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Candomblé

Ilê Axé Iya Nassô Oká – Terreiro da Casa Branca

Candomblé is an Afro-American religion practised chiefly in Brazil but also in adjacent countries. The religion came from Africa to Brazil, carried by African priests who were brought as slaves between 1549 and 1888. The name Batuque is also used, especially before the 19th century when Candomblé became more common. Both words are believed to derive from some Bantu language.

Although originally confined to the slave population, banned by the Catholic church, and even criminalized by some governments, candomblé thrived over four centuries, and expanded considerably since the end of slavery (mid-1800s). It is now a major established religion, with followers from all social classes and tens of thousands of temples. In recent surveys, about 2 million Brazilians (1.5% of the total population) have declared candomblé as their religion. However, in Brazilian culture, religions are not seen as mutually exclusive, and many people of other faiths — up to 70 million, according to some Afro-Brazilian cultural organizations — participate in candomblé rituals, regularly or occasionally. Candomblé deities, rituals, and holidays are now an integral part of Brazilian folklore.

Candomblé may be called Macumba in some regions, notably Rio de Janeiro; however Macumba is also a distinct cult, more akin to European witchcraft. Candomblé should be distinguished from Umbanda, a religion founded in the early 20th century by combining African elements with Kardecism; and from similar African-derived religions in other New World countries, such as Haitian Voodoo, Cuban Santería, and Obeah, which developed independently of Candomblé and are virtually unknown in Brazil.

Table of contents

Nations

Brazilian slaves came from a number of ethnic groups, including Yoruba, Ewe, Fon, and Bantu. Slave handlers classified them by the shore of embarkment, so the relation to their actual ethnicity may be accurate or not. As the religion developed semi-independently in different regions of the country, among different ethnic groups, it evolved into several "sects" or nations (nações), distinguished chiefly by the set of worshipped deities, and the music and language used in the rituals.

The division into nations was also influenced by the religious and beneficent brotherhoods (irmandades) of Brazilian slaves organized by the Catholic Church in the 18th and 19th centuries. These fraternities, organized along ethnic lines to allow preaching in the slaves' native languages, provided a legitimate cover for slave reunions, and ultimately may have aided the establishment of Candomblé.

The following list is a rough classification of the major nations and sub-nations, and their sacred languages:


Beliefs

Candomblé is a spiritualist religion and worships a number of gods or spirits, derived from African deities:

These spirits were created by a supreme God: the Olorun (Olorum) of the Yoruba, Zambi or Zambiapongo of the Bantu, and Mawu of the Fon.

Candomblé deities have individual personalities, skills, and ritual preferences, and are connected to specific natural phenomena (a concept somewhat similar to the Kami of Japanese Shintoism). Every person is chosen at birth by one or more "patron" spirits, identifed by a priest. The spirits (except the supreme Olorum) are "incorporated" by priests during Candomblé rites.

Altogether, the various nations of Candomblé retain fifty or so of the hundreds of deities still worshiped in Africa. There are many similarities between some deities of different nations: e.g. Bantu Kabila, Ketu Oxósse and Jejé Otulu are all hunters and have the same symbolic colors. In Candomblé, however, they are considered different deities.

On the other hand, deities from one nation may be cultuated as "guests" in houses and ceremonies of another nation, besides those of the latter. Some nations assign new names to guest spirits, while some retain the names used in the nation of origin.

Syncretism

Over the centuries Candomblé has incorporated many elements from Christianism. Crucifixes are sometimes displayed in candomblé temples, and the African deities were often identified with specific Catholic saints. This syncretism was in part a reaction to Church-inspired persecution by authorities and slave owners, who viewed Candomblé as paganism and witchcraft. Indeed, there are reports of Christian devotional altars being used in early slave houses to hide African cult icons and ritual objects. Even after the end of slavery, the claim that ritual dances of Candomblé were in honor of Catholic saints was often used, by practitioners and authorities alike, as an excuse to avoid confrontation.

However, religious persecution may not be the only reason for Candomblés syncretism. One should note that syncretism was more natural for polytheist and multi-ethnic Candomblé than for the centralized, strongly monotheistic religions of the Old World. In this regard, it is worth noting that some Candomblé rites have also incorporated local Indian gods — which, to the Church, were just as pagan as the Orixás — because they were seen as the "Orishas of the land". Finally, one should keep in mind that many (if not most) practitioners of Candomblé through the times had not only African roots but European ones as well.

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

Rituals

The candomblé ritual (toque) has two parts: the preparation, attended only by priests and initiates, which may start a week in advance; and a festive public "mass" and banquet that starts in the late evening and ends around midnight.

In the first part, initiates and aides wash and iron the costumes for the ceremony, and decorate the house with paper flags and festoons, in the colors favored by the Orixas that are to be honored on that occasion. They also prepare food for the banquet. Some domestic animals are slaughtered; some parts reserved for sacrifice, the rest is prepared for the banquet. On the day of the ceremony, starting in the early morning, cowrie-shell divinations (jogo de búzios) are performed, and sacrifices are offered to the desired Orixás, and to the messenger spirit (Exú in Ketu).

In the public part of the ceremony, each child-of-saint (medianic priest) invokes and "incorporates" an Orixá, falling into a trance-like state. After recovering from the trance, the priest-spirit performs a dance symbolic of the Orixá's attributes, while the babalorixá or father of saint (leading male priest) sings about the spirit's deeds. The ceremony ends with a banquet.

Candomblé music, an essential part of the ritual, derives from African music and has had a strong influence in other popular (non-religious) Brazilian music styles. The word batuque, for instance, has entered the Brazilian vernacular as a synonym of "rhythmic percussion music".

Temples and priesthood

Ilê Axé Opó Afonjá

Candomblé temples are called houses (casas), plantations (roças), or yards (terreiros). Most Candomblé houses are small, independently owned and managed by the respective higher priests (father- or mother-of-saint). A few of the older and larger houses have a more institutional character and more formal hierarchy. There is no central administration.

Candomblé priesthood is organized into symbolic families, whose members are not necessarily relatives in the common sense. Each family owns and manages one house. In most houses, especially the larger ones, the head of the family is always a woman, the mother-of-saint (ialorixá in Ketu), seconded by the father-of-saint (babalorixá). Some houses have a more flexible hierarchy which allows the father-of-saint to be the head priest.

Admission to the priesthood and progression in the hierarchy is conditioned to approval by the Orixás, possession of the necessary qualities, learning the necessary knowledge, and performance of lengthy initiation rites, which last seven years or more.


Upon the death of a ialorixá, the successor is chosen, usually among her daughters, largely by means of a divinatory cowrie shell game. However the succession may be very disputed or may fail to find a successor, and often leads to splitting or closing down of the house. Only a handful of houses in Brazil have seen their 100th anniversary. Among the oldest that are still extant are Ilé Axé Iyá Nassô Oká (the "White House at the Old Sugarmill"), in Salvador, Bahia, and the Casa das Minas in São Luís, Maranhão (ca. 1796).

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