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The Brazilian Great Mother

by Mirella Faur

Devotions paid to Yemayá at her FestivalBrazil is traditionally known as a Roman Catholic country, with a great influence of African cults, a growing number of various Protestant sects and different spiritualist, new age and esoteric groups. Wicca, Goddess Tradition groups and Sacred Feminine Circles have been catching up the public attention, appearing lately on the media and growing more and more. But in spite of the existence of many myths and legends in our origins, we import from abroad, through books and especially virtual information, other cultures’ traditions and practices.

Anyway, there are not, yet, reliable written records or academic research, except a few private studies, proving the existence of an ancient cult of a Brazilian Great Mother. On taking possession of Brazil’s primitive land, European conquerors discarded and destroyed the ancient universe of the native people as they did in many other countries. Modern archaeological discoveries prove that the rock art, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines and the ceramic objects left by the people that inhabited Brazil 15,000 years ago, have magical and religious attributes, similar to those found in Europe. There are also plenty of native myths and legends left, some of them disguised in folklore or children’s stories, that can be, in the future, used to translate the country’s pre-history, shedding more light on the lost past and recovering the vestiges of an Ancestral Mother.

For the time being, we must count upon the Afro-Brazilian cults and the hidden meaning of legends to discover images of a Mother Goddess. Despite its fundamentalist official religion and patriarchal society, Brazil concentrates, with the exception of India, the greatest amount of worshippers of one of the manifestations of the Divine Mother, which is Yemayá (Iemanjá), the ancestral Goddess of Water and Lady of the Ocean. Every year, on New Year’s Eve and on February 2nd, millions of Brazilians, dressed in white, take their offerings and prayers to the sea shore or sail in boat processions. These processions are similar to the Egyptian and Roman ceremonies called Navigium Isidi, dedicated to Isis, the protector of the seafarers, was called “The Lady of the Navigators” like Yemayá. Although this is a huge Brazilian devotion to Yemayá, her cult is not an indigenous one, being brought to Brazil by the Yoruba slaves, in the 17th century.

Known as Yemoja, Iemanjá or Yeyé Omo Ejá, “The Mother whose children are fish”, Yemayá was the Orisha (Deity) of the Egba nation, a Yoruba tribe who lived near the Yemoja river, in Benin, now known as Nigeria. Due to wars, the Egba migrated and established themselves near the Ogun River, the place from where the Yemayá’s cult left through the slaves to Brazil, Cuba and Haiti.

In the Yoruba myth, Yemayá was the daughter of Odudua, the Earth, and Obatalá, the Sky. Raped by her son, she gave birth to all the Orishas and, from her voluminous breast, gushed forth two rivers, which formed a big lake.

Loruba orixá YemayáIn Brazil, her myth mingled with the native indigenous beliefs of the water Nymphs and with the European images of the Mermaid. Sometimes called Sea Mother, Sea Mermaid or Lady Janaina, she is usually described as a slender, young European-like mermaid, dressed with a blue robe, coming out from the sea with outstretched hands holding pearls. According to her African origin she is portrayed as a mature, dark skinned woman, with long black hair and very big breasts. In the syncretism with the Catholic Saints, Yemayá was identified with various aspects of the Virgin Mary and is celebrated on these festive days. In Brazil, the original Yoruba myths and traditions brought by the slaves have been adapted in several different ways, according to the place of the cult and the interpretations made by the local priests and priestesses, following their personal visions and knowledge.

The more complete definition of Yemayá’s archetype was given by the Esoteric Umbanda, a spiritual path which studies, classifies and relates seven of the many African Orishas with the Universal, Cosmic and Planetary principles. In this cosmology, Yemayá is considered the feminine and receptive principle of fertility and life generation, the primeval womb, the source of primordial water. She incarnates the Great Mother’s attributes of fertility, gestation and motherhood, the phases and cycles of the Moon, the rhythms of the tides.

She is the nurturer and protector of women and children, of the animal and vegetal life, the patroness of artists and poets, the lunar inspiration of visions and dreams, the primal and loving Mother who sustains, soothes and mitigates the suffering of her followers and worshippers.

Unfortunately, very little is known about the myths and deities of the Tupi-Guarani tribes, the primitive inhabitants of Brazil. Converted by force by the Jesuits, their religious practices were prohibited and the ancestral oral tradition called Tuyabaé-cuaá (“the wisdom of the shamans”), hidden in a sacred language, Nheengatu, was forgotten little by little and distorted by later interpretations. It is known that the native Tupi-Guarani tribes believed in the existence of a Divine Creator, a Great Spirit, which manifested itself as two principles: Guaracy, the Sun, and Yacy, the Moon. From their union, Ruda was born, whose name meant “love”, and, by extension, the human beings. While Guaracy was worshipped by men, who wore a special talisman called Tembetá fixed on their lower lips, Yacy was worshipped by women, and their amulets were called Muyraquitans, made from green clay.

The contemporary dualistic mystical concepts consider the Sun as the personification of the masculine principle. But, when analyzing the nheengatu syllables of the name Guaracy, we discover that Guara means living and Cy means mother, thus Guaracy represented the generating and vital energy which animates all vegetal, animal and human life. In the Japanese, Northern, Slavic, Baltic, Celtic, Native American and Australian cultures, amongst others, the Sun is also found to be a Goddess, and not a God. Therefore, we may assume that originally the Ancestral Solar Mother of the Tupi people was a Goddess, afterwards transformed into a masculine Sun, worshipped only by men.

Yacy means Mother Nature because her name is composed by Ya, which means Lady, and Cy, which means Mother. Being the origin of everything in the Universe, the personification of the Nature, the phases and cycles of the Moon and the flow and tides of water, Cy represents the womb of creation, the very source of life. In the Tupi cosmology, everything and every living being has a mother, who gives birth, nurtures, maintains and protects her offspring. The Tupi-Guarani tribes had different names for the different qualities of motherhood: Yacy was the Mother Moon; Amanacy, the Mother of Rain; Aracy, Mother of the Day and Birds; Iracy, Mother of Honey; Yara, Mother of Water; Yacyara, Mother of the Moonlight; Ceiuci, Mother of Stars, amongst many other Mothers, which could be of cold and warmth, of fire and gold, of the woods, swamps and beaches, of rivers and lakes, of silence and sounds.

The indigenous Brazilian tribes worshipped all Mothers and believed they created life without the male presence. All Goddesses were virgins, but their virginity was only a symbol of independence and self sufficiency, without any physical meaning. In some myths, the virgins are impregnated by numinous energies, manifested as animals (snake, birds and porpoise), forces of Nature (rain, thunderbolts, rays of light), ancestors’ spirits or Deities. As other native people, they weren’t aware of the male participation in the conception and respected and revered the menstrual blood as something sacred, filled with magical powers, because after the “supernatural” ceasing of the monthly flow, life was created. Only after the interference of the white settlers and the massive Catholic indoctrination that the native cosmology was distorted, the Father assumed the main place, the Son became the second one in the divine heirarchy and the Mother was transformed into a suffering and silent virgin. Even so, many native traditions survived in the legends, folk beliefs, shamanic healing and magical practices as the Pajelança and Encantaria.

Besides the “Good Mother”, some of the native legends also mention the “Terrible Mother”, Boiuna, the Giant Snake of the Amazon River. The bottom of the river was her habitat and she appeared only at night, destroying boats and devouring people. Her terrifying aspect and her connection with the darkness, death and night are, as a matter of fact, features of the Dark Goddess, the Reaper, who controls the eternal cycle of birth, life, death and transformation. Another manifestation of the Dark mother is Caamanha, “Mother of the Woods”, protector of the wild life, who punished all intruders and violators of her domain. In other myths, she was transformed either in the Curupira or the Caapora, strange male beings, with twisted feet, walking backwards, acting as guardians by misleading hunters or even attacking them.

Boitatá, at a Brazilian carnivalIn some Guarani myths we find mentions of the “Mother of Gold”, described as a beautiful woman or a brilliant globe, which seduced the gold prospectors and took them deep in the mountains, far away from the gold mines. Considered a “Guardian of Mother Earth’s treasures”, she sometimes manifested herself as Boitatá, a phantasmagoric snake, with a luminous body and huge eyes, or only as a giant head, floating over hidden treasures, frightening or punishing those who destroyed Nature in search of fortune. The punishing aspect of Mother Nature, seen in her mission to protect her resources, was distorted by the Christian monks and historians, who created the story of the “Headless Mule”, the metamorphosis of women who had sex with priests who showed up as ghosts on Friday’s nights (sacred day of ancient love goddesses as Astarte, Aphrodite, Inanna, Venus and Freyja), frightening travellers and scaring secret lovers.

The most fascinating Tupi myth is the one about a mysterious Water Goddess called Muyrakitan. By dividing her name in syllables we can better understand her symbology: Mura means sea or water; Yara, Lady or Goddess, and Kitan, flower or bloom, thus forming “The Lady who came from the sea” or “The Goddess which bloomed from the water”. The cult of the Goddess Muyrakitan was reserved only for women, who wore special amulets called ita-obymbaé made by the virgin priestesses, ikanya-bás or cunhatay. These priestesses were dedicated to the Goddess since their childhood and underwent special preparation and training in healing, magic and prophecy.

Once a year, during a special Full Moon, the women gathered on the shore of a sacred lake called Yacy-Uara (“the Mirror of the Moon”), chanting and rattling. The priestesses chewed Jurema leaves, which contained a trance inducing substance. After invoking the blessing and the protection of Yacy and Muyrakitan, the priestesses dived in the lake in search of a special type of clay. They received the green or bluish clay from Muyrakitan’s hands, modeling it still wet in amulets, shaped as frog, fish, snake or felines, with a central hole. They magically charged the clay with the Moon’s energy and, while still continuing their rhythmic sacred chants, they waited for the rise of the Sun to harden the clay amulets with His (or, better said, Her) rays.

Women then wore the amulets as pendants or earrings because their use granted protection, magical powers and prosperity. They were also used by the priestesses to predict the future through their submersion in the lake during the full Moons and holding them on their foreheads to perceive the Goddess messages.

The scientists call these amulets muyraquitans, thus discarding their spiritual origin and considering them only as zoomorphic cult objects, made from different polished stones and used in fertility rites. Lots of them were found in the low Amazon area, between the Tapajos and Trombetas rivers, but few of them still exist as they were sold to collectors or destroyed. Folklore calls them “the green stones of the Amazons”, and we can presume this name is the material proof of the existence of a never found Amazon tribe.

Records of the existence of this tribe include explorer Francisco de Orellana’s description of his encounter in 1542 with a tribe of “women living without men”. These women, called Amazons, were tall, strong and beautiful, with braided black hair, white skin, which walked naked and lived in freedom, but were armed with arrows and bows for defense and hunting. Once a year they chose men to be their children’s fathers, and gifted them with green amulets with animal shapes, similar to those mentioned before. After giving birth, they kept the girls and sent the boys to their fathers. Some authors believe that the Amazons used these sculpted objects to barter with the travelers or the neighboring tribes. By that time, the missionaries affirmed that the Tapajos Indians manufactured the amulets, but nowadays it is known that they only used them as symbols of wealth, prestige or as sacred objects in weddings and burial rituals, to seal alliances or peace accords between tribes. But their real origin is still unknown, as the science didn’t confirm yet the existence of the Amazons, despite their myths.

Hidden in indigenous myths, legends and folk beliefs, we can discover and retrieve many vestiges of the ancient traditions and native Brazilian cults. Shedding the Christian and literary distortions of the original truth, we may find our way back to the Ancestral Mother, Creator of all forms of life, of everything that exists in the Universe, Weaver of the eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth, whose shrines are everywhere and whose names are kept inside our hearts. As women, we know there is no distinction between Mother Earth and us, because we are Her daughters, part of the planetary female energy and therefore responsible for the creation and protection of life on Earth.

This is the challenge and mission of Goddess loving women, remembering that every tree, animal, stone or plant has a mother, that there are guardians watching and judging our actions and that the only way to guarantee our survival is to respect, care and love our Planet, the sacred ground we walk upon, that nurtures, sustains and protects us. But we cannot forget that our Mother Nature has also a terrible face and, before she turns her rage towards us, we must change our behavior, our values and creeds, we must heal the wounds we inflicted upon our Mother’s body, defend and protect all her creatures (our sisters and brothers), expand our awareness, reconstruct our beliefs and consecrate our lives to leave a better legacy to our children.

Mirella Faur is a writer and priestess of the Great Mother, who started a pioneer work on the Goddess Path in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital. For the last 21 years she has been conducting women’s circles, public Full Moon rituals, Sabbat celebrations, rites of passage and shamanic workshops for women. Although not living in Brasilia anymore, her work continued with the name of Teia de Thea (“Thea’s Web”), a feminine sacred circle composed of five groups of women, different in practices and stages of learning (Medicine Wheel, tarot, runes, shamanism, Goddess Traditions). She also gives lectures and writes about the Sacred Feminine, and was initiated in the Esoteric Umbanda by the priest and writer W.W. Matta e Silva, having received the initiatory name of Cynayá.