Note from BBT: Religions such as Candomblé and Umbanda have long been demonized in Brazil. Although the two religions have certain similarities, there are also differences between the two that make them very distinct. Between the two, the Candomblé represents a more pure form of the Yoruba tradition closely tied to its African origins, while Umbanda mixes elements of non-African origin spirtual/religious influences and even though also tracing its origins to Brazil’s black population descending from Africa, it doesn’t seek to preserve an African cultural patrimony in a “pure” form (Prandi 1998).
Regardless of the differences between the two, they are both equally the target of ridicule, negative connotations, and for Brazilian society in general, are seen as the work of the devil. Due to such misunderstandings, followers of these religions have seen an increase in violent attacks from mostly followers of the Evangelical faith with adherents suffering injuries and seeing their sacred objects and houses of worship destroyed.
Today, Brazil continues a majority Catholic country but the Evangelical faith has been quickly rising in followers. In 2010, surveys showed that Brazilians defining themselves as Catholic represented 64.6% of believers and Evangelic followers being 22.2%. But a new study shows that Catholicism is on the verge of losing its majority status as now 51% of Brazilians claim to be Catholics while those identifying as Evangelicals has grown to 31%.
In general reports, followers of Candomblé and Umbanda are never estimated to be higher than 5% combined, but this low figure could be misleading as adherents of these religions often don’t publicly admit to being followers due to harassment, criticism, stigmatization and repression. But references to the religions and its orixás are widely used among Brazilians, the vast majority of whom don’t claim to practice either religion.
Spend any amount of time on social media and you will come across people, in dealing with whatever challenge in life they may be facing, call upon the force of orixás such as Ogun, Xangô or Iansã.
One of the best examples of the popularity of orixás within the general population is the celebration of Iemanjá throughout Brazil. The biggest festivals are held on New Year’s Eve and Febraury 2nd in which people dress in white and place offerings such as flowers in the ocean to the goddess of the sea.
Throughout the history of Africans in the Americans, Europeans have had a fear of African-origin religions, which is why religions such as Haitian vodun were prohibited on the French colony. The vodun religion was a major force that unified Haitians and led to the revolution starting in late 18th century. One could argue that the vodun was the spiritual force of that revolution. Even being prohibited:
“vodun was indeed one of the few areas of totally autonomous activity for the African slaves. As a religion and a vital spiritual force, it was a source of psychological liberation in that it enabled them to express and reaffirm that self-existence they objectively recognized through their own labor. Vodun further enabled the slaves to break away psychologically from the very real and concrete chains of slavery and to see themselves as independent beings; in short it gave them a sense of human dignity and enabled them to survive.”
Of Yoruba origin, what became Vodun in Haiti and Candomblé in Brazil took on other names and forms in other countries in the Americas in which Africans were transported. According to jeje priest Pai Dansy, of Santo André, São Paulo state, the candomblé and the Haitian voodoo are “practically the same cult”.
The religious leader says that the greatest differences between them are the names of the deities – which in Haiti changed under the influence of the main local language, Creole. In the Candomblé jeje, the deities are even referred to as voduns, rather than orixás. In Brazil today, the religion takes on different names depending on the region. In state of Bahia, it is known as Candomblé, in Pernambuco and Alagoas, it is known as Xangô, in Maranhão and Pará it is Tambor de Mina, while in Rio Grande do Sul it is Batuque and in Rio de Janeiro it is also known as Macumba.
In Brazil, the Candomblé and Umbanda came to take on superstitious meanings in much the same way that Haitian Vodun or Vodou came to be called Voodoo when presented by Western books, theater pieces and films and came to take on connections with “black magic” and “sorcery”. Speaking on Haitian Vodun, Kate Ramsey states that “Arguably no religion has been subject to more maligning and misinterpretation from outsiders over the past century.”
Evangelists would have us believe that Haiti is cursed or that its inhabitants have made a “pact with the devil”. These same stereotypes can be found in relation to Brazilian Candomblé, with Evangelicals playing a leading role in the way these religious expressions are negatively portrayed in society.
When we consider the power that such a cultural practice had on the only successful revolution led by former slaves in the Americas that led to indepedence and the founding of a new country, it is important to analyze and understand how Afro-Brazilian identity has been undermined through the repression as well as appropriation of cultural manifestations such as Candomblé, Capoeira and Samba.
During Brazil’s slavery era, slave owners feared that the practice of religions such as Candomblé would be used to plan slave revolts, which they often did. This led to the prohibition of practices such as drumming, dancing and gatherings at night. In Bahia, repressive slave codes outlawed rituals of the Candomblé and after the 1835 Malê uprising led by Muslims, African culture was severely repressed by state forces as it was believed to promote resistance to slavery.
Having undergone periods of outright prohibition and restriction since its practice began on Brazilian soil, it was only in 1976 that Candomblé became fully legalized but that does not mean it has been fully accepted. The proof of this is the necessity of the creation of law against religious intolerance and the ongoing violent attacks on Candomblé/Umbanda symbols, statues, temples and followers.
Considering the fact that its leaders and followers have managed to keep this religion alive through all of the periods of repression, I thought it would be a good idea to get a brief understanding of the deities known as the orixás and what they represent to believers.
Meet 30 gods of African mythology, their powers and mysteries
African gods are very popular in Brazil. Some are better known and are already part of the Brazilian daily vocabulary. But there are some that only the filho-de-santo (person with a commitment to an orixá) has heard of.
These gods are worshiped by adherents of Afro-Brazilian religions, including candomblé, which emerged in Bahia in the 19th century from African religious traditions brought by enslaved blacks, especially those of Yoruba origin, an ethnic-linguistic group from West Africa. These Yoruba deities (or Nagô) are the orixás, such as Oxalá, Iemanjá, Ogum and Exu. In candomblé, there are more than 200 of them.
Most worshiped orixás in Brazil
Olorum literally means Owner of Heaven (Orum). He is also called Olodumare, although in Afro-Brazilian religions the Supreme God is better known as Olorum. As a great father, he is the creator of the orixás and responsible for the division between the supernatural world, Orum, and the world of men, Aiê.
Oxalá, the Great Orixá, is a very important god in the Yoruba pantheon, as he is the creator of humanity. He is also called Obatalá, which means King of the White Cloth. In addition to the white color, he represents purity and the principle of everything.
Also called Ossanha, Ossaim is the orixá of leaves and known for his ability to invigorate or ward off death through the use of medicinal herbs.
Ogum is the orixá of war, of battles, usually represented with a sword in hand. He is the god of metallurgy, having received from the great father Olodumare the task of governing the iron and all the things that can be done from it. For this reason, the sons of Ogun are linked to iron. In Brazil, Ogum is associated with São Jorge (St. George).
Oxóssi is the hunting orixá. For this reason, whoever is Oxóssi’s son is connected to the bush, to the forest. In general, this orixá is linked to the provision of food and abundance.
Exu is the messenger orixá. In Yoruba myths, there is no relationship between him and evil. The mistaken association between Exu and the devil is very old and goes back to the first contact of Christian missionaries with the Yoruba peoples. Hate and intolerance towards Afro-Brazilian religions stems, to a large extent, from this erroneous view of this orixá.
In the African tradition, Exu is quite different. He is the carrier, communicator or messenger between Earth, Aiê, and Orum, the other world, the home of the gods. In addition, he is the guardian of the doors of the houses and the owner of the crossroads.
Oxumarê is the orixá of the rainbow. According to Yoruba mythology, he is the servant in charge of transporting water from Earth to the Xangô palace, which is in the sky.
Xangô was a person of flesh and blood. Fourth king of Oió, an empire founded in the 15th century in West Africa, where current day Nigeria and Benin are located, was deified after his death. He is the orixá of thunder, exercising dominion over the rains, and also orixá of justice, since as king he was the magistrate responsible for the application of laws in the world of men.
Xangô is known for being an orixá who has many wives, including Iansã and Oxum. His day is Wednesday, the day of justice.
Oxum is the orisha of rivers and springs. She is the goddess of the Oxum River, which is in southwestern Nigeria, in Africa. Just as Iemanjá is the goddess of the seas, Oxum is the goddess of all fresh waters. One of Xangô’s wives is the divinity of beauty and love.
Also called Oiá, she is the orixá of winds, storms and lightning. She is responsible for guiding the dead on their journey to Orum, the world of the gods. For this reason, Iansã is the orixá responsible for the funeral ceremony of the axexê, in which festive offerings are made to the person who has just passed away.
Originally, Iansã is the goddess of the main river in West Africa, Niger, which is born in Guinea and reaches the ocean crossing the territory of Nigeria.
Originally, Iemanjá is the deity of a tributary of the Ogum River, which is born in the state of Oyo, in Nigeria. Later, she became the orixá of that river, being the object of worship of all the Yoruba. According to the sociologist Reginaldo Prandi, author of the book Segredos Guardados, Iemanjá is an orixá who gained power over time, even before arriving in Brazil.
Here, she became the saltwater divinity. She is the queen of the sea, a protective mother of fishermen, revered not only by filhos-de-santo, being perhaps the most popular orixá of the entire African pantheon. In Nagô, her name Yeyé omo ejá means “mother of the fish”.
Want to know more about her and other sea queens? Leia: Iara, Sereias, Iemanjá, Afrodite: conheça as rainhas do mar
Obá is the divinity of the river that bears her name, the main tributary of the Oxum River, in Nigeria. She is one of Xangô’s wives. She represents love and conjugal fidelity.
Orisha of fire and volcanoes, and therefore often confused with Xangô. According to mythology, Aganju is a very old warrior and, like lava from volcanoes, lives deep in the earth, from where he comes out from time to time.
Ibejis are twin orixás, protectors of children. Their symbol is the drum. Because they inhabit the paths, they are given the power to protect the walkers.
Obaluaê or Omulu is the orixá of pests and all contagious diseases. According to the sociologist Reginaldo Prandi, a specialist in Afro-Brazilian religions, the Yoruba devotion to the god Obaluaê is the result of a mixture of different beliefs from other peoples, such as the fom and the nupe, who also had their disease gods.
16. Logum Edé
Logum Edé is the orisha of hunting and fishing. In the genealogy of the gods, he/she is the son/daughter of Oxóssi with Oxum. Logum Edé, according to the myth, lives half the year as a woman, in the water, and the other half as a man, in the forests.
Euá is the orisha of the fountains. She is the mother of the Ibeji twins. One day, Euá took her children to fetch firewood in the middle of the forest and could not find her way back. She implored the Supreme God Olorum to help them and not to allow her children to die of thirst. Then Olorum transformed Euá’s hands and arms into a source of water, which gradually gave rise to a river. With that, the twins were able to quench their thirst and managed to return to the village, where they told the story of the fountain mother.
Oraniã, son of Odudua, is the orisha of the depths of the Earth, also called Lord of the Firm Land.
In Africa, Olocum is the Yoruba deity of salt water, the queen of the sea, since in Brazil she was occupied by her daughter, Iemanjá. Let us remember that in Africa Iemanjá is a deity associated with the Ogum River.
In the Yoruba myth, Olocum gave her daughter a bottle containing a magic potion, telling her to break it in a dangerous situation. This was what Iemanjá did when the king of Ifé and her husband, Olofun, ordered her to be captured because she ran away, due to the tiredness of city life. The magic potion gave rise to a river, which again led her to the sea of her mother, Olocum.
Odudua statue in Osun state, Nigeria.
Odudua is the orixá who created the Earth. In addition to the creation of this world, Odudua is also credited with being the first government on Earth. He is the first sovereign (obá). His name means “Lord of the castle”.
Erinlé is part of the Odés group, which are the hunting orixás. Odé, in Yoruba, means “hunter”. In other words, Erinlé is one of the many hunting orixás worshiped in Africa that, in the Brazilian cities of the 19th and 20th centuries, were either forgotten or grouped around a single orixá, such as Oxóssi, who takes care of food. He is the father of Logum Edé.
Oxaguiã, king of Ejibô, is a god of creation, alongside Odudua and Oxalá. Oxaguiã is the creator of material culture, starting with the pestle, a very important tool in the preparation of food, such as the yam. He is also identified with young Oxalá in many terreiros (houses of worship) throughout Brazil.
If Oxaguiã is identified with young Oxalá, Oxalufã appears to many parents and children of saint in Brazil as the old Oxalá. For this reason, he is usually represented as a stooped elderly man who walks with difficulty. Like Oxalá, his color is white and one of his greatest virtues is wisdom.
Orunmilá or simply Ifá is the orisha of the oracle or god of divination. This is because in Yoruba culture, time is cyclical, which means that what happens in the present or in the future has already happened one day and was experienced by our ancestors and by the orixás. Thus, it is possible to guess the future, based on information from the past.
The Babalaôs are the priests who conduct the divination practices of the Orunmilá oracle.
Onilé literally means Lady of the Earth or even Mãe Terra, Mother Earth. Also known as Aiê, Onilé is the goddess who not only represents but rules our planet. Although not so well known, this goddess is very important, since life itself on Earth depends on her. In times marked by serious environmental problems, the cult of Onilé becomes even more important.
26. Orixá Ocô
Ocô is the orixá of agriculture. His symbol is the wooden staff, with which it appears in all representations. Two of its main characteristics are discipline and determination.
Oquê is the mountain orixá. In Candomblé terreiros, he is known as the orixá of firmness, duration and strength, guardian of all other orixás.
Ajalá is an important creation orixá. His function is the manufacture of the ori, which is the head or the individuality that makes up the spirit of each human being.
The cult of Ajalá has to do with the Yoruba belief in the multiplicity of souls. Instead of a single and indivisible soul, as Jews and Christians believe, human beings would be made up of several souls, including the ori, identified with the head. According to the sociologist Reginaldo Prandi, our destiny and our individual achievements constitute ori, which dies along with our body.
Nanã Burucu is the orixá of the bottom of the lakes. She is the oldest deity in the entire pantheon, having accompanied Odudua during the creation of the Earth. If Oxum is the owner of fresh waters, Nanã is the mother, that is, the one who created them.
She is the orisha of the Otin River, which passes through the state of Osun, in Nigeria. She is another case of a spirit of nature, connected to a certain place (in the case of Optim, to a river) that over the years has become a divinity. In Brazil, she is worshiped as a hunting orixá, daughter of Erinlé.
How were the orixás created?
According to Yoruba mythology, the creator of the orixás and the whole world is Olorum, the Supreme God. There was a time when Heaven and Earth were together, so that men and gods cohabited the same space.
According to the book Mitologia dos Orixás (Mythology of the Orixás), by Reginaldo Prandi, one day, tired of the dirt and neglect of men, Olorum decided to separate Orum and Aiê definitively, keeping the gods from living with human beings. From then on, human beings were prevented from going to Orum, and the gods were prevented from going to Earth.
After a while, the gods were sad and looked for Olorum. They wanted to be able to live with human beings again and participate in the adventures and games of other times.
Olorum then allowed the orixás to return to Earth from time to time, imposing the condition that this be done through the bodies of their devotees.
How the world’s riches were divided among the orixás
In order to understand how the orixá received her/his part of nature, it is necessary to remember the myth of Onilé, one of the most beautiful and important in Yoruba mythology.
The Supreme God, Olorum-Olodumare, prepared a meeting to distribute the world’s wealth among all the orixás. So, they should all show up in their best clothes and ornaments. And everyone came in richly dressed, each exhibiting a special quality.
Faced with the difficulty of the decision, Olorum decides to accept the choices that each orixá had already made. Thus, Iansã, dressed in the wind and decorated with lightning, became governor of the storms. Iemanjá, dressed in sea foam, became the Queen of the Sea. And that was how each orixá received his/her part.
Onilé, however, had not appeared at the meeting. She is Olorum’s daughter, so she was in her father’s palace. But because she was extremely shy, she hid herself in a pit that she herself opened in the floor. Because she was dressed in earth, she received the government of the planet from her father, which is the home of all humanity.
What are the Umbanda gods?
Another very important Afro-Brazilian religion is Umbanda, which emerged in Rio de Janeiro in the early 20th century. What characterizes this religion is the mixture, the synthesis. It maintained the cult of the orixás of the Yoruba religion, but introduced new elements, coming from Kardecism and Christianity, especially with regard to moral values, charity and the notion of a world divided between forces of good and evil.
Umbanda has a cult of human entities that are led by orixás. These entities are spirits of ancestors, Brazilian social types that have an important role in the daily life of Umbandistas. Some of them are: Caboclo, Preto-Velho, Boiadeiro, Marinheiro, Zé-Pelintra, Baiana and Pombagira
Prandi, Reginaldo. AFRICAN GODS IN CONTEMPORARY BRAZIL (A Sociological Introduction to Candomblé Today). Ibero-Amerikanisches Archiv, 24 (3-4): 327-352, Berlin, 1998]. Rice, Eric P. “Blacks on Display: The Political Economy of Candomblé”. John Hopkins University, 2000). Ulysse, Gina Athena. “How Vodoun Became ‘Voodoo’ and Vodou”. HuffPost website, January 9, 2013. Accessed December 19, 2020. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/vodoun-voodoo_b_2413249 . Fellet, João. “Haitianos adeptos do vodu buscam no candomblé alternativa a igrejas”. BBC Brasil website. July 1, 2013. Accessed December 19, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/noticias/2013/07/130701_haitianos_vodu_jf_lk. Brown University Library. “Haitian Revolution Begins: August–September 1791”. Accessed December 19, 2020. https://library.brown.edu/haitihistory/5.html. Hipercultura website. “Conheça 30 deuses da mitologia africana, seus poderes e mistérios”. Accessed December 22, 2020. https://www.hipercultura.com/deuses-mitologia-africana/
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