RIO DE JANEIRO — In its contemporary form, Brazil’s Candomblé religion looks about as removed from Western Christianity as could be imagined. It must have seemed positively diabolical, then, to the brutal Portuguese overlords whose slaves imported it from Africa, and whom they believed had been converted. Those slaves may have cleverly “synchronized” their own deities with Catholic saints to be able to continue worshiping, but they did not synchronize their beliefs.
This does not make Candomblé the devil’s work. It does not have the concept of heaven and hell, nor a rigid moral code in the sense that Christians would understand it. Instead, believers are supposed to fulfill their destiny, whatever that might be. Both men and women can become priests. Homosexuality is accepted, secretive animal sacrifices play an important role and the sexual lives of devotees are their own business when they are outside the walls of the Candomblé "house," or center.
There are elaborate theatrical rituals, with costumes and accessories that can include robes, small swords and shields, a mini archer’s bow, and even as witnessed in one ceremony in Rio, an elaborate silver helmet with a tiny figure on a plinth on top that looked like something a 19th-century Prussian army officer might have sported.
But these accoutrements are no more outlandish than a Catholic Mass might have appeared to an 19th-century African who had just been enslaved. Candomblé is a religion like any other, with its own rules, hierarchies and sense of the spiritual. This is true especially in Brazil, where the existence of spirituality and an afterlife is regarded as an incontestable truth by the majority of the population — be they Catholics, or followers of more esoteric, yet tolerated religions, such as the spiritualist sect that follows the teachings of 19th-century French writer Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail, who wrote the Spiritist Codification under the pseudonym Allan Kardec.
Or followers of both, because many Catholics have no problem also being spiritualists. Religious duality is popular in Brazil, one reason why some estimates put followers of Candomblé and its sister religion, Umbanda, in the tens of millions, not the official half a million or so who admitted to it in the 2010 government census.
Candomblé is an oral culture with no sacred text. There are seven Candomblé nations — or variations – such as Ketu and Angola, depending on which Brazilian state it developed in, and where in Africa the slaves practicing it came from. They believe in a supreme being, called Olódùmarè (whose name can be spelled with or without the accents). Beneath this god are 16 Orixás — deities, or entities — many of whom have characteristics that are distinctly human in nature.
Yemanjá, the sea goddess, is given gifts like flowers or champagne by millions of Brazilians every New Year’s Eve. She is sometimes associated with the Virgin Mary, but she is also famously vain.
The warrior Ogum is linked to Saint George — courageous and persistent, and popular in Brazil for these qualities.
Then there is a female Orixá of the wind, Iansã, who is — as might be expected in Brazil — a more sensual deity.
Nature is perhaps the single most important factor in Candomblé, and each Orixá is connected to an element. “All of them are responsible for a part of nature,” said Rodrigo Silva, "father-of-saint," or priest of the Logun Edé Palace Candomblé center. It is not uncommon to see Candomblé being practiced on beaches, or in waterfalls. “Our gods are ecological gods,” said Beatriz Moreira Costa, 84, a revered priestess called Mother Beatá.
In its sister religion, Umbanda, invented in Rio in the early 20th century, both the Catholic God and reincarnation also play a part. “It is a Christian doctrine,” said Tábata Lugao, 27, a recent convert. Orixás and Catholic saints are synchronized — but Umbanda also has its own holy figures, such as Preto Velho, or "Old Black Man," a wily old slave figure who smokes a pipe.
The mostly female, middle-age worshippers being "incorporated" by Preto Velho at a recent Umbanda ceremony in São Gonçalo, near Rio, drank beer and smoked cigars and appeared to be enjoying themselves enormously, but they also took their ceremony extremely seriously — another kind of quintessentially Brazilian religious duality.
Unlike Umbanda, Candomblé initiates spend 21 days in seclusion living in the center, before being initiated as Yaô (this can also be spelled in different ways). Then they can be “incorporated” by Orixás — and initiates have individual Orixás they must follow.
After seven years as a Yaô, they become an Egbomi, and can then decide if they want to progress to the highest stage, that of father-of-saint or mother-of-saint.
The musicians who play percussion and sing the songs in African languages at Candomblé ceremonies that aim to honor and conjure up the Orixás are another kind of Yaô, called Ogá.
This does not necessarily involve being righteous, and it is here, perhaps, that Candomblé is most controversial. Those priests who sell curses or spells, via lower-level spirits called Exús, prompt some of the prejudice that surrounds the religion. “There are those who have pleasure in doing bad, others who like to help,” said Silva.
His center, he emphasized, does not get involved in the darker side of Candomblé’s neighborhood witchcraft, pejoratively called Macumba in Brazil. “It was made to protect and help people who need this help,” he said. “We fight for peace.”