“… but let the dawn, Aya, your dear bride, remind you always, and when day is done give him to the watchman of the night to keep him from harm.” –The Epic of Gilgamesh
Aja is a West African Goddess that dwells in the forest, heals with the powers of herbs, and passes her bounty of knowledge onto her people. Her knowledge of herbal medicines makes her a wise woman, a healer, and a shaman…
“The Knowledge of the Earth”
Although she is not the great mother of the Yoruba religion, she is inextricably intertwined with nature. She holds an extraordinary gift that is the knowledge of the forest and the spirits of the flora and fauna within.
I often find myself thinking that not so long ago civilization was not so civilized and that we too are animals living off the land. Only now, many of us scavenge for prepackaged meals in grocery stores and heal ourselves in pharmacies. We like to fantasize about scenarios where disease or warfare strips us of life’s securities and amenities in shows like The Walking Dead, or Last Man on Earth, but how many of us actually know how to live off the Earth, without the middleman of society? Our Goddess of the forest is here to teach us, share with us this knowledge, but it has to be sought out. In the Yoruba tradition usually, a shaman in training would obtain this knowledge to share with the community.
Although the knowledge of natural remedies and cures undoubtedly still exists, I find the arguments/beliefs surrounding them at times to be at their ideological extremes. Testimonials about quick fixes and superfoods being told and sold. Advertising that their way is the correct path, that doesn’t leave much room for the truth of the human condition and our history on this Earth. In the Yoruba religion, those seeking the divinity of Aja, find themselves on a journey of realism to a deeper, personal, spiritual truth. They found themselves taken by the wild wind…
“The Wild Wind”
Aja, translates to, “the wild wind.” The uncontrollable spirit of and motion of this wind is what the forest Goddess, Aja, embodies. It grabs a hold of those would be disciples of Aja, and takes them on a journey that lasts 7 days, 3 months, or possibly as long as 7 years! This journey takes one to heaven, or perhaps to hell and back.
“Shamans believed that in times of trouble, pieces of the soul break away. They run and hide in the underworld, the subconscious mind. A Shaman will work to find the lost pieces of the soul.” ~Oloye Ifa Karade.
When the time comes to be reintroduced to the world, her followers return with strength, power, and a bounty of knowledge through Aja’s teachings. Aja’s healing powers extend beyond the physical to the spiritual. Can you imagine what a week or more alone in the forest could do to you? What would the burdens of exhaustion, hunger, and solitude do to your spirit? Many of Aja’s disciples are hunters, priests, herbalists, or those who just find themselves wandering through the forest, stumbling upon truths they didn’t know they were seeking.
In my photo story, you’ll see me in the jungle of Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai. My portrayal of Aja is meant to show a woman strong in knowledge and free in spirit surrounded by an abundance of lush, life-sustaining forest. In some of the photos, I gather fresh water and vines to signify the natural nourishment that surrounds us. I also use dried herbs(green tea) and a medicine bottle to illustrate a duality that is strong in my mind – traditional allopathic medicine vs homeopathic medicine like in Yorùbá medicine. (I’ll likely write more about this as it relates to future Goddess Cosplays)
The Earth that is our mother, our provider, our home, and our nourishment can also become our crutch, our devourer, and our punisher. A shaman such as Aja knows this and takes time to help us understand how to wield this power while being swept away by the wild wind. Over 4,000 years ago the Yoruba sacred text was written, detailing the teaching of Yoruba medicine. The world has changed since then as billions of people roam the Earth seeking, nourishment, meaning, and vitality. I hope we continue to take advantage of modern medicines and lifestyles. I also hope that we never lose sight of the knowledge that lives within our forests, and also within our older generations. Our mothers and grandmothers, symbolically and in life.
“O Shamash, why did you give this restless heart to Gilgamesh, my son; why did you give it? You have moved him and now he sets out on a long journey to the Land of Humbaba, to travel an unknown road and fight a strange battle. Therefore from the day that he goes till the day he returns, until he reaches the cedar forest, until he kills Humbaba and destroys the evil thing which you, Shamash, abhor, do not forget him; but let the dawn, Aya, your dear bride, remind you always, and when day is done give him to the watchman of the night to keep him from harm.” –The Epic of Gilgamesh
Aya is a Goddess I happened upon completely by accident! When searching for information about Aja, I also, found some information on the Akkadian Goddess Aya also known as the Sumerian Šerida.
Aya is Akkadian for “dawn.” She was married to the sun God Utu, also known as Šamaš. In this context, Aya is a minor Goddess to her husband and a supporting role to the sun. In the excerpt above Gilgameš’s mother blames Šamaš for enticing her son’s desire to go on a dangerous adventure. She asks Aya, the great bride, to watch over him when the sun is not out to offer him protection.
During the time of the Neo-Babylonian period, the roles of Aya, and Utu increase in society as their marriage becomes an important symbol for the people. They both watch over the making of contracts and agreements as witnesses to oversee justice.
Aya herself was seen increasingly as a mother goddess- a symbol of fertility, maternity, youth and sexual activity. Utu and Aya were symbols of a practice known as sacred marriage or “Hasadu.” For this ceremony, a room would be set aside with a bed, and occasionally, the temple statues of Aya and Utu. Their statues would be brought together and laid on the bed to ceremonially renew their vows.
In my Goddess Cosplay, I portray Aya as a bride of the sun, wearing a ceremonial flower crown and a lace golden as sun rays.