Friday, January 1, 2010

Tossing flowers to Iemanjá

Hoje é dia de festa, hoje é dia de festa
É dia de levar flores para o mar
É dia de dar presentes para Iemanjá
Sabonete, colônia, água de cheiro
Batom, esmalte, rouge, pente, grampo, escova, jóias e espelho
              "Hoje é Dia de Festa", Jorge Ben Jor

On Tuesday afternoon (29/12/2009), Ana Paula and I biked down to Copacabana to participate in the annual celebration/invocation of Iemanjá, the Afrobrazilian goddess of the sea by Rio de Janeiro's main candomblé and umbanda centers.

Tradionally, the festival occurs on New Year's Eve or one day before that. In the last few years, however, the city's preparations for their blow-out New Year's party has made it difficult to find a calm and open stretch of beach for a night's worth of drumming and singing. Additonally, increased religious intolerance on the part of Rio's ever-growing evangelical Christian community has made having the celebration on a fixed and pre-determined date without police support a Bad Idea. For five years now, Iemanjá's have had toi work together with the city government to assure that their celebrations won't be interrupted by fanatics spewing filth in Jesus' name.

So we'd had our ear to the ground for a couple of weeks and finally discovered on Saturday that this year's event would occur on Tuesday evening.

Basically, the Barco de Iemanjá is put together by several of the city's main terreiros and is set up principally for the faithful. Other events will be put on for other groups during the New Year's party, but these are mainly for gringos to see. The terreiros set up camp on Copacabana and start their rituals at about 5PM. There's singing and dancing and free consultations with the various divinities that show up and take possession of the faithful. People make their own altars in the sand and give offerings to Iemanjá, typically cheap champagne, perfume and flowers. Finally, a boat is put to sea filled with the terreiros' offerings to Iemanjá. The event opens a cycle of religious activity in Candomblé/Umbanda which will close on February 2nd, Iemanja's "official" day.

Offering boat.

We arrived at the beach at 5PM, just when everything was started, and set up our altar close to the waves. The wind was so strong that we couldn't get our candles lit, even after place them in a foot-deep sandpit. We eventually had to pile them all together and light them at once, as it was the only way to get and keep them going.

The faithful begin to gather.

Members of one of the various terreiros set up their "official" altar.

Our sad excuse for an altar.

Post-modern Pai de Santo, complete with Tommy Hilfinger bag....

It's interesting to note that while Rio's terreiros proudly display their African roots, they still insist on portraying Iemanjá as a white woman. Compare Iemanja´s portrait in New Orleans, for example, and her icon at the head of the main altar (shaped like a sea horse) during the 2009 ceremony in Rio:

The ironic thing about that New Orleans image is that it's an almost perfect copy of a typical Brazilian image sold all across the nation, except for the fact that Iemanjá is portrayed as brown. Below is a copy of the Brazilian original of that painting, set next to an African-Brazilian portrayal of Iemanjá. What this means is that somewhere in the past, some gringo voodoo practicioner came to Brazil, bought the most commercial Iemanjá image s/he could find, took it back to New Orleans and did a brown-skinned version of, essentially, a white lady. One wonders why this person didn't just pick up a black Iemanjá in the first place? What's more lulzworthy is that said Iemanjá image probably gets passed off to tourists as an "original" based on "slave drawings" or what have you...

At about 6PM, the singing and drumming began with a recital of Brazil's national anthem. This might sound odd to some folks until one remembers that African-Brazilian cultural phenomena such as candomblé, capoeira and even samba were seen as being "backwards" until they were enshrined as "national culture" by the Vargas administration in the 1930s and '40s. Since then, events of this sort have gone to some pains to emphasize their essential patriotic nature as "organic expressions of true Brazilian culture".

Shortly after the anthem, however, Iemanja's sister Iansã apparently got narked off and decided to piss all over us - or, as Ana puts it "Iansã wanted to mark the celebration with her blessings", In any case, the heavens opened up and poured rain. We beat a hasty retreat to a nearby beer kiosk, along with some 200 other faithful. The terreiro people took refuge under their tents and immediately started sending up prayers to Iansã. About an hour later, Saint Barbara decided to reduce the rain to a drizzle and we decided to head out for some Arab food.

"Look! Blessings!"

After dinner, I decided to head back to the celebration to snap some final photos. The terreiros were still thanking Iansã who was still raining blessings down from on high, though albeit not as violently as earlier. Many of the altars had been lit and were now beautifully ablaze, in spite of the drizzle. Also, the Orixá (who'd apparently also taken a powder in the beer tent during the downpour) had shown up and were dancing and giving out consultations.

Altars near the sidwalk, blazing away.

Woman praying at an altar.

Woman praying at the main altar.

Woman consulting a Preta Velha, apparently regarding some problem that her child is having.

One consultation went on for  a long time and apparently involved a Preta Velha and some problem that a woman was having with her young daughter. Or it could be that the woman simply wanted the Preta Velha's blessing over her daughter. Only Umbanda has "Preto Velhos". Candomblé - at least the more traditional variants - tends to hew closely to the original African orixá. Here's what Wiki has to say about "Preto Velhos", the original "magical negros"...

They are wise, peaceful and kind spirits that know all about suffering, compassion, forgiveness and hope. They also often prescribe herbal remedies. The female counterpart of this spirit is the Preta Velha ("old black woman") who demonstrates maternal compassion and concern [can you say "mammy"?]. In the beginning of Umbanda, Preto Velho introduced himself as an old slave who died after being flogged for some unjust accusation; today, Pretos Velhos introduce themselves as old slaves who died in persecution after they had run away from the plantation.

It's no wonder that Umbanda tends to be seen as "whiter" than Candomblé (racists in Umbanda will even sya that it's "more evolved").

I wanted to talk to Exú, but the lines were just too long and I was worried that Ana would be wondering where I'd gotten to if I didn't get home on time. I avoided a rather nasty mugging while biking way home across Flamengo, so Exú was keeping an eye out for me, in any case and he has my most sincere thanks.


  1. Only in Brazil would a black woman take her mixed kid to be blessed by a white woman who's incorporating the spirit of an old African slave...

  2. You say that like there was something wrong with it, Anonymous... :D