Saturday, January 13, 2007

A Obrigação da Nelsa


Vila Prudente. Today, Nelsa started the first day of her obrigação (a ritual of commitment to the orixás). Nelsa has been a part of Augusta´s Candomblé for about four years. Her cargo (role) is to incorporate orixás and related spirits. She is considered to still be in her initiatory years, thus her offerings in the roncó (room of shrines to the orixás) were primarily white. One of her orixás is Oxum, like Augusta.

A small part of the ritual, Augusta told me, was similar to what Lucas did for Exu, but because her role and experience are different, so was this ritual. The activities started in the early evening with Augusta, Raul, Lucas and Nivaldo doing their parts. Like Lucas, Nelsa spent the days following the opening ritual removed from people physically - in what is academically called a liminal state. She couldn´t give hugs or kisses and she ate separately from us. She spent the first night sleeping in the roncó and after 24 hours, returned home for several more days of relative isolation.

Though I did not have the opportunity to witness the rituals directly, by staying in the house, I am learning about how all the rituals fit together and the ways in which people play roles in them.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007



Lapa. It is something like the season of Exu in Augusta's house of Candomblé right now. Exu is the orixá that is the guardian of houses and temples and the intermediary between humans and the orixás. Various individuals are visiting and going through rituals involving him.

One of the most interesting things about Exu, is that the yearly ritual is only for people who are initiated into Candomblé. The ceremony involves ridding yourself of bad energy, but to uninitiated eyes it apparently can lead people to make erroneous assumption like the Catholic church made centuries ago. Indeed, this issue of access to rituals is where the scholarly study of religion is challenged. We must resolve that it is not entirely neccessary to know the 'secrets' of a religion to complete a thorough academic study and that to divulge the secrets would be unethical as a researcher. But still I wonder what I am missing as a very curious human being.

Lucas and I saw an exhibit representing offerings to Exu. He is represented by red and black and was associated with the devil by the Catholic church. We took a few pictures. Lucas also recently performed the ritual.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Observing a Consultation


Vila Prudente, Sao Paulo. I observed Augusta throwing buzios (cowrie shells) for Lucas today. This practice of divination, like reading palms or tarot cards, involves the diviner (usually the mãe de santos or Candomble priestess) consulting with a client regarding their spiritual and earthly concerns. The mae de santos throws the shells into a basket on the table and reads messages from orixás – the pattern of the shells denoting which orixá has sent the message and the message itself. Sometimes Augusta threw the shells multiple times before she spoke. After several interpretations, she invited Lucas to ask the orixás questions. Earlier, when Lucas sat down at the table, Augusta gave him a rock to hold in each hand. The final step of the consultation involved placing the rocks, which had been warming in Lucas’ hands for about 40 minutes, into the basket and then throwing the shells over them. Augusta read further messages from these patterns. Through the entire consultation, Augusta made careful note of which orixas were sending the messages and related the messages to the aspects of Lucas’ patron orixá, Logun-Ede.

I have long been interested in the Candomble paraphenalia in Augusta’s house and buzios space. In the living room, she and Raul keep a collection of orixa figurines, many of which were given as presents and thus some are duplicated. Upstairs, for the consultation, she placed a number of shells, beads, bracelets, scarves, a candle, and a glass of water on the buzios table. Though I don’t yet know the significance of each item, clearly the shells have a relation to Oxum, her guardian orixá of the waters. In Candomble, each orixá is associated with a different stone, metal, period of the year, and other signifiers, much like the signs of the zodiac or the Chinese tradition of birth-year animals. Clearly, the items on the table have these relations with some or all of the orixás. Equally interesting, are the wall decorations around the buzios table. There are rather well-done paintings and drawings representing Oxum and Obaluaiê, her and Raul’s guardian orixás. There are also a couple pictures of her in full Oxum costume (a full yellow and gold dress, headdress, and oxum paraphenalia) representing her orixá before incorporation. (BTW, she creates all of her dresses for Candomblé.) As much for storage as for axe (spiritual energy), Augusta keeps four drums reserved for use in Candomble rituals opposite the buzios table. The fact that two of these drums are in great need of repair only attests to the energy long since put into them. With all of this just a few feet from the ronco (the room of elaborate shrines of clay and metal bowls each representing a different orixas... but which is too sacred to photograph), it is impossible to feel that her work is not taken seriously.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Jogar Búzios


Vila Prudente. Augusta and Lucas have agreed that I can observe when, in about a week, she will jogar búzios (throw shells) for Lucas. This divination practice is unique to Afro-Brazilian religions and is an opportunity for the practitioner to consult with the orixás through the mãe de santos. Consultations can be about difficult decisions, love, etc. These picture, taken shortly after one of her last sessions, show the special table with basket basin in the center (under the scarves) and the shells used in the process. She has these sessions a couple times a month for members of her community. The process can also involve preparing offerings for the orixás, though this is more often the case for other rituals. I will have more on this in the next weeks.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Candomblé: Festa de Ere (The Party for the Children)

O ronco

Vila Prudente. Today, Augusta held her first candomblé event in her new home. The ocassion was the annual party for the child orixas – the Festa de Ere. Augusta and member of the community prepared platters of sweets and packages of treats in the morning and received the guests in the afternoon. The party-goers were not intending to drink and pass the afternoon chatting. Instead, they came to witness the arrival of the young orixas and orixa messengers that would visit to enjoy the candies and toys provided for them.

Members of the community trickled in and wandered to the terrace on the third floor where they enjoyed a beautifully clear day while lunching on salad, rice, baked chicken, an the painstakingly made stew called caruru made of a sweet green vegetable called quiabo, which we started making the day before. Then, as Edete cleansed the air of the house with can of burning incense, one-by-one, we took a took baths with the fresh herbal water that Lucas and Nivaldo prepared the night before in the large mortar as they sang songs to the orixas.

Augusta, dressed in a full, shining gold skirt, a lacey light yellow and white sleeveless blouse, a delicate white wrap across her chest, a long string of beads around her neck, and a carefully-placed white headdress, then gathered the community back into the multi-purpose third floor space which served as the ritual area today, but earlier that morning served as a second kitchen, other days as Augusta’s space for consultations (where she would ‘jogar buzios’ or read shells for people… note the picture showing the table we put outside), and soon, the place where Lucas and I will sleep for the three months before our departure for the U.S.

The night before, Augusta and others also arranged the candied and flowered alter in the far corner of the multi-purpose room. Its space marked by the border of a large cloth, the altar was littered with seven bowls variously filled with tetes de nega, suckers, lollipops, bars of coco, longer (and quite phallic) bars of marshmallow, candy cones filled with caramel, and coco candies wrapped in yellow, pink, and white tissue festively tied and flared at one end. The final bowl displayed a luscious selection of tropical fruits purchased at the farmer’s market early that morning. A pot of vibrantly yellow daisies added further color and sweet smell. Littered between the bowls were the toys meant to entertain the visiting orixas (cars, balls, play money, and a very anatomically correct doll) and to aleve their thirst, small bottles of guarana (a Brazilian soda similar in taste to ginger ale). In a box to the side, waited the several candy gift bags filled with puffed corn and samplings of all of the times on the altar.

The community members were seated in a circle variously on low stands or on the floor – but all oriented toward Augusta. I sat in the far back in order to leave myself space to exit and tend to the allergy attacks that are haunting me these days (and thus my sickly looking appearance in the pictures). Sitting at the side of the altar, Augusta led the community in 16 orations and songs – praising each of the orixas. When we came to the song for Ere, the child orixa, the queen of the child orixas, Sereia Dourada incorporated Augusta. She rose to give greetings and distribute handfuls of food and candy to each of the mortal visitors. By the time she arrived in front of her, one of the female visitors had too been incorporated by a messenger orixa. I later learned that this spirit had incorporated her many times before. The messenger happily ate all the candies offered, but suddenly departed leaving the woman choking on a mouthful of sweets. Next, Nelsa who I had always imagined had been incorporated before, indeed had her first incorporation. Her orixa messenger entered her body and stayed for the remaining one-half hour of the event. He, a very, very young spirit, peacefully played with a car and ball, rarely interacting with the people, yet accepting the candies offered her by many different visitors.

Sereia Dourada, after having gleefully toyed with the inordinately large lollipop and her share of sweets, made rounds to give blessings. The first incorporated visitor, her husband, and their daughter offered Sereia Dourada a marine-charm bracelet. After putting it on top of the large white cake and pouring guarana over it to see the patterns it created, Sereia Dourada interpreted the situation and needs of the family... much as Augusta normally does with her buzios. She then gave similar consultations for a couple other people while the community got up and mingled in the small space. After all the greetings and distributions had been made and Sereia Dourada distributed pieces of the late-arriving apple-filled, whip-cream-frosted cake, she took to her side the messenger spirit incorporated in Nelsa and announced that it was time for them to depart. She draped a scarf over their heads while they shivered and coughed as the orixas departed.

Each one of the women who had been incorporated, made comments after the ritual about how they ate a lot while incorporated and/or had stomachaches as a result, but otherwise they suffered no other side effects. I asked Nelsa about this, though I was quite curious about her other feelings and wanted to ask more. I learned that night that during at least a few prior rituals, she had felt vibrations of these orixas and so had been preparing for incorporation for some time. Clearly, this would have to be a significant day for her. Indeed, I will have to ask her about it the next time I see her.

The timing of this party happened to coincide well with Halloween and the Catholic All Saints Day, yet in part by chance. Traditionally, the party is held once a year, during the month of October. It well could have been weeks ago. Syncretism or the swapping of symbols between religions most notably between the Catholic Church and indigenous religions, remains a part of Candomblé and other Afro-Brazilian religions. Though Candomblé practitioners intend not to call the orixas by Catholic saint names as other Afro-brazilian religions do, there is a liberal appreciation of Christian prayers and psalms in Candomblé rituals and homes. The party was closed, for example, with the Lord’s Prayer.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Acting as a Participant-Observer of Candomblé/Ficando um Participante-Observador de Candomblé


Santuario Ecologico da Serra do Mar, São Paulo. (Para português, olha embaixo.) Today I participated in my third Candomblé ritual. Over the last several months I have been learning slowly, but surely, about the practice of Candomblé, the Afro-Brazilian religion I mentioned in my February 9 entry. I am learning from a mãe de santos, Augusta Assuncao, and her husband, Raul, who has written a book on one of the orixas. After having read a few books before arriving here, checking out some articles and books here, taking an herbal bath at home (to revive my spirits) prepared by Augusta, completing an extensive interview with Augusta in March, finally I began as a participant-observer (an anthropological term that describes researchers who learn by involving themselves in a community). It was in April that I put on the traditional candomble whites (see the photos) and entered the prayer room (Roncó) for the first time. Last week, I helped in the semi-annual cleaning of the orixas altars (Osse). And, finally, this weekend, I journeyed to a ritual ground to give offerings to the orixas.

We got up relatively early this Sunday... at about 8 a.m. to then meet with everybody at Augusta´s house at about 9. All 12 or so of us packed into a small school bus and car and headed out to the state park outside the city of São Paulo. The ritual ground was indeed private property in the middle of the state park. And, interestingly, it was actually for Umbanda, a similar Afro-Brazilian religion that has a lot more syncretism or elements of Christianity mixed in. The orixas (African spirits representing different aspects of a monotheistic supreme power), however, are shared in Umbanda and Candomble. The ritual ground, called ´Santuário Ecológico da Serra do Mar,´ is made up of acres of land lush with natural and planted greenery. There are several open-air temple spaces available to different groups and accessable after the snack shop and parking lot. In the middle of the long line of formal ritual spaces, there is a plaza of statues of the orixas where people give offerings and pray. After that, you hike along a path and get to the most important part of the place – the waterfalls. It is here where people cleans themselves spiritually and where many smaller groups have their rituals.

We set up our offerings of what I think vatupa (I think) and madioca covered in dende (palm oil... important to Candomblé and people of the northeast Brazil), flowers, perfumes, and candles. Augusta cleansed everybody individually with pipoca seeds and prayed to the orixas for our personal well-being. We then gathered around the offerings, and sang songs to the orixás in Yoruba. I tried to sing along, but mostly marveled in how much we sounded like the groups of Africans singing in all of those films like Jardim Fiel. It was beautiful to hear. Then an orixá incorporated (possessed) Augusta, led us in more songs, and gave blessings. This part of the ritual is considered the most sacred. Raul advised me I should not take pictures. In that spirit, I think I should hold off on relating this part of the day, though I can say it was powerful for everyone there. (No worries to those of you who might not know about Candomblé... though the Catholic church did well to vilanize it and relate everything in it to Satan, it is a peaceful and positive religion. There are no intential uses of bad energy or “magic.”) After the orixa left Augusta, we took invidual trips to the waterfall. The brave ones got completely wet. I only walked up to the water, hoping to avoid wet hair in cold weather since I have had a the remains of a cold for more than two months (yes, I know, I need to go to the doctor).

We then headed back to get some snacks before our 45 minute drive back to the heart of the city. I left feeling tired not because of the ritual, but because of the early rise. I like my late weekend mornings! But more than tired, my mind was busy processing everything I had been learning about Candomblé. Really, I have much more to learn... but I am so glad to have this opportunity to see it up close.


Santuario Ecologico da Serra do Mar, São Paulo. Hoje eu participei em meu terceiro ritual de Candomblé. Sobre o último diversos meses eu tenho aprendido lentamente, mas certamente, sobre a prática de Candomblé, a religião afro-brasiliera que eu mencionei em minha entrada de 9 de fevereiro. Eu estou aprendendo de um mãe de santos, Augusta Assunçao, que é a tia do Lucas (que sorte para mim) e seu marido, Raul, que escreveu um livro dum orixa. Em seguida lendo alguns livros antes de chegar aqui e alguns artigos e livros aqui, fazendo um banho de herves no repouso (para revive meus espíritos) preparado por Augusta, terminando uma entrevista extensiva com a Augusta em março, finalmente eu comecei como um participante-observador (um termo de antropologia que descreve os investigadores que aprendem se envolvendo em uma comunidade). Realizava-se em abril que eu vesti as ropas brancas e tradicionais de Candomble (veja as fotos) e entrei no quarto do rezar (Roncó) para a primeira vez. Última semana, eu ajudei na limpeza semi-anual dos alteres dos orixas (Osse). E, finalmente, este fim de semana, eu viajei a uma terra ritual para dar oferendas aos orixas.

Nós levantamo-nos relativamente cedo este domingo... a aproximadamente 8h a então encontramo-nos com todos na casa de Augusta em aproximadamente 9h. Doze ou assim pessoas embalaram em uma ônibus pequeno e em um caro e dirigem ao parque de estado fora da cidade de São Paulo. A terra ritual era certamente propriedade confidencial no meio do parque de estado. E, interessante, era realmente para Umbanda, uma religião afro-brasiliana similar que tem muito mais o syncretismo ou os elementos do cristianismo misturado dentro. Os orixás (espíritos africanos que representam aspectos diferentes de um poder único e supremo), entretanto, são compartilhados em Umbanda e em Candomble.

A terra ritual, chamada 'Santuario Ecologico da Serra do Mar,' é composto dos acres da terra muito verde e nativa. Há diversos espaços e templos de ar livre disponíveis aos grupos diferentes que ficam após a loja do lanches e o lote do estacionamento. No meio da linha longa de espaços ritual formais, há uma praça das estátuas dos orixas onde os povos dão oferendas e reza. Mas após todos os espaços rituais formais, você anda acima ao longo de um trajeto e começa à parte a mais importante do lugar - as cachoeiras. É aqui onde as pessoas se limpam espiritualmente e onde muitos grupos menores têm seus rituais.

Nós arrumamos nossas oferendas de vatapa (eu penso) e do madioca coberto no dende (óleo de palma... importante para Candomblé e povos do Brasil do nordeste), nas flores, nos perfumes, e nas velas. Augusta limpou todos individualmente com sementes da pipoca e rezou aos orixás para nosso bem estar pessoal. Nós recolhemos então em torno das oferendas, e cantamos canções aos orixas em Uruba. Eu tentei cantar sem conseguindo, mas maravilhei-me na maior parte em quanto nós soamos como os grupos dos africanos que cantam em todas aquelas películas como Jardim Fiel. Era bonito ouvir-se. Então um orixa incorporou Augusta, conduziu-nos cantar mais canções, e deu orações. Esta parte do ritual é considerada o mais sacrado. Raul recomendou-me que eu não devo tirar fotos. Neste espírito, mim pensa eu devo prender fora em relacionar esta parte do dia, embora eu posso dizer que era poderosa para todos lá. (Nenhum se preocupa àqueles de você que não pôde saber sobre Candomblé... Apesar de a igreja catholica fêz bem falar mal de Candomblé e relacionou tudo nele ao Diabo, é uma religião calma e positiva. Não há usa de energia negativa ou da "mágica má.") Depois que o orixa deixou o corpo de Augusta, nós fizemos viagems inviduais as cachoeira. Bravos começaram completamente molhados. Eu andei somente até a água, esperando evitar o cabelo molhado no tempo frio desde que eu estava ainda com gripe para mais de dois meses (sim, eu sei, mim necessito ir ao doutor).

Nós dirigimos então para trás para começar alguns lanches antes que nossos 45 movimentação minuciosa para trás ao coração da cidade. Eu deixei o sentimento cansado não por causa do ritual, mas por causa da ascensão adiantada. Eu gosto de minhas manhãs atrasadas do fim de semana! Mas cansado mais do que, minha mente era ocupada processar tudo que eu tenho aprendido sobre Candomblé. Realmente, eu tenho muito mais a aprender... mas eu sou assim que contente de ter esta oportunidade de vê-la bem pertido.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Brazilian Research


Mooca, São Paulo. Besides living here and becoming fluent with Portugese, the other part of my dream here is to actually learn more about the history and religion of Brazil. Here is the latest on that.

I have been trying to get together materials for a research visa, but am currently stuck not with all the proper academic letters of invitation and such, but with the SF Brazilian Consulate´s requirement of a local/California criminal clearance which apparently must be completed in person there! Argh... I don´t know how it is going to work out.

But, the good news is that Lucas´ aunt and uncle, Augusta and Raul, are involved in Candomblé here and have agreed to help me do formal and/or informal research. Augusta is a mãe de santos (a priestess, more or less) and Raul has written a book on one of the saints/orixas of Candomble. With access to their collection of books and resources, their knowledge of the customs and history, I will be able to understand with some intimacy their branch of Candomblé (Ketu). I haven´t decided for sure, but I will likely focus on knowing one of the orixas really well.... probably Oxum. (See Wikipedia´s entry on Ketu Candomble and the orixas). I hope to spend a part of my Friday´s working on this!