Candomblé is an African-Brazilian religion. It was born of a people who were taken from their homes in Africa and transplanted to Brazil during the slave trade.
The religion is a mixture of traditional Yoruba, Fon and Bantu beliefs which originated from different regions in Africa, and it has also incorporated some aspects of the Catholic faith over time.
The name itself means ‘dance in honour of the gods’, and music and dance are important parts of Candomblé ceremonies.
Candomblé and Catholicism
From the earliest days of the slave trade, many Christian slave owners and Church leaders felt it was important to convert the enslaved Africans. This was in order to fulfil their religious obligations but also in the hope of making the enslaved more submissive. Others also argue that enslaved Africans were religiously persecuted in order that they held no connection to a shared past.
Although the Church succeeded in many cases, not all Africans converted. Many outwardly practised Christianity but secretly prayed to their own god, gods or ancestor spirits. In Brazil, where Catholicism was popular, adherents of Candomblé saw in the worship of saints a similarity with their own religion. Candomblé practitioners often concealed the sacred symbols of their deities inside their corresponding Catholic saints.
In the segregated communities of America, it was easy to create Catholic religious fraternities where black people would meet with each other. These meetings, however, were actually an opportunity for Candomblé worship to happen and for feasts to be held on special religious days. They were also opportunities for the enslaved to gather and plan rebellions against their masters.
Many of the enslaved Africans from Bantu found a shared system of worship with Brazil’s indigenous people and through this connection they re-learned ancestor worship.
Persecution and resurgence
Candomblé was condemned by the Catholic Church, and followers of the faith were persecuted violently right up through government-led public campaigns and police action. The persecution stopped when a law requiring police permission to hold public ceremonies was scrapped in the 1970s.
The religion has surged in popularity in Brazil since then, with as many as two million people professing to follow the faith. It is particularly practised in Salvador da Bahia, in the north east of Brazil. Interestingly, many people from African countries visit Bahia in order to learn more about the faith of their ancestors.
For many followers it is not just a matter of religious belief but also of reclaiming the cultural and historical identity which slavery stripped them of.
There is also some movement to remove Catholic imagery from worship services, in an attempt to return the faith to its more fundamental origins.