What Is Candomblé? Beliefs and History

A Religion Developed by Enslaved Africans

Candomblé ceremony

 Phil Clark Hill / Getty Images

Candomblé (meaning "dance in honor of the gods") is a religion that combines elements from African cultures including the Yoruba, Bantu, and Fon, as well as some elements of Catholicism and indigenous South American beliefs. Developed in Brazil by enslaved Africans, it is based on oral tradition and includes a wide range of rituals including ceremonies, dance, animal sacrifice, and personal worship. While Candomblé was once a "hidden" religion, its membership has grown significantly and is now practiced by at least two million people in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Paraguay.

Followers of Candomblé believe in a pantheon of gods, all of which serve a single all-powerful deity. Individuals have personal deities who inspire and protect them as they pursue their own individual destiny.

Candomblé: Key Takeaways

  • Candomblé is a religion which combines elements of African and indigenous religion with aspects of Catholicism.
  • Candomblé originated with enslaved West Africans brought to Brazil by the Portuguese Empire.
  • The religion is now practiced by several million people in South American countries including Brazil, Venezuela, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina.
  • Worshippers believe in a supreme creator and many minor deities; every individual has their own deity to guide their destiny and protect them.
  • Worship rituals consist of African-derived song and dance during which worshippers are possessed by their personal gods.

History of Candomblé in Brazil

Candomblé, initially called Batuque, emerged from the culture of enslaved Africans brought to Brazil by the Portuguese Empire between about 1550 and 1888. The religion was an amalgamation of the West African Yoruba, Fon, Igbo, Kongo, Ewe, and Bantu belief systems intertwined with indigenous American traditions and some of the rituals and beliefs of Catholicism. The first Candomblé temple was built in Bahia, Brazil, in the 19th century.

Candomblé grew increasingly popular over the centuries; this was made easier by the almost complete segregation of people of African descent.

Because of its association with pagan practices and slave revolts, Candomblé was outlawed and practitioners were persecuted by the Roman Catholic church. It wasn't until the 1970s that Candomblé was legalized and public worship was allowed in Brazil.

Origins of Candomblé

For several hundred years, the Portuguese transported enslaved Africans from West Africa to Brazil. There, Africans were supposedly converted to Catholicism; however, many of them continued to teach their own culture, religion, and language from the Yoruba, Bantu, and Fon traditions. At the same time, Africans absorbed ideas from the indigenous people of Brazil. Over time, enslaved Africans developed a unique, syncretistic religion, Candomblé, which combined elements of all these cultures and beliefs.

Candomblé and Catholicism

Enslaved Africans were assumed to be practicing Catholics, and it was important to maintain the appearance of worshipping according to Portuguese expectations. The Catholic practice of praying to saints was not radically different from the polytheistic practices that originated in Africa. For example, Yemanjá, the sea goddess, is sometimes associated with the Virgin Mary, while the brave warrior Ogum is similar to Saint George. In some cases, images of Bantu gods were secretly hidden inside the statues of Catholic saints. While enslaved Africans appeared to be praying to Catholic saints, they were, in fact, practicing Candomblé. The practice of Candomblé was sometimes associated with slave rebellions.

Yemanja
Yemanja figurines seen in the Fiesta Red River, in Salvador, Bahia. Joa_Souza / Getty Images

Candomblé and Islam

Many of the enslaved Africans brought to Brazil had been raised as Muslims (malê) in Africa. Many of the beliefs and rituals associated with Islam were thus integrated into Candomblé in some areas of Brazil. Muslim practitioners of Candomblé, like all practitioners of Islam, follow the practice of worshipping on Fridays. Muslim practitioners of Candomblé were major figures in slave revolts; to identify themselves during revolutionary action they dressed in traditional Muslim garb (white garments with skull caps and amulets).

Candomblé and African Religions

Candomblé was practiced freely in African communities, though it was practiced differently in different locations based on the cultural origins of the enslaved groups in each area of Brazil.

The Bantu people, for example, focused much of their practice on ancestor worship—a belief they held in common with indigenous Brazilians.

The Yoruba people practice a polytheistic religion, and many of their beliefs became part of Candomblé. Some of the most important priestesses of Candomblé are descendants of enslaved Yoruba people.

Macumba is a general umbrella term that refers to all Bantu-related religions practiced in Brazil; Candomblé falls under the Macumba umbrella as do Giro and Mesa Blanca. Non-practitioners sometimes refer to Macumba as a form of witchcraft or black magic, though practitioners deny this.

Beliefs and Practices 

Candomblé has no sacred texts; its beliefs and rituals are entirely oral. All forms of Candomblé include belief in Olódùmarè, a supreme being, and 16 Orixas, or sub-deities. There are, however, seven Candomblé nations (variations) based on location and on the African ancestry of local practitioners. Each nation worships a slightly different set of Orixas and has its own unique sacred languages and rituals. Examples of nations include the Queto nation, which uses the Yoruba language, and the Bantu nation, which uses the Kikongo and Kimbundu languages.

Candomble Umbanda ceremony in Salvador
Candomble Umbanda ceremony in Salvador. Cigar and dancing, ceremony at Terreiro (yard) peace and love. Phil Clarke Hill / Contributor

Perspectives on Good and Evil

Unlike many Western religions, Candomblé does not have a distinction between good and evil. Rather, practitioners are urged only to fulfill their destiny to the fullest. An individual's destiny may be ethical or unethical, but unethical behavior does have negative consequences. Individuals determine their destiny when they are possessed by their ancestor spirit or Egum, usually during a special ritual that involved ceremonial dancing.

Destiny and Afterlife

Candomblé is not focused on the afterlife, though practitioners do believe in a life after death. Believers work to accumulate axe, a life force, which is everywhere in nature. When they die, believers are buried in the earth (never cremated) so that they can provide axe to all living things.

Priesthood and Initiation

Candomblé temples, or houses, are managed by groups organized in "families." Candomblé temples are almost always run by women, called ialorixá (mother-of-saint), with the support of a man called babalorixá (father-of-saint). Priestesses, in addition to running their houses, may also be fortune-tellers and healers.

Candomble high priestess
Brazilian 86-year-old Mae Beata de Iemanja, candomble "mae de santo" (high priestress) gives an interview to AFP at her "terreiro" (yard) Ile Omiojuaro in Nova Iguacu, outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on May 16, 2017. During the interview Mae Beata de Iemanja spoke, among other things, about the discrimination the candomble women suffer because of the "oja" (turban) they wear, oftentimes being treated as witches. YASUYOSHI CHIBA / Staff

Priests are admitted by approval of deities called Orixás; they must also possess certain personal qualities, go through a complex training process, and participate in initiation rites which can take up to seven years. While some priests are able to fall into trance, some are not.

The initiation process starts with a seclusion period of several weeks, after which the priest who leads the initiate's house goes through a divination process to determine what the initiate's role will be during their time as a novice. The initiate (also called an iyawo) may learn about Orixa foods, learn ritual songs, or look after other initiates during their seclusion. They must also go through a series of sacrifices in their first, third, and seventh years. After seven years, iyawo become elders—senior members of their family.

While all Candomblé nations have similar forms of organization, priesthood, and initiation, they are not identical. Different nations have slightly different names and expectations for priests and initiates.

Deities

Candomblé practitioners believe in a Supreme Creator, Olodumare, and Orixas (deified ancestors) which were created by Olodumare. Over time, there have been many Orixas—but contemporary Candomblé usually refers to sixteen.

Candomblé
African sculpture during candomblé ritual. Candomblé, an animist religion, originally from the region of present-day Nigeria and Benin, brought to Brazil by enslaved Africans and established here, in which priests and fans stage, in public and private ceremonies, a coexistence with forces of nature and ancestors.  

Orixas offer a link between the world of spirit and the human world, and each nation has its own Orixas (though they can shift from house to house as guests). Each Candomblé practitioner is associated with their own Orixa; that deity both protects them and defines their destiny. Each Orixa is associated with a particular personality, force of nature, type of food, color, animal, and day of the week.

Rituals and Ceremonies

Worship takes place in temples which have indoor and outdoor spaces as well as special spaces for the gods. Prior to entering, worshippers must wear clean clothes and ritually wash. While worshippers may come to the temple to have their fortunes told, to share a meal, or for other reasons, they typically go for ritual worship services.

The worship service starts with a period during which priests and initiates prepare for the event. Preparation includes washing costumes, decorating the temple in the colors of the Orixa to be honored, preparing food, conducting divinations, and (in some cases) making animal sacrifices to the Orixas.

When the main part of the service begins, children reach out to the Orixas and fall into trances. Worship then includes music and dance, but no homilies. Choreographed dances, called capoeira, are a way to call the individual Orixas; when the dances are at their most ecstatic, the dancer's Orixa enters their body sending the worshipper into a trance. The god dances alone and then leaves the worshipper's body when certain hymns are sung. When the ritual is complete, the worshippers share a banquet.

Sources

  • “African-Derived Religions in Brazil.” Religious Literacy Project, rlp.hds.harvard.edu/faq/african-derived-religions-brazil.
  • Phillips, Dom. “What Do Some Afro-Brazilian Religions Actually Believe?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 6 Feb. 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/02/06/what-do-afro-brazilian-religions-actually-believe/?utm_term=.ebcda653fee8.
  • “Religions - Candomble: History.” BBC, BBC, 15 Sept. 2009, www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/candomble/history/history.shtml.
  • Santos, Gisele. “Candomble: The African-Brazilian Dance in Honor of the Gods.” Ancient Origins, Ancient Origins, 19 Nov. 2015, www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/candomble-african-brazilian-dance-honor-gods-004596.