A Candomblé community
In Brazil, a person with an interest in Candomblé will inevitably also have attended services in Catholic churches, and very likely Protestant ones also. He or she will typically frequent a number of different terreiros before making a commitment to one in particular, or taking the further step of preparing for initiation as a filho or filha-de-santo. Brazilian religious culture is dense and populous, a forest of belief. Syncretism can be seen as a response to this plenitude (as, in opposite fashion, can Protestantism, with its exclusionary principle). In individual lives, faiths may be intertwined; thus the variation between cults is complicated by variations in the closeness of the relation that individual adherents have to the beliefs and practices of Candomblé, and to the world outside the terreiro.
Despite its elaborate preservation of old-established ritual, the Candomblé terreiro is by no means a closed community. One of its sources of its social importance and local political strength is its incorporation of individuals of different sorts and conditions into the life of the terreiro. The core personnel are the mãe or pai-de-santo and his or her filhos-de-santo, that is, those whom the mãe or pai-de-santo has initiated into the religion. Some of these are resident in the terreiro, in the larger terreiros at least. Most visit at weekends, for festas of Candomblé.
Among both residents and visitors there will be initiates who have the capacity to enter trance, becoming possessed by orixás, and those who do not. The drummers in a terreiro, for instance, though they orchestrate the trance, do not themselves become possessed. There are also the ogãs (ogans) and mogbas, the patrons of the terreiro, and the padrinhos, or sponsors, of individual filhos-de-santo. Some of the patrons and sponsors will be chosen with their comparative wealth or influence in mind. They may therefore come from different social milieu than the filhos-de-santo. All these individuals participate in a communal rite. Only some of them live permanently in the terreiro, but it is principally there that they meet their fellow adherents.\
Offering to Iemanja, divinity of the sea, at Lauro de Freitas in 1972, the year of the founding of Ilê Axé Opô Aganjú. Photograph by Pierre Verger.
Further towards the periphery of Candomblé, but crucial to its economic survival, are the walk-in clients of the pai or mãe-de-santo. Such people, from all classes and conditions of life, aficionados of Candomblé or not, seek consultations for purposes of divination or magical intervention (in their own lives or those of others). They may know very little of the religion and probably do not attend the festivals of the orixás, even though these are open to all comers. Candomblé has a different meaning for each of these categories of person, and plays a different part in their lives.
The relation between Christianity and Afro-Brazilian religions—and the wider significance of the African cultural heritage in Brazil—are matters of discussion beyond the terreiro (and beyond the seminar room). In Bahia, where Brazilians of largely African descent make up the greater part of the population, Afro-Brazilian religions have now become explicit symbols of racial affirmation. In the current era of democratization in Brazil, this has given a new, specifically electoral dimension to the political importance they have always had, even in times of persecution. The current folklorização of Bahian Candomblé—the promotion of its picturesque elements in order to encourage tourism, the staging of sacred dances for commercial interest—is routinely criticised by adherents of the religion as an act of cultural appropriation, though they also may participate in some aspects of its appropriation as a public relations exercise.
At the same time, representations of the orixás are incorporated more openly into secular culture, in carnival floats or blocos and in the rhythms and lyrics of popular music. Sometimes this is in a spirit of popular devotion, sometimes as part of a rhetoric of liberation from economic and cultural domination by white Brazilians. Among Catholic clergy, the influence of liberation theology and the renewal of commitment to pastoral activity among the poor has led to greater interest in the values of folk religion, both popular Catholicism and Afro-Brazilian cults. The presence of Candomblé has therefore become more visible, its prestige greater. This is a source of strength, but it may also be seen as a new kind of appropriation, a subtle transformation in the tenor of life in the terreiros and their relation to the wider world.
Outside the barracão at Ilê Axé Opô Aganjú, in Lauro de Freitas. A double-headed axe of Xangó hangs above the door. The pai-de-Santo, Balbino Daniel de Paula, is at the centre of the picture wearing a red and yellow cloth and a string of blue beads.
At Ilê Axé Opô Aganjú
My own experience of Candomblé—the principal source of the observations above and those that follow—is based on sporadic participatory fieldwork during two periods of residence in Salvador, in 1986 and 1987. Although I came to Bahia with a background of research in Africa, my enquiries were shaped by a wider project of ethnographically-informed reportage, which included accounts of different kinds of communities in various parts of Brazil, thus relations between Candomblé and other religious systems were of primary interest to me. I attended festas-de-santo and other rituals at various terreiros, but particularly Ilê Axé Opô Aganjú (or Ilé Àșę Òpó Aganju)—the House of the Power of Xangó—a Ketu-Nagô terreiro, where I also lived for a time in 1986, in Lauro de Freitas, outside Salvador.
The pai-de-santo and founder of the terreiro in Lauro de Freitas, Balbino Daniel de Paula, is a filho-de-santo—an initiate—of Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá, one of the longest-established Candomblé houses in Salvador. The similarity with the name of his own terreiro—Ilê Axé Opô Aganjú—is a reminder of this institutional lineage. Balbino represents, therefore, at least as far as ritual practice goes, traditional Candomblé, that is to say, the least syncretic, and in Roger Bastide’s sense, the most “African” kind.
Balbino was born in 1940, in Ponta de Areia on the island of Itaparica. In 1959, in Salvador, at Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá, he became a filho de santo of the late Mãe Senhora (Dona Maria Bibiana do Espirito Santo, better known as Mãe Senhora Iyá Nassô). He was, by his own account, the first male initiate at Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá, and from there he holds the title Obaràyí de Xangô. Balbino has had little formal education, but he enjoys, more than most pais-de-santo, extensive contact with Bahian intellectuals who interest themselves in Afro-Brazilian culture: writers, artists, musicians and researchers. Balbino has also visited West Africa twice, a fact that gives him additional authority in the world of Candomblé.
His terreiro, in Rua Sakete, in Vila Praiana, a neighbourhood of Lauro de Freitas, was established in 1972. It is situated in a spacious enclave of trees, with numerous shrines dedicated to individual orixás, and lies in the shadow of a high, white sand-dune. The terreiro is secluded but populous, with some half-dozen families and as many individuals in permanent residence. Though twenty kilometres distant from Salvador, it is regularly visited by people from the city. The latter included, during the period of my stay, local politicans, well-known popular musicians, a Catholic priest, the members of a Dahomean cultural delegation, and a desembargador or appellate judge, from Bauru, in Brazil’s far south-west. Also, of course, ogãs, mogbas, clients and non-resident filhos-de-santo. Ilê Axé Opô Aganjú was thus a suitable vantage-point for monitoring the everyday life of Candomblé, the gossip world of a terreiro, and the sporadic discourse concerning its relation to other religions.
There is nothing visibly syncretic about Balbino’s terreiro. A hut by the gate conceals the phallic emblem of Exú, the trickiest of Yoruba deities, guardian of paths and crossroads. Exú is a mercenary divinity, often invoked in rituals of magical vengeance and self-aggrandisement that are a significant part of most pais-de-santo’s day-to-day business. For this reason Exú was long identified by Christian missionaries in Brazil as Satan (in the iconography of Umbanda, Exús are represented as red homunculi with horns and tails). These days, it tends to be pentecostalists who make an explicit identification of Exú with the Devil: in this extreme view, all Afro-Brazilian spirits are demons of one kind or another.
But the figure of Exú does reveal a crucial lack of fit between the moral systems of Candomblé and all forms of Christianity, one that no system of correspondences can bridge. The Candomblé vision of the world is permeated by magical practice; it does not make the same dichotomy between good and evil as the Christian tradition; its deities are not paragons, but have both good and bad characteristics in the manner of the gods of ancient Greece and Rome. Its public rituals deal not with guilt and the forgiveness of sins, but with the ecstatic transcendence of jealousy and competition through trance-based dance performance.
In Balbino’s terreiro, the main public celebrations, the festas-de-santo, took place in the barracão, a large building opposite the main gate. The ceremonies in the barracão involve trance-possession—on the part of those devotees susceptible to trance—by one or other of these gods. (They exclude Exú, who is not normally among the spirits that a devotee becomes possessed by, though Balbino did have one filho-de-santo who became, exceptionally, a son of Exú). The orixá is summoned by drums to take over (pegar) the body of his or her filho-de-santo or filha-de-santo. A possessed person dancing is regarded as the embodiment of the god: in the trance, the devotee’s comportment changes, often dramatically, to correspond to the characteristics of the orixá—who may well be of a different age and/or gender. The filha-de-santo or filho-de-santo often has little subsequent recollection of his or her trance, even though this can last several hours and involve violent exertion.
In many terreiros, though not in Balbino’s, these ceremonies occur under the gaze of Catholic saints, as described above. At Ilê Axé Opô Aganjú the saints were present, but confined to the reception-room in Balbino’s house, along with secular memorabilia.) Participants in festas-de-santo, which usually occur on Saturday nights, see no contradiction in attending mass the following day, though my impression was that few did so. If asked they will almost invariably describe themselves as Catholics.
Thus in the census for Lauro de Freitas, the municipality where Balbino’s terreiro was situated, 32,741 out of a population of 35,431 declared themselves Catholics and only 68 as adherents of an Afro-Brazilian religion. The figure was clearly misleading: more than this number of filhos-de-santo came to any given festa at Ilê Axé Opô Aganjú alone—and there were half-a-dozen other terreiros in the near vicinity. The reasons for the underestimate are both historical and conceptual. Until a generation ago discretion was advisable in revealing a connection with Afro-Brazilian religions—hence the correspondence between saints and orixás—and even today Catholicism is associated with the apparatus of the state, including census-takers. The census also records only one religious affiliation, whereas frequenters of the Candomblé may have more than one. When I asked Balbino about this, he explained to me, fingering the gold crucifix he wore around his neck, that for the purposes of the census, he was a Catholic himself.
“Everyone is a Catholic,” he said. “We are born Catholics. We are Catholics first, before we become filhos-de-santo. It is our birthright (direito de nascimento). It is like citizenship (cidadania).”
In this instance Balbino spoke of Catholicism as though it were a secular power rather than a rival religion, as though it were the religious manifestation of the state. For him, acknowledging its claims on the inhabitants of the terreiro was not so much a religious observance as it was a rendering unto Caesar.
Catholicism can also function in a significant way, however, as a ritual supplement to Candomblé. Despite the elaborate ceremonials of Afro-Brazilian cults, there is an absence of formal rites of passage for two important life events: birth and marriage. The second of these is of lesser importance: weddings are costly; most filhos-de-santo are poor and few of them are formally married. (Terreiros, though, do offer a metaphorical family for those who fall outside conventional kinship units; for this reason and others they attract a high proportion of single mothers and gay people of both sexes).
Baptism, however, is considered a necessity. I asked the mother of a new-born child, who was herself a filha-de-santo of Iansã, one of the most assertive of the female orixás, why she wanted her child baptized.
She replied, puzzled and amused, “Because I don’t want him to grow up pagan (pagão).”
She did not mean, of course, that she did not want her child to participate in the religion of the orixás. He would doubtless be initiated when his orixá manifested itself. Rather, she wanted him to have the best of the two worlds, since he had to live in both. Baptism was a mark of citizenship, of status in the world outside the terreiro.
At death, a filho-de-santo may be subject to Catholic and Candomblé rituals at the same time. An extended Candomblé ceremony, the axexê, coincides with the Christian burial, but it does not supplant it. In 1986, when Mãe Menininha of Gantois, the most celebrated of all mães-de-santo in Brazil, died, she was interred with some pomp in a Catholic cemetery; and a mass was sung over her grave at the same time that the axexê —the Candomblé death ritual—began in her terreiro. Such ritual simultaneity, it should be stressed, is an example not so much of syncretism but of complementarity, or, to use Peter Fry’s term, symbiosis. Only at a single point in the funerary ceremonies do the two religions come together.
Carlinhos, a young man who was a mogba of Ilê Axé Opô Aganjú, died an untimely death of AIDS in 1987. His axexê lasted a week. The lengthy ritual concluded with a silent prayer, eyes closed and hands together in the Christian manner. Afterwards, I asked Balbino who we had been praying to.
“Deus,” he said. “God,”
“But which god?” I asked.
“The god who is up there”, said Balbino, laughing at me and pointing skywards.