Oxum and International Women’s Day
by Iya Melissa
Several years ago I taught a high school elective called Images of Women of Color in the Media. It was an amazing class with a curriculum that had been developed by a colleague of mine. When she decided to leave the school, she asked me to continue teaching it. Until then, the course began by looking at images of WoC starting with Saartjie Baartman. The course’s goal was to help young women analyze how images in the media control how we grow up seeing ourselves, and actively working to change that by developing a deeper understanding of our history as WoC.
As a Candomblecista, there’s very little that I do without thinking of Orixá. Traditionally in U.S. high schools, we learn about European mythology in English class to understand some basics about English literature. Even if we don’t remember their attributes, just about anyone can name a handful of European gods or myths. I thought, how powerful would it be to learn African, specifically Yoruba, mythology that focuses on the strength of women! Long story short, I infused itans (myths) of Oxum, Iemanja, and Oya into the all (cis and trans) girl class where we analyzed how different our images would be of ourselves if we grew up knowing that gods* looked like us.
One itan that my students, and most everyone else who knows it, loved was a tale of Oxum and feminine power. In short, we learn that Oxum, the only female Orixá on earth at the time, was being shut out from meetings with the other Irunmole. They would tell her that she couldn’t participate in their meetings because she’s a woman. They told her not to worry about doing hard work, that she should focus on simple things fit for a woman (imagine that!). We don’t need you here, they said. We can get along without you.
Oxum wasn’t having any of it.
Little did the Irunmole realize that they did, in fact, need Oxum. After all, who can survive without water? What vegetation can grow without water? What babies can grow in the womb without water?
Frustrated (and still not thinking), the Irunmole went to Olorum to complain of their struggles. They were suffering because their crops wouldn’t grow, because people weren’t having children, and because the rivers had all dried up. Not only that, but nothing at all seemed to work. What can we do to fix this? they begged Olorum.
Where is Oxum? Olorum asked.
We sent her away, we don’t need her. The work before us is for men, and she would just get in the way. Irunmole responded
If you don’t include Oxum, nothing will go right. You must have balance between male and female. You cannot survive without water. Go to her, ask for her forgiveness, and treat her with equality.
Irunmole left Olorum and went to find Oxum. Please forgive us, great mother, we failed you. Without you, nothing that we attempt comes to fruition. Accept our apologies and join us.**
From then on, it was understood that Oxum had to be included in everything, with some exceptions. For many, Oxum is considered to be the first feminist. In Candomblé we recognize her as the first Iyalorixá, and as the owner of the xirê (because Yeye does love a good party!). She is a loving mother, an honest friend, and a fierce warrior. She holds you while you cry, but then gives you a push to remind you to get back to work and change whatever it is that made the tears fall. For some reason, folks have trivialized her and created the image of a flirtatious, fickle, vain, fragile woman; don’t believe the hype, because Oxum is so much more than what meets the eye.
This International Women’s Day, and everyday, I honor Oxum and all that she has to teach about the struggles and beauty of womanhood. I honor Oxum and Moremi and Queen Nzinga and Anastasia and Mama Moses and, and, and. Happy International Women’s Day. Ore Yeye Oooo!
*I don’t typically refer to the Orixá as gods, but because it wasn’t a religious studies class, I used the word gods with my students because it was a term with which they were already familiar.
**This itan is way more elaborate than what I summarized here, and goes into details and histories of other Orixá. However, for the purposes of highlighting the importance of women in society I decided to stop here.
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