominent systems in the west. Most of the Orisha Music we hear today was preserved by our Lukumi kin from Cuba. They did a heck of a job as many Nigerian elders who hear Westerners sing Orisha songs say we are singing in Old Yoruba ( like Old English) and are amazed the old language has been so preserved. With this understand that none of the songs in honor of Oya sing of death or are incantations for death or evil. The songs honor the Spirit of Oya who also brings the spring rains which usher in the crops and the refreshing warm breezes of summer and children.
What is new to Yoruba elders is the element of fear that is associated with Orisha veneration. This element of fear is a direct result of the severance of the slaves from the African elders for over 400 years and severance from the environment which allowed understanding of the personality of Orisha to be directly learned and experienced. The syncretization with European religious traditions whose concepts of deity, life and death are very different had a deleterious impact on the consciousness of African descendants. The Yoruba had a deep understanding of the cycles of nature and the cycles of life. The Yoruba do not have a concept of a God who damns his children, hell or eternal punishment.
The influence of European religions with concepts of the devil, demons, and misogyny deeply changed basic tenets of Ifa. Consequently, Oya whose Harmattan aspect brought a warning of possible death became death itself. Oya is not the Orisha of death. Iku is the Orisha of death. Many stories speak of Oya using her quick wit to save her children from the grip of Death. Others speak of Oya informing the other Orisha how to prevent their children meeting premature death. She is not an energy focusing on death and dieing.
Oya does assist the dead to transistion safely from the physical to the non-physical realms. Oya is the owner of Wind. Wind is symbolic of the power of thought. Access to the non-physical realm is accessed through the ability to focus thought into speech. Speaking the will produces results in the physical realm. Oya, the master of thought and speech, has the inherent strenght to open the portal between the pysical and non-physical realms. She is the owner of the Portal between Heaven and Earth as no other Orisha has this ability. It is her opening this portal that allows the deceased to pass in preparation for the rest of their soul journey. In this we say that Oya is the guardian of those who have died. In adddition, Oya opens this portal allowing us to communicate with Spirit, our departed loved ones and guides. Simply put, she facilitates mediumship and our ability to communicate with the non-physical by developing our mental capacity. Oya’s ability to communicate through thought (telepathy) was reduced by the churches to her being a witch (in the negative use of the word) singing incantations and influencing the thoughts of her victims.
The word Oya translates to “She tore.” Many interpret this to mean Oya tears and shreds things as in the tornado shreading a house. While this is true of the violent aspect of wind this is a reference to the myth of Oya tearing herself away from the influence of the Spirit of the Ocean in Heaven. Oya was originally the spirit that traveled within the waters of heaven which allowed the Water to move. Feeling herself imprisoned, Oya tore herself away from Water to roam the earth as Free Wind. She has no visible form unless she is enveloped in water. This information informs us of why Oya may be so close to Shango. Shango is the spirit of thunder and lightning and is the most like Oya. He spits fire and she sends the winds which fan the flames. She draws the waters of heaven to bring balance to their fire elements. Shango rumbles and thunders but it is Oya who controls the rains and storms in which they travel. Incidentally, Oya was crafty enough to take from Shango the ability to throw the lightning bolts; perhaps to prevent being imprisoned again by another male deity.
On a physical level Oya represents sudden change from things beyond our control; destruction from weather, financial scandals that take our money, others who have affairs with our partners. She always gives us warning. Unfortunately, we tend to deny what she is telling us then the truth hits us in our face. It is our ignoring the warnings which creates personal calamity, not Oya revealing the truth.
On a psychological level, Oya represents sudden unexpected change which impacts the thoughts and emotions. She reveals deception to self and deception from others; plans by others to betray us.
On the mental level, Oya rules thoughts and the ability to express thoughts through speech and writing. She is called “The Bearded Lady.” Hair is a symbol of power and hair around the mouth represents her ability to speak what she wants into physical manifestation. It is because of this ability that Oya was vilified by the churches and made an evil witch. When we “speak what we want into the Universe” we are drawing on the power of Oya within us to manifest our prayers into being. Oya is the free Spirit of the Mothers speaking things into being. More than other Orisha, she represents the manifestation and passion for life and freedom!
Oya, who opens the door to the portal of power, who is fiercely protective of her husband Shango, will carry a cutlass into war ahead of him. Armies feared Oya more than Shango. Wild with fury, they could not stand against her. Oya, who will fight for her children, who does not fear Death (Orisha Iku), indeed stands against death, is worthy of respect but does not need to be feared, unless of course you are in her way or messing with her children. A smart person gets out of the way of the approaching storm or tornado. Oya; because of her sharp mental acumen, governs the market places and business. She manifests as the water buffalo which represents abundance, loyalty. fidelity and balance .
Oya is but one aspect of the cycles of life and nature. All aspects of nature are capable of supporting life or death but Orisha Oya and Eshu are the only ones who do not flee from the face of Iku. Oya comes quickly and snatches her children from the jaws of Death or gathers the souls who cross over to herald them on their journeys. In spite of the teachings, I do not believe you will find her in the stagnation of the cemetary. Stand on a cliff or the ocean shore and feel her in the movement of your hair or the chill on your cheeks. Stand in the summer storm and breath! Sing away to Oya for assistance bringing change to all aspects of your being.
1. Harmattan: Wikipedia
2. Odu are the text, like verses in the bible, that explain spiritual principles. Odu Osa Meji is the Odu in which Oya manifests her being. Several passage start by stating that, “The Kite is the Omen for death…” and the protagonist faces death, usually from deception and betrayal from loved ones or associates. Usually, Oya makes a way of escape for the protagonist who follows her advice. Death ensues for those who do not.