Say a Prayer at the Water’s Edge

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I am laying on a beautiful tropical beach. I lift up my groggy head and gaze at the scene around me. Everything looks hazy for a few moments until my eyes adjust to the bright sun reflecting off of the white sand. I wonder how I arrived at this place.

A beautiful black woman rises out of the most sparkling, yet deep blue water I have ever seen. She laughs and beckons for me to come to her. I belong to her; she is my mother, the primal mother that rises from the bottom of the depths.

Her dress is the lightest shade of blue, almost white. The bottom of her dress is laced with the whitest sea foam. Her presence is as strong as a lunar tidal wave, magnetic and overwhelming, maybe even crushing. But she knows me. She knows I am capable of holding the sacred tension of mystery, chaos and discovery.

No words are exchanged between us. Only the smile, the laugh and opening of arms breeze between us. Lightly, gently. A sensation of great love and enfoldment washes over me. And I awake.

I was nineteen years old when I had this dream and at that time I was learning Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian drumming. My commitment to drumming at this time was the all-consuming passion of my waking hours–and apparently my sleeping hours as well. I played until my fingers bled, every day, hours at a time, on the beach, in the park, in the small practice room at the university. Playing congas loosened my psyche, allowing the powerful goddess an opening to break through to my consciousness.

“,” Congas are my chosen instrument of soul transportation, just as my soul is a sea refraction instilled into the drum forever. My hands and my legs mold to the drum. No one else can make my congas sing the way I do. The congas themselves make me sing like no other drum can.

The drum, whether it be a conga or a djembe, is considered a sacred instrument in many African religions. The drum is venerated partly because of its ability to mimic the voice of the gods and goddesses, but also because it is an extension of nature:

Among the Yorubas of Nigeria (and presumably in other areas of Africa also), the very first step in the making of a drum is the ceremony which placates the spirit inhabiting the tree that is to be cut down for the wood from which the drum-frame will be subsequently carved. (Spencer 69)

Nature is the driving force behind the sound of the drum. Each drum has a singular sound because of the tree it was carved from; when played, the voice of that particular tree spirit emanates from the drum. Humans do not choose drums, the drums definitely choose their humans.
I took to the polyrhythms of African percussion as if the knowledge to play the style was implanted in me. When I play congas, I feel that I become one with the soul of the drum–and maybe the voice of my drum called out to the ocean and attracted the dark goddess that came through in my vision. Unfortunately, I was also told that I, a woman, wasn’t strong enough to play drums as well as a man could. But I played stronger and more inspired, as if I were possessed by the rhythm of the drum itself, in spite of the derogatory remarks and attitudes that were projected onto me.

And it is stated that if women were not meant to be dominated by men, they would not have been created weaker. (Griffin 29)

Now I am thirty-six and ready to claim the power that the goddess was offering so generously. Like Vandana Shiva says in Staying Alive, “this study is a post-victimology study” (Shiva 47). I am still learning to trust the voice within as well as the voice of nature that comes through to assist my soul’s growth. In the dream place, the natural world reaches the human consciousness in ways that it can’t while the ego is in control. Nature is always in relationship to the human race, and whether or not we are aware of it, we are intimately bound to the soul of the earth. The earth is a sphere of matter impregnated with soul; as Plato wrote in Timaeus and Critias, “intelligence is impossible without soul, in fashioning the universe he implanted reason in soul and soul in body” (Plato 43). Just as I am learning to speak up for who and what I am, the ocean is doing the same for itself.

Almost every dream that I can recall in my life has had water in it; the body of water is usually the ocean, but sometimes it is a river or contained in an aquarium.

The goddess rising out of the ocean waves is not only the personification of water, and possibly an entity which lives in my unconscious, but is an image birthed by the ocean itself, possessing a life of its own.

Briefly formulated, the universal doctrine teaches that all the visible structures of the world–all things and beings–are the effects of a ubiquitous power out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during the period of their manifestation, and back into which they must ultimately dissolve. (Campbell 257)

The unconscious is often described as a deep, dark ocean. Water holds the keys to the nightworld, the unseen, the hidden. “The sea has always represented magic and mystery” (Andrews 171). In fact, the ocean in some myths was the keeper of night:

In a legend from Brazil, it [night] belonged to the sea. The sea serpent’s daughter left the sea to live with her mortal lover on the sun-drenched earth. But she missed the darkness dearly, so her father sealed night into a bag and sent it to his daughter with servants. Intrigued by the night noises coming from the bag, the servants opened it and spilled the night into the sky. (Andrews 136 )

Darkness, night and the invisible have become devalued in modern times to the point where the soul has no place rest; instead the souls are tossing on the surface of the ocean of consciousness, kept in a state of restlessness. The ocean is reaching out, helping me, and probably others, remember the virtues of the deep and the dark.

The dream enclosed me inside of a definite place. The tropics, the beach with soft, white sand, the sultry breeze, lush, green vegetation. Brazil was the exact place that came into mind, even though I had never physically been there. At that time I had no knowledge of the myths or stories from Africa or Brazil. Recently, I have researched African myths about the ocean as well as two different religions that were brought to the new world from Africa during the slave trade: Lukumi (known to non-practitioners as Santeria), from Cuba, and Candomble, from Brazil.
In Nigeria, the goddess of water is connected primarily to one place and is the giver of the gift of water to nourish and renew life:

Yemoya, the goddess of water and the mother of all rivers to the Yoruba of Nigeria, made barren women fertile. In return for offerings of yam, maize, animals, and fishes, she gave them water in a jar from the country’s primary river, the River Ogun. (Andrews 163)

What happens when an entire race of people, like the Yorubas, are forcibly transported away from their home, their place? Keith Basso’s book, Wisdom Sits in Places, is written about the sense of place in Western Apache language and culture. Stories about specific land sites, called “name places”, passed down from generation to generation were the main source of cultural knowledge, wisdom and history. If the people were displaced, the knowledge could be lost forever. Places, especially ones that hold a body of water, retain memories and are containers of a culture.

Wisdom sits in places. It’s like water that never dries up. You need to drink water to stay alive, don’t you? Well, you also need to drink from places. You must remember everything about them. You must learn their names. You must remember what happened at them long ago. You must think about it and keep on thinking about it. Then your mind will become smoother and smoother [. . .] You will walk a long way and live a long time. You will be wise. (Basso 127)

After the transatlantic crossing, the Yorubas, now enslaved by other cultures, began to “drink” from new places and created new myths, memories, art and cultures that would assimilate the ancient ways of their motherplace, Africa. Many of the survivors of the crossing believed that the ocean goddess protected them and even guided the boats floating in her waters; the souls of those who did not live to see the new world were gathered into her watery womb and readied for rebirth into a new life.

Many African gods and goddesses made the transatlantic crossing with their beloved devotees. In Cuba, it is believed that the deities “were able to cross the waters from Africa in the songs of their devotees,” and that “highly trained singers and drummers (especially bata drummers), hold the secret ability to create a confluence of sounds and rhythms that bridges the seen and unseen” (Canizares 68). After crossing the rhythmical bridge to the new world, the deities began to metamorphose into their new forms, in order to keep taking care of those that worshipped them.
The Yoruba goddess Yemoya, venerated as the mother of all waters in Africa, becomes more particularized to the nature of the ocean in both Cuba and Brazil. She becomes Yemaya, the mother goddess of Lukumi and ruler of all the oceans. Yemaya is one of the orishas (the Afro-Cuban word for “deity”) included in the category of the Siete Potencias, “referred to in English as the seven empowering orishas” (Canizares 49). In Brazil, in the religion of Candomble, Yemoya becomes Iemanja, and intuitively, I believe that she is the one who came to me in my dream.
In Brazil, Iemanja is not only a personification of water, but she is nature itself–“to love Iemanja, is to love nature” (Martins 193). Iemanja is an important deity in many parts of Brazil, for many different reasons. In many stories, myths and legends surrounding Iemanja she is seen as rising out of the water, sometimes to seduce, sometimes to aid. She continues to be a popular cult figure among Bahian women, who petition her for love and fertility, and fisherman who “ask her permission before entering the sea” (Martins 41). One particular story, “A Husband From the Sea,” from Pernambuco in northeast Brazil caught my attention.

Once upon a time, there lived a fisherman who had a daughter. The young girl wasn’t particularly beautiful and had no knack for housework. Instead she enjoyed masculine pursuits, such as fishing, swimming in the ocean, running on the sand and mending fishing nets. Her stepmother abused her constantly because she would not do any housework. Finally, the stepmother abused the young girl so badly that she ran off to the beach and passed out at the water’s edge.

The young girl dreamed she felt the “Queen of the Waters” tickling her feet. Iemanja asked her what she wanted and the girl replied “that she needed a husband, so she could get away from her stepmother and so forth” (Martins 214). When she awoke, she saw the goddess disappear, gliding over the water. Shortly after her dream experience, her wish to find a husband came true.

The story reads a bit like the fairy tale Cinderella, which I thought was fascinating since Cinderella stories have been found in cultures all over the world. I can strongly identify with the character of the daughter because of her struggle to be who she naturally is–she is feminine, no doubt, but engages in what her society considers to be masculine activities. I’ve seen more and more women becoming professional drummers over the past fifteen years that I’ve been playing, but when I started out at 15 years old the landscape was very different. I felt like there was something wrong with me. I could never be good enough as a drummer because I wasn’t a man and I would never be a good woman because I was trying to conquer a man’s career–I was considered a threat to the establishment.

Iemanja has a dark side that is closely associated with modern life: the shadow side of her archetype represents the seduction of a wealthy lifestyle driven by vanity. In more than one source it is reported that many devotees of Iemanja spend more money than they can afford in order to appear beautiful and wealthy. Jewels, mirrors, perfume and exquisite dresses are Iemanja’s favorite ritual items which have become staples of the her worshippers’ everyday accouterments. The blame for the economic disorder has been placed on European extravagance and American pop culture, which have infiltrated the psyches of both the native South Americans and transplanted African cultures over the past two hundred years.
Another example of the treacherous ocean goddess resides in Nigeria, where the goddess of the ocean is named Mami Wata–West African pidgin English for “Mother of Water” (Ray 38). The images of Mami Wata are similar to Iemanja–she is shown as a beautiful, cafe-au-lait skinned woman or mermaid with long hair and luxurious dress. However, Mami Wata almost always holds a python that is wrapped around her body. In all her beauty and generosity lurks danger: when Mami Wata appears to her chosen “children” in dreams or visions and is refused or ignored, she will cause failure in business dealings (especially overseas and the fishing industry), illness and even death (Ray 38). She is one of the most powerful deities of the African pantheon and must not be trifled with.

The image of Iemanja coming to me in the dream signified a turn of attitude that I would face in the years to come. Women going into so-called masculine careers is now acceptable as long as they take care of everything else that a woman is supposed to do. However, the attitude towards men that decide to be stay-at-home dads or another career that is socially regarded as “women’s work” is extremely derogatory and is in dire need of improvement.

Water is the strength of the feminine, whether the gender is feminine or masculine. “For the devotees [of Iemanja], nature and natural elements of the universe provide strength and wisdom for all human beings” (Martins 37). The strength of water gives life, protects life, nurtures life and has the power to drown, take life away. But water, like a woman, is not a mule, it can’t be harnessed, directed by the ego of technological advances and it can’t be forced to reproduce, it can’t be domesticated. In India, as Shiva points out in Staying Alive, women are the water bearers and now with the shortages in their villages being so widespread many of them may travel on foot 20 miles (Shiva 180).

Though our labor is necessary and though we were bred for that purpose, no one envies us; no one yearns to do the work we do as finely as we do it. (Griffin 76)

An orisha that is feminine, such as is the case with Iemanja, may also incarnate in the body of a male during ritual possession. Although, in general, Brazilian women who embody the physical characteristics of Iemanja–large, uneven breasts, long black hair and ample buttocks–often incorporate her as their patron orisha. Her personality is described as loving, devoted, courageous, jealous and protective. Perhaps I also possess the inner and outer characteristics of Iemanja, which is why I am drawn to her and she to me:

how we admire this strength in each other, all that we have lost, all that we have suffered, all that we know: we are stunned by this beauty,
and I do not forget: what she is to me, what I am to her.
(Griffin 221)

We chose each other, although I chose her unconsciously, in the place of dreams. Just as Iemanja arises from the depths of the ocean, I arise from my unconscious slumber to answer her call to realize my own strength. The body with all of its bones, scars, pleasures, fat, hair, smooth skin, cancer cells, genitals is celebrated in the body of Iemanja.

Her stories are related to everything that happens in the world; fertility, birth, death, love, happiness, unhappiness, sickness and its cure [. . .] She permeates and causes everything. She is the key element in the creation of nature, such as the moon, the day and the night. (Martins 90)

The call to “go to the water” (Dillard 5) is one of the strongest instincts that exists in the human psyche. Although it is generally not a good idea to speak in universals, it is difficult not to in regards to the attributes of water. Thankfully, writers and artists like Annie Dillard and Gaston Bachelard have fully immersed themselves in the water medium and have helped to baptise the rest of us into its domain. In water, there is a natural homecoming for the psyche. Herman Melville, in his epic novel Moby Dick, describes the phenomenon of masses of people going to the edge of the sea, magnetically drawn by the tides:

Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries – stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. (Melville 2)

The way of Iemanja is the way of water. She incorporates an entirely different perspective from the postmodern spaciness and weightlessness that permeates and oozes thickly through the dead matter of the Descartian body. She is large, full of body. She is powerful and she has a voice. Water is calling out to us and we must learn to come respectfully, bowing in reverence.

Works Sited
Andrews, T., ed. A Dictionary of Nature Myths. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

Basso, Keith H. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the
Western Apache. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1996.

Canizares, Raul. Cuban Santeria: Walking With The Night. Rochester: Destiny
Books, 1999.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper, 1998.

Griffin, Susan. Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her. San Francisco:
Sierra Club Books, 1999.

Martins, Suzana. A Study of the Dance of Iemanja in the Ritual Ceremonies of the
Candomble of Bahia. Diss. Temple University, 1995. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1995.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Ed. Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford.
2nd ed. New York: WW Norton, 2002.

Plato. Timaeus and Critias. Trans. D. Lee. London: Penguin, 1965.

Ray, Benjamin C. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual and Community. New Jersey:
Prentice-Hall Inc., 2000.

Shiva, Vandana. Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development. Atlantic Highlands:
Zed Books, 1989.

Spencer, Jon Michael. “Rhythm in Black Religion of the African Diaspora.”
Journal of Religious Thought 44 (1988) : 67-83.



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About Kris Seraphine-Oster, Ph.D


Kris is a brand strategist and marketing copywriter that coaches creative and spiritually-minded entrepreneurs who are determined to find more meaning, magic AND profit in their businesses.

She was a once a corporate marketing director and lead website developer for some pretty big names, including Citrix Online, E! Entertainment Television, Disney, ABC, Paramount Pictures. She even made her employer $1 million with a single e-newsletter once.

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