Candomblé practitioners in Bahia
|Priesthood||Mãe-de-santo or Pai-de-santo|
|Associations||Order of Our Lady of the Good Death|
|Region||Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Venezuela, Uruguay, United States, Portugal|
|Origin||19th century |
|Members||167,363 (Brazil, 2010)|
Candomblé (Portuguese pronunciation: [kɐ̃dõmˈblɛ], "dance in honour of the gods") is an Afro-American religion that developed in Brazil during the early 19th century. It arose through a process of syncretism between the traditional Yoruba religion of West Africa and the Roman Catholic form of Christianity. There is no central authority in control of the movement.
Candomblé is polytheistic, involving the veneration of deities known as orishas. These are often identified both as Yoruban gods as well as Roman Catholic saints. Various myths and stories are told about these orishas. As an oral tradition, it does not have holy scriptures. Practitioners of Candomblé believe in a Supreme Creator called Oludumaré, who is served by lesser deities, which are called Orishas. Every practitioner is believed to have their own tutelary orisha, which controls his or her destiny and acts as a protector. Music and dance are important parts of Candomblé ceremonies, since the dances enable worshippers to become possessed by the orishas. In the rituals, participants make offerings like minerals, vegetables, and animals. Candomblé does not include the duality of good and evil; each person is required to fulfill their destiny to the fullest, regardless of what that is.
Candomblé developed among Afro-Brazilian communities amid the Atlantic slave trade of the 16th to 19th centuries. It arose through the blending of the traditional religions brought to Brazil by enslaved West and Central Africans, the majority of them Yoruba, Fon, and Bantu, and the Roman Catholic teachings of the Portuguese colonialists who then controlled the area. Between 1549 and 1888, the religion developed in Brazil, influenced by the knowledge of enslaved African priests who continued to teach their religion, their culture, and language. In addition, Candomblé absorbed elements of Roman Catholicism and includes indigenous American traditions.
Definition and terminology
Candomblé is a religion. Candomblé has been described as "one of the major religious expressions of the African Diaspora". The anthropologist Paul Christopher Johnson stated that, "at its most basic level", Candomblé can be defined as "the practice of exchange with orixás." He also defined it as "a Brazilian redaction of West African religions recreated in the radically new context of a nineteenth-century Catholic slave colony."
Candomblé is an oral tradition and does not have holy texts.
The word Candomblé means "dance in honour of the gods", and music and dance are important parts of Candomblé ceremonies.
Some priests and priestesses would not initiate anyone into Candomblé who was not already a baptised Roman Catholic.
Candomblé is closely related to another nineteenth-century Brazilian religion, Umbanda, as both as Afro-Brazilian religions involving the worship of orisha. Umbanda is usually more open and public than Candomblé, with its religious songs being sung in Portuguese. There are some practitioners that engage in both practices; a terreiro that practices both refers to it as "Umbandomblé."
Knowledge about Candomblé is referred to as the fundamentos.
Candomblé focuses on the worship of the orishas or orixás. Practitioners varyingly define these orishas as "African gods," "energies", or "forces of nature", and they are often conceived as being ancestral figures. The orishas are believed to mediate between humanity and Olorun, the creator deity. In Candomblé, the relationship between the orishas and humanity is seen as being one of interdependence, with practitioners seeking to build harmonious relationships with these deities. Each orisha is associated with specific colours, foods, animals, and minerals.
These West African deities have been equated with various Roman Catholic saints. From the later twentieth century, some practitioners have attempted to distance the orishas from the saints as a means of re-emphasising the religion's West African origins. In Candomblé altars, the orishas are often represented with images and statues of Roman Catholic saints. For instance, the orisha Oxum has been conflated with Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.
Candomblé teaches that every individual has a particular orisha whom they are connected to. It is taught that the individual of this orisha can be ascertained through divination. This orisha is described as being the "master or mistress of the person's head." It is believed that they have an influence on the person's personality and social interactions. Failing to identify one's orisha is sometimes interpreted as the cause of various types of mental illness by practitioners. Depending on the orisha in question, an initiate may choose to avoid or to engage in certain activities, such as not eating specific foods or wear specific colours.
- the orishas of the Yoruba (Ketu nation), spelled Orixás in Portuguese;
- the voduns of the Fon and Ewe (Jeje nation); and
- the nkisis (minkisi) of the Kongo (Bantu nation).
These deities are believed to have been created by a supreme God, Olodumare (called Nzambi by the Kongo people; and Nana Buluku by the Fon people). The orishas and similar figures form a link between the spiritual world and the world of humans.
Candomblé practitioners believe that every person has their own tutelary deity which controls his or her destiny and acts as a protector. Each deity represents a certain force in nature and is associated with certain foods, colors, animals, and days of the week. A person's character or personality is strongly linked to their deity. Collectively, ancestors are called Egum in Brazil. During important ceremonies, priests and priestesses masquerade as Baba Egum and specially choreographed dances will be performed in order to become possessed of each ancestor spirit.
Birth and the dead
The otherworld of the ancestors is called orun.
Candomblé teaches the existence of a force called ashe or axé. Walker described this ashe "the spiritual force of the universe", while Johnson descried it as "a creative spiritual force with real material effects." Practitioners believe ashe can be transmitted and that a human can have a growing or diminishing supply of it. Practitioners believe that they can attract and share ashe during ritual acts.
Morality, ethics, and gender roles
The teachings of Candomblé influence the daily life of its practitioners. Problems that arise in a person's life are often interpreted as resulting from a disharmony in an individual's relationship with their orisha.
Candomblé does not include the duality of a concept of good opposed to evil. Each person is required only to fulfil his or her destiny to the fullest in order to live a 'good' life, regardless of what that destiny is. This is not a free ticket to do whatever the practitioner wants, though. Candomblé teaches that any evil a person causes to others will return to the first person eventually.
Egúm are important in regulating the moral code of Candomblé practitioners. It is their responsibility to make sure that moral standards of the past are continued in the present. This is regulated during worship ceremonies. When a person becomes possessed of their ancestor spirit during the ceremony, they may act out scenes from the community to highlight both good and bad actions in a sort of public tribunal.
Male/female polarity is a recurring theme throughout Candomblé. Many roles within Candomblé are linked to members of a specific gender. For instance, both animal sacrifice and the shaving of an initiate's head are usually reserved for male practitioners, while female practitioners are typically responsible for domestic duties in maintaining the ritual space. Such divisions mirror broader gender norms in Brazilian society. However, women can still wield significant power as the heads of the terreiros.
There is evidence that Candomblé encourages forms of sexual and gender non-conformity at odds with mainstream Brazilian society. Although many prominent male priests in the religion have been heterosexual, there is also a pervasive stereotype that the majority of Candomblé's male practitioners are homosexual. Male homosexuals have described the religion as offering a more welcoming environment for them than forms of Christianity practiced in Brazil. They for instance have cited stories of relationships between male orishas, such as Oxôssi and Ossain, as affirming male same-sex attraction.
Johnson noted that some practitioners regard Candomblé as a religion "of right practice instead of right doctrine", in that performing its rituals are correctly are deemed more important that believing in the orishas. Johnson noted that Candomblé devoted "little attention" to "abstract theologizing". Rituals are often focused on pragmatic needs regarding issues such as prosperity, health, love, and fecundity. Those engaging in Candomblé include various initiates of varying degrees and non-initiates who may attend events and approach initiates seeking help with various problems. Johnson characterised Candomblé as a secret society.
Houses of Worship
A building in which Candomblé is practiced is known as a terreiros ("house"). Each terreiro is distinct and operates in its own way. They can be competitive towards one another, seeking to attract a greater number of followers. These range in size from small houses to large compounds, and consist of a series of rooms, some of which are considered off-limits to non-initiates. They contain an altar to the deities, a space to perform ceremonies, and accommodation for the priests or priestesses. One room, the barracão, is where public rituals, including acts of divination, take place. Most terreiros venerate between twelve and twenty orisha.
A priest or priestess is in charge of the terreiro and is not constrained by external religious authorities. The prominent place of priestesses within Candomblé has led some observers to describe it as a matriarchal religion, although such a characterisation has been disputed. The priest and priestess is assisted by the iyakekerê ("little mother") and the alabê (musical director).
Terreriros are understood to contain ashé which is linked to its lineage. This ashé can be transferred from a mother-terreiro to a new one being established.
Public ceremonies take place at the terreiros where both initiates and non-initiates can attend to celebrate the orishas. At these, food is offered to specific orichas while the rest is shared among participants, with the latter thereby gaining some of the ache of the orichas. These public rites are both preceded and succeeded by a range of private ritual acts. Most of the rituals that take place at the terreiros are private and open only to initiates. Walker believed that it was these that represented "the real core of the religious life of the Candomblé community."
Yoruba is used as a ritual language, although few practitioners understand the meanings of these Yoruba words. There are no specific sacred texts. Ritual objects are regarded as loci and accumulators of ashe, although this supply needs replenishing at various intervals. Each terreiro is also regarded as having its own ashe, which is strengthened by the number of initiates it has and the number of rituals it carries out.
Priests and priestesses are regarded as intermediaries between the orishas and humanity. Becoming initiated implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between the new initiate and the orishas.
Offerings and animal sacrifice
Food is offered to the orisha, often being placed at an appropriate location in the landscape; offerings to Oxum are for instance often placed by a freshwater stream. When placed in the terreiro, food is typically left in place for between one and three days, sufficient tie for the orisha to consume the essence of the food.
The individual who conducts the sacrifice is known as an axogun.
The length of the initiatory process varies between Candomblé houses but usually lasts from a few weeks to a few months. During much of this process, the initiate is usually secluded in a special room; the rite is private. During this period they are taught the various details of their associated orisha, such as its likes and dislikes and the appropriate drum rhythms and dances that invoke that deity. They will be bathed in water mixed with herbs. Their head will often also be shaved. 
One of the first acts during the initiatory process is to give the initiate a string of beads associated with their orisha. These beads will often be washed and sprinkled with the blood of a sacrificed animal. These beads are sometimes perceived as protecting the wearer from harm.
At a subsequent level of initiation, the orisha is "seated" within the individual's head.  Following the initiation, the new initiate may be presented to the rest of the community through a public ceremony. Over the course of the following year, the initiate may conduct further "obligations" to build their relationship with the orisha.
Candomblé includes a number of additional, graded initiations, which are expected to take place one year, three years, and then seven years after the original initiatory ceremony. In practice, many adherents cannot afford to pay for these ceremonies at the specified time and they instead take place many years after.
Within Candomblé, it is regarded as a privilege to be possessed by an orisha. As it entails being "mounted, being possessed is regarded as being a symbolically female role. For this reason, many heterosexual men refuse initiation into Candomblé; some believe that involvement in these rites can turn a man homosexual. Among practitioners, it is sometimes claimed that in the past men did not take part in the dances that lead to possession.
The city of Salvador in Bahia is regarded as a holy city by practitioners of Candomblé.
One type of ceremony is known as the bori. This entails placing food on the individual's head to feed the orisha that is believed to partially reside within the cranium. This may be conducted to bolster the individual's health and well-being or to give them additional strength before an important undertaking.
Candomblé formed in the early part of the nineteenth century. Although African religions had been present in Brazil since the early 16th century, Johnson noted that Candomblé, as "an organized, structured liturgy and community of practice called Candomblé" only arose later.
Candomblé originated among enslaved Africans who were transplanted to Brazil during the Atlantic slave trade. The first African slaves to arrive in Brazil did so in the 1530s. Brazil received a larger number of enslaved Africans than any other part of the Americas; Bahia had the highest concentration of these enslaved Africans in Brazil. The precise number of Africans brought to Brazil is not known, although conservative estimates usually argue that the number was around four million. Between 1775 and 1850, the majority of the enslaved people brought to Brazil came from the Gulf of Benin, largely in what is now Benin and Nigeria. Many of those brought from this area were speakers of Yoruba languages. On being brought to Brazil, these slaves were divided into "nations", primarily on their port of embarkation rather than their original etho-cultural identities. This process meant that Africans of different cultural backgrounds, regions, and religions were thrown together under a unifying term such as "Nagô", the latter used for those exported from the Bight of Benin. This meant that the deities venerated in different regions in Africa were brought together as part of the same pantheon. Whereas in Africa, people had generally venerated deities associated with their specific region, these commitments were broken up by the process of enslavement and transportation.
The Roman Catholic nature of Brazilian colonial society, which allowed for a cult of saints, may have permitted greater leeway for the survival of traditional African religions than were available in Protestant-dominant areas of the Americas. Many of the slaves learned to classify their orishas in relation to the Roman Catholic saints and the calendar of saints' days. There is no evidence that the slaves simply used the cult of saints to conceal orisha worship, but rather that devotees understood the two pantheons as comprising similar figures with similar abilities to fix certain problems. Some ecclesiastical figures in the Roman Catholic Church saw the syncretisation as a positive step in the process of converting the Africans to Christianity. Among slave owners, there was also a belief that allowing the slaves to continue their traditional religions would allow old enmities between different African communities to persevere, thus making it less likely the slaves would unify and turn against the slave-owners. It was also thought that allowing the slaves to take part in their traditional customs would expend energies that might otherwise be directed toward rebellion.
Although the Church succeeded in many cases, not all slaves converted. Many outwardly practiced Christianity but secretly prayed to their own God, gods, or ancestor spirits. In Brazil, adherents of Candomblé saw in the Catholic veneration of saints a similarity with their own religion. Bantu followers found a shared system of worship with Brazil's indigenous people, and through this connection they re-learned the ancestor worship that was part of their own traditional systems. They often concealed the sacred symbols of their deities inside figures of their Catholic saints. In segregated communities of the country, it was easy to create Catholic fraternities where slaves would meet with each other. These meetings, however, were an opportunity for Candomblé worship to be practiced and for feasts to be held on special religious days. They were also opportunities for the enslaved to gather and plan rebellions against their masters.
Candomblé was condemned by the Catholic Church. Followers of the faith were persecuted violently, including by government-led public campaigns and police action. Repression of African religion began early in the Portuguese colonial period, with calundu (spiritual leaders) subject to the Inquisition. The Brazilian Penal Code of 1850 condemned charlatanismo (charlatanry) curandeirismo (quackery). Both Candomblé religious leaders and terreiros were attacked by the police. With Catholicism as the state religion, other religious practices threatened the secular authority.
After enslaved Africans successfully led the Haitian Revolution, there were growing fears about similar slave revolts in Brazil. The 1820s and 1830s saw increased police repression of African-derived religions in Brazil. Laws introduced in 1822 allowed police to shut down batuques, or drumming ceremonies among the African population. It was during this period that the Engenho Velho ("Old Sugar Mill") terreiro was established; it was from this group that most Nagô terreiros descended. Various records indicated that Creoles and Whites were also sometimes taking part in the rites which the police were suppressing.
In 1822, Brazil declared itself independent of Portugal. Under British pressure, the Brazilian government passed the Quieróz law of 1850 which abolished the slave trade, although not slavery itself. In 1885 all slaves over the age of 60 were declared free and then in 1888 slavery was abolished entirely. Although now free, life for Brazil's former slaves rarely improved.
20th and 21st centuries
Starting from the 1940s, sociologists and anthropologists of religion studied Candomblé sympathetically. French sociologist Roger Bastide, who held the chair of Sociology at the University of São Paulo between 1938 and 1957, emerged both as a main scholar and a defender of religious freedom of Candomblé. One paradoxical effect of Bastide's and other scholars’ interest in Candomblé was that their works were read by leading practitioners of Candomblé themselves and contributed to the “codification” if not, as some argue, to a new “invention of candomblé” in the 20th century.
Brazil declared freedom of religion in the 1970s, allowing for greater tolerance for Candomblé practices. The persecution stopped in the 1970s with repeal of a law requiring police permission to hold public religious ceremonies. The religion has surged in popularity in Brazil since then, with as many as two million people professing to follow this faith. It is particularly popular in Salvador, Bahia, in the northeast region of Brazil, which is more isolated from other influences and had a high percentage of enslaved Africans. Many people from African countries visit Bahia in order to learn more about the faith of their ancestors. For many followers, Candomblé is not only a matter of religious belief but also of reclaiming the cultural and historical identity of ethnic Africans, although their separate tribal identities have been obscured by peoples being mixed in communities during and after slavery.
By the late 20th century, Candomblé was gaining increased respectability within Brazil. This was partly fuelled by well-educated Afro-Brazilians embracing their cultural heritage, which had previously been stigmatised. By the early 21st century, tourist literature increasingly portrayed Candomblé as an intrinsic part of Brazilian culture. References to the religion's beliefs became more apparent in Brazilian society; Varig Airlines for instance used the tagline "Fly with Axé." In the closing decades of the 20th century, some practitioners sought to remove Roman Catholic-influenced aspects from the religion to return it to its West African roots. The prominent priestess Mãe Stella for instance called on adherents to renounce all Roman Catholic saints and transform Candomblé into a more purely African tradition. Many terreiros distinguished themselves from this approach, arguing that to abandon the Roman Catholic elements would be to abandon an important part of their religious ancestry. Pentecostalism presents itself as an avowed enemy of Candomblé, regarding it as diabolical.
Brazilian slaves came from a number of African geographic regions and ethnic groups, including Mbundu, Yoruba, Igbo, Kongo, Fon and Ewe. Slave handlers classified them by the shore of embarkment, so records of ethnicity may not have been accurate, as captives were often transported overland away from native areas before being loaded on ships. As the religion developed semi-independently in different regions of Brazil, among different African ethnic groups, it evolved into several "branches" or nations (nações). These are distinguished chiefly by their set of worshiped deities, as well as the music and language used in the rituals.
The division into nations was also influenced by the religious and beneficent brotherhoods (irmandades) organized by the Catholic Church among Brazilian slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. These fraternities, organized along ethnic lines to allow priests to preach who had learned the slaves' native languages, provided a legitimate cover for slave reunions. Ultimately they may have aided the development of Candomblé.
The following list is a rough classification of the major nations and sub-nations, and their sacred languages:
- Ketu or Queto – Yoruba language, known as Iorubá or Nagô in Portuguese. Nagô derives from ànàgó, a derogatory term used by the Dahomey people to refer to Yoruba-speaking people, specifically of Oyo heritage, many of whom were sold as slaves to Brazil.
- Bantu – mix of Bantu (Kikongo and Kimbundu) languages
- Jeje – Fon, and Gen languages (Jeje)
As of 2012, the Nagô nation has been described as the largest.
- Ifá only initiation Babalaos, do not come into trance.
- Egungun only initiation Babaojés, do not come into trance.
- Candomblé Ketu initiation Iyawos, come into trance with Orixá.
- Candomblé Jeje initiation Vodunsis, come into trance with Vodun.
- Candomblé Bantu initiation Muzenzas, come into trance with Nkisi.
The Candomblé priesthood is divided into:
- Iyalorixá or Mãe-de-santo (female), and Babalorixá or Pai-de-santo (male) - Orixás' priests
- Doté or Doné – Voduns' priests
- Tateto or Mameto – Nkisis' priests
- Babalao – Yoruba Ifá priests
- Bokonon – Vodun Afá priests
- BabalOsanyin – Osanyins' priests
- Babaojé – Egunguns' priests
- Mãe Menininha do Gantois (1894-1986), iyalorixá of the Ilê Ìyá Omi Àse Iyámasé ("House of the Mother of Waters") of Gantois, who was instrumental in gaining legalization of the religion.
- Mother Olga de Alaketu (c.1925-2005), iyalorixà of the Ile Maroia Laji ("House of Alaji, Son of the Aro clan") of Salvador de Bahia, who served during her life as one of Brazil's most prominent religious leaders.
- Mãe Cleusa Millet (1923-1998), another iyalorixá of the Ilê Ìyá Omi Àse Iyámasé of Gantois.
Candomblé has been described as "the religion of the poor and underprivileged" in Brazil. Johnson noted that most of the regulars who visited the terreiros he was studying in Rio de Janeiro were poor. Of these, fifteen were female and five male. Despite its Afro-Brazilian origins, Candomblé has attracted those from other ethnic backgrounds.
It has attracted many male homosexuals as practitioners; in Rio de Janeiro for example the gay male community has had longstanding links with the terreiros, which have often been seen as part of a gay social network. Many gay men who have joined have cited it as offering a more welcoming atmosphere to them than other religious traditions active in Brazil. Various lesbians have also been identified as practitioners, although the anthropologist Andrea Stevenson Allen argued that they rarely received the same level of affirmation from the religion as their gay male counterparts.
Many practitioners of Candomblé already have a family link to the tradition, with their parents or other elder relatives being initiates. Others convert to the movement without having had any family connections; some of those who convert to Candomblé have already explored Spiritism, Umbanda, or Pentecostalism. Many describe having been ill or plagued with misfortune prior to being initiated into Candomblé, having determined through divination that their ailments would cease if they did so. Johnson noted that Candomblé appears to appeal to those who identify strongly with an African heritage.
Reception and influence
The Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado makes repeated references to Candomblé throughout his work. In the 1980s, the American writer Toni Morrison visited Brazil to learn more about Candomblé. She subsequently combined ideas from Candomblé with those of Gnosticism in her depiction of the religion pursued by "The Convent", an all-female community in her 1991 novel Paradise. Themes from the religion have also been included in the work of Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha. References to the religion also appeared in Brazilian popular music. For instance, Maria Bethânia and Gal Costa's song "Prayer to Mãe Menininha" made it into the country's chart.
Johnson noted that many academics who have studied Candomblé have sought to portray it in the best light possible, so as to counter racist and primitivist stereotypes about Afro-Brazilians. Academic studies have in turn influenced the way that the religion is practices, helping to establish "correct practice" among divergent groups. Many terreiros own copies of academic studies of Candomblé by scholars such as Pierre Verger, Roger Bastide, and Juana Elbein dos Santos. Various practitioners own books on Candomblé and other Afro-American religions, including those written in languages they cannot understand, as a mean of presenting an image of authority.
Although objects associated with Candomblé were initially found only in police museums, thus underscoring the stereotypical association between the religion and criminality, as it gained greater public acceptance such objects eventually came to be featured in museums devoted to folklore and Afro-Brazilian culture. From the 1990s onward, practitioners began establishing their own museum displays within their terreiros. For instance, the bedroom of the famous Candomblé priestess Mãe Menininha do Gantois, located within her Bahia terreiro, was converted into a memorial within in 1992 and then formally recognised as a heritage site in 2002. Candomblé practitioners have also lobbied other museums to change the way that the latter display items associated with the religion. For instance, practitioners successfully called upon the Museum of the City of Salvador to remove some otá stones from public display, arguing that according to the regulations of the religion such items should never be visible to the public.
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