Catholic saints, African Gods, black masks and white heads: tracing the history of some religious festivals in Bahia.
The syncretist politics of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim
Nosso Senhor de Bonfim is unquestionably one of the most important symbols of the city of Salvador, and the festa of Bonfim is its most important celebration besides Carnival. The hymn of Bonfim is the popular hymn of Bahia; soccer teams and politicians thank the Lord of Bonfim when they win since, according to a popular saying, he is the true governor of Bahia. (2) Crowning the calm and scenic neighbourhoods of Ribeira and Montserrate, many legends surround the hill, the church, the image, and the festa of Bonfim. They stem from a long history that began in 1745, when after surviving a shipwreck, Teodozio Rodrigues de Faria, Captain of the Portuguese Army, paid a promessa by bringing from Setubal, in Portugal, an image of Bom Jesus Sofredor, under the invocation of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim. By 1750, the image had gathered an important lay brotherhood of devotion, which started to build a church and sanctuary for the image. (3) The building is ostentatiously rich, thanks to the generous donations of the devotees. The famous fitas of Bonfim are mentioned for the first time in 1807: tissue strings that had touched the image and that the pilgrims take as mementos. With these strings, the fame of Bonfim began to spread throughout Brazil. (4)
The image of Bonfim was only released from its sanctuary for processions in truly exceptional times: first, in the War of Independence in 1822, when the city was under Portuguese siege. In 1842 a serious drought was afflicting the region.The legend says that when the procession with the image of Bonfim reached the vicinity of the church of Sao Joaquim, it began to rain. In 1855, the image was also released for a procession when the city was plagued by cholera. (5) Finally Bonfim became the patron saint of the city of Bahia. In the twentieth century, the processions of the image had more political than religious justifications: commemoration of the independence of Bahia, in 1923, on the orders of the state governor; the bicentennial of the church (1945), and, most recently, the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1980.
From 1772, the date established for the festa of Bonfim was the second Sunday after Epiphany (6 January). The festa consisted of a novena--nine days of mass and prayer to the devoted image, culminating in the Sunday mass. But since very early on, a popular Lavagem do Bonfim began to take place outside the doors of the church, besides the novena.
The Lavagem followed an old Portuguese tradition of cleaning the church of the saint and the saint itself, as payment of a promise. (6) According to Bastide, (7) the Lavagem began when a Portuguese soldier promised to clean the church of Bonfim after surviving the Paraguayan War (1865-70). This action had enormous repercussions, and soon afterwards a mass of devotees followed his example, evolving into a procession of people carrying water for the Lavagem. After the cleansing, the festa extended until after nightfall in the square in front of the church (the largo), with booths selling food and drinks, and dancing ...
We know that by 1860 the Lavagem do Bonfim was already very popular. (8) The religious authorities of the city were concerned, but the priest of Bonfim told the bishop that it was impossible to fight it. When the Bishop supervised the festa, in 1865, everything seemed to be in order until he left, and then 'the bacchanal broke out even more violently'. (9) In 1881, according to members of the lay Brotherhood, the Lavagem attracted about 50,000 people; it was 'an orgy' where people took the temple 'by storm'. (10) The Bishop finally recommended abolishing the Lavagem in 1888 (the year of the Abolition of slavery, followed in 1889 by the proclamation of a Republic). According to a Catholic journal, the Lavagem had become a 'Candomble in full light of day, and what is even worse, in front of the altars themselves.' (11)
Why a Candomble? Many of the people taking part in the Lavagem were black women dressed in white and carrying vessels full of water on their heads. White is the colour of Bonfim, but also of Candomble, and more specifically of Oxala. Bonfim had come to be identified with Oxala, old king of all the Orixas; his colour is white (12) and he descended from heaven, so that the intensely bright hill of Bonfim was his 'natural' site.
But what seems to have been of greater concern to the authorities was the debauchery of the festa and the concentrations of black people rather than any syncretism as such. Or rather, syncretism was only part of the problem. At that time, after the First Vatican Council, the Brazilian Church was experiencing a process of Romanisation intended to extirpate the vices and superstitions of traditional popular Catholic practice. Azzi (13) has summarised this project according to four objectives. First, to impose the primacy of the clergy on the traditions of colonial Catholicism, which had few priests and had mainly been articulated through lay practices like lay brotherhoods of devotion to saints and sanctuaries. Second, to combat popular legends, myths, and magical-thaumaturgical practices. Third, to substitute the primacy of familial and local relations, where the father or the property-owner was in charge of religion, with the authority of the priest. Fourth, this priestly authority would limit the social character of popular religiosity, based on festivals, to foster a more individualised, private and ascetic faith. Summing up then, the role of the priest was to install orthodoxy, separate religion from folklore and superstition, and replace traditional, medieval Luso-Brazilian Christianity with a modern, orthodox practice.
Romanisation was, unquestionably, a modernising project and also very clearly anti-popular and anti-traditional. Public festivals of devotion were now considered to be non-religious and profane, maybe even antireligious, the obscene and barbaric remnants of pagan cults. Likewise, the direct, almost idolatrous relationship of the people with the images of saints had to be limited and mediated by the priests
It is important to understand that this vision of popular religious practice as subversive, which was later appropriated by social scientists, was first and foremost an interpretation derived from the Catholic church. At that time, the Church saw the popular classes more as enemies, than partners. Its only option was to forge an alliance with the new institutions of the Republic, joining forces against the feared populace that was emerging from slavery.
The Lavagem do Bonfim was forbidden by Bishop Luiz Antonio dos Santos in December 1889, in agreement with the Governor of Bahia, Dr. Manoel Victorino Pereira. (14) This authoritarian prohibition was not well received either by the popular sectors or the intellectual elites of the city. Manuel Querino, for example, agreed with ending the 'bacchanal' inside the church, but not with suppressing the festa outside, with its singing and dancing. Interestingly Querino, a specialist in African customs in Brazil, did not even mention the connection between Bonfim and Candomble. (15) This may suggest that, by this time, such a connection was not yet so remarkable or that Querino thought the Church's classification of the festival as open air Candomble to be merely a pretext for its extinction. Even respectable members of the lay brotherhood like Carlos Alberto de Carvalho, who published a book about Bonfim in 1915, considered the popular aspects of Bonfim to be inevitable, and not necessarily 'pagan'. (16)
Over the years, the festa slowly reappeared, even if the 'cleaners' were not allowed to enter the church; they could only clean the stairs and atrium. Access to the image of Bonfim was cut off. (17) This was only the beginning of the 'hiding' of the image of Bonfim in the hands of the clergy. The image progressively lost its value and the visual centrality it formerly enjoyed as the culmination and climax of the procession.
Even with police repression, closing the doors of the church, separating the 'sacred' (the church) from the 'profane' (the street, the square in front of the church), the festa of Bonfim only grew bigger every year. The Church leaders understood that the only possible solution would be to appropriate it, so they attracted the educated and romanised middle and upper classes, transforming the popular procession into a social event, a parade in which they could show off their cars. (18) The local authorities, like Governor J.J. Seabra, also began to participate, seeing the importance of Bonfim as patron of the city and its popularity among the masses. In the 1940s, Bonfim had already become the most important festival in the city besides Carnival. The Church had reconciled itself to Bonfim's 'profane' and 'pagan' aspects: the festival seemed more Christian every year, according to the Archdioceses. (19) But on the other hand, at that time the folkloric and political aspects of the celebration began to take hold. The folkloric element is embodied in the peculiar figures of the baianas, black and mulatto women dressed in traditional white attire, with vessels of perfumed water and flowers to clean Bonfim. The baianas would be recognized as a fundamental part of the festa after the mid-1940s by the local political authorities. The Lavagem of 1945 had an overtly political character: a candle more than two metres tall was made with the flags of Brazil, Bahia and the United States. For the first time, the authorities of the city, present at Bonfim, received the baianas, thus giving legitimacy to their procession as well as to the acts organised by the lay Brotherhood. At that time, too, the flags of Brazil and Bahia were planted behind the image of Bonfim--where they remain until today.
This political recognition of the baianas is integral to a general process of political transformation in Bahia, in which the elites showed a growing interest in local popular culture, and began to collaborate with and fund researchers and artists interested in Bahia. One of these scholars was Roger Bastide, then professor at the University of Sao Paulo, who attended a Lavagem on his first visit to Bahia. For Bastide, the Lavagem conceals a Candomble ritual: 'Derriere la facade Catholique est bien celebree, en realite, une ceremonie fetichiste.' (20) In this sense, he pointed out the relationship between the Lavagem do Bonfim and the ritual of the Aguas de Oxala (Waters of Oxala), as it is celebrated in some traditional Candomble houses such as Casa Branca. The Aguas de Oxala festival inaugurates the cycle of ritual ceremonies for the Orixas. It is a procession in which the devotees, dressed in white, bring vessels of water from a fountain to the house of Oxala. (21) This ceremony is still strictly private, open only to the members of the house.
In fact, the Lord of Bonfim in Candomble is associated with Oxala. His colour is white, he lives up on a hill, close to the sky, and he is the king of Bahia. This symbolic correspondence is universally familiar in Bahia. But does that mean that the Lavagem is 'in fact' a ritual dedicated to Oxala? Or could it be simply what it appears to be, and what most of the participants say it is when asked: (22) a homage and a pledge (promessa) to the Lord of Bonfim? Could we consider the possibility that the devotees were Catholic and Candomble practitioners at one and the same time? Perhaps Bastide, thinking it impossible to be one thing and another all at once, was following the discourse of the Church, when it suspected that popular Catholicism was 'in fact' a mask for fetishism and paganism.
My aim here is not to analyse the relationship between Candomble and Catholicism as a dichotomy between the masked and the hidden, but as a process of exchange of images where some lost visibility, while others took over their space. Moreover, the religious aspects of the ceremony are only one part of this process, which also involves political and cultural aspects. In this respect, throughout the 1940s the image of our Lord of Bonfim lost visibility, giving way to the baianas as the effective centrepiece of the festa.
By now, the Church had begun to notice how it was losing control over the festa once more. In 1949, the Bishop again prohibited the Lavagem, including its entrance into the temple. An iron fence was built around the atrium of the church, but in the festa of 1950 the devotees leaped over the fence. Again, in 1951, the police felt obliged to repress the Lavagem. (23)
The situation had become critical and an agreement was finally reached between the Church, the political authorities and the participants in the festa in 1953: from then on, the Lavagem would be 'symbolic' (not religious) and it would be organised by a permanent committee consisting of journalists, local shopkeepers, politicians, priests, and most notably, members of the FEBACAB, the Federation of Afro-Brazilian cults, (24) who would take care of security and 'morality', turning the festa into a spectacle agreeable to tourists, guaranteeing at the same time the 'authenticity' of the baianas. The point was to ensure that the women who participated in the official cortejo (cortege) were both respectable members of the Candomble community and devotees of Bonfim, not people who just happened to show up. The popular celebration was becoming official.
Since the early 1970s, the FEBACAB, in agreement with the city's department of tourism (Emtursa), has taken on more responsibility for the organisation of the celebration. Since the second Vatican Council, the Church has been more open to popular celebrations, and in 1976 Bonfim finally reopened the atrium to devotees. But the festa's evolution has its own logic of development: throughout the 1980s, Bonfim became more and more 'Carnivalized', with Carnival groups such as Filhos de Gandhi forming parades after the procession. In recent years it has actually congregated, according to some rather liberal estimates, between 1 million and 1.5 million people. (25) This Carnivalisation has produced another conflict, not this time between the Church and the baianas, but between the baianas and the Carnival groups: in 1989, Emtursa and the FEBACAB attempted to separate the official cortege of the baianas from the Carnival bands. The reason they gave was that the procession is sacred, while the Carnival groups are profane. (26) The historical process had transferred categories, then: what was once profane (the Lavagem of the baianas) is now sacred, transferring the 'profanity' elsewhere.
However, this distinction between sacred baianas and profane Carnival in Bonfim was not easy for the hierarchies of Catholicism and Candomble to accept. The Catholic Church renounced any association with the procession, which they defined as strictly Afro-Brazilian; at the same time, Candomble leaders of the anti-syncretism movement did not recognise Bonfim as a Candomble ritual, nor did they generally recognize the FEBACAB representation as legitimate. (27)
In any case, the organisers of Bonfim began to restrict the presence of Carnival groups and to put a distance between them and the cortege. Moreover, in recent years, the middle class youth has found alternatives to Bonfim in closed, socially segregated spaces holding open-air concerts, such as the so-called 'Bonfim Light' (using the English adjective).
However, this reorganisation of Bonfim did not impose any boundaries or distance between the cortege and the politicians. Quite the contrary: in the 1990s local politicians used Bonfim as a political platform and a populist forum, eventually taking an explicitly leading place in the cortege. In 2000, shortly before the city council elections, they were present in great numbers: 'more than a quest for religiosity and faith, the eight-kilometer circuit [...] of Bonfim has finally become a stage for political actions and emotions', began a newspaper article entitled 'Faith, Religion and Politicians Walk Together towards the Holy Hill.' (28) The most important and impressive of these politicians was Antonio Carlos Magalhaes, a former state governor and president of the Brazilian Senate at that time. Magalhaes is the single most powerful political figure in Bahia and has been present at Bonfim since his periods in office as mayor of the city in the early 1970s. Despite his advancing years, Magalhaes dressed in white, wore the necklaces of Oxala and led the procession with a remarkable vitality. Often referred to by his initials, ACM, or simply as 'Cabeca Branca' ('white head'), Magalhaes is strongly linked to Candomble and is a 'son' of Oxala.
I saw Magalhaes arrive at the atrium of Bonfim that year. The image was quite shocking. In an ordered chaos, the cortege, consisting of baianas, politicians, and journalists, arrived at the atrium amid public acclamation and the close scrutiny of the cameras. Magalhaes leaped to the top of the stairs and began to greet the crowd with extraordinary energy for a man of his age, (29) with the other politicians and baianas at his feet jostling for a place in the camera frame. Superficial and impious, perhaps, this picture nevertheless produced a strange sensation in me: it was like Oxala incarnate, an African king displaying his power and vitality to his people ...
Magalhaes was at the height of his power in 2000 but, in 2001, the circumstances of his arrival in Bonfim were more complicated. He was in the midst of a tough political battle that would eventually force him to abandon his position as president of the Senate. But in Bahia, he remained the single most powerful person. That year I decided to follow the first steps of the procession. The cortege started, like the previous year, with Magalhaes at its head, and the rest of the politicians, journalists, and baianas close behind. The cortege made a curious, zigzag trajectory following Magalhaes, who was shaking hands to the left and right. The baianas seemed particularly uncomfortable with the vessels on their heads. Some days later, it was discovered that about 100 of them were disguised military policewomen present in order to protect Magalhaes. (30) As a matter of fact, the undisguised police presence reached extreme proprtions at the most recent Bonfim celebrations: 2600 policemen in 2000, 3427 in 2001. (31) In 2000, the police were also criticised for focusing more on providing security to the politicians and for restricting access to Bonfim to these politicians, the cortege, and the baianas. (32)
Besides the religious discussion, this last anecdote regarding the policewomen disguised as baianas to protect the political leader demonstrates, ironically, just how fluid the categories of the 'sacred' and the 'profane' can be in a context where religion, culture and politics are strictly linked. Three principal images have marked the historical process I have described: first, from its origin, the miraculous image of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, who eventually became the patron saint of Bahia. The centrality and the value of the religious image amid clerical intolerance toward popular religiosity shifted metonymically to the church and the hill at the end of the nineteenth century, when the participants of the Lavagem were not allowed in the church. Thus, its visual prominence reduced by its keepers, the image withdrew into the dark interior of the church while outside the festa was taking on a life of its own that the priests considered a 'profane' and 'primitive' Candomble orgy of Africans. But this profanity could not be destroyed, it survived and became one of the more important dates in the calendar of festivals in Bahia. And eventually it had to be accepted and domesticated. First, the local authorities attempted to give it a more formal, official, middle-class character, but the popular aspects of the celebration--the baianas and their procession--are too central to be diminished. Finally, from the 1940s onward, with the importance that intellectuals and politicians gave to Afro-Brazilian culture, the baianas became the central image of Bonfim and a cultural icon of Bahia. Their procession became officialised and institutionalised. Thus we find that a procession which fifty years earlier was 'profane' and even suspected of criminality became sacred and official in the 1980s and counterposed to another 'profane' element, the Carnival parade.
The 'sacred' procession of the baianas is also rendered profane by another Carnival, the political carnival that appears to protect but which in reality abuses them for propaganda purposes. Thus, the third dominant image in the festa of Bonfim is the politician performing his populist show: Antonio Carlos Magalhaes as the Lord of Bonfim.
To seek a single answer to the question 'What is the meaning of Bonfim?' is misleading because its changes through time have been as remarkable as the many ways in which it has been interpreted from different positions: as a bacchanal, a manifestation of popular religion and folklore, a public expression of Candomble, a tourist attraction, a political show. All these things are not necessary exclusive, but overlap. Indeed, today Bonfim is all these things combined.
Boa Morte: War of Images and cultural resistance
The festa da Boa Morte does not take place in Salvador, but in Cachoeira, and it is celebrated in the middle of August, the Brazilian winter. In these respects it is different from Bonfim but raises the same kinds of question: the negotiation of Catholic and Candomble images through public festivals, a historical shift from a popular religious celebration to an expression of Afro-Brazilian culture.
The Irmandade da Boa Morte is a lay sisterhood that celebrates the death and Assumption of the Virgin Mary for a week in the middle of August. According to oral history, it was constituted around 1820 in Salvador as a lay sisterhood of African elder women. Religious associations like the Rosario were one of the more natural and perhaps only means of organisation of African freedmen during slavery. These lay brotherhoods were permitted a legitimate space for gathering and, furthermore, were entitled to buy the freedom of slaves.
The Jesuits originally promoted the worship of Our Lady of Good Death and in Portugal these brotherhoods existed from the seventeenth century. (33) Some authors trace the origin of the Sisterhood of Good Death in Salvador to around 1817-1820, but without conclusive documentation. (34) Some have even suggested a connection between the mythical origins of the Casa Branca Candomble in Barroquinha and the Sisterhood of Good Death (35) but evidence is equally lacking for this.
Through oral history, however, we can speculate that the Sisterhood of Good Death was present in Cachoeira in the nineteenth century before the end of slavery as a lay sisterhood of freed African women. Its creation was not officially recognised by the Church with a canonical statute like the lay Brotherhood of Rosario, (36) but its worship was normally admitted as a form of popular devotion, its images were temporally hosted in the church, and its masses were said by local priests. According to Nascimento, the Sisterhood was originally located in a house called Casa da Estrela (Star House), so called because there is a star drawn on the ground in front of its door. The legend says that this star is an assento of Exu. (37) The house hosted the images and their jewels, and it was the point from which the processions to the church began. At some point the Boa Morte sisterhood abandoned the Casa da Estrela. According to the diocese, since at least 1915 there have been two niches in the parochial church of Cachoeira (Igreja Matriz) for the images of Our Virgin of Good Death and of Our Virgin of Glory. (38) These images only remained in the church for a short period during their celebrations. But in the 1970s, when the sister who kept these images died, they were given to the local priest, who took care of them in the church. Still, a small image of Good Death was kept in the houses of one of the sisters, who is called the proveedora (Provider). Each year this charge passed from sister to sister. The other sisters went to the proveedora's house to pray to the image regularly. (39)
Boa Morte was a very intimate celebration that did not generate any Lavagem, or public expectation of any kind. The ladies of Good Death celebrated their devotion amid the general indifference of the local people. Cachoeira is a city of old and intense traditions, and the sisterhood of Good Death is only one among others, and not the most important. The Ordem Terceira do Carmo was unquestionably more prestigious among the better families of Cachoeira, and the Irmandade do Rosario was more traditional and recognized by the Church. Boa Morte was a sisterhood of black women, the descendants of African slaves, and in general poor. In the 1970s, it was on the verge of extinction, like the Irmandade do Rosario, when it caught the interest of some intellectuals, tourists, and the state tourism agency.
In the 1980s, Boa Morte started to be seen as an expression of the popular culture of Bahia, emphasising the racial, historical and cultural aspects of the sisterhood over the religious ones. It was seen as a sisterhood of black women formed to fight slavery and intimately related to Candomble. In 1981, the anthropologist Raul Lody published a little book about it, underscoring the fact that all the members of the sisterhood also belonged to Candomble houses and suggesting that the cult of Iemanja or Oxum was probably concealed beneath Catholic tradition. (40) Lody pointed to aspects of its ritual and symbolism that are close to Candomble. In 1983, in a long article in the newspaper A Tarde entitled 'Celebration of Good Death reenacts the fight of the slaves', (41) the journalist defined Boa Morte as a 'syncretistic manifestation of African worship'. In that article, she explained how a sister of Good Death told her that even if the Sisterhood had existed since the early nineteenth century, the festa only began to be celebrated after 1888 to commemorate the end of slavery through an act of thanksgiving to the Virgin Mary.
In the early 1980s the first Black American tourists began to appear, interested in the history behind the Sisterhood. Their interest, ultimately, was to define cultural affinities and a common history. The Afro-American anthropologist Sheila S. Walker said that the 'Yearly ceremonial may thus be viewed as an emancipation celebration--the oldest continuous celebration of emancipation from slavery in the Americas, performed by the oldest continuing Afro-American women's organization in the Americas.' (42)
To what extent is the Worship of Good Death a syncretistic cult? Let us describe it more carefully. The celebration officially begins on a Friday, with a mass for the deceased sisters, followed by the cortege of Our Lady of Good Death. In this cortege, the sisters, wearing white clothes, bring the image of Our Lady of Good Death from the chapel of Ajuda. After that, they make a meatless 'white dinner' of salad and fish. On Saturday, the Image of Good Death is taken in a procession around the centre of Cachoeira. That day there is no dinner; the sisters cover their heads in mourning. The third day, Sunday, is the Day of the Assumption of Mary and there is a procession with the Image of the Virgin of Glory. And after the procession, the Celebration adopts a profane character for two days, with samba de roda (dancing) and food.
Which are the Candomble aspects of the ceremony? First, some authors (Lody) have insisted on the symbolism of their clothes, their typical baiana attire, and the food, which evokes Oxala (whose day is Friday and whose colour is white). Moreover, the rigid hierarchical structure of the sisterhood, based on seniority, resembles Candomble's sense of hierarchy. These are possible connections but we should also note that Friday also happens to be the Catholic fasting day, and that Boa Morte follows the model of the Easter Holy Week, with the death of Jesus on Friday and his resurrection on Sunday. Nascimento, who has known Boa Morte since his childhood, makes more subtle connections: the popcorn called doburu that they use in their foods is ritually connected to Omulu. Besides the public rituals, according to Nascimento, the sisterhood celebrates private Candomble rituals, although there is no proof, since these rituals are secret. Nascimento believes that the patron saint of the sisterhood, behind Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte, is Nana Buruku, the Old Orixa. (43)
In any case, it is clear that the Sisters are all Candomble women, which is not exceptional in Cachoeira. It is clear that their clothes, their foods, their lives are deeply immersed in Candomble. It is evident that Candomble has permeated the Sisterhood of Good Death. But this is different from saying that Boa Morte is a mask for the practice of Candomble and that the image of Boa Morte symbolically conceals the identity of the Orixas: Iemanja, Oxum, Oxala, Omulu, Nana Buruku ... The Sisters of Good Death, themselves, have never claimed this. For them, the santinha, the little saint that they host in their houses, has an identity of its own, and they are devotees of the image. Analia, one of the more active members of the Sisterhood, told me while gazing at the image: 'she only brought me good things'. The Sisters clearly define the ritual of Boa Morte as a Catholic practice, not as Candomble. Why should it be otherwise?
Anthropologists and historians have postulated that these Catholic practices are only 'forms' that hide the real 'meanings': Afro-Brazilian beliefs. Thus for Walker, they were 'a context for the religious syncretism that allowed the Africans and Afro-Brazilians to maintain their religious belief in disguised form.' (44) Catholicism is context, form and disguise, where Candomble would be true, real content.
Independently of whether the sisters of Good Death agreed with or even cared about anthropologists' and historians' theories about them, some other people did care. The Catholic Church began to be concerned with tourism and the cultural discourse surrounding Boa Morte. The new, young priest of Cachoeira, Father Helio Villas Boas, tried to take control of the Sisterhood, renewing it and imposing his criteria on the elder sisters. (45) The sisters resisted, and decided to write down their statutes with the help of a lawyer. The conflict became a 'holy war' when, in 1989, Father Helio seized the images of Boa Morte, saying, 'the place for the saints is in the church.' (46) Apparently, he was unaware that his predecessor had agreed to keep the images, but that they didn't belong to the church. The sisters went to court, and the police eventually recovered the images from Father Helio. Still, the sisters complained that some of the jewels had disappeared. In that process, the Archdiocese of Bahia strongly backed Father Helio, saying that they lamented that the statutes of the Sisterhood underscoring its cultural aspects outside the terms of Canon Law were elaborated and registered with a law firm without consulting the Church. In a complex and ambiguous statement, the Church also pointed to a central concern: Boa Morte was becoming more a cultural and political celebration than a religious one. (47)
Several cultural groups and political associations such as the Movimento Negro (Black Movement) and the tourism agency of Bahia expressed their solidarity with Boa Morte. The mayor of Cachoeira said: 'Every society needs its statutes to guarantee its survival, and Good Death needs that to bring culture and religion together more coherently and not to separate them.'48 Some Americans became particularly involved with Boa Morte during this conflict, donating money to buy a new home for the sisters.
Since no solution was found, the relationship between Boa Morte and the Catholic Church was severed, and in 1990 the sisters went on to celebrate mass with a priest of the Brazilian Catholic Church, a separate sect. In that year, too, the presence of nearly 1,000 Americans was particularly noticeable; an American TV channel video-taped the event and handed over the keys to the new building they had helped buy. (49) Finally, in March 1991, a definitive court hearing was favourable to the Sisterhood: the images and jewels now officially belonged to Boa Morte. The Cardinal decided not to appeal and moreover claimed that images were not so important: the true images of God were the children abandoned in the streets. (50)
Despite the help of the Americans, Boa Morte remained heavily dependent on Bahiatursa economically, although the sisters complained that this was not enough. (51) In 1995, the writer Jorge Amado published a letter in the newspapers asking for institutional help for Boa Morte, which brought an immediate answer from state governor Paulo Souto and from Antonio Carlos Magalhaes. (52) Amado and three representatives from Boa Morte were received in the Palace of the Governor, who stated that it was important to preserve Boa Morte as part of the historical, artistic and cultural heritage of Bahia, (53) and he promised to help the 'little sisters' (irmazinhas) finance the construction of a new location. Some months later, in August 1995, the sisters were already celebrating Boa Morte in their new house, which included a museum and a chapel housing the images. At its inauguration, Jorge Amado, Governor Souto and Senator Magalhaes were present and gave speeches.
Slowly, the relationship between the sisterhood and the Catholic Church returned to normal. In 1999, Father Helio apologised for his attitude and the new archbishop, Gilio Benicio, said mass at Boa Morte. The Boa Morte sisterhood is slowly returning to the Catholic Church but its images remain in the new chapel and museum built expressly for them.
In 2001, the celebration of Boa Morte was particularly politicised. In that year of crisis for Antonio Carlos Magalhaes, the then ex-president of the Senate went to Cachoeira (as he had gone to Bonfim) to receive a populist homage, and he became one of the main figures of Boa Morte on his Sunday morning visit.
I asked some of the American tourists what they thought about it: the old black ladies paying homage to the powerful 'White Head' senator. I thought it would annoy them as it annoyed me, but apparently it didn't. They saw it as a necessary strategy for the sisters of Boa Morte that revealed nothing more than their intelligence. According to the locals, this American presence began in the early 1980s with occasional characters such as Jimmy Lee, a hair products salesman. Through the 1980s, Cachoeira received visits from Afro-American intellectuals and community leaders such as Natalie Davenport from Chicago's Du Sable Museum, and Barbara King, an evangelical priestess from Atlanta. Afro-American churches have been particularly influential in bringing visitors to Cachoeira. In 2001, the United Trinity church of Chicago sent several buses from Salvador to Cachoeira.
The word that most of these Afro-Americans repeated when I asked them about their interest in Boa Morte was 'spirituality'. In Walker's words:
The Candomble and the Sisterhood of Good Death represent two different techniques used by the enslaved Africans to institutionalise and successfully maintain the reality and integrity of the African spirituality that continues to be the basis of Afro-Brazilian life, in spite of Euro-Brazilian efforts to eradicate this religious system and replace it with another based on fundamentally different conceptual and behavioral foundations, and serving antagonistic social and cultural ends. (54)
This 'spirituality' that has endured through a common history is what some Afro-Americans feel they have in common with Afro-Brazilians. Despite the fact that their religion is different--Americans belong to Pentecostal sects while the sisters of Good Death are 'Afro-Catholic'--their African essence is the same. This spirituality is lived as a subjective, personal experience, in which the image of Boa Morte, the old black women, their clothes, etc. are very important. For example, after talking to a sister of Boa Morte and not understanding a word she said, an elderly Afro-American tourist from a Pentecostal church told a friend of mine that he understood her spiritually; understanding Portuguese was not necessary: it was as if she were speaking in tongues. In other words, what she said concretely was not as important as what she represented generally as an icon or epiphany of something transcendent that reached directly to the inner self of the Afro-American tourist.
Boa Morte has become a big media event in recent years. Many reporters and TV channels show up there every year; photographic images of Boa Morte have travelled around the world. (55) Boa Morte has also become one of the big tourist events in the region. On the other hand, the locals participate little in the procession itself: the procession is almost inevitably full of tourists and photographers. Still, it is interesting to see what they take pictures of: elderly black Sisters of Good Death wearing colonial costume, not the Catholic images of Good Death and Glory. In this sense, we can certainly say that the celebration in recent years is not only politicised, but also commodified.
Conclusions: from religious images to cultural symbols
Through these cases, I have described a process in which popular religious celebrations have become expressions of Afro-Bahian culture. As we have seen, the current interpretations of these celebrations describe them as rituals of cultural resistance. Through an historical approach, I have attempted to go beyond these interpretations to describe a historical process in which the values of the images of these celebrations, and the images themselves, have changed.
The analysis of these festas cannot be reduced to a dualism of hegemonic and subaltern, power and resistance, sacred and profane, black and white. As we have seen, these positions have shifted through time, moving some images into the background and bringing some other images to the forefront as cultural values have changed. This involves several perspectives, social groups and actors engaged in negotiating meaning, value, and visibility.
At the basis of most conflicts over meaning, more than the 'resistance' or the 'agency' of the oppressed, we have found a change in the values of the social actors involved, as, for example, in the case of the Catholic Church. During several different periods and with different protagonists but always maintaing the same spirit of 'romanisation', the Church found 'Candomble' while ordinary people saw a festival only with a saint in mind: in Bonfim in the late nineteenth century and 1950s, and in the 1980s in Cachoeira. In all these cases, the clergy was trying to take control of a relatively autonomous and heterodox popular religious practice, and in face of failure, it denied its Catholic character and tried to suppress it. On the other hand, the Church is often not only driven by its reformist spirit and its anti-popular prejudices, but it also reacts negatively to the growing intrusion of other powerful social actors into these festivals: cultural elites, local and international artists and intellectuals who circulate images to the rest of the country and the world, using a discourse on Afro-Brazilian culture and overlooking their Catholic foundations. These cultural elites in particular became new social actors on the scene, as 'allies' of the people of the festivals--the baianas, the sisters of Good Death--when the Catholic Church abandoned them, building a new framework for these celebrations, which moved from being popular Catholic to Afro-Brazilian. In these new frameworks, the centre of mass media attention is not the Catholic images, as in the old days, but the people who once paid homage to these images: the baianas and the sisters. Protecting this cultural elite and these popular sectors, the most prominent political figures of Bahia in the twentieth century, from Governor J. J. Seabra in the 1920s to Antonio Carlos Magalhaes ('White Head' ACM) since the 1970s, have known how to use these events as public scenarios on which to project their power as personal power. The use and abuse of these festivals by politicians has meant, to some extent, yet another change in their visibility and values, particularly in the case of Bonfim. ACM has become totally identified with it and its symbolism, sometimes overshadowing the baianas themselves. In ACM's decadence, this overshadowing has even become a profanation, when policewomen in drag replaced the baianas.
What is the reaction of the people who organise these festivals in the face of all these changes? It would be wrong to say that their perception of the festivals and the values they preserve has not changed. Certainly the prejudices and contempt of the Church hurt these people. One hundred years ago, these festivals were a manifestation of a popular Catholicism based more on the sociality of religious corporations, public practice and ritual tradition than sincere individual faith guided by the priest, Christian conscience and knowledge of the Gospel. In these terms, popular Catholicism was not incompatible with Candomble, which was another means to reach similar ends.
The modernisation of the Catholic Church in terms of 'romanisation' attempted to replace a religion of ritual traditions with personal beliefs and conscience. This modern mentality, paradoxically, is also a guide for many of the intellectuals who have criticised the revisionist attitude of the Church. In their discourses on Afro-Brazilian culture, anthropologists, historians and artists have adopted the same premises as the priests, as Serra has pointed out. Our intellectual tradition, in broad terms, seems to postulate that it is only possible to practice one religion because religion is based on sincere belief. Since these people practised both Candomble and Catholicism in public, one of the two practices had to be 'insincere'. At this point, critical intellectuals would add a corollary: religion as a public institution is only an instrument for other real, material, essentially political objectives. The conclusion is clear: African slaves would only practice Catholicism because it was useful for them to hide their real beliefs and as a form of social integration. But never could they maintain their traditional beliefs and be sincerely Catholic at the same time. What began as a criticism of the priests and a reason to suppress the festivals (the identification of these festivals with Candomble) was then vindicated by the intellectuals and the cultural elites independently of what the people who organised these festivals had to say. But the rejection of the Church and the help of these cultural elites drew them closer. Progressively, the baianas and the Sisters of Good Death have learned these intellectuals' discourse on Afro-Brazilian culture and use it skilfully in their interaction with the mass media. In fact, the later effect of 'romanisation' has been the opposite of what was expected: the 'africanisation', and 'culturalisation' of these festivals, moving from the field of religion to the field of culture. I have described this transformation visually as the fading of Catholic images, replaced by the image of the people who used to worship them.
I have also introduced two corollaries to this process of 'culturalisation': politicisation and commodification. The political use and abuse of the festivals and their transformation into commodity values in a tourist attraction may again appear negative and excessive to us as critical intellectuals. But this is not necessarily the case for the people who participate in them. The ladies of Good Death see opportunities in tourism and political patronage. Analia, for example, one of the leaders of Good Death, has travelled to the US, and she is thankful for that. She is one of the people in the community with a clearly business-like attitude and she hopes to make money from tourism. On the other hand, the ladies are thankful to ACM for his help in building their place. Are they the victims of this patronage? Are these patrons just using them to attain their own objectives? Perhaps. But to answer these questions, to see if the culturalisation process finally results in a political and tourist spectacle, we should follow the evolution of the situation in the next few years. The 'politicisation' of these festas can be read as a curious and ironic return of a typically 'African', specifically Yoruba dimension to public festivities. Apter discusses ritual processions in which the priestesses of Yemanja bring their axe from the bush to the palace of the king, thus renewing his authority and legitimacy. (56) ACM, like an African king, seems to absorb and renew his popular power as the king of Bahia from these processions. Might this reading of the festival not be more authentically 'African' than one which seeks a 'hidden' cult of Oxala concealed beneath, and resisting, Catholic worship?
King's College London
(1) Following Gell, I would say that 'the ideas of 'representing' (like a picture) and 'representing' (like an ambassador) are distinct, but none the less linked'. Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), p. 98.
(2) Ordep Serra, Aguas do Rei (Rio de Janeiro: Vozes, 1994), p. 230.
(3) Carlos Ott, Evolucao das Artes Plasticas nas Igrejas do Bonfim, Boqueirao e Saude (Salvador: UFBACEB, 1979), p. 23.
(4) Before the end of the eighteenth century, its fame had spread to Goias (Ott, Evolucao, p. 40).
(5) Eduardo Alfredo Morais Guimaraes, Religiao Popular, Festa e o Sagrado, Masters Thesis, Universidade Federal da Bahia, 1994, pp. 55-58
(6) According to Ott (Evolucao, p. 43), the Festa do Bonfim was originally dedicated to Sao Goncalo do Amarante. In the early nineteenth century, the image and devotion of Sao Goncalo do Amarante were admitted into the church of Bonfim. Sao Goncalo was a wedding saint, very popular amongst young maidens trying to find a husband. The devotees of Sao Goncalo organized a very popular celebration just before the festa of Bonfim, a celebration that was deemed scandalous and 'diabolical' by the clergy of the city (Guimaraes, Religiao popular, pp. 78-90) for its erotic connotations, as in this hymn of prayer to Sao Goncalo de Amarante: 'Goncalo the Saint deserved/ to be on earth your lover/ I too, with lively faith / I want to be likewise' ('Mereceu Goncalo Santo/ Ser no mundo Vosso Amante/ Eu tambem Com Viva fe/Espero Ser semelhante') (Ott, Evolucao, p. 43). According to Ott, the celebration of Sao Goncalo became the festa da Lavagem of Bonfim. We cannot really justify this statement. However, it is clear that, even when the celebrations of Sao Goncalo disappeared, the festa of Bonfim in early January had assumed a much broader scope than the Novenas of the lay brotherhood
(7) Roger Bastide, Images du nordeste mystique en noir et blanc (Paris: Pandora Editions, 1978 (1945)), p. 276.
(8) Which would contradict Bastide's legend of the soldier, since the Paraguayan War started after 1860; this is an invented tradition.
(9) Carlos Alberto de Carvalho, Tradicoes e Milagres do Bonfim (Salvador: Typographica Bahiana, 1915), apud Guimaraes, Religiao Popular, p. 78.
(10) Carvalho, Tradicoes e Milagres, p. 99.
(11) O Monitor Catolico, 15 January 1888, cited in Guimaraes, Religiao Popular, p. 85.
(12) This does not mean that he is considered 'White' in racial terms, but the colour of his clothes and foods is white (funfun in Yoruba).
(13) Riolando Azzi, O catolicismo popular no Brasil (Petropolis: Vozes, 1976).
(14) Carvalho, Tradicoes e Milagres, p. 49
(15) Manuel Querino, A Bahia de Outrora (Salvador: Livraria Progresso, 1955), p. 156.
(16) 'Se encaramos esses divertimentos (batuques e candombles) como provindo de uma seita selvagem da religiao africana, certo encontramos grande insensatez na pratica de taes divertimentos em occasioes de festa da Egreja Catolica, mas se nos apercebemos de que essa pobre gente da roca, rustica, analphabeta, sem o menor desenvolvimento dos sentimentos da fina estetica, apenas enxergam, por atavismo, mas que por as dancas africanas e no ritmo provocante dos atabaques a suggestao e o prazer, acabariamos por achar menos ofensivo o 'Candomble' no Bonfim e para elle olhariamos simplesmente como para mais uma das muitas especies do povo festejar o senhor dos milagres ' (Carvalho, Tradicoes e Milagres, p. 42).
(17) Guimaraes, Religiao Popular, p. 80
(18) Guimaraes, Religiao Popular, p. 89
(19) Journal of the Archdioceses, 10 January 1941.
(20) Bastide, Images du nordeste mystique, p. 108.
(21) Verger explains the myth recreated by the ritual: it commemorates an ancient African legend: because of a trick by Exu, Oxala, the king of Ile-Ife, was identified as a thief by the soldiers of Xango, king of Oyo, who took him to jail. It took a long time before Xango realized that a terrible mistake had occurred, and to compensate for this injustice, he himself, leading his court, went to clean Oxala and to dress him as a king (Pierre Verger, Orixas (Salvador: Corrupio, 1980)).
(22) See, for example, the answers to a newspaper survey: 'Pedidos de fieis retratam contexto social do Pais e cotidiano da vida' in A Tarde, 17 January 2003.
(23) Guimaraes, Religiao Popular, p. 93.
(24) Guimaraes, Religiao Popular, p. 98.
(25) 'Bonfim atrai 1,5 milhao em busca de paz', A Tarde, 17 January 2002.
(26) Eduardo Morais Guimaraes, 'O povo purifica o templo', A Tarde, 6 January 2001.
(27) According to Mae Stella of the Opo Afonja, the relationship between the bahianas of the cortege and the terreiros is superficial. The bahianas go there 'at their own risk' (Guimaraes, Religiao Popular, p. 255).
(28) 'Fe, religiao e politicos caminharam juntos rumo a Colina Sagrada', Tribuna da Bahia, 14 January 2000.
(29) Recently, his son Luiz Eduardo, also a politician, had died. Magalhaes had placed all his hopes in his son, and his death effected a strange transformation in him, according to what many people said: it was as if the father was trying to do the job he wanted his son to do.
(30) 'Uso de 'pefem' no Bonfim pode ter ferido a liberdade de credo', A Tarde, 13 January 2001.
(31) 'Uma multidao sob a Bencao de Oxala', A Tarde 11 January 2001.
(32) A Tarde, 14 January 2000.
(33) Luiz Claudio Dias do Nascimento, Candomble e Irmandade da Boa Morte (Cachoeira, BA: Fundacao Maria Cruz, 1999).
(34) There was once a Sisterhood of Good Death in the Barroquinha neighborhood of Salvador but it disappeared around the 1930s according to local chronicles (Raul Lody, Devocao e culto a Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte: pesquisa socio-religiosa (Rio de Janeiro: Altiva Grafica e Editora, 1981), p. 8).
(35) Sheila S. Walker, The Feast of Good Death: An Afro-Catholic emancipation Celebration in Brazil (manuscript).
(36) Nascimento, Candomble e Irmandade, p. 13.
(37) Nascimento, Candomble e Irmandade, pp. 15-16.
(38) 'Dom Lucas Encerra o Caso sobre a Boa Morte', Jornal da Bahia, 20 March 1991.
(39) Interview with Analia dos Santos, one of the sisters of Good Death, Cachoeira, July 2001.
(40) 'Indagamos ate que ponto Iemanja ou Oxum nao estariam ai latentes, participantes desse conjunto sincretico tao frequente e bem a nossa maneira de interpretar e crer nos santos' (Lody, Devocao e culto, p. 7).
(41) 'Celebracao da Boa Morte revive luta dos escravos', A Tarde, 31 July 1983.
(42) Walker, The Feast of Good Death, p. 12.
(43) Nascimento, Candomble e Irmandade, p. 22.
(44) Walker, The Feast of Good Death, p. 10.
(45) 'Padre Helio preocupa as irmas da Boa Morte', Correio da Bahia, 6 March 1986.
(46) 'Guerra Santa ultrapassa fronteiras', Correio da Bahia, 18 November 1989.
(47) '[O]s festejos da Boa Morte [. . .] sem prejuizo de seu caracter cultural, artistico e folclorico, jamais deixaram de ter, na alma do povo Cachoeirano, e especialmente das Irmas da Boa Morte, um cunho profundamente religioso e espiritual' ('Arquidiocese quer paz com irmas da Boa Morte', A Tarde, 17 November 1989).
(48) 'Toda sociedade necessita de um estatuto para garantir sua sobrevivencia e Boa Morte esta querendo isto, unir a cultura e a religiao de uma forma mais coerente e nao separa-las' ('Igreja ausente da reuniao para debater "guerra santa"', A Tarde, 18 November 1989).
(49) 'A procissao da Boa Morte deixa a Igreja Matriz', Correio da Bahia, 31 July 1990.
(50) 'Dom Lucas encerra o caso sobre joias da boa morte', Jornal da Bahia, 20 March 1991.
(51) 'Boa Morte devolve verba a Bahiatursa em protesto', A Tarde, 17 August 1991.
(52) 'A Casa da Irmandade', A Tarde, 31 January 1995.
(53) 'Jorge Amado agradece a recuperacao da sede', A Tarde, 13 January 1995.
(54) Walker, The Feast of Good Death, pp. 12-13.
(55) See 'Hermanas de la Buena Muerte, en el corazon de la santeria Brasilena', in El Pais, 28 August 1998.
(56) Andrew Apter, Black Critics and Kings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).
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|Author:||Roca, Roger Sansi|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2005|
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