Keys to Feminine Empowerment

from the Yoruba West African Tradition
Se Alafia ni Ore mi (Peace and Prosperity unto you my friends)

I am called Omifunke (, which means, "the waters

have returned the last born." I received this name in Nigeria, West Africa, in the summer of 1984 during my visit among traditional elders who, in order to preserve the ancient knowledge of the Yoruba people in Western times, created a society known as ARSAD (The African Religious Society of African Descendants). I am a priestess of the Orisa (Goddess) called Yemoja (Great Mother who's children are like fish in the sea!) and I am also a storyteller...

Among the Yoruba People of West Africa (also known as the Ivory Coast), storytellers serve as the vehicle for transmitting the wisdom of the human, quasi-human, animal, mineral, and plant kingdoms. These storytellers are often referred to as the "Keepers of the Records" of an oral history that dates as far back as 3,000 B.C. This is an oral history that was committed to, by memory, up until the 19th century. To date, the storyteller remains as a powerful mediator for communicating the people's cultural, social, and spiritual traditions and holds the place of teacher, advisor and healer. The most frequent method of transmitting this knowledge is by way of retelling a series of myths or legends referred to as the Folktales of the Orisas.

These Yoruba myths introduce the general concepts of Yoruba Cosmology and contain information concerning the Universe, its features, its terrain, and the physical and psychological laws and events about those supernatual beings who once visited the Earth and lived as humans among us. Although Yoruba cosmology is vast and complex; at it's most basic level, the cosmology can be understood to function within a Great Triad where there is a supreme source (a Great Mother/Father Collective Consciousness) called Olofi, the elementals (earth, wind, fire, water, minerals, etc.) called Orisas, and the Great Ancestors (spirits of those departed within the family lineage) called Egungun.

The Great Triad is activated by way of a divination system known as Odu Ifa. This divination system introduces binary principals, known as darkness and light, negative and positive, feminine and masculine, or simply expansion and contraction. This binary system is considered the Yoruba Tree of Life and contains 16 primary patterns, similar to the I Ching's hexagrams. According to the Yoruba, the Tree of Life in the Great Triad is activiated when spirit enters into physical form through the process of reincarnation. Humans are understood to sit at the base and in the center of the Great Triad.

For the Yoruba, the soul incarnates with the 16 primary patterns contained within, and it's task is to raise the Tree of Life to the 16th power. In accepting entry into the physical, the soul, in human form, can then gain entry into the 256 patterns where there are thousands of folktales, proverbs, organic medicines, and rituals to assist the human soul on its journey to remember and evolve. My focus in this article is to introduce you to the collective feminine voice of the Ancient Mothers of this Triad. In Yoruba tradition, when we speak of Ancient Mother we bow in deference to her power, her wisdom, and her grace.

Empowerment Through the Feminine

In the Fall of 1993, one of the 16 patterns, known as the Odu Irete-Melli, began to make its journey to earth and women across the world began to feel the shift--that shift was a rise towards empowerment. It was about this time that I was guided by the Ancient Mothers to begin to share the wisdom of Odu Ifa and Yoruba cosmology in workshops across the country, through a process I called Keys To Feminine Empowerment.

When the Odu Irete-Melli became fully activated on January 1, 1994 at the Annual Ifa Counsel of the Year, the Odu affirmed that there was a need to introduce a deeper level of understanding of the Feminine Orisas (Yoruba Goddesses) to women in the general public. The process work of Keys to Feminine Empowerment was then expanded to include song, ritual, and the Legends of Three Feminine Orisas, Yemoja (Goddess of the Sea, Water Buffalo), Osun (Goddess of the Rivers), and Oya (Goddess of the Winds, Tornados, Lightning, Buffalo Woman).

Through the folktales of these Orisas (Goddesses) and their legends on the power of the feminine, women learned to share their ethos, ethics, and politics, and even today, they provide us with the material and the patterns by which to emulate and reaccess the power of the feminine within ourselves. The work of Carl Jung in his book Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious beautifully illustrates the importance of this process:

"We could therefore say that every mother contains her daughter in herself, and every daughter her mother, and every woman extends backwards into her mother and forward into her daughter. This participation and intermingling give rise to that particular uncertainty as regards to time...which brings with it a feeling of immortality!"

As a storyteller, I am called to "seed" the myth through the medium of sound and movement, whereby an individual becomes stimulated and awakened. Often, through the use of Oriki's (invocations) and songs, I will activate sound that, in Yoruba cosmology, is understood to generate form. The myth then comes alive and serves as a self-generating principal, connecting us to the power of the divine. For the Yoruba that power is a feminine voice.

The process for seeding a myth enables humans to become the vehicle for the "manifestation of the divine" and the wisdom mothers (Ancient Mothers?), who hold the keys to these myths, then travel from other worlds to manifest within us and around us. The process compells us to contemplate the meaning of our existence and the significance of all relationships, not only human, but with all varieties of animals, spirits, and divinities. Through these myths we capture the intimations of the vastness that lies beyond linear understanding.

Henderson's Wisdom of the Serpent beautifully illustrates this concept when "myth" is described as "the exteriorized self-portrayal of the inner psychic world," and in our recognition of myth we experience the "power of miracles" and become active participants of life through ritual.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes speaks to this divine feminine wisdom in her book, Women Who Run With The Wolves. Here, Estes' eloquently shared myths and legends of the Wild Woman archetype provide women today with keys to understand and reawaken their feminine journey into "knowing." Estes describes these wisdom mothers within us as La Que Sabe (She Who Knows). La Que Sabe is the mother wisdom that created the seven stages of women's unfolding, which Estes retells in her collection of myths held sacred by various cultural traditions around the world. These seven stages in life lead women on their journey toward wholeness and are beautifully detailed and described in Paula Allen Gunn's work Grand- mothers of the Light as the paths of Daughter, House-holder, Mother, Gatherer, Ritualist, Teacher, and Wisewoman.
In all these stages of our lives, La Que Sabe holds the mystery of transition, the secrets of nurturing, the power to create, the strength to transform, and the wisdom to heal. La Que Sabe remembers...history and one continuum! La Que Sabe is the storyteller within us who holds the memory; she who runs wild and free. She is dark, wet, moist, and powerful.

In the last three decades, we have been witnessing a rising of feminine voices among women of all races. These have been voices of women who speak of women's ways of learning, teaching, sharing, and healing. These voices are beautiful, erotic, provocative, and scholarly. They are filled with rage, joy, laughter, and power! They are generations of women who are hearing the call to remember, by retelling ancient stories and weaving a tapestry of new ones. They speak to feminine wisdom in this moment in time--the here and now that affirms what was, what is, what will become...As we prepare to enter a new millenium and our earth mother works to restore her balance, the words of Eric Newman in his book The Great Mother resonate: "The primordial mystery of weaving and spinning has (always) been experienced in projection upon the Great Mother, who weaves the web of life and spins the thread of fate!"Let me introduce you to her within the West African perspective...

The West African Feminine Orisas

In Yoruba cosmology, when we speak about the Great Triad, we are most often referring to collective wisdom divinities called the Ancient Mothers, a collective force also known as the "dark mothers," who "weave the web of life and spin the thread of fate." These dark mothers are the feminine principal of energy that vibrate the negative so that it has movement. It is this movement in the darkness that opens the way to recieve the light and is the beginning of the creative process.

For humans, the place where we first experience this vast darkness of the feminine is in the womb. It is in the womb where we fully experience the life force of "dark mother," for she is the one who nurtures us and holds the light for us as we take on form and prepare to enter the gateway of the future. The Ancient Mothers ensure that we continue the generational lines that are referred to in the African adage, "We must remember to give thanks to all those ancestors whose shoulders we stand upon." Thus, it is the feminine force of the Ancient Mothers that brings forth the feeling of immortality, and it is this immortality that becomes the doorway for supernaturals to enter the human realm through reincarnation.

Within Yoruba cosmology, the Odu Irete-Melli speaks to the importance of humanity facing the darkness within the womb, where we are first "witnessed" or seen. That darkness represents feminine power, and 1993 marked an important step for humanity to reawaken and heal its understanding of the dark, wet, moist, and mysterious--the woman of the '90s.

History reveals countless unconscious "shadow" projections, rooted in fear, confusion, rejection, and misunderstanding of women's relationship to the darkness and to the creative power that emanates from that negative space. Ceanne DeRohan in the book Right Use Of Will: Healing and Evolving the Emotional Body , speaks to this struggle and misunderstanding: "Female is the quality that is correlated with the Will. Female is given the property of the negative charge just as the Will is and just as darkness has been. Feelings are equated with the female and action with the male. Women, then, have been equated with the term negative and negative has been equated with undesirable. In truth, negative energy is...movement [and] in people this energy is emotional energy. People must realize that feelings, expressing as emotions, open them to receive the light. Feel-ings are a Divine and necessary part of man and woman. It is essential for Earth at this time [for humanity] to recognize and align with the negative receptive energy which has been misunderstood and maligned."

In these social and political times, it is important to note that these mother divinities are speaking profoundly about the changes that are needed on the Earth. The Ancient Mothers recognize the lack of understanding in the history of feminine power. This has resulted in a great deal of emotional pain and lack of connectness to ourselves as women, who are the containers of the light force. This disconnectedness to our feminine nature and/or emotional body creates a great imbalance for ourselves and humanity. For in Yoruba Traditions, the Ancient Mothers ensure the "life continuum of seven generations to come." That is why in 1994 and 1995, the Ancient Mother, in the Ifa Odu of Irete-Melli, appeared and stated that all of humanity will now have to face her, honor her, receive her, and remember... The Ancient Mothers are asking us, as women, to enter the womb, the darkness, to open our eyes (symbolized by the ovaries) so that we may take in the light and truly be witnessed.

Let me now introduce you to one of her daughters, who in the '90s has and will become the Goddess to pave the new journey of recovery. Estes calls her "Skeleton Woman." Among the Yoruba, she is known as Oya...

Oya--She Who Rides With The Wind

In the Feminine Empowerment series I've held in 1994 and 1995, the Yoruba myths introduced women to three Orisas: Yemoja, Osun, and Oya. All of these Goddesses are divinities associated with the Great Triad, which we have been referring to as the Ancient Mothers. As daughters of the Ancient Mothers, Yemoja, Osun, and Oya take on the superhuman forms associated with the elementals. They have come to the earth to awaken and refine within us the qualities of beauty and love (Osun), nurturance and strength (Yemoja), and power and passion (Oya)!

For this article, focus is given to Oya. Oya is the Goddess that rules the qualities of power and passion. Her vibratory number is nine and she is the Goddess that marks the close of this millenium, as we move towards the year 2006. In 1994 and 1995, Oya became the ruling ancient mother force, and she must be contended with in our committment to move to a place of balance and right relationship with the negative.

Who is the Whirlwind?

Evelyn Eaton (known as grandmother Mahayoni "Way Shower") speaks in her literary works of a song from the Pauite Ghost Dance (in Native American traditions) which refers to the coming of the new world, a new age when the shadow is redefined and peaceful ways return to create a place of harmony and happiness. The new world is represented as white with snow advancing swiftly, driven by a whirlwind.

Among the Yoruba, this whirlwind is Oya. Linguistically, this Orisa's name, Oya, translates into "Tearer." Metaphorically, this speaks to a force that rips or pulls structures from their roots. This is why the tornado is most often the symbol that is drawn to represent the power of Oya when she enters the physical realm. Historically, her origins are a mystery--some say she was from Nubia, but others say she was a red woman--yet all agree she came from foreign lands. Her legends speak of her as the beautiful, violent, and fearless daughter of Yemoja (Goddess of the Sea). All agree she was a superhuman female warrior and horsewoman that wielded a saber and horsetail in one hand, while pulling down lightning with the other. Her many tales speak to her journeys in the earth realm and her transformations as divinity and woman. Let us explore her groves, symbols, and legends. In them, we will find many teachings for us, as women in the '90s. Maferefun (highest praise) to Oya, for she is associated with:

The Cycles of Nine

Iyansan is a praise name that is found in the Ifa Odu, Pattern Osa-Melli. This Odu speaks to a time when Oya was barren and all her children were born premature. They say in this myth that Oya goes before Ifa and makes a sacrifice of the Sacred Cloth of many colors (rainbow colors). Out of that cloth she gives birth to nine children, and she is then called Iyansan, "Mother of Nine." This, then, becomes her sacred vibratory number, which speaks to the necessary cycle of the creative process. In this symbolism of barreness and premature children, Yoruba cosmology reveals a woman's journey into the creative process where she is compelled to return to her inner knowing as she struggles to search for purpose that gives form to her ideas. The act of going before Ifa serves as a reminder of the return to the mystery that offers assistance in reaching resolution of emotional blocks in the creative process. The sacrifice of the sacred cloth is a symbol of the "material" that a woman must draw upon from within. The "cloth of many colors" represents the spectrum of perspectives that a woman examines in her journey to give birth to a unique and creative idea. The "cloth of many colors" also symbolizes the gestation process necessary before the world is presented with the final ultimate manifestation of idea into form. In this tale of Oya we also witness the labors of becoming the "rainbow warrior" often spoken of in Native American traditional teachings. When I review this tale, I often wonder if this is why she, Oya, is also referred to as the red woman from a foreign land!

Saber and HorseTail

Oya is often described as carrying an Irukere (beaded horsetail) and saber. As she rides, she is seen whirling both tail and saber while drawing down lightning that emerges as fire from her mouth. The fire, some say, she stole from Songo (Male Orisa of Lightening and Thunder) while others say she gave to Songo as a symbol of her love and willingness to share power -- but that's another story... In Yoruba cosmology, the symbol of the Irukere (beaded horsetail) speaks to her power to ride the "horse of libido," which is sexual passion, with daring skill.

To wield her saber is to exercise discriminating wisdom in her agreements; while cutting away at the extraneous in life. To speak with fire is to speak with the medicine of sincerity and truth. Caution: it is a truth that can illuminate or burn, depending on the manner in which you handle your agreements! For Oya, in this imagery, symbolizes power, mystery and integrity in the use of libido. Oya demands honesty in the initial intention of all agreements between individuals.

Guardian of the Ancestor Realms

Oya's groves are located near cemeteries, for she is the Goddess that will greet you as you prepare to enter the ancestor realm in the life/death/life cycle. Among the Yoruba, this power is most often revealed in the secret societies of Egungun (Ancestor Lineage). Egungun societies are established to honor the Family Lineage. Here medicines are passed through the generational lines and become the symbol of power within the family tree, as well as the symbols of connection to divine manifestions. For the Yoruba, Egungun represents the true legacy, since the Egungun dances the myth of how a human within the family tree (through conscious awareness) performed feats or deeds that revealed a connection to the divine. Even today, in Yoruba, you will witness dancing Egungun via the masquerades; it is most interesting to note that all the regalia are feminine designs and symbols.

Thus, for the Yoruba, the symbols in the Egungun also often reveal the intricate spiritual politics of balance and control between the masculine and feminine powers within the family tree. Judith Gleason, in her book Oya: In Praise of the Goddess, retells an important myth of Oya's relationship to Egungun. This myth illustrates spiritual politics within family lines, as we seek to return to our roles as co-creators of life:

"There is a cloth called Grant-I-May-Live-Long. Agan, senior brother to Egungun, quarreled with him over the cloth of their father's legacy. Dispossessed of what he considered his rightful property, Agan swore that if he saw anybody wearing this cloth he would seize it! Along came Oya wearing it. Agan attacked her, but Oya resisted and conquered, allying herself with Egungun. Oya then became leader of the Masquerade cult. Feminine-Agan-Wielding-The-Sword was the title bestowed upon her. As a result, Agan has no cloth, and is only a voice."

Overall, there is much discourse that could be drawn from this myth. However, our intent in this article is to reiterate the repetition of certain symbols that speak to the power of Oya.

So again, in this tale we find the importance of the Sacred Cloth. Here we witness the cloth as the symbol for the materials of the psyche, utilized to gain wisdom from the inner feminine knowing. In addition, in this tale the "knowing" is an insignia for power and legacy. Acquisition of the cloth represents the power of perspective gained when one aligns oneself to the "inner knowing, guided by the ancestors," (i.e. Egungun). Oya's alignment with Egungun speaks to understanding the ancestor lines and the sources of conflict that exist within our emotional bodies (i.e. cellular memory). Agan represents the "manifestation of the shadow behavior when we are unwilling to examine the ancestor bones (cellular memory). Our unwillingness to own our own shadow always, ultimately, leads to defeat, because it is rooted in the misuse of will." Oya's alignment with Egungun represents a willingness to research those inner archives that prepare us for the conflict we may experience as projections by those around us who are uninformed with life. To "wield the sword" is to exercise discriminating wisdom in handling these projections, as we work towards balancing our power as women in the decade of the '90s

Gelede, the Masquerade Witches

Oya is also associated with the Gelede (Masquerade Witches). Among the Yoruba, Gelede represents the process of celebrating the power of the Ancient Mothers to ensure the continuation of family lines. Gelede often appears in the form of dance masquerades that give way to activating the power of Iron [Yoruba word] meaning vision (that which is seen with the spiritual eye) and generation (family lineage which includes those who shoulders we stand upon). Our relationship to the Gelede also translates into our relationship with the place in the woman's body that holds the power or gateway into the future--the vulva!

The vulva represents that which is mysterious and/or divine and must be celebrated. Thus, as women of the '90s, Oya calls for us to examine the foundations of our lives. The foundations are connected to this gateway, i.e. the vulva. In the art of masquerade and movement, Oya asks that we celebrate the art of manifestation and action-- the art of combining power without guilt and love without doubt! To deny our passions and hide in fear is to limit our vision and capacity to actively participate in the creative process. In addition, the masquerade exists as a feminine shield when a woman is compelled to face herself and her shadow, and via right action, i.e. truth revealed, she gains the power to channel the light! The Gelede is a power symbol of "spiritual politics." When she channels the light, she speaks of law and truth. As women today, we are challenged to use this power responsibly by searching the achives of the family bones. In Yoruba cosmology, Gelede teaches us that responsibility really means "the ability to respond with discriminating wisdom when the emotional body is clear."
Oya as Buffalo Woman

This last and most important symbol represents the weaving of two very powerful traditions and cosmologies, that of West Africa and Native America. In 1993, the birth of the white buffalo named "Miracle" served as an important symbol to the nations of the Plains Region in the fulfillment of a prophecy, the return of White Calf Buffalo Woman. On January 1, 1993, when elders in the Yoruba traditions cast Odu lfa for the year, the Pattern Osa appeared and spoke to the return of Oya as the Feminine Mother Goddess guiding our relationship towards balance with the masculine and feminine princpal in that year. White Calf Buffalo brought the "sacred pipe," the symbol of truth and unity between masculine and feminine. The synchronicity of these events affirmed the prophecy of the Sacred Hoop, where all traditions will come together in unity under the "tree of peace!" Similar to Native American traditions, there are countless Yoruba tales that speak of Oya as Buffalo Woman, and describe her as a powerful shapeshifter, like White Calf Buffalo Woman.

Judith Gleason, in her book Oya : In Praise of the Goddess, provides us with the symbol of the head of the buffalo as the womb-- that is, the sacred, dark feminine space of the creative process. It is no wonder that she, Oya , Buffalo Woman, has returned! Thus, once again, with the birth of "Miracle" for the Lakota, as well as the Odu Ifa Pattern Osa and Irete Melli for the Yoruba community, we are compelled to affirm to all humanity that the "dark mothers" are here, and represent integration, balance, and peace as the necessary ingredients to achieving balance on the earth at this time. The signs are here, and we are required to hear the call.

As Paula Allen Gunn, a member of the Lakota Nation, reminds us in her work, "What is myth for some, is the mother of truth for others!"

As a storyteller, I'd like to give praise to Oya, who in 1994-95, marked an important growth in my own life and in the lives of women who experienced her legends.

This article is dedicated to Diana Monell "Iya Osubulade" Priestess of Oya and counsel elder of the Egbe of Orisa Albany, NY.

by Judith Gleason
Dark Forest, deepest obscurity
Which grabs and swallows you in
the forest
Wind of Death
Tears the calabash, tears the bush
Songo's wife who
With he thumb tears out
the intestines of the one liar
Great Oya, yes
Only she seizes the horns of the
Only she confronts the returning
Swiftly she gets her things together
Oya messenger, carry me on your
Don't let me down
She burns like fire in the hearth
Everywhere at once
Tornado, quivering sold canopied tress--
Great Oya, yes
Whirlwind, masquerader,
Courageously takes up her saber
Iya O, Oya O
Mother Oya
It is not from today that she is
But from long ago
Iya O, Oya O
Mother Oya
She's the one who employs truth
against [untruth]
She stands at the frontier
Between Life and Death
Iya O, Oya O
If it is a whirling beat, she
dances it
If it is Bembe, she dances it, O she'll dance it
Who dances Bata Drums?
O she dances it
Who dances Shekere,
O she dances it
Wife of Ogun, that's the one who dances it, whatever it is
She has been performing Egungun masquerade for a long
Oya had so much honor
She turned and became Orisa
Oya guards the road into the world
and out of it
Oya, respect to the awesome!


A special thanks to Natalie Clausen (daughter of Oya) Salt Lake City, Utah, for the long hours on your computer and great feedback. To all the Gelede women, my mother Carmen Gloria Sierra, my sister Carmen Delia Torres, and my niece Marilyn Eileen Torres, all daughters of the Ancient Mothers. I understand more than ever the importance of the adage "the apple don't fall too far from the tree!" -- De Oko Kan (from my heart to yours, always!)