Syncretism and Candomblé:
The syncretic aspect of Candomblé, often misunderstood even in Brazil, is because the enslaved Africans were forced to display Christian symbols to their captors. This systematic oppression strongly influenced how the African sects displayed themselves, often masquerading the African Deities for catholic saints, to preserve their faith however possible.
Enslaved Africans were thought to be evangelized and Catholic, as it was very important to preserve the appearance of Christianity according to Portuguese oppression.
The Catholic method of praying to saints was used as a way of masquerading the Órixas faith within Portuguese oppression. As an example, Yemanjá, the Sea deity, and mother of most Orixas, was worshiped through Holy Mary figures, while the king of Ketu, Óxossi was worshipped through Saint George. There were even figures covertly concealed inside the sculptures of Catholic saints. This was a way that Catholic saints were connected with Candomblé’s Deities, to avoid persecution and keep the tradition. This is a culture that continued through Umbanda, another Brazilian Afro-Religion, and while individuals from Candomblé still worship Catholic Saints, within most Traditional Candomblé there is no more insertion of any Christian Saints.
The modern insertion of Catholic saints and Christian philosophies is not part of Candomblé. In Brazilian Afro-Religion, it is the Umbanda tradition that kept catholic saints and the figures of Jesus within their sect.
Candomblé still traditionally preserves respect for the Christian religion, however, the last forms of catholic idols and representations in traditional candomblé are fading, as one of the greatest Yalórixas, the Priestess Mãe Stella de Oxóssi once said:
“Previously when we initiated in Candomblé, and in certain periods of the year, it was traditional to go to the church. After I became responsible for this house, this has stopped, because it is a custom that is not needed anymore, we move on with the times”
Candomblé is however not a single cultural expression, there are many different origins and traditions within. It was, since its origin, practiced in different areas based upon the ethnic origins of the enslaved communities.
While there are several expressions of Afro-Religions in Brazil, which fall outside Candomblé, there are three main branches in Candomblé, each forming a stronger tie to an individual African culture, while also adopting characteristics from other influences.
These are discerned from most other forms of Afro-Brazilian faith because they use African languages to communicate with the spiritual entities.
The main branches of Candomblé:
- The Ketu or Alaqueto branches, of strong Yoruban ties;
- The Savalu, Jeje and Mahi branches, of strong Gbé ties (Ewe, fon, Mina and Jeje);
- The Angola branch, of strong Bantu(Kikongo and Kimbundu) ties.
Mãe Senhora, former head of a Ketu tradition house, Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá
In Brazil, there are several forms of Afro-Brazilian Candomblé faith, which are commonly called nations. Some terms describe them broadly, such as “Macumba”, which is also used pejoratively by many who are not from the culture. The Afro-Brazilian faith is expressed in many ways, and there are those which became heavily syncretized, for example, the Umbanda numerous variations.
Afro Brazilian Sects:
Tambor de Crioulo (Mina and Fon)
Umbanda (Afro-Brazilian, indigenous and Christian)
Candomblé de Caboclo
The caboclo is a special entity, which is not from African cosmology but can be seen in many Traditional Candomblés, on specific occasions. It is a syncretic form of the Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian people and is often the only time in a Candomblé where you can hear Portuguese chants, as, unlike African entities, the Caboclos understand Portuguese, being part of the Brazilian ancestrality.
There is a strong devotion to the caboclo entities in Brazil, mainly because of the ties to other cultural manifestations, such as Samba de Roda, which is often played for the Caboclos.
To learn more about how samba was made check our Samba Guide, covering origins and some of the dozens of different varities and styles of Samba.
Complete Samba Guide
The use of Portuguese in the Candomblé de Caboclo is also a strong factor in the adoption of the Afro-Brazilian population to the Caboclos. They are present also in the Umbanda variations, banding together in the “enchanted” entities, those born in Brazil.
Good and Evil in Candomblé
Unlike Monotheistic religions, Candomblé does not imply direct good and evil from actions. There is instead the strong aspect of destiny and fate. An individual’s destiny does not fall within dualisms, as in whether somebody is good or bad. There are instead the possibilities of multiple accomplishments for each one, and the guidance of the entities makes it possible for each one to follow his objectives.
There is a notion of justice, as in Xangô, the Órixá of justice, but this does not mean that actions in Candomblé suffer from the dichotomies of western thinking.
One strong aspect of the Yoruba influence on Candomblé religion is the Merindinlogun, literally sixteen. Sixteen are the Odu`s, Yoruba for destiny, which represents the situations and paths in life, based on the Ifá divination. This divination is made by a Babalorixá, or Yálorixa, the highest-ranking priest or priestess using the cowry shells, “Búzios” in Portuguese, to appoint the Odu which is guiding a moment or situation of an individual in Candomblé.
The amount of Open Búzios indicates which Odú is in one’s way.
- One búzio aberto – Ocarã
- Two búzios open – Ejiocô
- Three búzios open – Etaogundá
- Four búzios open – Irossum
- Five búzios open – Oxê
- Six búzios open – Obará
- Seven búzios open – Odi
- Eight búzios open – Ejionilê
- Nine búzios open – Ossá
- Ten búzios open – Ofum
- Eleven búzios open – Ouarim
- Twelve búzios open – Ejilaxeborá
- Thirteen búzios open – Ejilobom
- Fourteen búzios open – Icá
- Fifteen búzios open – Obeogundá
- Sixteen búzios open – Ejibê
The Orixas are the entities of the Ketu Tradition, Voduns, of the Jeje and Gbé Tradition, and Nkissis of the Angola Tradition. They offer connections between the realm of the spirit (Orum) and the physical, the earth (Aiye), as well as each Ilê Axé, or terreiro, the houses of worship, has its very own Orixas. Each Candomblé practitioner is connected with their own Orixa, Vodun, or Nkissi.
Orí means head in the Yoruba tradition, the origin of the Axé, life’s energy. The Oríxas are the deities that safeguard the head of each one, protecting their destiny. Each Orixa is related to a specific temperament, an element of nature, a type of food, and the day of the week.
Ideas and Practices
Candomblé beliefs and knowledge are entirely oral. Most types of Candomblé are believers in Olódùmarè, a supreme being, and creator of the universe. The story of the creation and the Orixas tales are called Itáns. Itáns are the orals pieces that connect philosophy, history, and knowledge. They have passed on through generations, and are the main source of knowledge kept within the Candomblé Tradition. Each Òrixa has multiple Itáns, each revealing a small bit of history.
One Itan example:
In the time of the ancestors in Africa, the Orixas lived on earth, which are divided into sixteen, each one representing an element of nature.
Among the female Orixas, the Yabas, there was Iansã, who was the queen of lightning and thunder. The orixás gather every year at parties, and one day she invites Omolu to a party in the city of Oyo. Omolu is a son of Nanãn and raised by Iemanjá, a great sorcerer and owner of the land; and Oyo is the kingdom of Xangô, a man and warrior who became king and Orixá of Justice.
Iansã and her companion Omolu traveled together to Xangô’s party, in the city of Oyo, to participate in the annual party that Xangô offers.
Arriving at the party Omolu and Iansã meet with all the nobility of the city of Oyo. There was a vast banquet, coming from the hunts and plantations of the kingdom. The two Órixas enter the party together and soon realize the looks directed at Omolu. All present, dressed in the finest cloths in the kingdom, look at Omolu with contempt, since the clothes he wore were made of the simplest straw from the coast and whelks. Soon the host, King Xangô, calls Iansã in the corner and tells her:
-Iansã, why did you bring this ragged man to my party?
Omolu couldn’t help but notice that Xangô was talking about him, and indignant at the treatment he receives after traveling all the kingdom of Oyo, he leaves the party.
When leaving the party, Omolu goes back to his land and following his path the plants and fruits of the land of Oyo begin to rot. Iansã who stays at the party takes Xangô to see the result of Omolu’s passage, telling him:
-Look what you did Xangô. This man you called ragged is Omolu, owner of the land, of all plagues and cures. If I were you, Xangô, I would apologize to him.
Xangô, although proud, realizes the gravity of his mistake, and then waits for the right moment: the party in the lands of Omolu. This party fed all the poor in the region of Empé, in the city of Tapa. The festival takes the name of Olubajé, which means ‘feeding the people’.
When he enters the party, everyone looks at Xangô, commenting and saying: “The king of Oyo is there”. He goes directly to Omolu and apologizes for the way he treated him, saying that he is always welcome in his kingdom. Omolu humbly accepts the apology, and Xangô then withdraws from the party.
That’s why at Xangô’s party, Omolu arrives but doesn’t stay, and at Omolu’s party, Xangô arrives but doesn’t stay either.
In Brazil it was African worship was prohibited as they were thought to be connected with rebellions. Candomblé was banned and those of the faith were persecuted by the police. There are many histories of important Candomblé figures who lived in Salvador and had to flee from police persecution, including Tia Ciata, who brought Samba to Rio de Janeiro. It had not been until the 1970s that Candomblé was legislated and also public praise was admitted in Brazil, after the influence of many important Candomblé dignitaries.
You can learn more about Brazilian Rhythms and how they were influenced by Candomblé in our Guide to Brazilian Rhythms!
Brazilian Rhythms Guide
Candomblé expanded significantly over the centuries, reaching most regions of Brazil. The great migrations in the 20th century from Bahia and the Northeastern states of Brazil are where most of the Afro-Brazilian culture reached the other regions of Brazil. There are now Several thousand Terreiros spread all over Brazil, and even outlying countries, such as Uruguay and Argentina.
It is however common that the further they are from the original points the more distorted they have become from the main branches. That said even in the oldest regions of Candomblé, there is no Pure Candomblé as the different mixes present in each region gave birth to a singular cultural tradition, of many unique expressions.
Candomblé followers still suffer from much prejudice. Many use terms such as Macumba, originally the name of a Drum, as pejoratives for rituals, and any symbols relating to Candomblé. With the rise of Neo-Pentescotal churches there were many persecutions within communities, with even cases where organized crimes have evicted Candomblé heads from their worship centers.
The role of Candomblé inside the communities, be the rural, or urban such as the Favelas, is to preserve the African descendant memory, and support the community. Synthetizing what is Candomble in its core, we can say it is a spiritual, ancestral resistance movement.
According to the late Alberto de Omolu, the previous religious head of our Candomblé house, Ilê Axé Oya Ominide, Candomblé is about:
“Essence, energy, and perseverance.”