Finding Yemaya: An Adventure At Home

African Goddess of the Sea, Music, Ritual, and Dance

By Molly Anderson | Posted 9/8/07 | Updated 8/24/23

Yemaya is an ancient African goddess. When her people were enslaved, she helped them to survive these desperate times. Warding off despair with music, ritual, and celebration is her specialty. Lost in my own dark season, I seek her wisdom. It began with the blues.

One afternoon, as I listened to my favorite Robert Johnson album, I began to wonder why his sad voice has the power to send my spirit soaring, divine. Shouldn't it depress me, instead? I started to feel a tiny tickle of an idea, which led me to try and unravel this mystery, and in turn, that mystery led to an adventure with Yemaya, Goddess of the Sea.

She asks me to meet her at the local bus station. I wait patiently outside with a small suitcase at my feet. Imagine my surprise when she appears, not on a Greyhound, but seated on the rim of a flying purple bathtub. It's an old Victorian tub, with brass lion's paws for feet. She sits regally, like a queen upon her throne. It floats down, down, down, moving very slowly, until I can climb in.

Without a word, she takes me on a dizzying, brief tour of the world. We fly here and there so fast I hardly know what I'm seeing. Always, always, we chase the sun West. Finally, we return to the Southwest and she drops me off outside my house. She has spoken not a word to me the whole time, smiling mysteriously instead.

"Wait — what about our interview?" I ask.

"You already know everything you need to know about me. You have known me long and long ages, without knowing that you know." With a nod, she disappears into the blue sky in her tub. I have no choice. I bravely enter the studio and face the blank page. In the background, my Robert Johnson album is still playing on.

Often in the angst of teenage pimple-encrusted hell, I pondered the mysteries of sorrow. In other words, how is it possible for Robert Johnson to cure a mean case of the white-girl blues? Sad music has a certain redemptive power to it, a way of making you feel all right. But why?

Writing about an experience transforms it from part of your present life to a part of your past. If you survive the blues long enough to write a song about it, you're well on your way to feeling better already.

Listening to the blues — or any sad old song you love without knowing why — is a way to help heal sadness and grief. There is one exception to this rule — for some reason, listening to the band Depeche Mode while depressed makes you feel even worse. I know this from painful experience. If you find yourself singing "Personal Jesus" in the shower, run, do not walk, to the nearest phone and call your therapist immediately!

In writing this, I began to see that I didn't need to look for Yemaya anywhere — she has been right here beside me all along. This was not a journey, but a return, an echo, a home-coming of sorts. I went all around the world seeking you, Yemaya, only to find you in my own living room. My body has not moved from this uncomfortable chair at the kitchen table, but in my mind I have followed her around the globe, coming full circle to the place I began… but no longer precisely the same Molly that began this piece.

Writing transforms. How do we work this rough magic? What is the precise formula for transforming sorrow into hope and joy? What is the alchemy of the blues?

I couldn't tell you — you have to find that out for yourself, and every one of us is different. But I know that, for me, it begins with the blues every time.

Try This! Writing the Blues

Write a blues tune of your own. Try to see a performance by live blues musicians in your area. Watch a sad movie with your best friend and cry your eyes out. Write a poem or story in honor of Yemaya, or try a little free-writing... I did, and I will share the results here…

Yemaya Free-Write

Who is Yemaya? Goddess of the Sea, Music, Ritual, and Dance. Goddess of Thunderstorms and Rainbows, Butterflies and Elephants. Goddess of the Wretched, Forlorn, and Broken. Goddess of the Lost. Goddess of the Uplifted, the Joyous-for-No-Reason, Goddess of Laughter through Tears. Mother of Mermaids, Sister of Starlight.

Your smile enchants me, shining, singing through your tears. I have connected with you since I was a girl, luxuriating in my sorrows, crying extravagantly, and then finally feeling that blessed relief — a weight of sadness lifted, a veil of cobwebs torn away. Exquisite!

The world never looks so gorgeously clear and bright as it does after a good cry. Tears can purge the heart of sadness.

Invoking Yemaya: A Poem or Sweet Incantation for the Goddess of the Dance

Yemaya, in a dark time, I cry for your wisdom, your light.

Wash my tears away, oh let them fall from my cheeks and join the waves, the waves made up of all the tears shed before mine. A hurricane, a tsunami, a tidal wave of sorrow

They break against the stone walls of my heart, wearing them away to a whisper of resistance which gives way shortly to a sigh of surrender.

I join my tears to the ocean; the wails of a million and one women baying at the moon like lonely wolves surround me. Giving our tears to the waves

Which turn into rain clouds

Which shed tears of their own

Which marry the sun and smile at his silliness, and make rainbows in the most unlikely places

Which are sometimes so lovely they demand tears of their own

(Tears of joy, which is nothing more than sadness transformed and turned upside down)

Which turn into waves

Which beat against the tender pink walls of my heart, then turn into rainbows again.

An Answer to the Essential Question: Can Robert Johnson Cure The Blues?

The blues is a state of mind. It is also a type of music which attempts to express and transcend that state of mind. At root, the blues is music of hope, humor, and faith. To hear Mr. Johnson's sweet laments is to fear not, knowing that angels are watching over you even when you feel so alone and sad it's like dying. Some angels play harps. Mine plays a guitar.

What Yemaya taught me: dance, dance, though your heart is breaking — sing, jump rope, and make love in the sweet darkness. Celebrate tiny happinesses in the midst of dark times. Sing your truth, and you will be healed. There is strength to be found in sorrow — hope arises from despair. Take your joy where you find it, and learn to find it everywhere.

©2007 by Molly Anderson. All rights reserved.


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