Yemanjá is one of the most revered Orishas, or deities in the Yoruba spiritual order that since ancient times has been adored by millions of Africans. The later colonization of the Americas brought scores of these peoples to the new world as slaves, and along with them a vast diversity of cultures and religions that were eventually adopted by people of all races. In the case of Yemanjá, many were moved by the faith, while others joined out of curiosity or superstition.
Known as “The Queen of the Sea”, but also the sweet waters of rivers and lakes, Yemanjá is often worshipped in the New World as part of a syncretic faith – the African deity of Yoruban origin being identified with the Catholic Virgin María under the appellation of Stella Maris, patron saint of navigators, sailors and fishermen. As such she is the protectress of all seafarers and caretaker of the ocean’s bounty as well as a goddess of fertility.
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Every year on February 2, all countries on the Atlantic coast of South America celebrate the Day of Yemanjá (also known as Iemanjá, Jemanjá, Janaina, Yemayah, Yemalla and Yemana in the Americas). On this day thousands of gifts and offerings are given to the Queen as appeals for the relief of pain, suffering or sickness, as well as for prosperity and protection. The gifts include the favourite sweets of the Queen like cider, grapes, watermelons and other fruits, or objects to suit a feminine taste like flowers, perfumes, jewelry, mirrors and combs. Many devotees earn very little money and yet spend a relative fortune in order to include the freshest and sweetest fruits in their gift collections.
At sunset the offerings are loaded into miniature boats made of wood or foam so as to navigate the ocean currents that can carry them to the goddess. Her devotees walk into the sea fully clothed, bearing with them letters from loved ones, family members, the aged and infirm. The legend says that those cards which are returned by the sea have not been attended to by Yemanjá.
After leaving their offerings, the people walk backward out of the sea, their gazes constantly fixed on the horizon. Back on the beach they dig pits in the sand to hold candles which are guarded with prayers and chants while music and festivities continue throughout the night.