One of Brazil’s most intriguing aspects is candomblé, a Yoruban religion brought by West African slaves in the 16th century, which continues to thrive today. There are strong similarities with santeria, a syncretic religion blending Catholicism with African beliefs, which I’ve seen in Cuba and, to a lesser extent in the Dominican Republic. On a tropical island, though, it’s a bit different.
Salvador, Brazil’s first capital and still a pulsating hub of African culture, is home to numerous terreiros (simple meeting-halls for candomblé followers); in fact they are said to number well over 1,000, over three times the number of churches. Ceremonies are a whirlwind of rhythmical dance, chanting and music, often ending in spirit-possession for the worshippers, all of whom dress in immaculate white in respect for the gods.
I didn’t have time to see any in Salvador, but while on the island of Boipeba (read my earlier blog here) witnessed the big annual festival of Yemanjá (or Iemanjá). This takes places every February 2 which this year coincided with the full moon, so making a double whammy. Preparations (above) decked out the village with gusto.
Yemanjá, as goddess of the sea, embodies the feminine principle of creation. On an island like this, she therefore has major status among the seven orixas (divinities) who include her daughter, Oya, goddess of the winds. Prolific Yemanjá doubles up as the spirit of moonlight and of course for fishermen she is their patron saint. What a girl!
The day before, a shrine was set up (above) inside a hall on the main street and open to everyone. Dozens of offerings were brought to the goddess’ feet – or rather tail, because the statue had that flick of a mermaid, surrounded by swathes of blue fabric / sea, although not quite sporting the long hair of “foam and crabs” that I had read about. Offerings are supposed to embody feminine vanity – perfume, lipsticks, mirrors – though here, other than traditional flowers, they seemed mainly to be bottles of booze. Beside her a few Catholic statues were reminders of the strength of syncretism in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Something about this scene transported me back to a similar one, far more intense and extreme, that I had seen some 15 years ago: Maximon! This was in a village beside the spectacular Lago de Atitlan in Guatemala, where Maximon was a kind of Mayan pastiche of a drunken priest – a statue dressed in Western-style jacket and hat, with a cigar poked into his mouth. Yet he was worshipped, danced with, and given countless offerings of booze and cigarettes by Mayan males. Some even spent the afternoon drinking and playing cards beside the statue in clouds of copal incense. Most of them, it has to be said, were as legless as their god looked.
Back in Boipeba, Yemanjá was decidedly more saintly and alluring, and her sea-exodus the next day was serious (sober) stuff. Trumpeters and drummers set the rhythm, precisely at 2 o’clock, leading a procession of mainly women with flowers or baskets of offerings. Out in front the statue was carried to a boat decked out in flowers and balloons, into which most of the procession squeezed, or into other boats moored nearby.
In the end the packed flotilla set off, out over the gentle waves, to deposit the goddess where she belonged – in their watery depths. Meanwhile. like Maximon, serious tippling was going on among the male followers who, a few hours later, put-putted back to the harbour. Another year, another statue, and that night a full-moon party to remember on the village square.