Friday, June 02, 2006


Candomblé is a Brazilian religion of African origin with over two million adherents.
Also called Macumba (though some see this as a pejorative term used only by non-adherents) in the Rio and Sao Paolo areas, it took root when black slaves were shipped to Brazil from the 16th century onwards bringing with them the worship of African orishas. The orisha or Orixá is commonly translated as "god". A more accurate representation would perhaps be "saint". Candomblé posits a monotheistic supreme being -- usually referred to as Olodumaré -- with the orixás being called upon as intermediaries between humans and God, much as Christians will pray for a saint's intercession on their behalf.

Derived from the Yoruba people of West Africa, Candomblé is a form of Vodun (“spirit”). Vodun is more commonly known as voodoo by the greater public. Vodun is the Haitian equivalent and like Candomblé can be directly traced to the West African Yoruba people who lived in the 18th and 19th century Kingdom of Dahomey (modern day Togo, Benin and Nigeria.) Its roots date back 6,000 years in Africa. The image of Vodun has been greatly tarnished by the imagination of Hollywood whose version of voodoo involving violence, bizarre rituals and pins in dolls has little basis in reality.

The home of Candomblé is the ancient Brazilian capital of Salvador (in Bahia state). The Spanish were the first Europeans to arrive here under the command of Vicente Yáñez Pinzón. On January 26, 1500, he landed to the north of Bahia, near present-day Recife. The Portuguese arrived later that year with the fleet of Pedro Álvares Cabral, on his way to India before heading east around Africa's Cape of Good Hope. Cabral claimed the area for Portugal. Salvador became Brazil's main sea port and was the colonial capital of Portuguese Brazil until 1763. The Portuguese set up a governorship for Brazil in the middle of the 16th century and institutionalised slavery to support the massive sugar plantations that proved to be the wealth of Brazil. Thus started a 300 year tradition of slavery. An estimated 1.3 million slaves were imported into Salvador before slavery was abolished in 1888, double the number of slaves imported into the US. The salves kept their African culture alive through their religion.

Candomblé is a syncretic religion and has incorporated many elements from Christianity. During the slavery days, the African religions were banned and often existed under the cover of Catholicism. Christian devotional altars were used in early slave houses to hide African cult icons and ritual objects. Although the practice came into the open after the end of slavery, some of the Christian aspects were maintained. Candomblé temples display crucifixes and many Orishas are identified with Catholic saints.

Although syncretism still seems to be prevalent, in recent years the lessening of religious and racial prejudices has given rise to a fundamentalist movement in Candomblé, that rejects the Christian elements and seeks to recreate a purer form based exclusively on its African roots.

Candomblé shares many characteristics with Umbanda, another syncretic Brazilian syncretic religion worshiping African spirits with some European influences. Apart from their geographic isolation, (Umbanda is more prevalent in Southern Brazil) Umbanda’s chief distinguishing characteristic from Candomblé is the added ingredient of spiritism also called Kardecism from its chief initiator, the 19th century Frenchman, Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail whose pseudonym was Allan Kardec. Besides coining well-known terms such as "reincarnation" and "spiritism", Kardec pioneered the conduct, documention and publication of scientific, evidence-based, systemized studies of the paranormal.

Though both religions have been legal since 1950 in Brazil, recent years have seen evangelical Christian groups attempting to persecute practitioners of Candomblé and Umbanda, sometimes with violence. Practitioners of these religions have taken cases to national courts and achieved a measure of success.

Candomblé seeks harmony with nature. Their ‘temple’ is the terreiro, led by a high priestess, (called a ‘mães de santo’ mother of saints) or priests, (called pais de santo father of saints). Similar to the liturgical cycle of the Catholic Church, adherents worship the pantheon of orixás in an annual cycle. In the religious ceremonies, they dress in the colours of the orixás and place food at the altar before singing and dancing choreographed steps to a sacred drumbeat. The highlight of the ceremony is the epiphany, the moment of possession, when the orixá takes over the believer's body.

This culture has given Black Brazil its heart. As Salvadorean Oni Kòwé puts it “The whites want to be the privilege is to be white with a Negro soul, to have ancestry, "to have a plot, a history with the Saint".

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