It’s been awhile now since that fateful night…afraid and alone in a favela…confused, squished, and sweaty…and I’ve had some time to reflect.
First and foremost, I was not prepared for the ritual. Yes, it’s probably half my fault for being an idiot and not doing more research beforehand…but I was under the impression that I was doing a tour. A tour that would have an English-speaking guide to prepare me. I expected him to explain the ritual and what would be involved, and explain the culture and why they do what they do. That is what I paid for: an explanation.
Without preparation the Candomblé ritual was a rather jarring experience (though on the upside a very non-touristy one)…which is unfortunate. I love learning about new cultures, especially when it’s something so unique and different, and I have a lot of respect for other people’s religions (even if I’m not remotely religious myself). My lack of preparedness made me feel confused and afraid…which I shouldn’t have been. It shouldn’t have been a scary experience. It should have been a learning one.
In my post-ritual research I’ve learned that proper “tours” do exist and many a participant comes out with a better understanding of the religion…I just had an exceptionally shit tour guide. He was supposed to have spoken English, he was supposed to have stayed with me and explained things, and, for the record, the ritual was supposed to conclude with a feast (ha ha). I just got ripped off.
I’ve done a lot of Google searching and had a sort-of conversation (as in, having someone translate a conversation between me and a current practicer of the religion) to try and learn what I wanted to learn in the first place. I’ve come up with the following (which may not be wholly accurate):
The Candomblé religion is a mix of Roman Catholicism and indigenous African traditions. It was founded in Salvador in the 19th century when slaves were brought to Brazil and forced to convert to Christianity. The slaves resisted by secretly praying to their own gods but found similarities between the saints and their own “orishas,” creating a new religion that incorporated both.
Practicers of Candomblé (which means “dance in honour of the gods”) worship one all powerful god who is served by lesser orishas (similar to saints). Each orisha is associated with a certain food, colour, animal, day of the week, etc.
In Candomblé there is no concept of good or evil, you are just expected to fulfill your destiny to its fullest whatever that might be. Not to say it’s okay to be bad. It seems they do believe in a sort of karma…so if you do bad things those bad things will come back to you.
Practicing the religion was illegal in Brazil until the 70’s but it now has about 2 million followers, most of them being in Brazil. Salvador has quite a few “terreiros” (houses of worship), each of them a little bit different.
From looking at photos of other ceremonies, the one I attended seems to have been very poor (and exceptionally small). The photos have large colourful rooms filled with worshipers…mine was a tiny concrete room packed painfully full. The photos also have more elaborate decorations adorning the walls. My terreiro had plain concrete walls with a few dried fern leaves strewn about. I did read that a lot of them are located in favelas…so at least my visit to the ghetto was actually necessary.
The terreiros host numerous ceremonies throughout the week, but the ceremonies are different depending on the day as each day honours a different orisha (or saint). The one I attended honoured a orisha whose colour was white. I was also told the ceremony I attended was an important one…though I still have no idea why.
The ceremonies are generally broken up into two parts, the first attended only by people who are initiated into the religion. Part 1 takes place in the morning with the initiates decorating the terreiro in the colours of that day’s orisha (my day being white). They then prepare the costumes (again, my day being white) and food for that night’s feast. This is actually where the animal sacrifice takes place (I saw a photo of a poor dead dove…and I think they also sacrifice goats), though they don’t do an animal sacrifice every day. Sometimes they sacrifice plants or minerals; it depends on which orisha is being honoured. I was told the animal sacrifice only happens a few times per year. It is given as an offering to an orisha.
Part 2 of the ceremony is what I attended as it’s open to everyone. Music and dance are extremely important. The repetitive chanting and drumming is meant to encourage initiates to be possessed by the orishas. Not just anyone can become possessed…and I don’t think it happens for every initiate every time. I tried to ask if it’s just priests and priestesses that are able to become possessed but I didn’t really get a clear answer. I think that it’s a long religious process until you are able to be taken over by an orisha.
As I’m not a religious person myself, I don’t really believe that they were actually being taken over by a spirit. However, I definitely don’t think they were faking it. From what I witnessed, faking it was impossible. Their movements and actions were definitely not themselves (some of it looked downright unhuman) and I don’t think the possesed were aware of what was going on around them at the time. I think maybe it’s something subconscious…like when you’re dreaming…or something. The whole thing was very unusual to witness.
I learned that a person’s personality is strongly linked to their orisha and their dances symbolize the orisha’s attributes. I think this explains the part where they did their solo dances. They were doing the dance of the particular orisha that they were possessed by.
I wasn’t able to come up with an explanation for the people that were dressed more elaborately with silver details, carrying staffs and knives (perhaps they were just higher up priests?)…and I still don’t know exactly how the ceremony concludes. I just know that Part 2 ends with a banquet where everyone gets together to socialize and eat, and it ends around midnight or early morning (I was forced to leave around 10).
While I’m annoyed I had a shitty tour guide and had to figure this out on my own, I am very glad that I attended a Candomblé ritual. Yes, it could have been a much better experience, but I got to learn something new and interesting about a culture much different than my own. This is what’s important. This is what I wanted. This is why I travel.