Anthropologist, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and senior researcher, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), France
ARÁ AND AXÉ: RITUAL CONSTRUCTION OF THE BODY IN BRAZILIAN CANDOMBLÉ
Prof. Stefania Capone analyses the centrality of the body in Candomblé rituals. In this Afro-Brazilian religion, the body – called ará – must be sacralised during initiation and associated with the forces inhabiting the universe and with the multiple realisations of axé, the divine power.
A central moment of axétransmission is when the initiates are possessed by their deities and the god’s sacred power is distributed, through the motions of dance, to the environment and among the faithful present. A longer version of this essay was published in Italian.
All photos belonging to this article are taken by the author.
Hinduism: A synthesis of memory and power
Candomblé is an Afro-Brazilian religion with a characteristic belief system in deities called orixás. It is associated with the phenomenon of possession or mystical trance, considered as the embodiment of the deity within the initiate, who has been ritually prepared to receive her. The main origin of ritual practices in Candomblé is the Yoruba religion, widespread from western Nigeria to Benin and Togo. The religion and customs of the populations from this African region provided a unifying model for all other ethnic groups found in Brazil at the time of slavery. Slaves came from all parts of western Africa, and even some eastern regions, such as Mozambique. During the 300 years of the slavetrade, the African enslaved brought to Brazil came from Angola and Congo, from the Costa da Mina and the Gulf of Benin.
A religion of immanence, the body is central to all Candomblé rituals. The body – called ará in Nagô, the ritual language of Candomblé – must be sacralised and associated with the forces inhabiting the universe, and with the multiple manifestations of axé, the divine power present in everything that exists. In the past few years, anthropologists have greatly insisted on the notion of embodiment, as a way of “being in the world”. Indeed, human beings experience the world through their body, the mediator par excellence, the means through which we relate to our environment. We “know” through our body: our awareness is “embodied” knowledge.
But, to make this possible, the body must be culturally disciplined. Tattoos, piercings, paint are all practices aimed at building the social side of the human being. Furthermore, in the case of a religion of possession like Candomblé, the paradigm of embodiment proposed by Thomas Csordas (1990) becomes even more central. Csordas states that the body is not merely a subject of study, but the necessary condition of experience: to draw on his formula, the body is the terrain on which culture is built (ibid.: 5). The body is our perceptual opening on the world.
Body and Possession: terreiro and axé
The paradigm of embodiment tends to nullify the duality of mind and body, subject and object. The body is the central locus of this “embodied understanding”. The experience of possession involves very special attention to the ritual construction of the body, how it is modelled, subjected to a certain routine, made malleable and disciplined by ritual action. The typical trajectory of initiates of Candomblé, generally drawn to this religion due to some sickness, whether physical or psychological, or other kinds of problem, demonstrates the centrality of initiation rites as the principal means of resolving individual problems. Through initiation, the novice learns to manage the relationship with his/her divine protector and with other accompanying deities, equally important in constituting the mystical web defining the new initiate’s intimate essence.
A religion of immanence, the body is central to all Candomblé rituals. The body – called ará in Nagô, the ritual language of Candomblé – must be sacralised and associated with the forces inhabiting the universe, and with the multiple realisations of axé, the divine power present in everything that exists.
Candomblé is a religion of possession, whose central moment is the god’s manifestation in the body of the initiate, the moment at which the transmission of axétakes place. In Yorubá, axédesignates the invisible power ensuring dynamic existence, the principle that makes the vital process possible. This force can be transmitted, at both a material and a symbolic level, to inanimate objects and human beings. One central moment of axétransmission is when the initiates are possessed by their deities when, through the motions of dance, the god’s sacred power is distributed to the environment and among the faithful present. The terreiro (the house of worship), with all its material content and its initiates, must receive axé, foster it, accumulate it and develop it. The space of the terreiro must be consecrated by the blood of animals sacrificed to the deities, which is the principal vehicle of axé, and by the burying, in the centre of the ceremonial space and under the threshold of the terreiro’s door, of symbolic elements (bones, leaves, stones, etc.) associated with the ritual sacrifices, and deemed the propagators of this power.
Axéis also transmitted to ritual objects, made thus active by its power. This power creates and strengthens ties and communication between the spiritual and terrestrial worlds. The scope of every ceremony is to accumulate and increase axéthrough the direct relationship between the deity and the initiate. This notion of “power” is found not only in Candomblé, but in all Afro-Brazilian religions and, more generally speaking, Afro-American religions as a whole.
The first aim of initiation is consequently to make the deity live in the body of its “child”, through the central moment of every Candomblé ritual: possession. During initiation, no esoteric secrets are revealed. It all happens beyond the conscious participation of the individual. Only over the years, with much patience and humility, is any real knowledge of the ritual’s “foundations” acquired.
A Candomblé initiate possessed by the orixá Yansan, goddess of winds and storms.
Candomblé is a religion of possession, whose central moment is the god’s manifestation in the body of the initiate, the moment at which the transmission of axé takes place. In Yorubá, axé designates the invisible power ensuring dynamic existence, the principle that makes the vital process possible.
Initiation as a “ritual construction”
The basic aspect of initiation focuses in the initiate the identity and mythical behaviour of his/her orixá, creating a “second personality” that belongs to the divine essence. The initiate’s identification with the deity’s character model is very frequent and strengthens after the initiation period, when the bond between them has been confirmed and sanctioned by the community. Initiation is also a period in which some rules of the religion are learned, the behaviour prescribed, as also one’s own place in the world. While the novice has to learn how to behave correctly, the god also has to adapt to the “material”, meaning the body of his “horse” and its limitations. During initiation, the music and dances of the orixás have to be memorised, as also the situations when possession is usually expected. Relations with the orixás are not however just a matter of behavioural rules to be learned. Awareness of the body and of sounds, odours and objects associated with the spiritual entities are also essential for the creation of a durable bond between the initiate and his/her protecting deities.
In actual fact, in Candomblé, every human being has a protecting deity, called “dono da cabeça”, the master of the head. The initiate is then said to be the “child” of this deity. To this first deity, “mythical parent of the person”, is added a second orixá called adjuntó, who occupies a secondary, but no-less-important position in protecting the initiate. These two main deities are usually accompanied by a third orixá that, together with the others, forms the basic spiritual configuration of the individual.
These deities are not unique, but are them selves multiple, since every orixá is divided into a varying number of “qualities”, distinct actualisations of its sacred power, each connected with the field of activity of another deity. The “qualities” of the orixás trigger various forms of axé, of divine power, linked to their different characteristics.
The deity fixed by initiation in the initiate’s head is an individual and unique manifestation, with the special quality of the general orixá. When an initiate dies, his/her personal orixá returns to join the general matrix of everything, to which the human being belongs. Returning to his/her origin, he/she will add to the vital force that we, as human beings, have the duty of accumulating in order to maintain our relations of spiritual balance with the world.
In Candomblé, the initiate is possessed by the “master of the head”, his/her main god, and – in some cases – also by the adjuntó. In actual fact, the deity who takes possession of the initiate’s body is not the generic orixá – Oxalá, Ogun or Yansan – but a subtle combination of her power (axé) expressed by her “quality”, and the personality of its “horse”, i.e. the initiate. Indeed, the notion of person in Candomblé never separates the soul from the body, but is the sum of all the parts of the body in which the sacred powers lie, the axé without which it cannot exist. All the bodily senses (hearing, sight, taste and touch) are deemed centres of power to be rebalanced during the initiation period. In Candomblé the body is thus conceived of as a living altar, in constant communication with the natural and spiritual world.
The importance of the head in initiation rites
In Candomblé, the head is considered the most important part of the human body, animated by the emí, the vital breath that will return to its origin at the moment of death. Throughout his/her life, the initiate must submit to various rituals called obrigações, a term that means “duties” in Portuguese, feeding his orixás and his head, the main element that facilitates communication with the gods.
The main ceremony devoted to the head is borí. During this ceremony, various foods prepared for the orixás are arranged beside the mat on which the initiate is stretched. The person participating in this ritual must eat a little of the ritual foods offered to the orixás to receive their power, the divine axé. All initiates present share this sacred food. Most of the offerings are “white”, such as flowers and clothes, because white is the colour of Oxalá, the god who created human beings, and who is a symbol of peace and harmony.
To the head are offered various animals – a Guinea fowl, a duck, a chicken, a white dove and an igbin, a giant snail about twenty centimetres long, whose transparent liquid is deemed to be the “blood of Oxalá”. The blood of the sacrificed animals runs over the initiate’s head and on the material representation of the orí – the igbáorí. Onto the head, the celebrant also spits the remains of a cola nut he has chewed, imbued with his axé; feathers of the sacrificed birds will be stuck to the stillwarm blood that runs down the head, then covered by an immaculate turban (ojá) which stays on for three days, after which the initiate can finally wash. The body “absorbs” the axé and is nourished by the animal sacrifices, just as the orixás do through their material representations.
Ritual greetings during a Candomblé public ceremony.
Initiation is also a period in which the rules of the religion are learned, the behaviour prescribed, as also one’s own place in the world. While the novice has to learn how to behave correctly, the god also has to adapt to the “material”, meaning the body of his “horse” and its limitations.
Candomblé initiation last 21 days on the average, although the timespan is often reduced. Of these 21 days, 14 largely correspond to the liminal period, in which the novice is most of the time in a semi-conscious state. During this period, the novice is “recolhido”, or in reclusion, and becomes “invisible”, hidden by a white sheet in public. He/she may not communicate with others present – except his/her initiators and members of the same “barco” (“boat”, the initiatic group) – and spends entire days shut up in the ronkó, the chamber of initiation, a kind of gestating uterus of the terreiro. During this reclusion, the novice no longer has a name, and is known either by the generic term iyawó (which in Yorubá designates the youngest bride in a polygamous marriage), or by a term defining his/her position in the initiatic group (dofono, dofonotinho, fomo, fomotinho, etc.) . At this point, his/her previous individuality is cancelled in order to give life to a new being, profoundly marked by being rejoined with his/her divine origin.
Ingredients for a Candomblé individual shrine (assentamento).
Possession by the deity is not, however, the only state of consciousness experienced by the initiate. The multiplicity of elements constituting the personality is matched by a multiplicity of states of consciousness, appearing at distinct moments in the liturgical continuum of Candomblé: the “normal” state, called “cara limpa” (i.e. “clean face”, not in a state of trance), the santo state and that of erê.
“Cara limpa” is the ordinary state of consciousness, when the initiate is conscious of his/her actions, a state that contrasts with the “estado de santo”, when the initiate is possessed by the deity. The state of erê on the other hand is a sort of less violent trance, an intermediate state between the other two. During the initiation period, the novice spends most of his/her time in this state, which is equated to possession by infantile spirits. In the state of erê, speech and basic bodily functions, usually suspended during the santo state, are regained. This keeps the subject in a state of preparation for divine possession, without subjecting him/her to the excessive stress of a continuous state of trance. In this state, the subject needs practically no sleep and the receptivity of the mind is greatly developed.
In Candomblé, the human being and his protecting deity belong to the same reality: one would not exist without the other. The close interaction of the adept with his orixá is reciprocal. The orixá takes possession of the initiate, just as the initiate, metaphorically, possesses his/her god: the incarnated god is referred to as being the Oxalá of Maria or the Oxóssi of João, at the same time as the initiate is identified as Maria of Oxalá or João of Oxóssi. Possession functions more as a multiplier of identity than a simple loss of consciousness in favour of an external possessing agent. In the accounts given by Candomblé initiates, we find a plurality of voices, in which identity is defined by multiplicity.
We may therefore state that the possession trance in Candomblé is not a fusion, but a distinction. All the rituals accompanying the trance thus aim at transforming the novice into a new being, completely differentiated – at a mystical level – from all the other initiates. The final purpose of initiation is the inscription in the body of the new initiate’s specificity, his/her network of spiritual protection, his/her “mystic capital”.
shaken by vibrations marking the arrival of the orixá. Among Candomblé initiates, this passing from ordinary consciousness to possession by the deity – the santo state – is experienced like a blow at the nape of the neck, causing the head
In Candomblé, the human being and his protecting deity belong to the same reality: one would not exist without the other. The orixá takes possession of the initiate, just as the initiate, metaphorically, possesses his/her god.
Xirê or the activation of axé in the ritual space
The principal moment of distributing axé in the sacred space is represented by the xirê, a public ceremony that invokes the orixás by dancing in a circle and the beating of sacred drums. Xirê is a bodily performance that restores vital energy. This ritual expands and spreads axé, the divine power, in the sacred space, restoring and transforming the physical, mental and spiritual energy of the rite’s participants. The interaction of various elements – song, dance, sound, word – thus makes possible the circulation of axé.
In public ceremonies, communication between the spiritual and terrestrial worlds is effected through the power of the deity transmitted to the initiate’s body during possession and redistributed by the body through dance movements. During the possession dance, the ordinary state of consciousness is destructured. Usually, a subject in trance emits a set of signs characteristic of this condition: tremor, gasping, abundant sweating.
Initially, this experience is marked by immobility, as though the subject is suffering from shock, and is experiencing something internally that causes intense suffering. The mouth contracts, the features harden. The body is rapidly to fall forward. This is determined by the fulminating ingress of the deity’s power into the initiate’s head, from where it takes control of the body. Possession properly socalled, however, is marked by the behaviour identifying the deity. The face changes expression and the initiate’s motor behaviour is modified by the characteristics of the incarnate god. The deity’s dance thus appears to have a double function: on the one hand, it facilitates transmission of the god’s power from the spiritual to the terrestrial world, redistributing it among the religious community, while on the other, it brings about the passing from a state of ordinary consciousness to one of altered consciousness, through the expression of the deity’s mythical characteristics.
The most intense moment during the xirê is the embrace granted by the embodied deity to her chosen ones, as a sign of protection. For Candomblé members, the axé of the orixá is “a power that is transmitted”, which can therefore give rise to other possessions, multiplying and propagating its action in the sacred space. However, although we can speak of an “emotional trance”, evoked by a gesture or a particular song, we should also mention an “aesthetic trance”, since it is often the beauty of the scene – the dancing bodies, the songs invoking the gods – that draws forth an emotion that opens the way to possession.
Possession by the orixás, during public festivals, is essentially a danced possession. Through the motions of the dance, each deity expresses her essence and the bonds that unite him/her to other deities. In Candomblé, indeed, the word is inscribed in the body and can be remembered, reactivated and given new meaning in the ritual action. Knowledge is given through the divine “word” that emanates from the body, intimately linked to the movement and propagation of the sacred powers. The final aim of each and every Candomblé ritual is to keep alive and transmit the axé within the religious community.
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