If Iemanjá is an African goddess, who are these negros carrying? Brazil’s “racial democracy” at its finest

Procession in Rio asks the goddess Yemanjá for protection in 2014
Procession in Rio asks the goddess Yemanjá for protection in 2014

Note from BW of Brazil: The arrival of 4-5 million African slaves in Brazil during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade brought various expressions of African culture to what would become Latin America’s largest country. African influence can be observed in the very soul of the country from its cuisine, music, martial arts and its very people, nearly 90% of which are said to have varying degrees of African ancestry. Religion is another area profoundly influenced by the Motherland. While in the US, African religious rites were for the most part completely annihilated, Africans in Brazil managed to maintain their religious practices through syncretism, the merging of various religions. 

While African religions were banned during the slavery era, blacks continued their religious practice by simply pretending to worship the Catholic god and saints while continuing to worship their own orixás, or deities. The Yoruba goddess Yemanjá, for example, is seen as a mother figure similar to the Virgin Mary. Although the majority of white Brazilians reject the practice of Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomblé, considering it devil worship and heathenism and pejoratively referring to Afro-Brazilians as “macumbeiros” (whether they practice the religion or not), there are still whites who practice Candomblé or a similar religion, Umbanda. Iemanjá or Yemanja is one of the most important orixás. 

Image of the orixá Iemanjá, Yemanjá or Yemoja
Image of the orixá Iemanjá, Yemanjá or Yemoja

“Iemanjá or Yemanja is an African deity, whose name derives from the Yoruba expression Yéyé omo ejá (“Mother whose children are fish”), identified in the game of merindilogun identified by the odus ejibe and ossá. It is represented in Candomblé through the sacred settlement denominated igba yemanja. In Yoruba mythology, the owner of the sea is Olokun, who is the father of Iemanjá, both of Egbá origin. Yemojá is hailed as Odò (“river”) ìyá (“Mother”) by the Egbá people, in connection with Olokun, the orixá (deity) of the sea (male in Benin and female in Benin in Ifé), referred to as the “rainha do mar (queen of the Sea)” in other countries. It is worshiped in the Ògùn River in Abeokuta.” Source

Note from BW of Brazil: At the end of the year in various cities throughout Brazil, thousands make offerings to the goddess in popular services to bring in the new year. 

Offerings to  Iemanjá
Offerings to Iemanjá

“On New Year’s Eve in Rio de Janeiro, millions of cariocas, of all religions, dressed in white gather on Copacabana beach to greet the New Year, watch fireworks, and throw (white) flowers and other offerings into the sea for the goddess in the hopes that she will grant them their requests for the coming year. Some send their gifts to lemanjá in wooden toy boats. Paintings of lemanjá are sold in Rio shops, next to paintings of Jesus and other Catholic saints. They portray her as a woman rising out of the sea. Small offerings of flowers and floating candles are left in the sea on many nights at Copacabana”. Source

A festa de Yemanjá

Note from BW of Brazil: The worship of Iemanjá once again brings into question the topic of race and how it is dealt with a country like Brazil that has promoted itself as a “racial democracy” for about 80 years even with the maintenance of black invisibility and vast racial inequalities that remain more 125 years after the abolition of slavery. In a manner very typical of the “jeito brasileiro (Brazilian way)” and the “dictatorship of whiteness“, even an African orixá, in line with the elite social policy of embranquecimento (whitening), must be presented as a white woman. This is how Ricardo of the Atabaqueblog saw it:

What is Iemanjá’s color?

“In Copacabana, the country’s most famous beach, already crowded with tourists, the image of the Rainha do Mar (Queen of the Sea) arrived to applause and showing the strength of Afro-Brazilian culture.” (O Globo/G1 – 12/28/2013)

Syncretism is a reality and the faith that moves it is legitimate. However, some depictions of religious faith are cultural and historical constructions well located in time. In Brazil they represent so much, a strategy of maintaining faith, but also the imposition of a new expression of that faith as submission of practitioners to the social order of the exclusion of the black population.

Offerings to Iemanjá, in the capital city of Brasília
Offerings to Iemanjá, in the capital city of Brasília

Today, it’s fitting to critique this process that formed during the colonial period. Religious faith and its modes of expression are not immutable as black/Afro-Brazilian religions demonstrate.

Image of Iemanjá, Yemoja or Yemanja
Image of Iemanjá, Yemoja or Yemanja

The excerpt above is material taken media giant Globo is part of the deception that feeds, not syncretism, but the untruth that encompasses its political function of transforming practitioners of syncretic religious forms from black roots into a symbol of a false social inclusion and attempt to make the popularity of the rite of homage to Iemanjá (or Yemanja) an expression of respect for black religions.

Iemanjá
Iemanjá

In the latest case, the celebration of syncretism serves well the purpose of proclaiming that “we are not racist.” And the representation of Iemanjá as an image of a white woman caters well to the myth of the subordinate integration of blacks.

Actress Sheron Menezes makes an offering to Iemanjá at Ipanema beach in Rio
Actress Sheron Menezes makes an offering to Iemanjá at Ipanema beach in Rio

Note from BW of Brazil: Still according to Globo, “about 50 thousand people, according to organizers of the procession, awaited the procession and joined in the dance and ritual of offerings thrown overboard, with requests for protection for 2014.”

Source: Atabaqueblog, G1

About Marques Travae 2988 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

1 Comment

  1. Are we whitening our sacred things to make them more appealing to white society? Was the whitening of Yemanja an attempt to seek white validation? Whatever the case, this is a thought provoking piece that poses a valid question; why is a Black Goddess depicted as white? and why is there no uproar about it? And the greater question is, how does Yemanja feel about this? Is Yemanja happy being depicted as a white woman? Obviously more questions than answers.

    It is beautiful that these aspect of Black spirituality have been maintained and continue to be observed so openly. There are so many places where slaves were brought where our ancient spiritual practices were effectively stamped out, or practitioners had to operate in such secrecy that the knowledge went with them when they passed on. I am pleased to see Brazilians still celebrating and observing our ancient practices so freely.

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