AFRICAN GODS IN CONTEMPORARY BRAZIL:
A Sociological Introduction to CandomblÚ Today

 

by Reginaldo Prandi
(University of SŃo Paulo, Brazil)

 

 

I: Popular Religions in Brazil

 

In Brazil, Catholicism has historically been the major religion, Protestants and other faiths being a small minority (Camargo, 1973). Within this second group are the so-called Afro-Brazilian cults, which, until the 1930's, could be included in the category of ethnic religions that preserved the traditions of the former African slaves and their descendants (Bastide, 1978 a; Carneiro, 1936). These religions existed in different areas of Brazil with different rites and local names derived from diverse African traditions: CandomblÚ in Bahia1, Xang˘ in Pernambuco and Alagoas2, Tambor de Mina in MaranhŃo and Parß3, Batuque in Rio Grande do Sul4, and Macumba in Rio de Janeiro. It seems that the resurgence of those black religions in Brazil occurred fairly recently. Since the African people brought to the New World during the final period of slavery (the last decades of the 19th. century) were located mostly in cities for urban jobs, they were able to live physically and socially in closer proximity than they had done before, and this fact provided the propitious social conditions for some African religions to survive. At the end of the 19th. century, several Protestant denominations as well as French Spiritism (founded by Allan Kardec) were introduced into Brazil. These religions flourished, but Catholicism continued as the preference of more than 90% of the Brazilian population until the 1950's, although in the country's most industrialized region, the Southeast, there has always been a lower percentage of Catholics. Here was a more marked increase took place in the number of Protestants, Kardecist Spiritist and followers of Umbanda, an Afro-Brazilian religion that emerged in the 1930's in Brazil most developed urban areas and which, despite its origins in the black population, does not seek to preserve an African cultural patrimony in a "pure" form.

 

The recent process of religious conversion in Brazil is complex and dynamic, with its incorporation and even creation of some new religions. The three most important religious groups in terms of the number of followers are: Catholicism in both its traditional and modern forms; Protestantism, which presents multiple facets; and a diverse array of Afro-Brazilian religions. Nowadays, Afro-Brazilian religions, Pentecostalism -- a form of Protestantism which originated in the United States (Rolim, 1985) -- and two recent expressions of popular Catholicism, the Christian Base Communities ľ CEBs -- (Pierucci & Prandi, 1996) and the Charismatic Renovation Movement -- also from the United States (Prandi, 1997) -- have became increasingly popular. As a result of syncretism the followers of the Afro-Brazilian religions continue to identify themselves as Catholic. For this reason it is extremely difficult to calculate their numbers. Estimates indicate they account for about 8% of the Brazilian population, while approximately 70% define themselves as "officially" belonging to the Catholic Church. Pentecostalism represents somewhere between 10 and 20% of the total.

 

Umbanda, Brazil's most important popular religion, has an identity native to Brazil but draws heavily on African, American and European religious traditions.5 As a religion, Umbanda has sought to legitimize itself by erasing some features of CandomblÚ, especially those referring to Africa, slavery and tribal behaviour and mentality (Ortiz, 1978). As compared to CandomblÚ, the Umbanda initiation process is simpler, cheaper, and its rituals do not demand blood sacrifices. The spirits of Caboclos (Indians) and Pretos Velhos (Old Slaves) manifest themselves through the bodies of initiated when they are in a ritual trance in order to dance, give some advice and cure those who look for any religious or magical help. Umbanda absorbed from Kardecist Spiritism something of the Christian virtues of charity and altruism, thus making itself a more Occidental religion than the other Afro-Brazilian ones.

 

Since its early times the African cults of Ďrý˝Ó6 in Brazil have to a certain degree undergone syncretism with Catholicism and Brazilian indigenous religions one of their most important characteristics being the worship of saints, in keeping with the Catholic traditions that existed prior to the reforms of Vatican II.7 Contributions from French Kardecist Spiritism were added later, especially the idea of communicating with the spirits of the dead in a state of trance with the goal of practising Christian charity, since the living should help those who suffer in this world as well as the dead who still have not achieved eternal peace. As I have already mentioned, around 1930, in Rio de Janeiro, the traditional Afro-Brazilian religion gave birth to Umbanda, a major step towards turning these religions with African roots fully Brazilian. This step moved it closer to Catholicism, indigenous faiths and Kardecist Spiritism, rather than to its sources in Africa. Until recently, many social researchers linked CandomblÚ to the Blacks and Mulattos of Bahia and Pernambuco, its following in Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian states being less numerous. Umbanda, however, became a religion that transcended issues of color and race.

 

Since the 1950's Umbanda has been a very popular religion among the poor and the lower middle classes. It is impossible to imagine any synthesis of Brazilian contemporary popular culture without considering the devotion to the Ďrý˝Ó as one of its fundamental elements. The cultural influence of the Afro-Brazilian religions is present in all areas: music, theater, cinema, the arts in general, literature, cuisine, etc. The largest religious festivity in Brazil today is the event which takes place on beaches throughout the country on the 31st of December -- the tribute paid to Yem÷ja (goddess of the Seas, the Great Mother). Every year some hundreds of thousand people from the city of SŃo Paulo celebrate this event at the beaches of Santos (50 miles from the city of SŃo Paulo).

 

II: CandomblÚ today

 

By the 1950's Umbanda had become a religion for all sorts of people regardless of color, race, social or geographical origin. In fact, many Umbanda followers are of European descent. Although Umbanda has no fixed social class boundaries, most of its followers are poor -- maybe because most of the Brazilian people themselves are poor. Because Umbanda developed its own outlook on life, a kind of mosaic of elements from Catholicism, Kardecist Spiritism and CandomblÚ, it could claim a transcendence that enabled it either to replace the old Catholic traditions or to join Catholicism as a supporting vehicle which would provide a renewed religious sense of life. After consolidating its features as a universal religion in Rio de Janeiro and SŃo Paulo, Umbanda spread throughout the country, and can now be found in Argentina and other Latin-American countries as well.8

 

During the 1960's something surprising started to happen. With the large emigration from the Northeast (the poorest and most traditional region of Brazil, with an agrarian economy subject to prolonged periods of severe drought) to the Southeast of the country (the modern and industrialized region that absorbs the workers who come from the poorest areas), CandomblÚ began to penetrate Umbanda's well-established territory, and followers of Umbanda began to convert to CandomblÚ and to abandon Umbanda. The movement grew and it led Umbandists back to the old CandomblÚ, to the so-called true, original, more mysteriously sacred, religious matrix that Umbanda had once come from. During this period of Brazil's history, these older traditions found a more favorable economic situation in which to develop, since CandomblÚ's religious ceremonies require significant expenses. Also, it was a time when important middle class social movements searched for what could be taken as the original roots of Brazilian culture. Intellectuals, poets, students, writers, and artists participated in that quest which wound up at the front doors of the old CandomblÚ houses in the city of Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia, in the Northeast. Travelling to Salvador to have one's future read by the mŃes-de-santo of CandomblÚ (the high priestesses of the terreiros ľ shrines -- of the religion of Ďrý˝Ó) became a must for many, a need that filled a lack of transcendence that had dominated in the secularized, modern lifestyle of the big, industrialized cities in the Southeast (Prandi, 1991 a).

 

CandomblÚ found all the social, cultural and economic conditions it needed to be reborn. From then on it was no longer a religion whose followers would only be black. Poor people of all ethnic and racial origins could be found at the terreiros. To give some idea of the social significance of the Afro-Brazilian religions, according to our latest estimates there exist approximately 50 thousand Afro-Brazilian worship centers among the 16-million inhabitants of greater SŃo Paulo city (which includes neighboring municipalities), 4 thousand of which are CandomblÚ while the remaining are Umbanda.

 

CandomblÚ can be divided into different "nations" in accordance with the ethnic origins preserved in the rites (Lima, 1984). Basically, the ancient African cultures that have been the main sources of the current "nations" of CandomblÚ were brought from the Bantu cultural areas (today corresponding to the countries of Angola, Congo, Gabon, Zaire, and Mozambique) and the Sudan cultures of the Gulf of Guinea: Yoruba and Ewe-Fon (corresponding to the present countries of Nigeria and Benin). These, however, do overlap.

 

In the so-called KÚtu "nation", in Bahia, the Yoruba pantheon of Ďrý˝Ó and iniciation rites predominate. The ritual language also has a Yoruban dialectal source, although, over time, the meaning of the words has been lost and the sacred songs can no longer be translated. The following "nations" are also of Yoruba origin: the Nag˘ in Pernambuco, the Efan in Bahia, and the Batuque in Rio Grande do Sul. The Angola "nation", with Bantu sources, adopted the pantheon of the Ďrý˝Ó of the Yorubans as well as many of the initiation practices of the KÚtu "nation", but its ritual language, also untranslatable, originates from the Kimbundo language. In this "nation" of primary importance is the worship of the caboclos, indigenous spirits, considered by the Angola "nation" as the true Brazilian ancestors. It was probably the Angola CandomblÚ that gave rise to Umbanda. The Jeje-Mahin "nation" of the state of Bahia and the Mina --á Jeje "nation" of the state of MaranhŃo are related to the Fon traditions. The Jeje "nations" worship voodoos instead of Ďrý˝Ó, and their ritual language is of Fon origin.

 

The KÚtu CamdomblÚ's initiation

The priesthood and the organization of rites for the worship of these divinities are quite complex. At the same time, there is one pivotal religious mechanism -- the rite of trances that allows the gods to manifest themselves through the bodies of the priests during the ceremonies in order to dance and be admired, praised, worshipped. The initiates, called filhos-de-santo or filhas-de-santo (ýyÓwˇ in ritual language), are also called "horses of the gods" since the trance basically is a means of allowing oneself to be "mounted" and "ridden" by the Ďrý˝Ó. But the process of becoming an initiate is a long, expensive and difficult road, the different stages of which in the KÚtu "nation" can be summarized as follows:

To begin with, the mŃe-de-santo (called ╠yßlˇrý˝Ó in the ritual language) needs to ascertain by means of the oracle of the sixteen cowries (the jogo de b˙zios)9 which Ďrý˝Ó is the "owner" of the head of the particular individual. He or she then receives a necklace of beads in the colours that symbolize his or her Ďrý˝Ó (see Annex) and begins the apprenticeship. The first private ceremony that the novice (abÝyßn) will undergo consists of a series of votive sacrifices to the novice's own head (b÷rÝ), so that the head may be strengthened and prepared to receive one day the Ďrý˝Ó in a trance of possession. For the initiation as a horse of the gods, the novice must obtain enough money to cover the cost of offerings (animals and a wide variety of food and objects), ceremonial clothing, ritual utensils, and of being unable to work during the initiation period that ends with a festive ceremony in which the novice's Ďrý˝Ó is presented to the community.

As part of the initiation, the novice remains in seclusion in the terreiro for a minimum apprenticeship of 21 days. During the final days of this period the novice's head is shaved and his body painted. An image of the Ďrý˝Ó (igbß-˛rý˝Ó) of the novice is washed in a preparation of sacred leaves (amasi) and the blood sacrifice (or˛) takes place. Depending on the Ďrý˝Ó (see Annex) the following animals may be offered: goats, kids, sheep, hens or roosters, or ducks and snails. Finally, in a big, public festive ceremony the newly-initiated person is presented. He or she is incorporated into the terreiro, and his or her particular Ďrý˝Ó utters the name by which the Ďrý˝Ó will be praised when the Ďrý˝Ó mounts the filho(a)-de-santo and then dances. The entire ceremony is sung to the rhythm of the three sacred drums (the three atabaques, that are called run, rumpi, and lÚ).

In CandomblÚ there is always drumming, singing, dancing and eating (Motta, 1988). At the end there is a great communal banquet (ajeun, which means "let us eat") that has been prepared from the meat of the sacrificed animals. This new filho(a)-de-santo (ýyÓwˇ) will offer sacrifices and festive ceremonies on a more reduced scale on the first, third and seventh anniversaries of his or her initiation. After this seven-year period the person becomes a full priest or priestess (Ţgb´nmi, a person who is a senior), and will offer the festive ceremonies every seven years. When the Ţgb´nmi dies, the funeral rites (a˝e˝e) is carried out by the community so that the Ďrý˝Ó that resides within that head returns to the parallel world of the gods (╬run) and the spirit of the dead person (eg˙n) is set free, to be born again some day and thereby be able to enjoy the pleasures of this world.

Religion, ethics, ritual

CandomblÚ works in an ethical context in which the Judeo-Christian notion of sin does not make any sense. The difference between good and evil basically depends upon the relationship between the follower and his or her personal god, the Ďrý˝Ó.

As I tried to show briefly, the initiation is endless, gradual and secret. The worship itself demands sacrifices of animal blood, offerings of food and various ingredients. The meat of the animals slaughtered during the ritualistic sacrifices is eaten by the members of the religious community. The blood - as well as certain parts, such as the head, paws, specific internal organs, etc. - are offered to the gods, the Ďrý˝Ó. Only initiates have access to the sacrificial ceremonies carried out in the private chambers of the Ďrý˝Ó (quartos-de-santo), the same space in which the cult's apprenticeship is imparted. Since religious instruction always takes place far from the public gaze, performed during periods of seclusion in rooms open to initiated devotees only, the religion itself is shrouded in mystery.

Nevertheless, all the dances (which are the culminating point of the celebrations) take place in an open area called the barracŃo, and this space is open to the public. As I have already mentioned, these public ceremonies (called toques) mark the end of several days of "obligations" that include the sacrifice of animals and food as well as sexual prohibitions for those being initiated and seclusion. A toque is a ceremony performed with song and dance to the beat of the sacred drums. One by one each Ďrý˝Ó is honoured: his or her sons and daughters fall into trance, "receiving" the divinity in their bodies that are dressed in the proper garments and regalia of their personal gods who then dance and dance and dance. This sequence of songs and dance is called ˝irŔ, which in Yoruba means "let us play".

Gods, followers and clients

Apart from serving the initiated, CandomblÚ meets the demand for magical-religious services from a large clientele which does not necessarily take part in the worship ceremonies. The "clients" seek out the mŃe-de-santo or pai-de-santo for the cowries game (jogo de b˙zios), the Ďrý˝Ó's Oracle, and through it predictions are made, problems are solved and ritualistic means to manipulate circumstances are prescribed. The client pays for the cowries games and, eventually, for the carrying out of the propitiatory sacrifice (Űb÷) that is recommended for the client's specific case. The client always finds out which Ďrý˝Ó is the "owner" of his or her head and can attend one or more festive celebrations to which the client might make some financial contribution even though he or she has no religious commitment to CandomblÚ. The client knows next to nothing about the initiation process and does not even participate in it. The client, however, is important in two ways: first of all, his or her demand for services helps to legitimize the terreiro and the religious group in social terms. Secondly, it is from this client that a substantial part of the funds necessary for the expenses of the group is derived. In general, the CandomblÚ priests and priestesses who achieve high levels of prestige have influential members of society as clients.

Devotees of Afro-Brazilian religions may also worship mythical entities other than the Ďrý˝Ó from Africa, such as the encantados (charmed beings who lived a long time ago) or caboclos (spirits of dead Brazilian Indians). During the ritual trance, the encantados talk to their followers and friends, offering advice and forms of treatment for all kinds of problems. The order of rank of African divinities and encantados in the terreiros varies within each "nation" of CandomblÚ. Encantados or caboclos are the center of worship in Umbanda and in CandomblÚ de Caboclo, where they play a sacred role even more important than the Ďrý˝Ó themselves (Santos, 1995).

 

III: CandomblÚ and Human Behavior as Mythical Heritage

 

According to CandomblÚ, every person belongs to a certain god, "master" of his or her head and mind and from whom physical and personality characteristics are inherited.10 It is the religious prerogative of the pai-de-santo or mŃe-de-santo, to find out by means of the game of 16 cowries (jogo de b˙zios) to which Ďrý˝Ó (god or goddess) one belongs. This knowledge is absolutely imperative to begin the process of initiation of new devotees and even to foresee the future for clients and solve their troubles. Even among non-believers it is a Brazilian custom to know one's Ďrý˝Ó.

 

Despite the approximately 400 Ďrý˝Ó worshipped in Africa, only about twenty Ďrý˝Ó are revered in Brazil. Each one has his or her own characteristics, elements of nature, symbolic colour, garments, songs, food, drinks, type of personality, desires, faults etc. There is no Ďrý˝Ó entirely "good" or "bad". As I mentioned before, the religion of Ďrý˝Ó in Brazil has no notion of sin. Followers believe that men and women inherit many of the Ďrý˝Ó's attributes, particularly those related to behaviour and personality. People believe that one behaves in ways that resemble the conduct of one's Ďrý˝Ó in the same situation. This legitimizes both one's failures and achievements.

 

Let me briefly present here some of the Ďrý˝Ó and the characteristics that their "children", or followers, are believed to receive from them. I have selected those that have been the most popular Ďrý˝Ó throughout Brazil and also at the 60 "terreiros" I have studied in the city of SŃo Paulo. (See Annex.)

╚˝¨ - Messenger god, a trickster divinity. At any ceremony, always the first god to whom homage is paid in order to avoid his anger and consequent disruption of everything. Overseer of cross-roads and exits to the streets. Syncretism with the Christian devil. His symbol is a clay phallus or iron prongs. Followers believe that people consecrated to ╚˝¨ are intelligent, licentious, erotic, and dirty. They like to eat and drink too much. One should never trust a son or a daughter of ╚˝¨. They are the best for sex, but they decide when. They never marry, too reckless and too smart, walking all alone through the streets, drinking and watching over the cross-roads forever. Pay ╚˝¨ some money, some food, some attention whenever he does you a favor. ╚˝¨'s people never do anything for nothing, at least according to ancient African myths and current Brazilian popular uses.

Ďg˙n - God of war, iron, metal craft and technology. Syncretism with Saint Anthony or St. George. The Ďrý˝Ó which has the power to clear all paths. Stereotypes show Ďg˙n's children as stubborn, passionate, cold and rational. They well fit a workaholic mind. Although they usually do anything for a friend, Ďg˙n's sons and daughters do not know how to love without hurting: they're heartbreakers. Ďg˙n's people are believed to be as good at sex fulfillment as ╚˝¨'s. Ďg˙n and ╚˝¨ are brothers. People usually say that the "families" of both are particularly well-built and mentally geared to sex. Nonetheless, they also do many other interesting, practical things as well. They are more suitable for blue-collar work than for intellectual jobs. They also perform well as warriors.

╬˝´ţsý - God of hunting. Young and a warrior. Syncretism with St. George and St. Sebastian. Affluence Ďrý˝Ó. His people are slender, and curious. They just can't be monogamous for they have to run around night and day. Yet they make good fathers and good mothers. They are friendly, sometimes a little simple-minded, and very patient. They are known as lonesome people. They know that, so they don't despair if and when they find themselves all alone in the middle of the night. An ╬˝´ţsý-person looks for and enjoys lovers, but if he or she doesn't have a lover, he or she is satisfied with discreetly masturbating. "Life is just like that," he or she would say. The ╬˝´ţsýi-people are eternal adolescents. Just don't ask the people of the god of hunting to wait for you. They feel free to break commitments; they hardly understand the meaning of making or keeping appointments. So tradition says, so tradition teaches.

ObaluÓiyÚ or Ím÷lu - God of small-pox, plagues and of illness in general. Nowadays considered the god of AIDS. Connected to all kinds of illnesses, cures, cemeteries, the soil and subsoil. Syncretism with St. Lazarus. These people seem to be the really depressed and depressive ones. They are negative, pessimistic and spiteful. They look as if they are unfriendly, but in reality they are shy and ashamed of their awful appearance. Be friends with them and you will find out that all they need to be the best people in the world is some attention and a little bit of love. When they get old some become incredibly wise, while others die ordinary idiots.

ĐÓngˇ - God of thunder and justice. Syncretism with St. Bartholomew. Appeals to him are made in matters involving business, justice and red-tape. People of ĐÓngˇ are born to be Kings and Queens, but they usually aren't. Children of ĐÓngˇ are stubborn, resolute, glutton for food, money, power and women. A ĐÓngˇ-person likes to have many lovers even though he or she does not have the sexual potence to maintain more than one relationship for much time. They live to fight, to involve people in their own personal wars. They enjoy warring, in spite of getting fatter and fatter. To be fair, it must be said that a ĐÓngˇ-person is the fairest judge someone could ever wish for. They make good friends and excellent parents.

╬˝un - Goddess of fresh water, gold, fertility and love. Syncretism with "Nossa Senhora das Candeias" (Our Blessed Virgin of the Candles), among other names given to the Virgin Mary. Mistress of vanity, she is ĐÓngˇ's favorite wife. ╬˝un's people are attractive, seductive and real flirts. They know how to manage love affairs and they are good at witchcraft; they foresee the future and guess secrets and mysteries. They enjoy the beauty they think they rightly bear. They can be very vain and arrogant. They know everything about love, dating, marriage, having a family and raising children easily, carelessly. They never get poor, never face loneliness. At least this is the appearance a son or a daughter of ╬˝un always likes to give.

YßnsÓn or Íyß - Goddess of lightning, wind and storms. A woman warrior, she is the Ďrý˝Ó who takes the souls of the dead to the other world. Syncretism with St. Barbara. She is ĐÓngˇ's most important wife. Sons and daughters of YßnsÓn like sex too much and have many lovers. Goddess of eroticism, she is a kind of feminist entity. YßnsÓn-people are brave, talkative and brilliant. They dislike running errands for they feel they are Queens or Kings. They are communicative, like to show off and be the center of attention. They can lay down their lives for their beloved, but they never forgive any treason, particularly in matters of love.

Yem÷ja - Goddess of the seas and oceans. Worshipped as the mother of several Ďrý˝Ó. Syncretism with Nossa Senhora da ConceišŃo (Our Mother of Conception), including Nossa Senhora da ConceišŃo Aparecida, patroness of Brazil for Catholic people. Represented by a mermaid, her statue can be seen in almost every town along the coast of Brazil. Sons and daughters of Yem÷ja are good mothers and fathers. They protect their children, friends and relatives like lions. Their biggest fault is to talk too much; they can't keep a secret. They like to work and overcome poverty.

╬˝Óßlß - God of creation. Syncretism with Jesus Christ. Followers dress in white on Fridays. Always the last to be praised during Afro-Brazilian religious ceremonies; revered by all the other Ďrý˝Ó. As Creator, he molded the first human beings and blew the breath of life into them. When revealing himself via trances at Brazilian CandomblÚs, ╬˝Óßlß presents himself in two forms. Ď˝Ól˙fˇn is old, bent and tired, moving slowly and hardly able to dance; Ď˝Ógiyßn is in his youth and dances like a warrior. This young god invented the wooden mortar for pounding yam, his favourite food, and is considered the creator of material culture. ╬˝Óßlß is the only divinity who doesn't like sacrifices of warm-blooded animals (goats, sheep, fowl, etc.), preferring the cold blood of mollusks (igbin). People of ╬˝Óßlß like power, they appreciate being treated as a King, or at least a boss, preferably the boss. Some of those consecrated to the old ╬˝Óßlß are said not to be very good lovers, being too tired to make love. Anyway, these people are brilliant, eager to learn and have a talent for understanding. Challengers, they are a great help to their friends and great foes to people who oppose them. They never give up.

 

I think this brief illustration is sufficient to provide an understanding of how each Ďrý˝Ó can through religion provide his or her human son or daughter with a divine pattern of behaviour, elaborated from Yoruban mythology about the Ďrý˝Ó who survived in Brazil.

 

In fact, the CandomblÚ followers can either take their Ďri˝Ó's attributes for granted as though they were their own characteristics and try to look like their god or goddess or just recognize, through them, symbols that legitimate their conduct. The patterns of behaviour presented by the Ďrý˝Ó's myths may in this way be used as a model to follow or a kind of social validation for what one already is like. An initiated person could turn over a new leaf when he or she is told which Ďrý˝Ó his or her head belongs to or could just keep acting as he or she was used to. This, however, does not change or invalidate the meaning of those symbols.

 

In addition, every initiated person is supposed to have a second Ďrý˝Ó who works as an associate (junt´) of the first one. For example, one says "I'm a son of ╬˝Óßlß and Yem÷ja." Therefore, this second divinity also has an important role in this process of constituting behavioural patterns. Besides that, every private Ďrý˝Ó has his or her own particularity, depending on what stage of his or her mythical biography a particular legend addresses.

 

Sometimes, when well-known characteristics of an Ďrý˝Ó do not fit at all a person consecrated to the god, it is not uncommon to state that this god is "wrong" for that person. This means that a change of divinity must be ritually performed at once or some "forgotten" myth be found that justifies those discrepancies. At other times the attributes of the Ďrý˝Ó itself do not fit the life or the patterns of behavior in current society. In this case, they must be changed. The social construction of religions, with their divinities, symbols, and meanings is far from being finished.

 

IV: The religions of the Ďrý˝Ó in Brazilian cities today

 

If religions, like sciences and other institutional practices, are organized sources of meaning for life, codes of behavior, or languages for interpreting the world, for the follower of CandomblÚ, today, in Brazilian urban centers, what this religion offers is something different from what the religion of the Ďrý˝Ó used to offer until some time ago. When CandomblÚ was established in Northeast Brazil, at the beginning of the 19th century, it enabled black slaves to recover their lost communitarian-tribal world of Africa. This religion represented at the time a mechanism by which black Africans and Brazilians could distance themselves culturally from the world dominated by the white oppressor. The black slaves could count on a black "world" from an symbolical African source of resistance to the adversities of the New World, that was kept alive in the religious life of the terreiro, juxtaposed with the white world, which was the world of work, slavery and misery. Roger Bastide comments on this ability of part of the black population during the Colonial period in Brazil to live in two different worlds at the same time and still avoid tensions and conflicts: the conflict of contradictory values as well as the demands of the "two societies" (Bastide, 1978 b).

 

With the change of CandomblÚ into a universal religion, it is no longer focused on "racial" differences and on the organization of social and cultural mechanisms of resistance, although CandomblÚ still continues to serve those purposes for the black population that lives in some of the more traditional regions of Brazil. The new reference changes radically the sociological meaning of this Afro-Brazilian religion, and what was related to "racial" segregation in a traditional society some decades ago, now has the meaning of a personal, free and intentional choice: one joins CandomblÚ not because he or she is a Negro, but because he or she learns and feels that CandomblÚ works, making life easier. Of course, the religion's efficacy only can be evaluated by the one who elected it, although the process of religious option and conversion can have some strong social consequences for the whole of society (Prandi, 1992).

 

The undoing of ethnic ties that transformed CandomblÚ over the last 25 years into a religion for everyone, also provided a significant expansion in the supply of magical-religious services for the population outside the religious group. This clientele was already used to composing particular world visions from fragments of different sources of interpretations of life, so that it can now use the CandomblÚ to provide new elements for the construction of a kind of a private, kaleidoscopic world vision. The middle-class client that usually goes to CandomblÚ seeking magical services is, in general, an eclectic who also goes to many other non-rational sources that offer solutions for the problems of life. Certainly, for this client CandomblÚ is quite different from the CandomblÚ of a initiate, a devotee. But both are non-contradictory parts of the same reality.

 

CandomblÚ is a religion in which the ritual process is of primary importance. The differentiation between good and evil in the ethical sense of the Christian religions is of little consequence in CandomblÚ. As a religions that is not dominated by ethical sermons, CandomblÚ (and, to a lesser degree, Umbanda, which is heavily influenced by the Christian code of Kardecist Spiritism) is an important religious alternative for different social groups that live in a society in which ethics, moral codes and strict standards of behaviour may have little value or very different ones.

 

CandomblÚ is a religion that affirms the world, recognizing its worth, and that also esteems many of the things that other religions consider bad: for example, money, pleasure (including those of the flesh), success and power. The initiate does not have to internalize patterns of morality that indicate a world different from the world in which he or she lives. The initiate learns rites that facilitate living well in this world, which is full of opportunities for well-being and pleasure. The follower favors the Ďrý˝Ó in a constant search for the best possible balance (even if it is temporary) between that which the initiate is and has as a human being and that which the initiate would like to be and have. In this process, it is extremely important for the follower to completely trust the mŃe-de-santo. Guided by her or by him, the follower will learn and repeat the ritual formulas ad aeternum. One cannot be a follower of CandomblÚ without constantly repeating the rite, just as one cannot be a Protestant without constantly examining one's conscience in search of guilt that can be exorcised (Souza, 1969). Good Protestants, in order to save themselves from eternal damnation, need to annihilate their most hidden desires; the good filho(a) the-santo needs to fulfill his or her desires in order to make the sacred force of the Ďrý˝Ó that moves the world (Ó˝Ű) stronger and more dynamic. By accepting the world as it is, CandomblÚ accepts humanity, and furthermore, situates humanity at the center of the universe, presenting itself as a religion that is quite appropriate for the hedonistic and narcissistic society in which we live.

 

Because CandomblÚ does not distinguish between good and evil in the occidental, Christian sense, it tends to attract all kinds of individuals who have been socially marked and marginalized by other religions and non-religious institutions. This also demonstrate CandomblÚs' acceptance of the world, even when it has to do with the world of the street, the underworld, the vendors of sex, and those who have walked through prison doors. CandomblÚ possesses a truly exemplary ability to join saints and sinners, the blemished and the pure, the ugly and the beautiful. But, if CandomblÚ liberates the individual, it also liberates the world. CandomblÚ has no message for the world: it would not know what to do with the world if it was given the chance of transforming it. CandomblÚ is not a religion based on the word and, therefore, will never have salvation as its ultimate goals. The ultimate concerns of CandomblÚ are the concrete issues of life: illness and pain, unemployment, lack of money, food and shelter... It is, without a doubt, a religion for the urban centers, though only partially, which is also the destiny of the other religions in today's world. CandomblÚ could be the religion or the magic for the person who is already fed up with the kind of transcendence made up from reason, science and technology, and who stopped believing in the meaning of a thoroughly disenchanted world that has left magic behind in favour of that efficiency of secular, modern thought and technology. CandomblÚ could be the religion for the person who cannot find in this disenchanted, dismagicized world any sense of social justice sufficiently strong to solve many of the problems that every individual faces over the curse of a lifetime.

 

As CandomblÚ affirms and expands itself as a socially legitimized institution of magical practices, it forms part of a civic movement of multiple aspects in which each group of individuals or even each person is able to construct particular sources of transcendence and explanations that enable them to act in this world in a meaningful way. The pragmatic dimension that CandomblÚ reveals in that it accepts people as they are or imagine themselves, gives it an advantage in the religious market where moralistic religions (such as Catholicism and Protestant denominations) compete for followers, especially in situations where the consumers are not inclined to change their values systems.

 

CandomblÚ also provides its initiated and non-initiated followers with a very particular enjoyment of its Afro-Brazilian esthetics, including the fascination provoked by the cowries game and its way to contact the magical universe of the Ďrý˝Ó. And a client do not have to be member of the religion to enjoy its practices. He or she just pays for the jogo de b˙zios and its propitiatory offerings in order to get help from the African deities in a way widely accepted as a legitimate part of the Brazilian culture. CandomblÚ teaches that each person has his or her own god or goddess who can be worshipped. But no Ďrý˝Ó can be honored before the head of the person is given sacrifice. The head of the human being, which means his or her personality, is the only way to get to the gods. An Yoruban proverb frequently heard at the CandomblÚs says "OrÝ buruku kosi Ďrý˝Ó", which means "there is no Ďrý˝Ó if the head is not good". And CandomblÚ teaches how to make heads good. It makes a great difference in terms of self-esteem.

 

In the contemporary urban society, if the construction of different systems of meaning increasingly depends on the will of the groups and individuals involved, the relevant religious themes may be chosen according to different private preferences. Religion too, is now a matter of preference. The extreme would be if each individual possessed a personal model of religiosity independent of the great "totalizing" religious system that until quite recently characterized the history of humanity (Luckmann, 1987). For this reason, the tribal African gods appropriated by the South American metropolis are no longer gods of the tribe. They are gods of a civilization in which religious and magical meanings came to depend on the subjective choices that each person makes, either alone or in groups. To the initiate, CandomblÚ can also mean the possibility of someone, usually poor and socially marginalized, to have a private god that every one in the community has to honor and praise. In those moments in which the person is ridden as the horse of the god, he or she will be in the center of the barracŃo, the CandomblÚ's stage, to dance alone and be admired and acclaimed by everybody, and sometimes even envied. All night long, the horse of the gods will dance. No one has never seen an Ďrý˝Ó as beautiful as this one.

 

1 Rodrigues, 1935; Bastide, 1978.

2 Motta, 1982; Motta, 1985; Pinto, 1935

3 S. Ferretti, 1986. M. Ferretti, 1985; M. Ferretti, 1993; Eduardo, 1948.

4 Herskovits, 1943; Corrŕa, 1992.

5 Camargo, 1961; Brown, 1987; Concone, 1987.

6 Verger, 1957; Verger, 1985 (a); Verger, 1985 (b).

7 Valente, 1977, S. Ferretti, 1994.

8 Oro, 1993; Frigerio, 1989; Prandi, 1991 (b).

9 Prandi, 1996; Bascom, 1969; Braga, 1988.

10 Verger, 1985 (a); Prandi, 1991 (a); Augras, 1983; LÚpine, 1981; LigiŔro, 1993.

 

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