Monday, June 13, 2016

And so it begins

After over a month of settling in and getting through the crazy amount of paperwork and government bureaucracy to register and get married to a Brazilian, I am now ready to dive into my research (but don't think our bureaucratic nightmares are anywhere near over! I could write many long and frustrated blog posts about my experience at the Federal Police, Consulates and notaries...). 

Last Wednesday I went to my first Candomble "party" (festa) of the season, officially marking the beginning of my Ph.D. fieldwork as a Fulbright-Hays DDRA scholar. I was fortunate to have my newly-wed husband accompany me to the party (having a male escort is always helpful in Brazil). We went by car up and around the curvy hills of Salvador, getting lost a few times along the way, making u-turns down dark back streets, missing speed bumps and flying over them, going the wrong way down one-way and dead end streets, screeching the brakes and wheels of our compact Honda Fit. Our road adventures through Bahia have been like that since I got my car over a month ago. It requires some time to understand the rules of the road here and the complicated caminhos, or ways to get around. Google Maps can provide a general orientation, but doesnt have the precision or know-it-all to navigate seamlessly the streets of Salvador da Bahia.

After a short, but somewhat chaotic ride to the terreiro we arrived and were greeted by a police car with flashing colored lights and a large spotlight at the entrance of Ilê Oxumare, signaling the party for the two female gods to be honored that evening, Oyá and Obá. Both are considered strong warrior figures. Obá is associated with rough fresh waters and is considered stronger than many male orixás. Oyá, also known as Iansã, is the goddess of lightning and big storms. She is mother to many other important deities. Yoruba myths are similar to those of the Greek Gods, with complicated familial relationships, love spats and incest. There are many iterations of Yoruba legends, depending on the particular tradition and historical practice of each terreiro (religious site/house). 

Women in white dresses and turbans were descending down the hill to the terreiro, where many cars were parked outside. I found a parking spot on a curvy hill, where I paralleled parked uphill with fair precision. We entered with no greeting or questioning. These public Candomble parties are surprisingly open and unassuming. There are few rules or judgments; everyone who shows respect for the orixas may enter and observe. Nobody asks who you are or why you’re there. Many people, young and old, show off their varieties of tattoos and piercings. It’s the perfect space for an anthropologist to enter and anonymously observe at the beginning of the research process. Because of the loud drums and the captivating ceremony, few people talk. Most interactions are visual; everybody checks each other out in subtle ways, though most of the time all eyes are on those in the center of the barracão (large ceremonial house), accompanying the ritual and anxiously awaiting the arrival of the orixás, when they descend into select mediums as a form of spirit possession.

To start three male ogãs began playing the drums. One was a young boy, around 12 years old, another a much older man. The main drummer, perhaps in his 20s, lead the beginning of the ceremony. He wore a bright red hat, the color for Oyá, and began all of the chanting in Yoruba. The songs were the typical call and answer style in Yoruba, or rather a Brazilian version of Yoruba sometimes mixed with Portuguese. At the University of Michigan I took a a semester of Yoruba with a Nigerian professor, but unfortunately I was able to pick up very little at the ceremony. I need to practice the way Yoruba is used and pronounced in the Candomblés of Brazil, which is a very different variety. Most of the other observers around me knew the proper response to the chants and participated in small ways, like bending down to touch the ground and then the top of the head, just like the mediums were doing in the center of the room—a way to prepare the space for the orixá to descend through the medium’s heads. Most of the observers at the party are also practitioners of Candomblé at other terrieros. They come to big, historically famous houses such as Ilê Oxumarê to witness the extravagance and beauty of the party and to honor the particular orixa celebrated that evening. 

About 20-25 women entered following the initial drumming. They formed a large circle around a central altar for Oyá and lightly danced in a circle for about thirty minutes, chanting with the ogãs, preparing for the impeding possession. The space was intricately decorated with hanging ornaments and straw on the doors and windows to welcome the orixas and encourage them to enter the ritual center. Each iao (bride of the god, member of the cult) went to the front door and kissed the ground, then returned to the dancing circle. About five men were on the outside of the circle, sometimes seated, and always observing the mediums. After 45 minutes to an hour of light dancing and preparation for the orixa, the leading priest entered alongside about 7 older women, presumably the leading ekedis. They appeared to be the oldest, most experienced and respected “secretaries” of the priest. The priest (pai de santo) made a short speech in which he welcomed everybody to the party and made a few remarks to honor Oyá and Obá in that particular house that evening.

During the next song one of the mediums keeled over and began screaming. Most everyone began yelping and clapping because the first spirit had arrived. One by one several people became possessed and the ekedis (the women who accompany the possessed, but do not become possessed themselves) cared for them, changing their turbans and adjusting their clothing, leading them to the front door and back. The crowd became very animated with the arrival of spirits and the drumming intensified. At one point a man in the audience fell in trance, which is a common, but grave offense, as he could jeopardize the carefully planned ritual. 

The room was very hot and at times overwhelming, with so many sounds, sights and sensations. My husband and I needed a break, so we went to a nearby bar and ordered a cheap beer and water. Quickly my husband overheard that the woman at the next table was a priestess (mãe-de-santo) from a nearby city. One of the older, drunk men in front of the bar declared that he was the brother of the priest at Oxumarê. After a group of young people sat down at a nearby table, the priest's “brother"quickly began making comments about viados in Candomblé. The term “viado” is a derogatory term for a male who supposedly receives penetration during sex. The term is often used as an insult and a stand-in for anything negative. Perhaps responding to the presence of what he considered gay men at the bar, the priest's “brother” loudly asserted that he is a “real man” in contrast to  the viados or the "effeminate" men who receive deities during possession. A woman was trying to defend her friends, claiming that the "brother" was discriminating and that such discrimination is a crime. The drunk man didn’t seem interested in stopping, so the whole table went away and back to the party. That interaction showed me how common these aggressions are, and how sexuality is a frequent topic in discussions of Candomblé. The "brother" of the Candomblé priest, who did not participate in the ceremony, based his gender expectations on a Brazilian ideal of masculinity, which Candomblé subverts. The contrast between the gender and sexual expressions cultivated in the terreiro during the ritual and those persecuted at the bar was stark. Despite being a few meters away, the bar was occupied by heterosexual, drunk macho men and police.  Perhaps the terreiro provides a temporary reprieve from such prejudices and potentially violent aggressions (a theory offered by previous researchers on this topic). 

On the subject of gender and sexuality, the priestess at the next table claimed that only men can be ogãs (drummers), but conceded that there have been “polemic” cases where a zapatona (term referring to what in English may be described as a “butch lesbian”) played the drums, reflecting recent changes in Candomblé. This idea about the corruption of Candomblé from its pure and proper ritual form is an old discourse, similar to other religious practices that value tradition and are skeptical of changes and innovations. This particular priestess affirmed that although a zapatona may be homosexual, she is still a woman, and therefore it’s not appropriate for her to play the drums. In "proper" Candomblé practice, women are ekedis and men are ogãs. Those who receive the spirit and dance (rodantes) may be either male or female, as this role is determined by the orixás and the particular relationship with the medium, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Despite the freedom of sexual expression in the terreiros and the non-binary nature of the orixás (something I'll write about later), few people seem to question the division of both ritual and social roles on the basis of what they consider to be a physically identifiable, biological sexual identity of men and women. 

Towards the end of our time at the ceremony, the "true" Oyá arrived in what seemed to be an unconvential form. I wasn’t present to witness the following, though my husband told me the sequence of events. About two hours in people outside were commenting that “the real Iansã hasn’t arrived yet”, despite the fact that many mediums were possessed by various orixás in the barracão. I wasn’t sure how to identify the “real Iansã”, or the most important and honored medium for the evening, but apparently she arrived late and from far away. People from the bar saw a possessed woman coming down the hill, accompanied by a woman helping her walk and leading her towards the towards the terreiro. Her body was contorted and her eyes upturned. My husband said he got the chills seeing her. Apparently she was a member of the terreiro, though she didn’t attend the ceremony. Perhaps there was some sort of conflict—the reason for her absence in the ritual is unclear— but Oyá’s force, provoked by the ritual, was so strong that it reached her in her own house, where she fell into the saint (became possessed by the spirit). She was lead into the back of the terreiro to be prepared to enter the ritual as “the real Iansã”. After witnessing this event, one policeman at the bar commented (a pair of them were drinking along with the bar owners), “Candomblé is like a wifi signal, once the drums start the network connects at a distance!”. 

The terreiro posted some photos of the party on their facebook page. I will take the liberty of sharing some of them, since observers aren't allowed to take photos at the party, and the terreiro makes them available publicly (who doesn't like to share photos on facebook after a good party?). Enjoy! And please feel free to leave any comments or questions-- I'll update this blog as I get further into my research, or as interesting topics come to mind. There's plenty to observe and contemplate here in Bahia, and I'm looking forward to having over a year to do it. 

The following photos are available at Oxumarês facebook page.

Pai de santo second to the left and the ekedis. The background portrait is of the current pai de santo of Ilê Oxumarê. 

Women dancing in the circle to begin the ceremony around the altar for Oyá in the barracão.

Here is a direct link to a video taken during the ceremony. 


  1. Fascinating post Jamie. I read this aloud to Dan as we were driving to Sausalito last night. We were wondering about the male priest. Wondering if it's unusual to have a male at that top spot (assuming he is the "leader" of the group? And if so, wondering how that impacts the terreiro in general. Looking forward to learning more. We very much enjoyed this introduction. Love, Mom and Dan

    1. It's not unusual at all to have male priests, which is something I'm trying to show with my research. Although women are still the majority of leaders in Salvador (63.7% in 2007), male priests are not an issue for most houses or practitioners of Candomblé. A few houses (terreiros) do have exclusively female leadership, and have since the 19th century. These are the terreiros that Ruth Landes studied. These sorts of tensions are what I'm paying particular attention to for my research.