At the stroke of midnight, as millions of people watch the spectacular fireworks and drink champagne on Copacabana Beach, others, dressed in white, rush to the shoreline to jump over seven waves in hopes of being granted seven wishes for the following year. To new arrivals this may seem like nothing more than an interesting local tradition, however, its roots lie, incongruously, in a tradition of African origin. White flowers are thrown into the sea and small tokens of mirrors and perfume, lit by twinkling candles, are loaded into boats and pushed out from the shore. Images and figurines of a female deity swathed in white, silver and blue are everywhere and these offerings are for her. She is Lemanjá, the goddess of the ocean and these rites are part of the religion known as Candomblé.
The history of Candomblé starts on the other side of the Atlantic, with the spiritual beliefs held by the Yoruba, Bantu and Fon societies of West Africa. These beliefs were brought to Brazil on the Portuguese slave ships, but on arrival, slaves were subjected to a forced Catholic conversion as the church leaders believed it fulfilled their Christian duty and would encourage submission in the enslaved. In spite of this, many within the new African population continued their traditional worship in secret, forming a sense of community and shared heritage. Their traditions flourished covertly, often under the guise of gathering for Catholic prayer meetings where they hid their religious icons within wooden statues of Christian saints. Catholicism on the outside, the ancestral spirit residing on the inside.
Following the abolition of slavery in the late 19th century, the segregation of belief and culture led to a degree of social exclusion of some Afro-Brazilian communities. Throughout the 20th century, followers experienced strong opposition and their traditional worship was banned as a threat to Catholic and secular authority until the 1970s. Only after this were rituals and ceremonies permitted by law. Particular hostility in more recent years has come from the growing evangelical population, which attribute the use of animal sacrifices in some religious ceremonies as akin to devil worship. Despite this, Candomblé today has over 2 million followers worldwide, with the largest population of followers residing within Brazil. The faith system has evolved from its earliest origins as a fusion of West African and Christian deities and beliefs. The chief deity is Oludumaré, served by a series of deified ancestors known as orixás, who are the spiritual link between humanity and the divine. Each person is protected and guided by an individual orixá, which is closely connected with that person’s personality and is represented by specific colors, animals, days and forces of nature. There is no central concept of good and bad in Candomblé; each practitioner’s goal is to realize their destiny and to live a life that fulfils them.
Music and dance are central to Candomblé worship, and the word itself means ‘dance in honor of the gods’. The percussive drumming rhythms for which Candomblé is best known are considered to play a vital role in gratifying the orixás. Different sized drums, bells and the xequerê (a gourd covered in beads) create the rhythm to accompany the rituals and dancing. The effect is hypnotic and the rhythms increase in complexity to call and communicate with the orixás. The priests and dancers, dressed in white, lead singing and clapping of the ceremonial songs before the particular ritual concludes and is followed by a banquet. So prevalent are the rhythms of Candomblé in the Brazilian psyche that they influenced both samba and bossa nova, and the music is steadily making its way into the mainstream. This is a controversial shift amongst practitioners who consider such public interaction with their holy music to be secularizing something considered very sacred.

Candomblé is intertwined not only with Afro-Brazilian ethnicity but also with the more recent history of changes in Brazilian cities’ social fabric – particularly that of Rio de Janeiro which saw a mass migration as the capital of the new Republic. There are several ways visitors can learn more about the rituals and beliefs that form Candomblé, despite it being relatively impenetrable for many years. One way to see the ways in which practitioners worship is to visit the Mercadão de Madureira in the Zona Norte. This market became the official sponsor of the New Year religious procession after a fire destroyed it in 2001 and it was rebuilt within a year. As a token of thanks, one local merchant dedicated a 2-meter high statue of Lemanjá which is carried all the way to Copacabana Beach in the days preceding December 31st alongside more than 10,000 worshippers. The market itself is home to everything a Candomblista might need, including figurines, herbs, and ritual clothing. It is a fascinating glimpse into the day-to-day veneration of the orixás.

From Centro the best way to get there is to take the metro L2 to Vicente de Carvalho and from there the BRT to Mercadão de Madureira.

For those looking for a more up-close encounter with the rituals involved in Candomblé, there are a handful of tour companies that offer visitors the chance to experience the religious ceremonies. Whilst usually closed to the public, some groups will allow a small number of visitors. A particular tour recommendation is with U2 Guides (from R$140) whose profits support local NGOs. This tour teaches guests about the culture and history of Candomblé, allows them to watch a ceremony which is followed by a traditional meal. Photography is not usually permitted due to the belief that the camera entraps the soul if a photo is taken during a private ceremony. For those visiting over the New Year, or Reveillon, there is no better way to experience Candomblé than going to Copacabana beach decked out in white and leaping over the waves (due caution advised after drinking champagne). This ritual was adopted by revelers in recent decades whereas once people would gather to simply watch the Candomblistas take part in these ceremonies. Appreciating the origin of this now-famous New Year pastime makes the experience more meaningful. Take some time to watch the boats filled with hope for good fortune being pushed out into the ocean. In the unfortunate event that the tide brings a few of them back into the sand, well there’s always next year.
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Elissa Rose

Elissa Rose

Staff Writer

Elissa is a freelance writer based in Brazil. With 5 years’ experience working for the News UK print and online publications in drizzly London, she decided to move to Rio de Janeiro to write about the cidade maravilha, mostly whilst sitting on the beach.