What is Candomblé?

Candomblé is hard to explain and define simply, as each word used to describe it carries much historical and theoretical baggage. I might describe Candomblé as "Afro-Brazilian", because it is a mixture of African and Brazilian cultural elements. In the 20th century, Candomblé gained the status of an official "religion" in Brazil, partially to counteract its persecution by Christians and influential politicians. Candomblé as a specific religious practice developed mostly out of 19th century Bahia, though African religious forms had been practiced in a variety of ways since the arrival of enslaved African captives in the 16th century. My research takes place in Salvador da Bahia, a coastal city that was the first colonial capital of Brazil, founded in 1549. Sometimes this city is referred to as "the black Rome", because of the proliferation of African cultural practices like capoeira and Candomblé. Currently the metropolitan area of Salvador has about 2.6 million people and around 1,400 temples of Candomblé. It is a very popular religion here and a prevalent part of the city's culture and daily life. 

Because of the historical distance between slavery and current practices of Candomblé, some scholars of santería and other similar African diasporic religions have used the terms "African-inspired" or "African descended" to refer to the importance of Africa as a homeland in rituals, rather than suggesting a historical continuity between Africa and Brazil in present-day religious practice. Most of the Candomblés I study use Yoruba in their ritual and were developed by Africans leaving Lagos and other regions of present-day Nigeria in the 19th century, when the slave trade to Bahia was still strong. It involves spirit possession and the worship of a pantheon of deities called orixás, who require routine food and animal sacrifices. Another nation of Candomblé, the Angolan, uses quimbundu and a mix of Bantu languages as its ritual language, which differs from the Ketu and Jeje nations.

Why "The City of Women"?
This is the title of Ruth Landes' famous 1947 ethnography of Candomblé. My research seeks to revisit her conclusions and question the idea that Candomblé is lead by women and that it is a haven for gay men. Instead, I will look at the complex forms and expressions of gender and sexuality offered by the liturgy and practice of Candomblé in its many forms. Some of my findings will be shared on this platform... stay tuned!

Key Terms:

Terreiro: Sometimes I use the term "house" to refer to the terreiro. It's a portuguese word that literally refers to the plot of land, in this case, where the ritual activities take place. A terreiro is a specific site, lead by a mãe or pai-de-santo, belonging to a particular "nation" or tradition of Afro-Brazilian religious practice.

Orixá: Divinity in the Ketu nation, word in Yoruba. A pantheon of many orixás are worshipped in Ketu Candomblé.

Nkisi (Inquice): Divinity in the Angola/Congo nation of Candomblé. A pantheon of nkisis, as well as caboclos (native indigenous spirits) are worshipped in Angolan Candomblé.

Barracão: Literally translates as "big tent", this is the room where the public ceremonies take place, allowing outside observers. Many other parts of the terreiro are inaccessible to outsiders.  

Mãe-de-santo: Literally translates as the "mother of the saint", referring to the priestess of a particular terreiro.

Pai-de-santo: "Father of the Saint", referring to the priest. A terreiro can be lead by either a priest or a priestess. They are the absolute authorities and communicate most directly with the orixás.

orixás: The Yoruba word for the deities (gods) worshipped in Candomblé. Each terreiro worships about 15-30 different orixás. Each person is associated with a particular deity and serves them through various means, mostly offerings and other ritual obligations. Only some people receive the spirits during possession.

Ekedi (spelling varies): This is the ritual role assigned exclusively to women who do not get possessed by the orixás. They generally take care of the possessed during the rituals and prepare materials.

Ogã: This is the ritual role assigned to men who do not participate in the "roda", or the circle in the center of the barracão. The ogãs do many different activities, the most notable being playing the drums during rituals and performing animal sacrifices. They also administer the ceremonies and take care of the guests, making sure everything runs smoothly.

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