In the film Xangô (African Brazilian deity) of Baker Street, by Miguel Faria Júnior (based on the novel of the same name by Jô Soares), everybody laughed when the venerable English detective Sherlock Holmes is recognized as a son of the powerful African deity. But besides the curiosities and what is mistakenly called macumba (term that encompasses a series of African-Brazilian religious practices and rites), we know little of the rich belief brought to Brazil by the African slaves, which today permeates Brazilian culture and art.
In the interview below, the incumbent Professor of Sociology at the University of São Paulo (USP), Reginaldo Prandi, and the author of Mitologia dos Orixás [Mythology of the African Deities] (Companhia das Letras), explains how these candomblé (African- Brazilian religion) rites were incorporated with Brazilian culture, and how it adapted to new social concepts. But let there be no illusion: this explanation is not so elementary as dear Watson would wish.
A white man studying the Negro community? Was there any problem?
No. Candomblé is very accustomed to prying by the whites, and there is a tradition of white researchers, like Roger Bastide and Pierre Verger, who had a very intensive contact with candomblé. Until recently, candomblé was much persecuted by the police, and in those days men of some importance in white society, such as intellectuals, artists, soldiers, doctors, etc., worked as a kind of bridge between the temples and society, defending candomblé and its followers. In retribution, these men would receive from candomblé a title of great prestige, called Ogan, which in Yoruba means superior, master, protecting father. They the ones you turn to when in trouble. When the phase of police persecution had passed, the title continued to be given to the friends and cultivators of the tradition of the African divinities. Like some of the sociologists and anthropologists who preceded me in research into the terraces, I hold this title of Ogan. But my research was done before I received this honor.
What is the value of myths?
In candomblé, myths are extremely important, because, besides anything else, they explain who the divinities, what their magic powers are, their fields of activity, where they came from, what their preferences and taboos are, and how the devotee should relate to each one of them. In addition, the myths explain how the world and humanity itself were created, and, more than that, they explain how the human being is constituted. For Christianity, for example, the human being is made up of body and soul. For candomblé, the human being is constituted by a body and several souls, each soul contains the following dimensions of the spirit: the individuality of the person or of his head, his family heritage or his reincarnated antecedents, his primordial origin or deity (orixá). As it is believed that everything in life repeats itself, each person is, in part, the reincarnation of somebody who lived before, and, at the same time, the offspring of a given deity. If they ask me: “Who are you the son of?”. I reply: “I am the son of Oxalá”, just as someone else can be a son of Oxum, or of Iemanjá, Xangô, Ogum etc. As each person inherits from his divinity the virtues and defects spoken of in their myths, the myths can teach us why we are like that and why we act like that.
Is it difficult for somebody going into candomblé to take on this new belief?
The great difficulty is that the logic of candomblé is different from the logic of someone brought up according to the western values to which he is accustomed. A new adept of candomblé has to learn concepts that are completely new to him, as he comes from a white, Christian and European culture. Time, for example, is circular, and marked out by the carrying out of tasks, not by the clock. Wisdom comes from the experience of life, it is something built up in the course of life, and never by books and schooling, because candomblé has its origins in an unwritten culture, where the transmission of knowledge takes place orally. That is why, in candomblé, only the aged can be wise. Other concepts and many rules are derived from all this, governing religious life and interfering in the daily life of the initiated.
Can candomblé now be found in the whole of Brazil?
It practically can. Certainly in the capitals and in the big cities. In towns with 10,000, 15,000 inhabitants, it is more unlikley that candomblé has reached them, but umbanda (another African Brazilian religion , but with some syncretism with Catholicism ) is there, after its propagation in the Fifties.
You said that candomblé is transforming itself. How is this happening?
Candomblé was fashioned in the northeast in the 19th century, in particular in Bahia and in Pernambuco, from where it spread throughout Brazil, in the second half of last century. In this movement of expansion, it goes on adapting itself to new geographies and to the times. For example, candomblé makes a lot of use of herbs to prepare baths, to make medicines and for other ritual practices. It is said that the cult of the deities would not exist without herbs. The ideal temple is said to be a one covered with undergrowth, where the herbs can sprout spontaneously and be gathered freely. What temple could have its sacred grove in a city like São Paulo? In terms of the price of land, this is not feasible. So one has to adapt. Bringing herbs from far away is more and more trouble, and a danger too, because of robbery. It is better to buy them from a specialized supplier. In the center of São Paulo, for example, in Largo da Pólvora, there are stalls of salesmen who offer all the herbs needed for the different rituals. The salesmen are people from the religion with a new business, unthinkable 30 years ago: they plant, pick, transport and sell the leaves. This is an adaptation to today’s society. Another example: in the old days, when someone was going to be initiated, he would get his kit, go to the terrace, and stay there secluded for one, two, three months, living throughout this period a life totally alien to the world outside the temple. Today, the time of seclusion in the temple cannot lastlonger than the four weeks of holiday from work, a little less, even, to use a few days with other tasks. So 21 days has ended up being the time for initiation today. This is an important adaptation, which brings with it other changes in terms of religious apprenticeship and discipline.
What are the main discoveries in your book Mitologia dos Orixás?
I wouldn’t call them discoveries. The book is an organized collection of myths that have been systematized and rewritten, a sort of gathering together of stories that used to be scattered, of legends that have been around, in hundreds of written and oral sources.
In Brazil, we are more accustomed to other mythologies.
Yes, above all the classic Greek one, which, in a way, is made up of many important elements of western thinking. The Greco-Roman mythology has been part of western culture for many centuries. But who knows the African myths? I read a nice comment that the mythology I had organized was the greatest living mythology. Because the Greek one is dead, it only exists in books. The one I organized is alive in the temples of the Afro-Brazilian cults. Now, to the extent that this book offers everyone knowledge that was previously restricted to a minority group, the followers of candomblé, perhaps its contents can be better known in future. Not much of a comparison, but take the case of the soap opera Porto dos Milagres [Miracles Port], of TV Globo, broadcast last year. The telespectators learnt through it something about Iemanjá that they knew nothing about before. With the book, perhaps the African mythology that lies at our cultural roots may be learnt and esteemed by many, regardless of religion, and may, who knows, be incorporated by the segments of Brazilian culture so far accustomed to the western myths only. In times of giving increasing value to cultural diversity, Mitologia dos Orixás may be of some use.
Is there any correspondence between the Greek myths and the myths of candomblé?
There are many. Xangô, for example, is a divinity very similar to the Zeus of Greek mythology. The two deal with justice, with lightening, and both are great chiefs, wielding power over the other gods. Oxum is the goddess of love and beauty, like Venus. Exu, the messenger of the pantheon, is equivalent to Hermes, and so on. In polytheist religions like these, there is a division of work among the gods, which leads us to establish these similarities. It is even possible that the African gods and the Greek ones had common origins, but there is no conclusive research to allow us to claim this with confidence.