Tuesday, December 21, 2004



About two weeks ago Márcia brought me and a few other foreigners to a Candomblé service. Candomblé is the local religion here in Bahia. It's a fusion of African, native, and Christian traditions, or so I'm told. I won't go into a big discourse on its history and forms and meaning and such since I am highly unqualified to do so. I sure you can find far better info with Google. But I can describe the service I saw.

We took a taxi out to one of the more distant neighborhoods and stopped in front of an unassuming house. It was maybe 9 o'clock. A man and a woman came out of the house to ask if we were here for the service. We said we were. They then asked Deborah, one of our party, to remove her blouse. It was black, which was bad luck. We found her another blouse and went inside.

The main area consisted of two small room with most of the wall knocked out between. In one sat the observers, and in the other were three drummers and a singer, all male, and about 10 old women dancing in a circle. It was clear they had really taken the white thing to heart. Nearly everything was done in white: the plaster walls, the cloths draped over tables and lights, the dirty unclipped poodle that ran to and fro the entire night, and the dresses of the women. The men would play a song and the women would dance, slowly, using small motions that at times seemed to mimic rowing. Then the song would end abruptly and there would be silence, the women pacing for a minute, one or two sitting down, or a sitting woman joining the circle, until the music started up again. Women kept coming and going the whole night. The silence was particularly silent, coming after so much noise and movement and with so little warning.

The division between the rooms was only approximate. People in the observing room would sometimes clap or sing, while people in the participating room would sometimes sit and watch. And people went back and forth all the time.

About halfway through the night, the dance circle ended and a new pattern began: the solo trance-like dance. One woman at a time would do it, dancing in the standard way. Then sometimes her body would go rigid and she'd let out chirps or squeals. There was one woman I particularly liked a lot. Unlike most of the women she was skinny, and had glasses. She looked a great deal like a librarian, which in fact she may have been. Or to be more precise she looked like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But to see her dancing like that -- it was an interesting juxtaposition of person and context.

I think that as an outsider there's a tendency to see people who do something like this as really different. But she was in some way so familiar, it was impossible to watch her without imagining her stamping your books. To go to this place felt like traveling back in time, but that's a false impression. These are real people, doing this in 2004, and they have otherwise modern lives. In fact Márcia, to the extent that she is religious, is an adherent of Candomblé. She has her Orixá (syncronistic equivalent of patron saint). She will not place her purse on the floor for fear of inviting financial calamity. Throughout the service she kept getting people to uncross their arms and legs, because that is considered bad luck. In a hundred little ways these traditions inform her life. And she is anything if not modern.

I also began to think about how many religions, even those most familiar to me, have sects who do something quite close to this. Christians have the Pentacostals. Jews have the Hasidim (by now that tradition is quite far removed from ecstatic worship, but orginally that was its claim to fame). Muslims have the Sufi dervishes. And so on. It seems to be some very basic and common thing to worship in this way.

Toward the end a very old woman came out with a large container filled with acarajé, a mealy bean-based loaf reminiscent of falafel, and an oversized crown. People from the observation room began to filter in to bow to her and take a piece of acarajé. I did this along with the crowd. Then people came out of a back room with large plates of food -- rice, chicken, acarajé, cururú -- and gave everyone a plate. Then the service was done, and we all ate together.

Later on I was talking to the old woman who had given me the acarajé, and somehow she decided she wanted me to guess her age. I figured she was about 85, but following the dictum that you should always lie when asked that question, I shaded down and guessed 65. Boy am I glad I did. She was 67.

I don't have any deep conclusions to reach. Thinking back to my days in ethnomusicology class, I know they would have a field day. For me it was more about being allowed to peek into a very different world which I didn't understand at all, and then find threads that led back to things I maybe do understand. Also, it was very beautiful with the music and the dancing and all the white cloth.

P.S. One last academic-y thing. I was reading an article about Candomblé that made a big deal about how the Christian saints merged identities with existing Yoruba gods and godesses, and that this made the adoption of Christianity (or at least aspects of it) more palatable to people accustomed to polytheism. But then, unrelatedly, I was reading the chapter on early Christianity in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (I know, I'm a dork) and Gibbon argues that saints were originally employed to serve this very purpose. He says that the earliest Christianity didn't have saints, but they were employed from the 4th century or so onward as a means of easing the conversion of polytheists. So if this is true, saints were not co-opted by Candomblé -- they were serving their original purpose.

That certainly sounds fascinating. I was wondering whether it has any connection to that scene in Black Orpheus (the sum total of my knowledge Brazilian) after Eurydice has been killed, when Orpheus goes to some sort of service to find her or connect with her. There are women dancing (dressed in white robes, I seem to recall), candles, music--and one rather large woman starts shaking really wildly and then Eurydice speaks through her. Do you recall this? It seems to me it must be related. (Actually, I just looked it up, and it seems that this is correct--it was supposed to be portraying Candomble.)

As for the Chasidim, what makes you think they no longer are into ecstasy (not the drug; the thing itself)??? I think it is still definitely part of what they are all about (just not in the street, and don't frighten the horses, as Mrs. Patrick Campbell said about sex).
Wow, Alex, that sounds incredible. I was particularly struck by your comment that "These are real people, doing this in 2004, and they have otherwise modern lives." It reminded me of a festival I went to a few years ago here in Japan.

Most festivals are pretty staid affairs, more akin to a Fourth of July parade with really old floats than a millenia deep pagan ritual. But every once in a while you encounter these absolutely wild ceremonies. A friend of mine was invited to join the festival that his town puts on, a celebration of the end of the rice harvest, where all the virile young males in town make skirts out of the discarded chaff from the rice. Top the ensemble off with a headband, head down to the local shrine, everyone piles in and begins chanting a single phrase over and over and over. Pass sake around. The chanting got heavier, the crowd starts to get wilder, turning into a massive crowd surfing mosh pitting bit of mayhem, a literal pile of bodies. The local shrine's rice god comes out through the sake and posseses the young men, who are chanting themselves hoarse and steaming with sweat. At midnight they burst out of the shrine in a pack and run screaming down the mountain to a sister shrine. Every year there are sprained ankles, pulled muscles and broken bones, and every year the shrine is packed to capacity by people for whom "the rice harvest" means very little: accountants, auto-mechanics, factory workers, convenience store clerks.

Also, as an addendum to your academic-y sidebar, Buddhism in Japan went through the same kind of fusion as Christianity. Sanjusangendo Temple in Kyoto houses 1001 life size statues of the Kannon manifestation of Buddha, each one slightly different from the next. However, these are just the backdrop to 28 wooden statues made in 11th century Japan that cover the breadth of Buddhist dieties. Hindi Garuda bird spirits and Japanese wind and thunder gods rub shoulders with Chinese sages and warrior kings, all brought under the Buddhist umbrella. Apparently when Christianity first came to Japan the Portugese missionaries fought a losing battle to keep Japanese Christians from putting their crosses on their prayer beads. Jesus was just a hip new Bodhisatva.
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