In Brazil, February 2nd is dedicated in the Catholic tradition to Our Lady of Seafaring, a manifestation of the Virgin Mary who watches over sailors and fishermen. But the larger celebration isn’t of the Catholic saint, but of the Afro-Latin deity Iemanjá, goddess of the two greatest tidal forces on the planet—motherhood and the sea.
Originally part of the Yoruba pantheon of gods—called orishas—Iemanjá (in Portuguese), or Yemayá (in Spanish), was brought over to the Americas by her African devotees during the slave trade and maintains a prominent place among the syncretic religions like Candomblé and Umbanda in Brazil, Santería in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and Vodou in Haiti. These syncretic religions fuse cultural elements and faith systems from African, indigenous American, and European traditions, and while still ignorantly characterized as witchcraft by some sections of the general population, the fact that homages to the goddess are sometimes held as government-sanctioned events shows just how important non-Christian spiritual traditions remain in Latin American societies. And anyone in the States familiar with that fly, old school salsa from the ’70s ought to have heard Yemayá’s name come up on more than one occasion.
Singing, drumming, dancing, and offerings of food and flowers are made to the goddess year-round (especially in Rio on New Years Eve), but in the Brazilian state of Bahia, where Afro-Brazilian culture is most palpable, February 2nd is Iemanjá’s day.