Festa de Yemanjá: An Amalgamation of Western and African Religions
Festa de Yemanjá, the Afro-Brazilian celebration held annually in Bahia in honour of Yemanjá, the Goddess of the ocean, holds interesting roots in West African culture.
It is 4:30 am on the beach in Arembepe and there are people along the shoreline, barely visible in the dawn. Some are alone while others are in small groups washing their hands and faces. As the sky turns from an inky black to pastel pink and peach, more people gather. All of them are dressed in white with some holding gifts.
The sound of the waves from the Atlantic Ocean whispers through the crowd. Women carrying floral perfume are offering it around and the sweet smell hangs in the air. Eventually, a band comes along with drums and singers, and after a circle of silence and prayer - everybody starts to make their way to the water. It's dawn on the day of ‘Festa de Yemanjá’.
Celebrated by thousands of Brazilians, Yemanjá is the elegant queen of all waters, a central deity of the Candomblé system of worship which travelled to Brazil with the slave trade and took root where the enslaved people landed. Originating from West Africa, one element of Candomblé is the celebration of the Orixás who are thought to be conduits between us and the spiritual world. Candomblé literally translates to ‘dance in honour of the Gods’ - through this dance and ritual, believers can call upon their deities. These deities hold power over the natural world and each one is connected to a specific part of nature and the cosmos.
Back in West Africa, Yemanjá is the protector of the river, while in Brazil and Cuba she has become the Goddess of the ocean where she resides. In her realm she governs healing, protection and fertility for women. She is a motherly Goddess who can cure and cleanse, and on the day of ‘Festa de Yemanjá’ you are invited to make wishes for yourself and the people you love. The day is a chance for rejuvenation and welcoming harmony and grace into your life.
Slavery was a central component of the Brazilian economy from 1500 to 1888, a period in which more than four million people from all over Africa were forcefully displaced and brought to Brasil. When they first landed, they were prohibited from practising their own religions or taking part in any cultural rituals and celebrations from back home. The entire belief system of the Orixás and the cultural expression of their Gods and worship was oppressed. Directed by the Portuguese, many of the enslaved people in Brazil were forced to practise Catholicism. The syncretic merging of Yoruban Orixás with Roman Catholic traditions camouflaged Candomblé culture and meant the worshipers could still hold their ceremonies and honour their Gods. During this time, the women of the Diaspora kept the knowledge of the Orixás, and created and held the ceremonies.
Today most members of Candomblé are Catholic and most believers equate their African Gods with Catholic Saints. Some worshipers simply see Candomblé and Catholicims as different expressions of the same beliefs while for others they are entirely separate. For Candomblé believers - the worshipping of the Orixás is a way to give thanks to the people who hold power within that universe. Festa de Yemanjá is one of the most prominent days of the Candomblé Calendar.
With Salvador as the centre stage, on February 2nd you can find people dressed in white, wading through the ocean to give thanks, and show their devotion to this powerful Goddess. Some stay on the shore, while others travel out in boats to give gifts, flowers, perfume and offerings to the sea. Some tie ribbons to each other’s wrists, while others cleanse themselves in the ocean. The celebrations on this day take place all over Bahia where you will find processions, drumming and singing to Yemanjá which usually turn into an all night party. The foods offered to honour the Orixás usually match their adorned colours. Yemanjá, who is depicted in white and blue, receives puffed rice or coconut stew - sweet foods that serve as metaphors for her nature.
Yemanjá is often referred to as the mother, a protector and is thought of as a spiritual guide for fishermen. She is usually depicted with her hands outstretched - just like the Virgin Mary. Yemanjá is sometimes shown as a siren or mermaid with a fishtail and scales and sometimes with a silver moon. On her face she wears a beaded seashell veil - the shells that adorn her signify wealth. In her hand you will see a silver object - some legend says that this is a mirror so she can gaze at her beauty while others argue she holds a weapon. Although she is a sweet and nurturing Goddess, legend has it that if she becomes angry, she can cause chaos in the sea and move water to the land creating floods.
The celebration of Yemanjá does not only take place in February - If you cannot make it to Bahia to see this enchanting and moving worship you can also find Yemanjá offerings in Rio De Janeiro on New Year’s Eve when people also dress in white and dance in the waves, making wishes for the coming year and giving prayers. It is also customary to jump seven waves to ensure your prayers are heard by the Goddess herself.
Back on Arembepe beach, people are starting to take instruments, flowers and their chosen gifts on the boats. Those staying behind are chatting, gossiping or praying. The sun gleams. Rosa, the niece of a local woman explains with tears in her eyes how important this day is to her - and how this coming together is a form of collective healing, an invitation to pray for good health during the year ahead.