Brazil: Candomblé Religion Reaches Out (December 2006)

Brazil: Candomblé Religion Reaches Out

December 2006

Crowds lined the leafy streets of a São Paulo suburb. A small blue temple stood between two whitewashed houses, seemingly out of place. Regular attendants greeted one another along the side of the road. Others patiently waited for the ceremony to begin. More and more people gathered outside. The white wooden door was finally opened and we soon scuffled in.

The interior was reminiscent of that of a Catholic church, with pews lining the nave. A crisp white cloth covered the altar that stood at the centre. Latecomers scrambled in, shuffling to their seats. The majority of candomblistas around me were of African descent.

Candomblé is a syncretic religion combining elements of West African origin, mainly Yoruba, Fon and Bantu beliefs, and Catholicism. Enslaved Africans who were shipped to the Americas took their beliefs and practices with them. Slave owners tried to convert them to Catholicism, although a number continued to practise their religions secretly. Roman Catholic elements were incorporated into Candomblé in order to disguise the practices as those of Catholicism.

The suffocating heat was unbearable. Over one hundred followers were crammed into a small dark room with blacked out windows. Women fanned their faces with folded pieces of paper, eager to create a current of air to cool off the sweat that dripped from their foreheads.

Priests in white robes sat on low steps at the side altars, large hand drums firmly placed between their legs. A low drum roll suddenly became louder and louder, its deep and highly percussive sound filling the stifling room. A priestess wearing a white ceremonial dress danced to the sound of throbbing music towards the centre of the nave, her body convulsing to the African beats and overpowering chanting that had by now filled the room.

Candomblé translates as “dance in honour of the Gods”. Indeed, dance and music play a vital role in ceremonies. The omnipotent God Oludumaré lies at the core of Candomblé and is served by lesser deities, commonly referred to as orixas. These are ancestors who have been deified and embody natural forces, and serve as a bridge between the spiritual and human worlds. Each person has his or her own orixa that acts as a guardian and protector.

Loud drumming and ritual singing filled the entire room. The priestess’s body shook uncontrollably. All of a sudden her eyes rolled back, the sclera now only visible. She had entered a trance like state and ancestor spirits now possessed her body. Once in this state, the priestess can act out good and bad scenes from community life through a dance. That way, the ceremony effectively becomes a court of justice. To the sound of rhythmic percussion music, she danced towards a thin elderly lady who stood in the row in front of me and cupped her shaking hands around her face. Her legs and arms continuously jerked.

As her jittering body danced further down the aisle I felt weak and unable to breathe. The lack of windows meant there was no fresh air and for the first time in my life I thought I was going to faint.

It was illegal to practise Candomblé in Brazil until as recently as the 1970’s. Devotees have since tried to strip their religion of its Catholic elements in order to strive for a religion based on purely African elements. Candomblé continues to grow steadily (including in Italy and Germany!), attracting over two million followers worldwide.