Understanding Candomblé & the Terreiros

The religion of Candomblé is practiced throughout Brazil, but its roots are deepest in Salvador, where it forms an important part of community life. The practice originated with slaves brought to Brazil from West Africa; they believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses (Orixás) who embodied natural forces such as wind, storm, ocean, and fire. Each Orixá had its own rituals, colors, habits, and even a day of the week associated with his or her worship. A believer who is prepared and trained can become possessed by a certain Orixá and form a link between humankind and the gods.

In Catholic Brazil, the practice of Candomblé was prohibited. Willing or no, Brazilian slaves were converted to Catholicism. Though they weren't allowed inside white churches, the slaves watching from without soon recognized aspects of their Orixás in various Catholic saints. By translating each of their gods into an equivalent saint, Candomblé followers found they could continue their native worship under the very noses of their Catholic priests and masters.

Oxalá, the creator and supreme ruler, thus became the Senhor do Bonfim; Iansã, the Orixá of wind and storms, resembled Santa Barbara; Yemanjá, the queen of the ocean and fresh water, seemed to have the same privileged position as Our Lady of Conception. Unlike the saints, Orixás are far from perfect; Yemanjá, for example, is notoriously vain and jealous. However, in the process of syncretizing Roman and West African practice, much that was Catholic was adopted, and the result is that Candomblé is now something uniquely Brazilian.

Actual Candomblé ceremonies are fun and fascinating -- singing, chanting, and drumming, plus wonderful foods and perfumes are all used in order to please the Orixás and encourage them to come and possess some of the believers present. When a person goes into a trance and receives an Orixá, his or her movements, gestures, and voice change to reflect those of the Orixá. The language used in Candomblé is Yoruba, a West African language spoken in parts of Nigeria.

There are many terreiros (areas of worship) in Salvador, though most are located in poorer neighborhoods far from downtown. Many accept visitors provided they follow a few basic rules: no revealing clothing (shorts and miniskirts are out); white clothing is preferred; no video or picture taking; visitors cannot participate but only observe. This last is especially important. As inviting as the food or dancing may look, these practices are part of a religious ceremony for believers only. Real terreiros will not quote an admission price, but may ask for and will definitely appreciate a donation, to be given to the Mãe or Pai de Santo, the spiritual leader of the terreiro.

To attend a Candomblé session check with the Afro Brazilian Federation: Federação Baiana de Culto Afro Brasileiro, Rua Alfredo de Brito 39, second floor, Pelourinho (tel. 071/3321-1444). Another good resource is the Afro-Brazilian museum in Pelourinho (tel. 071/3321-0383).

Many tour guides and hotel concierges can arrange for you to attend a Candomblé session, although some services will be more touristy than others. If you only have a few days, this may be your only option. If you have more time and want to try harder to find an authentic ceremony, contact the terreiros listed below or get in touch with Tatur Turismo (tel. 071/3450-7216; www.tatur.com.br) to find out on which dates ceremonies take place.

Terreiros that accept visitors include Menininha do Gantois, Alto do Gantois 23, Federação (tel. 071/3331-9231; service led by Mãe Carmem); popular with artists and visiting celebrities is Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá, Rua Direita de São Gonçalo do Retiro 245, Cabula (tel. 071/3384-6800); and Casa Branca, Av. Vasco da Gama 463, Vasco da Gama (close to Rio Vermelho; tel. 071/3334-2900; the oldest terreiro still in use, dating back to 1836). Always take a taxi to the terreiro; some are in less safe neighborhoods, and addresses can be hard to find.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.