Soooo yesterday we talked about yam mythology. Today let’s talk about the rituals that surround those myths.
Since yams were so important to so many to the Oceania region, it’s not really a surprise that there were plenty of rituals surrounding them. While the New Caledonians simply bury yam-shaped stones to increase the yield of the yam crop, the most popular rituals revolve around the Yam Spirit.
In one Australian yam ceremony, the Yam Spirit makes its way from Altjerringa, the home of the ancestral spirits, to a mountain cave. From there the Spirit moves to a totem stick decorated with vegetable down (also called bombax cotton, it’s the fibers obtained from the Silk Cotton Tree) and planted in the ground. If the performers in the ceremony please the Great Spirit, the yam’s taproot will send shoots throughout the soil that will provide yams to the people.
The Yam Spirit in Nigeria, sometimes called Ifejioku, had a special cult. The people of the cult had to follow specific rules before and after the yams were planted. For example, an Ibo (now Igbo) priest plants his yams first so he can harvest his first. He gives his “firstfruits” to the Yam Spirit. The largest yam in the whole harvest is called the juiji and it’s believed that the Yam Spirit resides within. The priest keeps the juiji until the next harvest (a full year later) then kills a fowl and sprinkle’s its blood on the yam. He leaves it at the shrine of the Yam god along with some cola nuts as an offering with the hopes that it will please the god. The Ibo consider it a severe violation to harvest and eat yams before they provide the offering.
Just like in so many agriculture rituals around the world, the gods (and sometimes the ancestors) provide the food, so the people honor them through rituals. While the Orokolo people believe that the moon god provides yams, many other god/food myths believe a goddess provides them. In these myths, the goddess dies, goes down into the ground, and is resurrected as a food plant. In Oceania, the food plant is usually a yam and the gods who guarantee a good harvest are honored with respect and reverence.
Yam ceremonies are still performed in some countries. Here’s a paper on Iri Ji Ohuru, the New Yams Festival, in Nigeria. It’s long and informative.
Keep eating and asking, my friends.
-Andrews, Tamra. “Yams.” Nectar & Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food in World Mythology. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2000. 249-51. Print.
-Davidson, Alan. “Yams.” The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 858-9. Print.
-Matthews, J. Merritt, and Herbert R. Mauersberger. “Minor Seed Hairs.” Matthews’ Textile fibers: their physical, microscopical, and chemical properties. 5th ed. New York: J. Wiley & Sons ;, 1947. 343. Print.
-”bombax cotton — Britannica Online Encyclopedia.” Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2012. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/72519/bombax-cotton>.