Oya is the West African Yoruba Orisha of winds, storms, fire, and transformation. She is also believed to be the Goddess of the Niger River in Africa, and the Amazon River in Brazil, where the worship of the Orishas was transplanted to the Americas along with the slave trade.
Several of the sites I looked at while researching claimed that “O-ya” means “She Tore” or “Tearer” in Yoruba. This appears to refer to Her destructive force, tearing trees from the ground and causing all manner of mayhem. Oya is the daughter of Yemaya, the Goddess of the Sea, and one of the three wives of Shango, God of thunder and lightning, alongside Her sisters Oba and Oshun. In some versions of the lore, it was Oya Who gave the power of fire and lightning to Shango in the first place. In other stories, She stole fire from Him. One of the animals She manifests in is the water buffalo. She wields a machete, a saber, and a flywhisk or Irukene, or beaded horse-tail as weapons.
She is considered a Goddess and protector of women and often appealed to by women for assistance in problems and conflicts. She is a fierce Warrior-Goddess, and as a Deity of change She is the kind of violent change that sweeps away dead wood and things no longer needed in your life. She is a Goddess of tempests and tornados. She brings rebirth and new life, but Hers in not a patient and gentle energy, but of earth-shattering change and difficult transitions, but ones that are still usually for the good. Besides a warrior Goddess, She is a patron of female leadership. She is a passionate, independent Goddess.
Oya guards graveyards and cemeteries, which are called “Oya’s Gardens”. She assists those who have recently died to make their final transition between worlds. She is connected to ancestor worship and veneration. As the Goddess who helps the dead to cross over, She is also a Goddess is magic and foresight, clairvoyance, divination, and communication with spirits. She controls the portal between the physical and non-physical worlds, the bridge between Heaven and Earth. No other Orisha is said to be able to do this, making Oya quite powerful and very special indeed.
She was also considered the Goddess of the marketplace, so much so that it was often said that She lived in marketplaces. She steers the fortunes of mankind made through business and trade.
She is called the Mother of Nine, because the Niger River has nine tributaries. As such nine is Her sacred number, and she is often offered nine copper coins, which is doubly appropriate since copper is Her sacred metal. She is also offered black beans, red wine, and in the New World, eggplants. As a Goddess of storms, one of Oya’s symbols is the rainbow, and so its said that Her colors are all but black. Although Her most well known are purple and reddish-browns, burgundy, maroon, golds, basically your fall or autumn colors.
Some of Her titles include Oya-ajere “Carrier of the Container of Fire,” Ayaba Nikua “Queen of Death,” Iya Yansan “Mother of Nine,” and Ayi Lo Da “She Who Turns and Changes”. (http://www.thaliatook.com/AMGG/oya.php). In Brazil She is also called by the name Yansa. In Cuba She becomes Olla and in Haiti Aido-Wedo. She is identified with the Catholic saint Saint Catherine.
I’d like to close this post with a quote from a post on Understanding Oya by Fatuladydrummer, who begins by bemoaning the way that the Orishas, and especially the female ones, have been vilified in recent times, and how Oya has been reduced to something of a dark witch archetype and nothing more. She speaks here about the effect of slavery and the European/Western ideas of religion and evil that had no counterpart in traditional African religions, and how that inevitably affected the mindset of the African slaves in the Americas, leading to changes in how the Orisha were seen and worshiped here:
“The knowledge of Orisha from the Yoruba spiritual system of Ifa was translated to the Americas with the captured slaves from Africa. In Cuba, Ifa and other African traditional religions, was syncretized with Catholicism and several derivative systems developed. Santeria and Lukumi are the two most prominent systems in the west. Most of the Orisha Music we hear today was preserved by our Lukumi kin from Cuba. They did a heck of a job as many Nigerian elders who hear Westerners sing Orisha songs say we are singing in Old Yoruba ( like Old English) and are amazed the old language has been so preserved. With this understand that none of the songs in honor of Oya sing of death or are incantations for death or evil. The songs honor the Spirit of Oya who also brings the spring rains which usher in the crops and the refreshing warm breezes of summer and children.
What is new to Yoruba elders is the element of fear that is associated with Orisha veneration. This element of fear is a direct result of the severance of the slaves from the African elders for over 400 years and severance from the environment which allowed understanding of the personality of Orisha to be directly learned and experienced. The syncretization with European religious traditions whose concepts of deity, life and death are very different had a deleterious impact on the consciousness of African descendants. The Yoruba had a deep understanding of the cycles of nature and the cycles of life. The Yoruba do not have a concept of a God who damns his children, hell or eternal punishment.
The influence of European religions with concepts of the devil, demons, and misogyny deeply changed basic tenets of Ifa. Consequently, Oya whose Harmattan aspect brought a warning of possible death became death itself. Oya is not the Orisha of death. Iku is the Orisha of death. Many stories speak of Oya using her quick wit to save her children from the grip of Death. Others speak of Oya informing the other Orisha how to prevent their children meeting premature death. She is not an energy focusing on death and dying. …
Oya is but one aspect of the cycles of life and nature. All aspects of nature are capable of supporting life or death but Orisha Oya and Eshu are the only ones who do not flee from the face of Iku (my note: the Orisha of death). Oya comes quickly and snatches her children from the jaws of Death or gathers the souls who cross over to herald them on their journeys. In spite of the teachings, I do not believe you will find her in the stagnation of the cemetery. Stand on a cliff or the ocean shore and feel her in the movement of your hair or the chill on your cheeks. Stand in the summer storm and breath! Sing away to Oya for assistance bringing change to all aspects of your being.”
Keys to Feminine Empowerment from the Yoruba West African Traditon
Santeria Church of the Orishas: Oya