ASAASE YAA (also known as ABEREWA, ASASE YA) of the Akan – Ashanti people(Ghana).
In the Akan Ashanti Pantheon of deities (known as the Abosom), she is the daughter of the Supreme God, Nyame.
Preceded only by Nyame (Creator) in power and importance, Asase Yaa (also referred to as Aberewa [old woman] and Mother Earth) is the second Great Spirit revered within Akan cosmology. She gave birth to humanity and today still reclaims her children at death.
She is the goddess of the barren places of the Earth, and in some tales, she appears as the mother of the trickster and culture hero Anansi the Spider.
The Akan regard the earth as a female spirit because of her fertility and power to bring forth life and further personalize her as a mother because human beings depend on her for their continual nurturance and sustenance.
Each person who has worked a field and who, on dying, returns to Asase Yaa becomes a co-power of fertility. At planting, therefore, the Ashanti farmer prays to his ancestors and to Asase Yaa, who lent the rights of cultivation to the living.
She is of paramount importance to the Akan because it is through Asase Yaa, by way of libation (the ceremonial pouring of liquid) and dance, that they gain access to and maintain familial connections with the ancestors.
Named according to the Akan tradition of “day-naming,” she is most often referred to as Asase (Earth) Yaa (female born on Thursday) because most Akan believe that Nyame created Earth on a Thursday.
However, among the Fante, who believe that Nyame created Earth on a Friday, she is known as Asase Efua (female born on Friday).
Traditionally, among those who call her Asase Yaa, Thursday is considered a day of rest, on which there is no tilling of the land, no burying of the dead, and all acts that may desecrate the Earth are avoided. Those who call her Asase Efua observe this sacred day Friday. In both cases, working on the land is taboo.
Generally, on any given day, one will not manipulate or agitate the land in any way without her prior permission, gained exclusively through the pouring of libation, because serious consequences are believed to befall those who violate protocol. Before planting the farmers have to knock on the earth as if she were a door.
Fowls are sacrificed in her name and the blood is sprinkled on the earth, especially by the farmers when they need to beg her for permission to plough, to plant and to harvest the crops.
Asase Yaa is called in libations, immediately after Nyame, and it is with her name that the first offering is made to the ancestors. Thus, because libation is the vehicle through which the Akan initiate all rituals, traditional ceremonies, and political proceedings, Asase Yaa is essentially as prevalent in the spiritual culture of the Akan as is Nyame.
Reverence for her is further manifest in a multitude of Akan rituals. During an infant’s outdooring (naming) ceremony, once the complete name is given, the child is placed on a mat to symbolize thanksgiving to Asase Yaa for sustaining its life and to the ancestors for their eternal protection and guidance.
During ayie (funeral rites), libation is poured specifically to Asase Yaa not only to ask her permission for digging the grave, but also to ask her to accept and protect the body of the person to be buried.
Asase Yaa is also the goddess of truth. When a speaker is met with disbelief, he may pick up some earth and touch his lips with it, thus swearing that he is speaking the truth.
Asase Yaa is also the goddess of peace: when there is murder or war or when in any other way human blood has been spilled, very substantial sacrifices are necessary to appease the Earth.
The Earth is also the goddess of the dead. Whenever a grave has to be dug, the relatives of the deceased have to make an offering to the Earth with libations, to ask for permission.
Despite Asase Yaa’s powers and importance, there are no temples built for her, nor does she have priests serving her, nor does she give oracles. This is because she is not an abosom (deity) whom people may consult through divination.
The Akan believe that everyone has the ability to show her reverence, whether through libation or simply keeping the Earth clean, and that her abundance is accessible to us all.
Stories of Asase Yaa
Asase Yaa and her magical sword
According to myth, Aberewa had a long, sharp sword that could fight by itself. When she ordered the sword to fight, it slaughtered everyone it encountered. When she commanded the sword to stop fighting, it did.
The Ashanti tell a story about Anansi and Aberewa’s sword. Once, there was famine in the land, and the only food available was in the storehouse of Nyame.
In order to become Nyame’s agent and sell his food supplies to the people, Anansi agreed to let his head be shaved daily. However, the shaving was painful, and people made fun of the way he looked.
When Anansi could no longer stand this situation, he stole some food and fled to Aberewa’s house. When he asked the goddess for her protection, she granted it.
One day, when Aberewa left the house, Anansi stole her sword. He returned with it to Nyame and offered to use the sword to protect Nyame whenever he needed help. Nyame accepted Anansi’s offer. When an enemy army approached, Anansi ordered the sword to fight. It slew all of the enemy forces.
However, Anansi could not remember the command to make the sword stop. With no enemies left to kill, the sword turned on Nyame’s army. When only Anansi was left alive, it killed him too.
Then it stuck itself into the ground and turned into a plant with leaves so sharp they cut anyone who touched them. The plant still cuts people, because no one has ever given the sword the command to stop.
Asase Yaa and the tower to Nyame
According to legend, Asase Yaa pounds her mortar with a pestle as she prepares food for her children, and the pestle routinely bumps against the sky. Annoyed, God Nyame (the name means both God and Sky), goes away.
Now Aberewa attempts to reestablish her relationship with Nyame. To do that, she gets many mortars, piling them one on top of the other. In the process, she moves closer and closer to the sky.
Now, to touch Nyame, she needs just one more mortar. She asks a child to get one for her, but he can find none. In desperation, she tells him to take one of the mortars from the bottom of the pile. He does so, and, when the mortar is removed, the entire tower collapses.
In another myth, a love story, Aberewa, the earth spirit, is adored by Twe, a spirit from the water. So profound is his love for her that Twe vows to give fish to her at any time. All she has to do is touch the water.
Incompatibility with Christianity
Thursday is the sacred day of the earth goddess; farmers then allow her a day of rest from their plows and other sharp tools. When Christianity came to western Africa with its Sunday festival, the issue of which day was the more truly sacred posed a great problem to those seeking converts.
Another difficulty was that this supreme divinity does not live in houses or temples but in every plowed field; the Ashanti do not have to retreat to special places to acknowledge her power and presence.
Although Christianity has nominally won the battle, vestiges of the worship of the “Old Woman” remain, and some Akan people still pray, “Earth, when I am about to die, I lean on you. Earth, while I am alive, I depend on you.”
Scheub, Harold – A dictionary of African mythology : the mythmaker as storyteller
Molefi Kete Asante, Ana Mazama – Encyclopedia of African Religion
Knappert, Jan – African mythology : an encyclopedia of myth and legend
Monaghan, Patricia – New Book Of Goddesses & Heroines