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Author: Agbo Folarin
Title: Maternal goddess in Yoruba art: a new aesthetic acclamation of Yemoja, Oshun and Iya-Mapo
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Maternal goddess in Yoruba art: a new aesthetic acclamation of Yemoja, Oshun and Iya-Mapo
Agbo Folarin

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 6, pp. 7-8, 1993
Author Biography: Agbo Folarin serves as Principal Arts Fellow, Department of Fine Arts, Obafemi Awolowo University, lle-Ife, Nigeria.

MATERNAL GODDESS IN YORUBA ART: A New Aesthetic Acclamation of Yemoja, Oshun and Iya-Mapo


"Iya ni wura, Baba ni Dingi." "Mother is a jewel, father a mirror."

This famous Yoruba traditional dictum cited above, which pontificates that mother is a jewel, is a cultural mode of thought and behavior. However, this idea is universalistic in many ways, for the love of motherhood is an ubiquitous one, that is found in many cultures.

The Yorubas have a very particularistic reverence and extensive love bestowed on the mother. Mother symbolizes life and its propagation, and men and society must work for their continuance. Mothers are not only nurturers and sustainers of life but its prime movers.

Every young Yoruba child has his or her guardian mother goddess. For example, my guardian goddess is Oshun or "Ye-Ye-Oshun." Most Yoruba towns also possess a guardian goddess or god. The goddess of Ibadan is "Yemoja," that of Oshogbo is "Oshun," of Oyo, the god "Shango" and of Ire is "Ogun."

In this paper I will examine traditional beliefs about three goddesses—Yemoja, Oshun, and Iya-Mapo—and the way traditional sculptors and contemporary Nigerian artists view them in their art.

In Yoruba culture women are the most important members of the society in terms of magic power. "Iya wa," our mother is a sobriquet alluded to to glorify women. Women's magic is demonstrable in the act of giving birth and as nurturer of life, just as her magic invigorates the magic of the earth. She represents the womb of the earth in which life and death repose. The goddess Yemoja supports and bestows blessings on her children and followers; many stories of her benevolence abound.

Yemoja is notably addressed as mother of all the gods in the Yoruba pantheon, in which over three hundred gods and goddesses abound. She is the creatrix-fountainhead of their existence. Yemoja the mother of the gods was looked upon as the pertinent source of all procreation, and possessor of great divine powers. She is the merciful mother who listens to prayer and intercedes before the angry gods and calms them.

One popular story relates the stifling hot dry season of 1948 when a big epidemic of small-pox started in Ibadan. Yemoja priestess was summoned, who then advised that the main gods and goddesses of the Yoruba pantheon be appeased through propiation of Ifa oracle. The resultant effect of the appeasement would then bring a heavy down-pour after the sacrifice has been distributed in the four corners of Ibadan town. The highest god was appeased and before day-break a heavy rainfall fell that then cooled the town as an "ero," cooling effect, which then removed the destructive epidemic.

There are various mythopoetic legends that testify to the mystery of the birth of the gods. One well-known myth testified to the incest that occurred between Yemoja and Orungan, her son, the result of which culminated in the sixteen great gods of Yoruba pantheon. "Every mythic image points past itself. Every deity opens to mystery" (Campbell 1990:161). The more one tries to unravel the secret of the birth of the gods the more baffled one gets. Myths about gods' and goddess' secrets are sometimes hidden from mortal men, particularly those relative to their power fountain. Another myth contradicts Yemoja as mother of the gods; this is the story of Akeju who is a factotum of Obatala. He out of rage or jealousy rolled a boulder which shattered the gods into many pieces while he was going down a hill.


In Ibadan metropolis, where I was born, Yemoja is the patron goddess. She is revered very highly and the area of Ibadan where the old temple was located is still called Popo-Yemoja till today.

There are four significant points that Yemoja emphasizes during her annual celebrations. She epitomizes motherhood power and feminine principles, she is the begetter of Yoruba world pantheon; traditional sculpture depicting her usually shows voluptuous bosom and hip, portraying women-power and grace. The second is the sociological function that it generates during the festive season. The third is the spiritual or cosmological fervour that transpires in the celebration. There is usually that feeling of transcendance, opening up one's heart and mind to the highest spiritual being. The fourth and most important is that she is revered very highly as a fertility goddess. Yemoja's shrine is constructed of swish-mud in the Yoruba traditional mud architecture. The font of the old shrine was surrounded by a porch with carved wooden columns, punctuated with touches of paint in stacatto effect. The wall of the shrine is represented with motifs of fishes, ferns, water lilies, tortoises and snails. She is the personification of fertility, due to the exagerated nature in which her breasts were given extra large depiction. To further heighten her feminine grace huge buttocks are also an asset to her beauty. She is usually referred to as "Iya o" i.e., Great Mother or Mother of all, the All-Begetter, the All-Nourisher of life.

The worship of this fertility goddess included several propitiations in which feast of various foods such as the eating of new yam often coincided with the festival. Three days of singing and dancing was then followed with the high-point of the occasion in which "Yemoja" statue is carried from Popo Yemoja to the Olubadan's palace and Oja-Oba in great procession of much splendor. Shouts of "Iya O" often rent the air as jubilant celebrants dance and shout in eulogy of mother of all. In the palace the Olubadan dances for a few minutes with the priestess and the procession departed to Oja-Oba where everybody gathered in large number for festive songs in praise of mother of the Yoruba pantheon of the gods.


The sculptural art of Yemoja is similar to that of the Epa-mask. Often "Yeye O" is carved on a wooden pedestal seated holding a child, and in most cases surrounded by several children. In the Epa-mask a figure of mothers holding children are often surmounted atop a mask. The superstructure of the figures on top of the mask may portray a woman with twins seated or mother with children strapped to her back with others seated on her knee and around her as in "Olomo Yoyo," the mother of many children.

In most of these sculptures the allegory of motherhood is accentuated. Recurring figures of maternal goddesses such as Oshun, Oya, Yemoja, "Iya-Ibeji" mother of twins, etc are frequent themes. Yemoja sometimes is referred to as Olokun and could be portrayed as half woman and fish, the goddess that is linking mankind with its ancient home.

Yemoja has resurfaced recently in Yoruba contemporary art, in the works of artists like Odekunle, Odewale, Oladimeji Abayomi Barber, Segun Faleye, and this writer, which will be discussed later.


Oshun is characteristically referred to as the goddess of the living cool waters, "Iya Olomi ero tutu." She is revered far and near for her beauty and benevolence. She is the paragon of excellence and beauty in the pantheon of Yoruba gods and goddesses. Oshun attained the most important post of honor of the female deities.

Myth has it that she was among the first body of the gods that descended to earth. Furthermore, when the other male orishas unwittingly excluded her from their council, their effort to organize the world failed. It was not until she was summoned to the council that order and providential progress occurred.

Oshun has been linked with the direct line of transcendental procreation. She is the mother of the city of Oshogbo and all her inhabitants, humans, animals, and all the vegetal continuum in her environment. Oshun is the possessor of the beneficent water of life that assists women to bear children, and protects her devotees from the dreadful smallpox and other diseases to which flesh is heir.

Oshun's favorite color is white. She is noted as the orisha of whiteness, like "Obatala" the creation god. She represents absolute chastity and purity. During the annual festival Oshun's devotees and priestesses usually dress in white wrappers and "buba" tunic. This apparel is complimented by beaded-embroidered panel which has the iconographical design, beauty and vigor of Oshun. During the procession the priestesses could be seen, brandishing bright brass bowls to the Oshun river to replenish the vessels with life-giving water of the goddess. Oshun therefore symbolizes the sacred dimension of water which is the quintessence of our being. Interestingly, it has been postulated by scientific assertion that in the whole solar system only on planet earth is water present in liquid form. This also explains why in the transcendental dimension of Ogboni, the cult of the earth, Oshun possesses the highest woman's title and seat "Ijoko" in the cult house in Heaven.


The founder progenitor of the town of Oshogbo was the talented and brave hunter, Timoyin. He journeyed into the primordial forest where Oshogbo is today. In the distant past all these areas of the present town were overgrown with enormous trees for hundreds of miles. According to legend Timoyin pursued a mighty horned antelope wearing bronze earrings and necklace, an "Agboninrere" out of the mystic past. The animal gave him a mesmerizing stare that went through the hunter, and fled. It was a child of Oshun.

Timoyin pursued the animal as if possessed by magic. On reaching the Ojubo Oshun, the sacred spot in the river, the animal vanished into a huge tree by the river. Deprived of his kill, Timoyin set the tree ablaze falling tempestuously finally into the water hole which is the "Idi aro," the indigo dye place of the goddess Oshun. The unusual act of destruction brought out the goddess Oshun. She charged the brave hunter for violating her sacred domain. Timoyin relented and made amends, and told his story to Oshun, who advised him that they must settle and build the new town of Oshogbo further away from the sacred grove, and that she will be their protectress. It has been known that during the internecine wars of 1830 the Fulanis were defeated near Oshogbo by the forces of Ibadan and Oshogbo combined.

Oshun annual festival is usually the third week of August. This is known in Yoruba as "Jimo Oloyin" or "Jakuta" dedicated to the worship of Shango, which falls on Friday. A ritual vigil is kept for two nights by the priest before the great procession of the Oshogbo inhabitants and public to the Oshun grove. During the night-wakes, the ceremonial enactment is opened with the lighting of the sixteen oil lamps of Ifa by the oracle priests. It must remain burning until the morning. Three senior Ifa priests headed by Ojubona form a semicircle facing the burning lights. The process of Ifa sacred oracular poetry will begin on three "aron" drums with the other "Igbin" drums. The oracular recital goes on from midnight till day break, with the opening verse, "Eku were, Eja were, Eka lawo ku oduno, Ebo afin o." There is a tremendous crowd in rapt attention close in around the flames. Palm oil is fed to the flames by the hereditary Osonyin priest. It is noted that rain has never extinguished these sixteen lamps during the ceremony, in spite of its heaviness.

On the day of the river procession, the Oshun paraphernalia are transported from the inner sanctuary of the altar room. They are only to be seen or handled by initiates. Arugba, the calabash carrier, will convey them in a bigger calabash with the spiritual support of her entourage of priests. A hen is sacrificed to "Arugba" feet and to the road, which symbolically means "Irano"—buying the road to propitiate Eshu, the keeper of the road. Arugba must pay visits to sacred places in the palace grounds, and the tomb of deified hero Atiba and the Oshun central shrine in the town before the final discharge of her offering to Oshun in the main "Ojubo" by the river. Here the high priestess of Oshun takes command and prays for everybody, the Oba king, the town, the country and the whole world.

The traditional sculpture to Oshun is often shown as a very beautiful woman with many children. Sometimes the "Arugba" calabash carrier is shown in kneeling posture carrying a small or big decorated bowl and could be surrounded by children. The entrance to the sacred main shrine has a contemporary sculpture in concrete by Saka. It depicts Oshun with a huge catfish coming out of her feet. Oshun has also been portrayed in the annual festival by many of the contemporary Oshogbo artists such as Jimo Braimoh, Nike Davies, Twins Seven Seven, Muraina Oyelami, Yinka Adeyemi and Adebisi Fabunmi. Numerous other works of brass and wooden sculpture and batik and graphic works have also been produced.


Iya Mapo is the protectress of all women's crafts, trades and professions. She invokes the totemic semblance of Iyalode, Iyemowo and Nana Buukun attributes. She is known in Yoruba culture as the inventor of pottery. Her ancient insignia is an edon (sacred bronze casting) which represents two children close to the goddess. One is held tight to her bosom and the other is strapped with a sash "Oja" to her back with its head downward. For the uninitiated the symbolism is unrevealed. Perhaps it suggests the downward trend of the present society.

Iya Mapo is the potter woman, who embraces the technique of moving round an archetypal hole to mould and shape beautiful potteries. A potter remarked "Iya Mapo" is many things combined. She is a miner when she digs the clay, she is an artist creating potteries, she is a technologist when firing the pots, and a scientist when glazing the potteries (Ibigbami 1992).

There is a story about Ajagemo's bards reciting a time when Ajagemo watching a potter woman at work playfully addressed his "Egbe" entourage "Which is older, the pot or the hole inside it?" To which the giggled reply "Don't ask what you know; it is the hole" (Wenger and Chesi 1983:140).

Iya-Mapo is often depicted in art as possessing multi-various or dimensional hands due to her versatility in art and craft. In most pottery workshops or villages, where potters or weavers, dyers, soap makers and palm oil producers abound, there is always a small shrine made of pottery dedicated to placate Iya-Mapo in all Yorubaland.


"Time past and time present, are perhaps present in times future."

—Eliot, 1970

As Nigeria moves on from traditional development to a modernistic one, her inhabitants are beset with multidimensional problems. Sociocultural attainments in education from the western world have both improved and also imperilled the country's know-how. A new introverted attitude coupled with an analytical extroverted synthesis might benefit the country at this particular point in time.

Women that have long been neglected are now coming forcefully into the forefront of national development in different governmental projects both state and national. The goddess of trade "Iya Mapo" has finally come out in full force with all her creative genius to back women's progress. In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest among young women in crafts such as weaving, dyeing, pottery and batik design. Some women are now moving forcefully into trades long considered as men's sole prerogative, such as wood-carving, building trades and engineering.

The benevolence of Yemoja and Oshun continue to gain prominence with that of Iya-Mapo to uplift women to a higher social level with their men counterparts. If women are given adequate opportunity like men and the right incentive, the sky is their limit.

With a new quest for development Nigerian contemporary artists must join forces with progress by using all the known potent mythology of our rich culture in fostering this ideal. In the early paintings of Renaissance Europe the iconography of Isis the Egyptian mother goddess holding the infant Osiris influenced the art of that epoch and the Mediterranean culture.

Some artists who work in traditional genres like Bamidele, Gbadamosi, Agbetunyi, Fakeye, Alaye, Odekunle, Faleye, Bisiri, Nike Davies, Theresa Luck, and Ige have produced innumerable sculptures, paintings, and batiks using symbols of the goddesses Yemoja and Oshun. At the same time, modern comtemporary style artists of high calibre such as Yusuf Grillo, Dele Jegede, Abayomi Barber, Isiaka Osunde, Adebisi Akanji, Shangodare Gbadegesin, Jimoh Braimoh, and the writer, have produced a body of works that synthesize the past with contemporary content. In Abayomi Barber's sculpture "Yemoja or Olokun" the imagery of a mythically powerful deity rooted in Yoruba tradition is re-echoed with the goddess floating atop a huge seashell draped in ritualistic coral apparel.

In the Oshun grove at Oshogbo, many sculptures were executed by Susan Wenger, the Austrian artist, and Adebisi Akanji, with Saka and Braimo Gbadamosi. In addition, other artists associated with Susan Wenger have produced designs and graphic works on the theme of the goddesses.

Recently, I have created a new vision of mother goddesses in the work "Yemoja as Mother Africa and Child." This excoriating piece of sculpture portrays the mother totally stripped bare by economic adversity. Such work and many others like Susan Wenger's shrine figure holding a frail child with the tenderest affection epitomize the enigma of motherhood in many of its facets. "Here the miracle of a woman able to create life within her own body parallels the genius of the artist who gives birth to a form within a once lifeless stone" (Moore 1987:39).

The theme of the mother and child alludes not only to the maternal relationship but is about fecundity, maternity and metamorphosis—universal ideas. It elicits and invokes the images of the egg, the womb, and the uncarved stone. Whether the child in mother and child images is nestled in the mother's arms, suckling or tearing at her breasts, in her womb or by her side, the mother and child motif goes beyond the image to a primal motif based on the theme of life and birth. It signifies creativity.

Avanguard of women painters, sculptors and designers have evolved during the past two or three decades. Theresa Adewale Luck was one of the well-known ones of the early 1970's. Nike Davies, the batik artist, developed an interesting and unique style of her own while Molara Ige the painter at Yaba College of Art and Technology has produced a few works with the title of motherhood. However, women are coming forcefully into the forefront of our national awareness during the last few years. Would the understanding of women as maternal goddesses help us better in this aggressively male-dominated world? Or will a female-oriented one fare better? These and many thought-provoking ideas need to agitate the mind of us all.

In conclusion, a careful and interspective study of our rich mythology will be a guide for us from further stumbling into deeper morass. In an age where women have not been given equal opportunity to perform as men until recent time, and have suffered excruciatingly in many fields as a result of ignorance on the part of their male counterparts, the job of the artist then is to alter for the best this derogatory image, by making use of some of the potent myths of our benevolent female.


Campbell, Joseph The Hero's Journey. New York: Harper and Row, 1990

Carroll, Kevin Yoruba Religious Carving. New York: Praeger, 1967

Eliot, T .S. The Four Quartets. London: Faber and Faber, 1970

Kennedy, Jean New Currents, Ancient Rivers. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. 1992

Moore, Henry quoted in 1987 Mother and Child. New York: Hofstra University Press.

Wenger, Susanne and Gert Chesi A Life with the Gods. Perlinger Verlag, 1983

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