The Real Historical Backstory of Olokun and Yemoja: It’s not what anyone Thinks,

Describes the backstory between Yemoja and Olokun in the Diaspora and Africa.

In the last few months, I’ve seen a lot of posts about Yemoja and Olokun. Oh the controversy is real. As an initiate to both Yemoja and Olokun, I feel compelled to say a few things because many of these debates are not based on a full picture of either. 

Where you are depends on your experience. There are also  historical , metaphorical, primordial understanding of Orisa. We understand that Yemoja, as an Orisa, originally came from Nigeria. There was an actual woman who lived and her story became the basis of what we know as Yemoja today. Some say she was Nupe originally.  Part of her story involved her turning into a river. Historically, I was taught there was originally a Yemoja river. But it dried up and the people moved to another area so they could have water again . They moved to where the Ogun river is now. So her river became the Ogun river till today. In ancient times, a town consisted more of the people than the geological location. Many towns moved when conditions required it. The Orisa they had moved with them. 

During the transatlantic slave trade , many Olorisa were taken away to new lands and they brought their Orisa with them. Yemoja was one and because of that   her worship expanded beyond the coasts of Africa. Her priests, like the ones before , moved and they had to make a way to worship her on new lands and across the ocean. They understood that the on the other side of the Ocean was home and it was also the  nearest water way for many so over time,  she became associated with the shallow part of the ocean while Olokun was associated with the deepest part of the ocean. For over 400 hundred years now, she has warmly comforted and accepted those in the diaspora and their worship. As an Orisa, she grew, expanded and evolved. If you have never been to the diaspora you may never know or understand that the Orisa really does manifest here in such a powerful way. If you have never been to Africa you might never understand how she is a river to them. Neither should speak on what they have no experience with. But what both must understand is that Orisa is NOT limited to one location. 

Yemoja in Brasil at the Ocean

Both are right and neither are wrong based on their experiences. The limitations are with humans and their personal politics, not the Orisa. 

Olokun , on the other hand, is understood to be the ocean. There are 2 lineages of Olokun that are prominent in the diaspora.  Yoruba and Edo/Bini .  Their historical stories are as follows. Olokun, from the Edo perspective  is seen as male and associated with an ancient Edo king had deformed legs and people said they looked like fish legs. His story was that  he was taken away to the water world for many years and when he returned, he was a priest of Olokun who became King with many wives. So Olokun is often depicted as a double tailed fish king in Edo. His wives are said to often speak in his place. 

Edo Olokun with Fish legs

 From the Yoruba perspective Olokun is powerful woman who was a jeweler associated with beads and wealth in Yorubaland. She was richer than anyone in the entire region at that time. They say she was married to the Alafin or Ooni or Obatala depending on who tells the story and she was responsible for creating the beaded crowns worn by Royalty. They say she preferred living on her own compound and that she came from the water. 

Ori Olokun , a head bust of Olokun in Ife

As an Irunmole (primordial) however, Olokun is considered the oldest water.  However, most  people don’t know that Olokun started as a river too! Odi Meji talks about how Olokun started as a trickle and after consulting a diviner became a large river. I was taught when I initiated to Olokun in Nigeria is that a larger river is considered a sea in Yorubaland. A sea, in the west, is considered part of the ocean. So translation and interpretation depends on your orientation. But the story in Odi Meji is what happened in the Edo kingdom. Olokun is associated with the Ethiope river that started as a trickle from underneath the Earth . That river continued to expand to the Ethiopian Sea in the Guinea coast which today is known as the Atlantic Ocean. Today,  the Ethiope river , also known as the deepest inland river in Africa turns into the Benin River which connects to the Guinea coast. 

Ethiope River at the bottom merges with Benin River and empties to the ocean

Olokun in Yorubaland is associated with a deep well in Ife. Not even a river or ocean because Ife is landlocked. But they believe the well is connected underground to the Ocean near Lagos hundreds of miles away. Like in the case of Yemoja, towns moved when where they were became untenable. So historians say there are actually 7 Ile Ifes , the first of which was closer to the Confluence of the Niger and Benin rivers. Yoruba historians the first  was flooded so the people had to move. Ife moved 6 more times to different locations. The last is in its current location and now Olokun is worshiped at  a well. In Ife, there is archaeological evidence of a great bead factory that is identified as hers. Her beads were called glass beads but were sand cast beads as ancient glass comes from sand and sand is a derivative of Water. 

Igbo Olokun Grove in Ife after excavation of beads.
Olokun as a well in Ile Ife
Sand cast beads like the beads Olokun mde popular

So things are not as cut and dry.  Like water itself, it requires a fluid understanding and a gentle acceptance that no one holds all the secrets to either. One thing that seems to be common in both stories of Olokun is the historical and geological reference to Benin River.. both historical original Ife and Ethiope river. As far as I know, evidence of Olokun’s beads in the other historical Ifes have not been explored. 

One thing I’d like to add about them is why it’s hard to separate them though they are different. When I initiated to Olokun, it was hard to clarify which was which when they show up spiritually. Yemoja had always taken my offerings to Olokun when necessary . Once I initiated to Olokun, I  learn their differences when they manifested . Yemoja always brought a compassion and  a lot of nurturing healing.  Olokun brought tears from the belly but also profound wisdom and insight. So I had asked them,  who they say they are. So this is what I was told. Yemoja told me she grew and expanded beyond her original borders. Also that Yemoja, by name means mother of fish. Yeye ( mother) omo ( child ) oja (fish). Much of the mermaid iconography is associated with her because of her fishlike attributes . But a fish cannot live outside of water. So anywhere a fish is, there is also water whether salt or sweet water. So if Yemoja’s primary attribute is fish then she can be anywhere fish are. And that means the world.

Yemoja depicted as a half woman half fish in a Statue from Yorubaland

As the name Olokun denotes owner of the ocean Olo (Owner) Okun (Ocean), she is associated with such. She is called Okun lagba omi which means the most ancient or superior  water. So Olokun is the spiritual consciousness of water and it’s mysteries. Water is everywhere including in our own bodies as well as the sky so wherever there is water, there is Olokun. 

So again, context is everything.  Ocean is inseparable from the sea life it contains including fish. So olokun and Yemoja , though different are inseparable too. Some say sisters. Some say Yemoja is Orisa while Olokun is the Irunmole. But hopefully this can add some insight and settle some debates. Lol… but knowing people…Probably not!

Categories: Orisa