Monday, July 18, 2016

Cult of the Ancestors

To maintain anonymity and discretion, this post will use pseudonyms. I refrain from using many details and specific names. Let's start off with a few key terms to ensure a smooth reading experience. 

Egungun- this is the type of ancestral entity being worshipped at the ceremony I describe. It refers to a particular style of Yoruba masking, and the cult in Bahia directly descends from those from the ancient Oyó Kingdom in present-day Nigeria. The oldest Egungun cults are on an island in the Bay of All Saints, called Itaparica.

Babá - literally means "Father" in Yoruba. Participants bless the ancestor and call it by this name.

Ojé - This is the title given to the men initiated into the egungun cult. Exclusively men engage directly with these ancestors and prepare them for the ritual.

Barracão - The central ritual space. In this particular terreiro, it was set up like an open stage. If you need more definitions, visit the "What is Candomblé?" page to your right ;)

After making some key friends and contacts last week, I was invited to a ceremony I had never attended before, a "party" for the egunguns. I was extremely interested, as it is a cult that exclusively initiates men, although women hold central positions, in addition to their roles at their own terreiros. This particular terreiro is different from others, in that it serves exclusively the egunguns and not the orixás, although the two are associated with each other in particular ways I don't fully understand yet. People affiliated with this terreiro work together to celebrate and keep alive ancestral ties to Africa, which are shared among three central families. This cult aggregates members of several terreiros and family networks in Salvador, descending from the oldest and most “African” terreiros, with references and liturgical links to the Egungun cults of Itaparica, which are said to have been founded by African men in the 1820-1850s during the last decades of the legal slave trade.

I drove my new friend Sara, who is the granddaughter of the late founder of the terreiro. Her grandfather is recognized as an influential Candomblé priest, scholar and artist in Brazil and internationally. Sara showed me around the whole terreiro and introduced me to nearly everyone we saw. She was very kind and generous, as was everybody I met. Over and over again Sara introduced me by saying, “she’s American, and it’s her first time seeing the Egungun!”. In response, people gave me a sweet smile and a look of excitement with a hint of trepidation, exclaiming, “Welcome! Make yourself comfortable”.  Sara was very willing to explain details about her family. I met her sisters, sisters-in-law, aunts, nephews, great-nephews, and during the ceremony, her mother, who has an important position at the terreiro. She explained to me that her grandfather had the title of alapani - or the supreme priest of the eguns in all of Brazil. He was the most direct reference for the Yoruba ancestors in Brazil, and since his death a few years ago nobody has taken that position or assumed the role of priest at the terreiro.

We arrived early, and there was a Babá (ancestral spirit) walking around the terreiro before the party started. Sara encouraged us to stay out of it’s way. At first I didn’t get a very good look, but the entity was covered head to toe in a thick, all-encompassing fabric; I had never seen anything quite like it. I waited for a while inside the barracão with Sara's friend, who was difficult to talk to. I asked a few questions, but she was much more reserved. While we were waiting I observed the children running around, chasing each other and playing. Women were finishing decorating and placing the final touches before the ceremony. Everybody helped out to take care of the many children and babies around, everybody was trustworthy, everybody an aunt or an uncle. 

When it was time to find our spot on the women’s side of the audience (men and women were divided by the aisle), we were made aware of the hierarchy of seats among the female observers. I was absorbed in the middle of the women and had a hard time observing or understanding the men’s side. We found a spot in the fourth row, making sure to sit in a plastic seat that didn’t have any title marked on the back. Slowly older women, now adorned in ritual clothing and many jewels (earrings, bracelets and the contos - orixá necklaces) began occupying the first rows of chairs. A chorus of younger filhas-de-santo came together on the far right of the audience, loudly chatting and later starting the chants. Several babies and young children were sitting on laps, passed around, sometimes making silly noises and talking in their own way to the Babás. Sara sat next to me and made small talk with all of her friends and relatives throughout the ceremony. For me, it was a privileged position to be in. Alone, or even with my husband, there’s no way I could have entered into this highly intimate and familial space without a personal invite from a member of the terreiro. 

The same spirit that was wandering around earlier began the festa. We all stood up and I got a better glimpse of it— it was mostly blue with many symbolic decorations and elaborate embroideries. I was very impressed with the craft and finishing- it was clearly a royal garment created and treated with great care. The entity was covered from head to hand to toe in very thick fabric (perhaps velvet?), which appeared like a seamless but intricate piece with many separate parts including gloves, a full mask, shoes and outer flaps all woven into one. I wondered how hot it must be in there, but pressed myself to remember that a possessed person doesn’t feel or worry about those things the same way I might. I was curious to know who was inside there and how he (I assume, since it’s a man’s cult), prepares himself for such a bodily incorporation. This entity was much different than the many orixá possessions I’ve seen. The person receiving the spirit is entirely absent (in being fully concealed), and seemingly insignificant. The Babá also spoke and communicated in a way I’d never seen orixás do before. Each ancestor had a particular jeito (way about it), and a specific style of speaking. The first grunted in a very low tone, in short but relatively constant spurts. I couldn’t understand individual syllables, let alone words (despite some familiarity with Yoruba). To me it was a bunch of distant mumbling, yet people all around me were responding when their title was called. 
Periodically a different type of spirit would appear at the entrance to the barracão. They were two large, square figures that seemed like mischievous trouble-makers, running around the barracão, chasing the ojés and flirtatiously lingering at the doorways, threatening but never actually entering. At one point one of them played the flute, which we could only hear from a distance. At another I swear one of them appeared in the tree, camouflaged by the brown and green fabric. I had never heard about or seen spirits quite like them before, and was baffled, yet entertained by their playfulness.

The men’s cult was markedly different from the other cults I have witnessed for orixás. The men circled the barracão with thin, long wooden sticks in their hands, sometimes chasing and sometimes being chased by the Babás. I couldn’t count how many men there were, but at least 20 and from all ages— from 6-8 year old children all the way up to elderly, but still physically capable men of 60-70 years. That day a few men, including Sara’s nephew, were being initiated into the egungun cult. They kneeled in front of the Babá as a sort of judgement day (or in this case, night). Sara told me that each person has a particular name, associated with their position given to them by the ancestors. The affiliated family members knew to pay attention and respond with blessings for the ancestor when called. From what I could tell, there seemed to be more women called up to speak to the ancestor, as the men have more frequent contact and communication with it. As far as I know, the women only engage with the egungun in this ceremonial setting. Sometimes the Babá would request that the person come on stage, in the center of the barracão and kneel before it, in order to hear a personal message. At times the ancestor thanked the person for preparing or doing something in a pleasing way. Other times, the ancestor seemed irritated and people were extremely nervous to approach it. At several moments the ancestor became extremely animated, jumping and spinning, even cornering some of the new initiates. It seemed like a provocation, a test. The ojés attempted to control the Babá, slowing it down and encircling it with their wooden sticks. The older ojés appeared more secure in their abilities to subdue the spirit, the younger ones were timid and fearful. Each ancestor had a different object in its hands, one had a sharp, shorter wooden stick, another (associated with Xangô), had a small wooden ax. At certain moments the spirit lunged towards the men, and chased them with the sharp objects, hitting some of the men if they weren't quick enough. All we heard were their fast stomps and yelps. I often heard people talking about the possibility of the men “apanhar”, or to receive a beating. The verb in Portuguese is often used to describe when somebody is caught, put in their place, humiliated, or physically beaten. 

The whole ceremony felt like an encounter and conversation with the ancestors, a sort of check-in to make sure everybody is okay with one another.  In one instance, everybody stood up and jumped. In another, we all laughed rhythmically. People spoke Yoruba to the entity in a way I’d never seen conversationally before. I had always read and heard (from academic sources) that Yoruba was not spoken in Brazil anymore, but used only in chants and rituals. Although this was a specifically ritual context, it was clear that people knew a lot of Yoruba and had much experience speaking with the ancestral spirits in this language. The men taking care of the spirit appeared to be the most fluent, or at least the most vocal. From the cult they have the closest contact, and from what I gathered, comprehension of the egungun, though I don’t want to assume that the older women, the mothers-of-the-saint, don’t have the same skills in communication (though they are excluded from the cult, suggesting a certain distance from the fundamentos, the secret knowledge only shared among the initiated men).

After the more agitated and demanding ancestors left, one associated with the orixá Oxum arrived. She was calmer and sweeter than the previous ones. This is consistent with Oxum’s personality, which is sensual and caring, if not vain. The egungun associated with Oxum danced for a while and called up people who seemed to be her mediums. She held flowers in her hand and gave the bouquet to an elegant young woman, who I later found out is part of one of the three central families. Towards the end of the festa, the older mães and other women helped pour water from a decorated cauldron to the audience. Sara told me that the water is purifying, and especially good for the uterus. There were probably 50 women waiting for little yellow plastic cups of ritual water, and not patiently. Sara kept complaining that the men were getting more water, “and they don’t even have uteruses!”. Finally I got a rather full cup (lucky me), and it tasted herbal and refreshing in an unrecognizable way. By that point we had been sitting and observing for 2-3 hours, and I think we were all grateful for some liquid. Once everybody got water (there was enough for everybody), one of the older women passed out a few little gifts to privileged members —jewels from Oxum (simple bracelets, earrings, etc). Sara explained to me that the festa on the 2nd day (in a cycle of 3 festas for the egunguns) always features this moment with Oxum, because the egungun is a highly revered Mãe de santo, a worshiped ancestor of one of the main families and a central reference for the terreiro. It is Sara's great grandmother. 

After the ceremony ended everybody mingled and waited for food and drink. We saw one of the ojé’s pass with a case of champagne, and Sara exclaimed, “Oooh you came on the right day!”. The ojés popped the champagne ceremoniously and everybody who wanted one got a plastic champagne glass. We toasted and took a celebratory picture. It felt like a family reunion. This terreiro is remarkable because it actively maintains relationships with the ancestors, which are known, celebrated and worshipped by continuing generations. I know of few communities that keep this sort of memory alive, and can pin-point with such specificity family ties, both spiritual and biological. I don’t doubt they exist, and I know there are several more in Bahia, and that this is one of the central purposes of candomblé —to keep community and family ties in the face of great violence and forced separation from the legacy of the Atlantic Slave Trade. But I had never quite felt the profundity and witnessed the efficacy of such a practice. Hearing Sara talk about her family confirmed how deep history is preserved through ritual practice. She herself descends from one of the African women who founded the first known and still functioning terreiro in Salvador. I couldn’t help but feel jealous of their extended family and genealogical wisdom, which at least for that particular evening felt joyful and unified. It made being so far from my biological family particularly painful that evening. However, I felt comfort in knowing that others can sustain such meaningful relationships with loved ones for centuries, across oceans, in much more trying conditions, and that I was privileged enough to witness their persistence.