Candomblé is a religion based on African beliefs which is particularly popular in Brazil. It is also practiced in other countries, and has as many as two million followers.
- The religion is a mixture of traditional Yoruba, Fon and Bantu beliefs which originated from different regions in Africa. It has also incorporated some aspects of the Catholic faith over time.
- A religion which combines elements of many religions is called a syncretic religion.
- Enslaved Africans brought their beliefs with them when they were shipped to Brazil during the slave trade.
- The name Candomblé means ‘dance in honour of the gods’.
- Practitioners of Candomblé believe in one all powerful God called Oludumaré who is served by lesser deities. These deities are called orixas. (They can also be called voduns and inkices.)
- Candomblé practitioners believe that every person has their own individual orixa which controls his or her destiny and acts as a protector.
- Music and dance are important parts of Candomblé ceremonies. Specially choreographed dances are performed by worshippers to enable them to become possessed by the orixas.
- There is no concept of good or bad in Candomblé. Each person is only required to fulfil his or her destiny to the fullest, regardless of what that is.
- Candomblé is an oral tradition and therefore has no holy scriptures.
- The first official temple was founded at the beginning of the 19th century in Salvador, Bahia in Brazil.
Practitioners of Candomblé believe in one all powerful God called Oludumaré who is served by lesser deities. These deities are called orixas, voduns and inkices.
Orixas are ancestors who have been deified. These orixas can be from recent history, perhaps only one hundred years old, or they may be over a thousand years old. Orixas are a link between the spiritual world and the world of humans.
Voduns and inkices are spirit gods, essentially the same as orixas. Candomblé is a synthesis of three African religions, Yoruba, Fon and Bantu, and voduns and inkices are the names preferred by the other two sects. For the purposes of clarity, the term orixa will be used throughout the article.
Candomblé practitioners believe that every person has their own individual orixa which controls his or her destiny and acts as a protector. Each orixa represents a certain force in nature and is associated with certain foods, colours, animals and days of the week. A person’s character or personality is strongly linked to their orixa.
Collectively, ancestor spirits are called ‘Baba Egum’ in Brazil. This is also known as ‘Egungun’ in other parts of South America.
During important ceremonies, priests and priestesses will masquerade as Baba Egum. Specially choreographed dances will be performed in order to become possessed of each ancestor spirit.
Concepts of good and bad
There is no concept of good or bad in Candomblé. Each person is only required to fulfil his or her destiny to the fullest, regardless of what that is. This is not a free ticket to do whatever you want though. Candomblé teaches that any evil you cause to people will return to you eventually.
The Baba Egum are important in regulating the moral code of Candomblécists. It is their responsibility to make sure that moral standards of the past are continued in the present. This is regulated during the worship ceremonies.
When a person becomes possessed of their ancestor spirit during the ceremony, they may act out scenes from the community to highlight both good and bad actions in a sort of public tribunal.
Candomblé is an oral tradition and therefore has no holy scriptures.
History of Candomblé
Candomblé is an African-Brazilian religion. It was born of a people who were taken from their homes in Africa and transplanted to Brazil during the slave trade.
The religion is a mixture of traditional Yoruba, Fon and Bantu beliefs which originated from different regions in Africa, and it has also incorporated some aspects of the Catholic faith over time.
The name itself means ‘dance in honour of the gods’, and music and dance are important parts of Candomblé ceremonies.
Candomblé and Catholicism
From the earliest days of the slave trade, many Christian slave owners and Church leaders felt it was important to convert the enslaved Africans. This was in order to fulfil their religious obligations but also in the hope of making the enslaved more submissive. Others also argue that enslaved Africans were religiously persecuted in order that they held no connection to a shared past.
Although the Church succeeded in many cases, not all Africans converted. Many outwardly practised Christianity but secretly prayed to their own god, gods or ancestor spirits. In Brazil, where Catholicism was popular, adherents of Candomblé saw in the worship of saints a similarity with their own religion. Candomblé practitioners often concealed the sacred symbols of their deities inside their corresponding Catholic saints.
In the segregated communities of America, it was easy to create Catholic religious fraternities where black people would meet with each other. These meetings, however, were actually an opportunity for Candomblé worship to happen and for feasts to be held on special religious days. They were also opportunities for the enslaved to gather and plan rebellions against their masters.
Many of the enslaved Africans from Bantu found a shared system of worship with Brazil’s indigenous people and through this connection they re-learned ancestor worship.
Persecution and resurgence
Candomblé was condemned by the Catholic Church, and followers of the faith were persecuted violently right up through government-led public campaigns and police action. The persecution stopped when a law requiring police permission to hold public ceremonies was scrapped in the 1970s.
The religion has surged in popularity in Brazil since then, with as many as two million people professing to follow the faith. It is particularly practised in Salvador da Bahia, in the north east of Brazil. Interestingly, many people from African countries visit Bahia in order to learn more about the faith of their ancestors.
For many followers it is not just a matter of religious belief but also of reclaiming the cultural and historical identity which slavery stripped them of.
There is also some movement to remove Catholic imagery from worship services, in an attempt to return the faith to its more fundamental origins.