Candomblé is one of the oldest and most popular Afro-Brazilian spiritual traditions. Created by enslaved Africans and their descendants, the religion emerged in late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century northeastern Brazil, particularly around the port city of Salvador, Bahia. Candomblé combines cosmologies and ritual practices from West and Central African sources with elements developed in the New World matrix of slavery, interactions with Native Americans and Europeans, and reconstructed meanings of identity and lineage. Much of the religion's historic and contemporary meaning can be attributed to its role as an instrument of resistance and transformation in the lives of black women and men who draw upon its resources to sustain the deepest sources of their humanity in the midst of great personal and collective trauma.
Fundamentally, Candomblé is a religion of balance and reciprocity that emphasizes the interconnectedness of all forms of life. Humans are recognized as part of a larger community of being that includes ancestors, the unborn, the entire natural world, and the world of the spirits. Most collective and personal rites within the tradition are related to addressing imbalances and nurturing the axé (life force or spiritual force) that enables healthy interactions among all elements of the created universe.
Candomblé is a hierarchical, initiatory religion with little moral dichotomy of good versus evil but with a strong ethical sense based in African values of reciprocity and ancestral obligation. There are six major divisions within the tradition, organized as ethno-liturgical "nations": Ketu, Ijexá, Jêje, Angola, Congo, and Caboclo. In their initial manifestations in the nineteenth century, the African nations of Candomblé represented the Yoruba (Ketu and Ijexá), Dahomean/Ewe (Jêje), and Bantu (Congo and Angola) ethnic identities of many of the individuals associated with ritual communities. Over the course of the development of the religion, as larger numbers of Brazilian-born participants entered the ceremonies, the identity of Candomblé nations became a liturgical designation and not a genetic or clan-based one. The Caboclo Candomblé is an additional division that specifically and extensively cultivates Amerindian ancestral spirits in addition to those of African origin. It is a more recent development, dating from the early twentieth century and prominently incorporating Brazilian national symbols such as the country's flag, its green and yellow colors, and the use of Portuguese as the language of ceremony.
Because of the strength and prestige of Yoruba-based candomblés, the Yoruba term orixá (orisha ) has become the most common descriptor of the phenomenon of spiritual forces or divinities cultivated in the religion. Nonetheless, in the contexts of their own rituals, the Ewe and Bantu nations of Candomblé call the spirits by other names—voduns (among the Jêje) and nkisis (among the Congo and Angola communities).
In Brazil, the most commonly cultivated orixás of the Yoruba pantheon are: Exú, orixá of the crossroads who controls communication between human beings and the world of the spirits; Ogun, warrior god of metals and the forest who is the path-breaker; and Oxôssi, ancient head of the Kêtu kingdom, a hunter orixá characterized by mental acuity. Omolû or Obaluaiye is orixá of the earth and of both illness and healing. Ossâin is guardian of herbs and herbal wisdom, and Oxumarê is the serpent deity associated with life cycles of renewal. Another warrior energy, Logun-Ede, is son of Oxôssi and Oxum and shares their qualities. Xangô, the much beloved ancient king of Oyo, is orixá of fire, justice, storm, and friendship. Oxum is the orixá of sweet waters, creativity, beauty, and abundance. The energetic female warrior orixá Oyá, or Iansã, is associated with storm, transformation, and the spirits of the dead. Iemanjá, patroness of salt water, is an orixá of maternal strength and protection. Obá is another river deity, also a fierce female warrior energy; and Euá, a river nymph orixá, is associated with youthful grace and a fighting spirit. An ancient female energy, Nana Burukû, is orixá of still, muddy waters. Oxalá, father of the other orixás, is the principle of peace and protection. Like the Hindu deities of India, orixás in Afro-Brazilian Candomblé are recognized as having several different avatars, or manifestations, often of different ages, and each representing a slightly different variation on the general theme.
While each human being is believed to have been born under the guidance of a specific grouping of orixás, most are not required to do anything special to cultivate or develop their connection to these spiritual forces. An occasional offering of flowers, food, or even simple prayers is often sufficient to acknowledge and sustain the innate relationship between a person and his or her patron deities. For others, however, the responsibility is much greater. These are the adoxu, the devotees who have been "called" by the orixá to be their embodied human presence in the world, their priestesses and priests, their servants. These women and men are understood to have a ritual obligation to devote significant portions of their lives to the
spiritual work of the orixás, incorporating the spirits' energies into their bodies, being the "voice" or the "presence" of the orixá in the human community, and carrying out the work of healing, reconciliation, blessing, and the balancing of personal, social, and environmental inequalities and instabilities. This responsibility, for which devotees are specially prepared through an extensive, years-long initiation process, is often seen as an inheritance from ancestors who also shared their connection to a particular orixá.
Candomblé ritual communities, or terreiros, exist in a variety of forms. In older or more well-off sites, there are often a series of buildings that include "houses" for the deities; living and cooking space for members of the community; a large hall, or barracão, for conducting ceremonies; and both garden and uncultivated spaces outdoors for essential plant resources. Newer and more urban terreiros, and those with fewer material means, are often incorporated into the homes of religious leaders where the living room may be used as the barracão and bedrooms may be combined with altar spaces.
The Brazilian national census of 2000 indicates that devotees of Afro-Brazilian religions constitute three percent of the country's total population. Scholars of the religions, however, have calculated the figure at closer to eight percent. Most Candomblé ritual communities involve a small number of participants, generally no more than fifty, except in the case of the oldest "mother houses" of Bahia from which descend many terreiros around the country. Ceremonies open to the public may attract several times the number of actual members, and nonmembers may frequent the terreiro for spiritual advice and ritual assistance on a wide range of matters, including physical health, psychological stability, personal relationships, financial difficulties, and employment issues. Extensive traditions of ritual and medicinal pharmacopoeia support trabalhos (spiritual healing works), and many new adepts, as well as clients, are attracted to the religion by the reputation of priestesses and priests for successful intervention in problematic cases.
When a priest or priestess is approached, the first step is often a consulta, a private divinatory session, in which the religious leader will consult the orixás by means of the jogo de búzios, an oracle of cowrie shells. Reading and interpreting the shells, the mãe or pai de santo diagnoses the problem and, determining if it is within the purview of the religion's resources to be addressed, prescribes a remedy. This may be as simple as an herb bath and an offering of flowers or food at the seashore or as complex as the eventual need for a full initiation into the priesthood.
Most terreiros follow a fairly strict organization of ritual responsibilities according to gender and length of initiation. At the pinnacle of the terreiro leadership is the mãe or pai de santo— the head priestess or priest—whose authority is unchallenged in the context of the ritual community. Other titles for these individuals depend on the specific ritual language and tradition of each house: iyalorixá and babalorixá (mother and father of the orixás ) are terms used in the Yoruba-based candomblés; nenguankisi and tatankisi (mother and father of the nkisi ) are used in the Congo and Angola candomblés; and doné and doté (chief priestess and chief priest of the voduns) in Jêje candomblés. Initiated members of the communities are filhos and filhas de santo (children of the saint).
The majority of Candomblé devotees are women, and some terreiros have a longstanding tradition of exclusively consecrating women as supreme leaders of the community. Indeed, the place of women as utmost ritual authorities in many terreiros is a distinguishing characteristic of the religion. Candomblé communities have often been recognized as "privileged" women's spaces in Brazilian society.
The central rites of Candomblé are a series of initiations, periodic reinforcements of the spiritual energies of both devotees and orixás, and a cycle of annual ceremonies in honor of the orixás. Among the first rituals a new initiate experiences are the banho de folhas (ritual cleansing bath with herbs), limpeza (ritual cleansing with song, prayers, and a variety of animal and vegetable elements passed lightly over the body), lavagem de contas (consecration of beaded necklaces in herb mixtures sacred to the orixás ), and obí com agua, an offering of kola nut and water to the orixá who most closely accompanies each devotee. Other rituals related more directly to the process of initiation, fazer santo (literally, "to make the saint"), are designed to reinforce the spiritual link between devotee and orixá as well as to prepare the new initiate to properly receive and care for the orixá that enters her body in ceremony. The rites associated with initiation, obrigações, are renewed in one-, three-, and seven-year cycles.
Each terreiro conducts a sequence of annual celebrations for the patron orixás of the house. These festas are the major public ceremonies of the religion. Initiated members who receive the orixá circle the barracão in festive ritual dress: lace and embroidered blouses, panes of cloth with stripes or lace designs wrapped around their chests, wide skirts of lush and beautiful fabrics—their fullness accentuated by starched underskirts—and the contas, beaded necklaces in colors and patterns associated with the various divinities. They dance barefoot, in a counterclockwise ring, varying their steps and gestures in accordance with the rhythms played on sacred drums, atabaques: a different rhythm for each orixá. The drums are accompanied by a metal bell, agogô, and songs calling the orixás to join their devotees in the circle of dancers.
After a while, the spirits begin to descend, temporarily occupying the bodies of their adepts. In the moments of transition, some devotees are in noticeable discomfort, clearly demonstrating that the process of sharing their physical being and consciousness with another entity is an immensely taxing effort. Others seem to make the shift almost imperceptibly; under all but the closest observation, the moment of change passes unnoticed. As the orixás arrive, they are ushered out of the barracão and into back rooms where they are dressed in their own ritual clothes, in colors, textures, and designs that clearly identify each—red and white for Xangô; light blue for Iemanjá; raffia palm and burlap for Omolû; white for Oxalá. They re-emerge wearing beaded crowns that cover their eyes. They carry the implements associated with their dramatic and interwoven mythologies—Oxum's mirror and fan; Oyá's horsehair whisk; Ogun's sword and shield. They dance into the small hours of the morning, pausing to receive ritual greetings and to offer hugs and parental caresses (and sometimes a concise word of advice) to members of the community and guests.
In Candomblé, as in most Afro-Brazilian religions, ritual knowledge is primarily transmitted in oral and gestural forms. A popular saying in the religion is "Quem pergunte no Candomblé não aprende." (She who asks questions in Candomblé does not learn.) Knowledge passes as much from hand to hand in the conduct of daily tasks as from mouth to ear. The appropriate comportment in the ceremonial as well as quotidian contexts is one of manifest, corporeal respect for elders and for the orixás. This means that devotees with fewer years of initiation should defer to those who have more. Candomblé ceremony involves an elaborate etiquette of greeting and respect for elders that, even outside of the explicitly ritual context, requires initiates to acknowledge and ask the blessing of their elders and give special prostrated reverence to the chief priestess or priest.
Outside of the hierarchy of individual terreiros, there is no external organizing structure that dictates standards of ritual activity for Candomblé communities. The absence of a larger governing organization means that each ritual community is essentially autonomous. In some states there are licensing bodies to ensure "authenticity" and affirm the training of pais and mães do santo, but these do not set policy. Correspondingly, there is little institutional support for the religions beyond informal (but important) networks of friendship, mutual respect, and the rumors, reports, and inter-terreiro conversations that serve significantly as a kind of standardizing influence, especially among communities of the same "nation."
Most devotees of Afro-Brazilian religion are members of the Brazilian working classes. And although blacks have historically been in the majority as participants and leaders in the religions, beginning in the 1950s, people who claim no African ancestry have increasingly joined the ranks of adepts. In some parts of southeastern Brazil there are ritual communities in which more than half of the members are white. There are also Asians, Europeans, other Latin Americans, and blacks from the United States and the Caribbean who are attracted to Afro-Brazilian religion and who have been integrated into its communities. Candomblé and its sister-traditions continue to provide devotees an alternative space for the cultivation of connection to ancestral sources of strength, healing, and mystic/ritual approaches to the resolution of quotidian problems of modern life. Candomblé also offers access to deeper, more multifaceted, and more respected personal identities, an important resource for individuals who are severely marginalized by the political, racial, and economic structures of a profoundly unequal society.
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rachel e. harding (2005)
Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion of Yoruba, Fon, and Bantu origin developed primarily in the Northeast by African slaves from Nigeria and their descendants. Candomblé may have been introduced as early as the eighteenth century, but it became firmly entrenched in Afro-Brazilian culture in the early nineteenth century, when enslaved members of the Oyo and Dahomey empires flowed into Brazil. The Candomblé community of Engenho Velho in Bahia, perhaps the oldest in Brazil, was founded around 1830. Oral tradition also dates the Casa das Minas of Maranhão to the mid-nineteenth century. "Candomblé" is the term specifically given to the religious traditions developed by Africans from the Gulf of Guinea, but it is often broadly applied to any Afro-Brazilian religion incorporating divination and possession ritual. In the Americas, it is most closely related to Santería, developed in Cuba by slaves from the same regions of West Africa.
Candomblé is based on the principles of harmony and balance between human beings and the forces of nature. All living beings and natural phenomena are considered creations of one supreme god, called Olodumare, and each is made of axe, divine energy. Different complexes of axe make up individual people, as well as phenomena such as rainbows, thunder, and wind. Axe may also take the specialized form of Orixás, deities who personify specific aspects of Olodumare.
In Brazil, orixás are the principal intermediaries between humans and God; ancestor worship was not equally cultivated, although it is an integral part of the religion's African tradition. Through divination and possession rituals, priests communicate with orixás to determine the causes of specific problems, and to find out the steps necessary to correct them. Devotees of Candomblé undergo extensive initiation, during which time they learn the various means of communicating with spiritual forces in order to maintain a harmonious balance of sacred energies.
In the Oyo and Dahomey empires each town worshipped a patron orixá. Some, like Xangô, the royal orixá of the Oyo kings, became popular throughout the entire empire. During the slave trade African towns such as Kêtu and Abeokuta lost large numbers of inhabitants to Brazil. These people brought with them the cults of their orixá, and eventually Afro-Brazilians incorporated the worship of all the major orixás in each community of devotees. Candomblé represents an adaptation of many traditions to the conditions of the New World. Because African slaves were forcibly baptized and converted to Catholicism, they were unable to practice Candomblé openly. They continued to secretly worship African deities by outwardly equating them with Catholic saints in a process of Syncretism.
In Brazil, Candomblé has an important social aspect. Each community is divided into houses (iles), which create new familial relationships among devotees. The senior initiate, traditionally a woman, is considered a spiritual mother (mãe de santo). As head of the household, she is responsible for the spiritual well-being of all the initiates, including the observance of obligations and annual celebrations for the orixás, as well as for the household's material needs. Seniority is based upon the number of years an individual has been initiated, regardless of chronological age. Respect for elders is rigidly observed, as are other values imparted through the social aspect of Candomblé. The distribution of responsibilities, hierarchies, and specific cultural and ritual traditions varies, based on the size and ethnic origins of the house. Many houses identify themselves with the names of African "nations," such as Kêtu, Gege, or Mina. These communities are also known as terreiros or roças, references to the land they occupy. In Brazil, portions of the terreiro are devoted to a specific orixá, where its sacred objects are kept.
Candomblé worship has been traditionally discouraged by supporters of the Catholic Church and other Christian sects. In the 1920s and 1930s police regularly raided terreiros in major cities such as Salvador and Recife, confiscating ritual objects and imprisoning worshippers. Candomblé began to gain broader acceptance in the 1930s, as international scholars convened in two Afro-Brazilian congresses. These academics pressed for the acceptance and appreciation of Candomblé as part of Brazil's African cultural heritage. Simultaneously, Candomblé principles were gaining wider acceptance through the related syncretic religions of Umbanda, and to a lesser extent, Macumba, Caboclo, and Quimbanda. In each of these religions, devotees consult deities or spirits for answers to their problems through divination or possession ritual. Some of these traditions, such as Candomblé Caboclo, originated during slavery through the intermingling of African and indigenous religious rituals.
Candomblé is now practiced openly, although it remains concentrated in its area of origin, the northeastern region. Although traditionalism is a hallmark of most terreiros, innovation can also be seen as Candomblé continues to evolve. Some Candomblé houses maintain ongoing relationships with their counterparts in West Africa and in other communities in the Caribbean and North America where Yoruba-based religion is practiced.
See alsoAfrican-Latin American Religions: Brazil .
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Donald Pierson, Negroes in Brazil: A Study of Race Contact at Bahia (1942).
Edison Carneiro, Candomblés da Bahia, 3d ed. (1961).
Roger Bastide, The African Religions of Brazil: Toward a Sociology of the Interpenetration of Civilizations, translated by Helen Sebba (1978), and O Candomblé da Bahia, 2d ed. (1978).
Gary Edwards and John Mason, Black Gods: Orisa Studies in the New World (1985).
Manuel Querino, Costumes africanos no Brasil, 2d ed. (1988).
Harding, Rachel E. A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2000.
Matory, James Lorand. Black Atlantic Religion: Tradition, Transnationalism, and Matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Parés, Luis Nicolau. A formação do candomblé: História e ritual da nação jeje na Bahia. Campinas: Editora Unicamp, 2006.
Kim D. Butler
An Afro-Brazilian religion, one of several derived from the traditional religions of West Africa. Nagó refers to the West African Yoruban people, many of whom were taken to Brazil as slaves. Yoruban religion survives primarily among the African people of Brazil.
Candomblé is headed by priests and priestesses who are specialists in contacting the orixds, the ancester spirits of the Yoruban people. The orixds are usually identified with natural forces such as thunder, water, and the sea, but are also identified with Roman Catholic saints. One of the leading orixds is Oxalá, who is often identified with Jesus. Worship, which includes spirit possession, drumming, singing, and dancing, occurs in temples called terreiros.
Candomblé is strongest in Bahia, the northeast area of Brazil. In recent decades it has been closely associated with other spirit possession groups such as Umbanda and Spiritism.