At night, in the towns and villages dotting the bay of Salvador,
people worship an ancient African religion called Candomble.
Brought to Brazil by the slaves and banned until as recently
as 1970, Candomble is one of the fastest growing and most
popular cults in Brazil. Ceremonies are conducted in the Yoruba
language of West Africa and differ only slightly from
those held in Africa today.
Brazil was the last country in the world to abolish slavery
of the 3.6 million Africans shipped there. The first arrivals
from 1570 came from the Congo, Angola and Mozambique
and these people worshiped ancestral spirits. Some slaves
managed to escape and form their own communities. They came
into contact with native Brazilian Indian elders and witch
doctors where they took part in joint sessions, receiving
both Indian and African spirits and shared each others myths
and knowledge of medicinal herbs. In the 18th century because
of a small pox plague in Angola, shaves from Nigeria, Benin
and Togo were brought into Brazil adding more African cultures
to the mixing pot of Brazil.
Practitioners of Candomble believe in one all powerful god,
Olodumare who is served by deities who visit earth
and communicate with earthlings through Exu, a messenger
god. These are similar to the Christian God and Catholic saints
of the Portuguese colonizers. The Brazilian slaves recognised
these similarities and identified their deities with the Catholic
saints. For instance Omulu, the god of smallpox was very
similar to Saint Lazarus the leper. This allowed followers
of Candomble to worship their deities in secrete behind the
guise of the white man's Saints.
A devotee of Candomble belongs to many deities, or "orixas"
which control his destiny and act as his protector. The devotees
daily actions, from the food he eats, the clothes he wears
and his actions is heavily influenced by his orixas, which
are associated with days of the week, food, animals and colours.
Like the signs of the zodiac, followers of each orixas will
exhibit specific characteristics, like devotees of Xango,
the god of thunder, will be proud, aggressive and stubborn.
The spiritual force known as axe sustains Candombles.
Axe is improved through rites and ceremonies re-enacting the
common mythology of the orixas, when devotees can become possessed
by the spirit of their orixa. A Candomble priest or priestess
uses cowry shells to read your orixas; to show the path of
your life, your guiding deities and what ancestor guides your
The first Candomble temple was founding at the start of the
19th century in Salvador, Bahia by Iya Nasso,
half Nigerian, half Brazilian. The sacred space is carefully
observed by the followers of the Candomble. The world of work,
their personal space, their locality is considered profane,
and the terreiro or temple is known as the sacred space.
A terreiro encompasses indoor and outdoor space, with sanctuaries
for the orixas. Traditionally the leader of the group
is a black woman who will use divination to communicate with
the spirits. Some followers will attend a terreiro only for
a consultation of the cowry shells, others will stay for many
months and become inducted into a spiritual rebirth and possession
by their orixa. Parts of the temple are open to visitors,
others are not. When you enter the Terreiro you must rest
your body, and splash water to cool the entrance and release
the negativity of the world outside. You must use the Motumba
salute to embrace every part of the terreiro. Respect for
elders and the rituals of the sacred space is fundamental
to the functions of the terreiro.
There are three threads to the candomble religion, each associated
with different nations. The Gege-Nago Cadomble is based
on Yoruband and Fon tradition, whereas Angola-Congo
and Caboclo forms of Candomble are based on diverse
Bantu and Brazilian sources. The state of Bahia is the centre
of Candomble in Brazil. The worship was suppressed in the
19th century and terreiros were raided, and it wasn't until
the 1970's when followers worshiped openly. Now it is a hotly
contested debate amongst the candomble church as to whether
to de-syncretize the Catholic shrouded imagery within candomble
or for it remain in its current form fusing the two religions.
In Brazilian Candomble, only 16 of around 200 of the African
entities are worshipped. The religion has since been exploited
for tourism and achieved international fame, performing folk
shows in terreiros.
Literally speaking, Candomble means a dance in honour of the
gods. Food is passed out as the dance usually continues all
night. Candomble is a call to the spirits and as the spirit
enters the body it falls into a state of trance. After several
hours, a change of clothes represents a connection with the
spirits. The dancers return to dance to even more complex
and symbolic rhythms.