Candomblé: Chanting, Spirit Possessions, and…Sacrifice?

Tonight I attended a Candomblé ritual and I want to write about it while it’s fresh in my mind and I’m still in my current state of unsettled confusion. I have no photos and no explanation for what I witnessed so this post will just be a play by play. I’m hoping tomorrow I can mass Google search to get some clarity on everything I witnessed. Currently…I’m just speechless.

Here we go:

It’s 11 am and I see a poster on the hostel wall reading “Candomblé Centre – Ask for Info.” The word Candomblé sounds familiar but I can’t remember what it is. I look through Lonely Planet and there’s a brief mention under Salvador activities. It says to attend a Candomblé ritual to learn about Afro-Brazilian culture.

I ask the hostel owner about the poster and she tells me I can take a tour for 30 bucks and they will take me to view and learn about a ritual. There will be lots of food (a “feast” she called it) so I should go hungry. A tour guide will pick me up from the hostel at 7. I book it on a whim.

It’s 5 pm and I Wikipedia Candomblé so I know what to expect. It appears to be some kind of African religion the slaves brought to Brazil involving music, dance, a lot of white clothing, and possessions (like…via spirits). There may or may not be an animal sacrifice (). I assume this is the historical definition. I assume I’ll be attending a modern interpretation or some sort of touristy remake.

It’s 7 pm and I’m waiting in the hostel lobby. I run into my Brazilian Stranger Friend and tell her my plans for the evening. She says I am crazy, not to bring anything of value with me, and that she would be way too scared to go herself. This is unsettling…but my car is now out front.

I head downstairs to meet my tour guide (henceforth known as “Tour Guide”). He sees what I’m wearing (blue and white romper with white cardigan) and shakes his head no. I had been told to wear white but I’m backpacking…this is the whitest outfit I have with me.

“Tour Guide” may or may not speak Portuguese (and only Portuguese). He motions me back upstairs. The hostel owner phones him to translate an acceptable outfit. We settle on jeans, a white undershirt (regardless of the fact that you can see my cheetah print bra through it) and white cardigan. Not very church like…but apparently it will do.

I hop into the car which I thought would be a minibus full of tourists. Apparently it’s just me and “Tour Guide”. It is confirmed he speaks zero English. It is confirmed I speak zero Portuguese. We communicate via broken Spanish. I don’t even speak Spanish…

“Tour Guide” says we are picking up one more person. I silently hope they’re a tourist like me but nope…it’s a local. She also speaks zero English. A game of charades tells me her family practices Candomblé and she’s just hitching a ride. I am the only tourist on this “tour.”

We pull up (by pull up I mean complete a 6 point turn in the middle of a busy road to reverse up a San Francisco steep hill to park in what I’m 80% sure is a favela) to the church/house of worship. It’s a small, white, concrete building in the middle of the ghetto. I am 100% the only tourist attending and 10 shades lighter than everyone present. I very much stand out. I begin to realize this is very authentic. What have I signed up for?

I get out of the car and “Tour Guide” sprays water into my hand, motioning for me to rub it on my head. He says “naranja.” (orange water?…I don’t know). We walk up to the entrance. There is a stable with what looks like a voodoo doll covered in lace, surrounded by dried fern leaves. “Tour Guide” tries to tell me about it but all I get out of our broken Spanish convo is that I think it represents some kind of saint. It looks creepy.

We go inside. A dried fern hits me in the face on my way in. There’s roughly 20 people in the building, all in white linen and eyelet. The room is maybe the size of two double-wides. There’s throne-like chairs at the front of the room, a bench on the left and right wall and dried fern leaves hanging randomly about. Everything is white except for the floor and dried leaves. The room is very, very small and very, very basic.

“Tour Guide” motions for me to sit on the bench in the corner. He is going to get “comida” and will be back in “veinte minutos” (I will not see him again until three hours later).

People trickle into the room. There’s bongo drums set up behind the thrones. Three men start playing them with a little boy playing what appears to be a cow bell. Everyone in the room starts clapping to the rhythm. I sit in my corner.

The clapping and drumming continues as more and more people enter the room. A group of six ladies in giant (legit like three feet wide) hoop skirts start dancing in a circle. They appear out of nowhere. There must be a side entrance I can’t see. A group of men join the dance circle.

I can tell who’s general public and who is somehow important religiously. The general public are wearing white, but their outfits are modern. Everyone looks very put together. The people of importance are in the hoop skirts but also have elaborate head wraps and shawls and scarves. Every article of clothing is white (I recall “Tour Guide” saying “blanca” a lot).

The important people dance in a circle while the general public stands, clapping and singing. The dance moves are simple…a lot of hip rotating (which looks rather enchanting when done in a hoop skirt) and slow arm/shoulder shrugging. Drums are being played this whole time. It’s not chipper dance music like I’d heard in the streets of Salvador. It’s more of a rhythmic chant. It is loud (so very loud).

As the important folks do their dance circle more and more public enter the room. A group of young men arrive in jeans and white t-shirts. One shirt has a minion on it and the other is a football jersey. I feel better about my haphazard outfit. Apparently the Average Joe’s have arrived to the party.

Periodically throughout the dance circle people touch their heads to the floor, kiss the floor, or lay fully on the floor face down then get back up again. It looks bizarre. The chanting continues.

A normal-looking girl arrives and sits down next to me. She’s around my age but must be important because people keep kissing the floor in front of her. They also make a pushing motion with their hands towards her. She smiles back and touches them, but never participates in the ceremony. At one point she pulls out her phone and checks Facebook. She seems like any other 20-something…but she gets so much respect. I have no idea who she is.

There’s what appears to be a crack head in the room now. Of course he’s directly in front of me (approx. two feet away). He can’t stop fidgeting. Everyone else in the room seems sober and normal (well as normal as can be expected when everyday people are chanting to the beat of drums in a heavily religious setting) but not him. I don’t like him. He makes me nervous.

No one has acknowledged my presence. I wonder if they’re mad that I’m here. Wikipedia said the churches welcome the public to visit but I start to feel guilty that I’ve come. I wasn’t expecting an elaborate warm homecoming but literally not one person has looked at me at any point. It’s getting uncomfortable. I feel like I shouldn’t be watching this.

There’s around 60 people in the room now and it’s getting extremely crowded. Everyone is standing and I really can’t see much sitting in my corner. Am I allowed to stand up to see better? I’m scared that might be disrespectful. It would be really great if I had that tour guide they promised right about now…

The dancing and chanting and drumming continues. I continue to be wary of the crackhead. It’s been at least an hour. I’m getting bored.

A little girl in the corner opposite me starts crying. Her mom is dancing too far from her. The normal/somehow important girl offers her seat next to me so the girl can be closer to her mom (who is currently huddled on the floor against my shins kissing the floor).

I am zoned out, listening to the constant banging on the drums, when the little girl’s mom starts violently shaking against my legs. She starts shrieking. It happens out of nowhere. It scares the shit out of me.

The little girl calmly puts her hand on her mom’s shoulder and a lady rushes over to hold the woman convulsing in front of me. This doesn’t even phase the child.

The drums and participants’ clapping pick up speed as people around the room are “taken over” by spirits. The whole thing is terrifying. I am legitimately afraid. It is very much like in the movies where the person being possessed is huddled over and their shoulders shake unhumanly fast, their faces contort, and they move around rapidly while making either deep guttural noises or extreme high-pitched sounds. It is just like in the movies.

Except in the movies you’re not alone in a favela, having no idea what you are witnessing, stuck in a sweaty corner surrounded by 60 people chanting to drumming that is getting increasingly faster and louder by the second. If it was happening across the room it would have been different. But it is happening literally against my shins as I sit on my bench in the corner.

There are 6 or 7 people possessed now. They’re in different parts of the room acting strangely while some people act as attendants. They wipe the sweat off the possesseds’ faces and constantly readjust their clothing (apparently violent movements tend to put ones outfit into disarray). The attendants start tying and retying scarves around the possesseds’ chests (perhaps something to do with the heart?). Everyone else is chanting and watching. There’s a guy with a maraca leading the singing now. I can’t see much else. The room is extremely crowded.

The chanting/drumming/clapping/possessions continue while the little girl next to me starts speaking to me in Portuguese. She’s the first person to acknowledge my presence. She isn’t speaking to me in a worried kind of way…just some disinterested chit chat. I think she’s bored. Meanwhile, her mom is on the other side of the room, fully possessed by spirits, making pained facial expressions and sweating profusely.

As she’s speaking I understand the word country so whisper that I’m from Canada. This gets her really excited. She starts rapidly throwing out questions (still in Portuguese) and scootches closer to me on the bench. She’s speaking pretty loudly so I attempt to end the conversation. It seems wrong to chit chat during the craziness occurring in front of me. A couple people glance in my direction (this is the first time they acknowledge my presence). I feel scolded. No more chit chat.

The speed of the drums change and the 6 people overcome by spirits (who have been shaking/convulsing/twisting around the room) calm into a more trance-like state. They sway from side to side with their eyes shut. Some of the possessed’s eyes are moving rapidly behind their eyelids (like when someone’s dreaming). This is all so very bizarre.

One possessed person takes centre stage now. She dances in the middle of the room (eyes still shut, jerky unhuman movements still present) as everyone else eggs her on. Then another person takes centre stage…then another. They are taking turns for a solo dance. The dances are, again, not remotely chipper. The dances are a dramatic, animal-like, Afro performance. The chanting and drums continue.

One of the possesseds (in the calmer trance state) is against my shins now. He’s a bit too close for comfort. He’s making pained facial expressions and sweating. This doesn’t look like a pleasant experience for him. The other possesseds continue their solo dances, led by the man with the maraca, being constantly tended to by the attendants.

Another hour has passed. I remain in my corner, wondering what will happen next. Am I going to witness an animal sacrifice? Because I’m not too sure I could handle that…yet at the same time don’t want to seem disrespectful. I also don’t want to draw attention to myself (I’m still feeling like I shouldn’t be here). How does this ritual end?

The music changes. The posesseds begin to “come down” from their trance, one by one. The little girl’s mom wipes the sweat from her face and heads outside for fresh air. I begin to relax. A man comes around with a tray of drinks. I’m hot, tired, and thirsty. But am I allowed to accept it? (and what if it’s…like…cow’s blood? *shudder*). The man whispers “Guarana” (a common Brazilian soda). I chuckle at my over-imagination and gratefully accept the pop.

People come and go during this sort of intermission. I am reminded that “Tour Guide” is still MIA. The intermission doesn’t last long.

The drums and chanting pick up where they left off as an elderly woman dressed in elaborate white and silver appears (again out of nowhere…where are they all coming from?) in the centre of the the room. She is severely hunched, barely moving, shuffling across the floor with the aid of an intricate staff. I’d say she dances but she really doesn’t move much. She shuffles…to the sound of the drums and chanting.

Another woman enters the room (again in elaborate white and silver clothing). I think she’s in a trance but it’s hard to see between knee caps so I can’t be sure. She carries a knife. My heart skips a beat.

I shit you not, at this exact moment, as I sit with my eyes glued to the knife, wondering what horrors are about to unravel (and wondering about that feast they promised…) “Tour Guide” walks into the room. He taps me on the shoulder, motioning that it’s time to go. “Finito?” I ask in confusion. He replies in rapid Spanish (or Portuguese…whatever it is I don’t understand) and leads me out the door. We descend the steep hill back to the car.

And that’s it. Really.

What was the knife for? Do they really do an animal sacrifice? How does the ritual end? I have no answers. No explanation. No ending. AND no feast (seriously though…I skipped lunch for this).

And now here I lay, cuddled up in the bottom bunk of my Pelhourino hostel wondering what was going to happen next, wondering why the rapid departure, wondering how this strange night straight out of a low-budget horror film was supposed to conclude.

I’m also annoyed I paid 30 bucks for a man to leave me alone in the middle of a favela without any explanation and not even the opportunity to see the ritual through to the end. I wouldn’t call this a tour. This was a taxi service to a place I felt unwanted with an inconvenient departure time. I am so. confused.

Click here for the Epilogue.

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