Candomblè is a religion that originated in Brazil by enslaved Africans who were making an attempt to recreate their culture despite being on the other side of the ocean. The orixás are gods that are the spiritual beings of the Yoruba; they are connected in Africa with geographical features, extended families, towns, and the Yoruba subgroups dominant in those towns. They believed that Candomblè provided a foundation for a new social organization that would replace the systems destroyed by slavery. However, the Portuguese would not allow the enslaved Africans to worship their own deities, furthermore forcing them to participate in the worshiping of the Catholic saints. Brazil ended slavery in 1888, which was much later than the United States in 1863. Despite being abolished in 1808, the transatlantic slave trade lasted in Brazil until 1851, thus allowing new African influences to continue to enter the Brazilian society. Afro-Brazilians were able to preserve their African religion with influence from Catholicism. It had many saints, costumes, processions, as well as rituals; allowing Afro-Brazilians to have a much more affable disguise for African beliefs and practices. Therefore, the Yoruba learned the names and characteristics of these saints, and figured out the similarities between the saints and their Orixás. This resulted in the Yoruba’s being able to establish uniformity between their orixás and the saints, thus allowing them to be able to use the saints as camouflage their own spiritual beings. The Orixá Omolu, the god of smallpox and other diseases, was referred to the Leper, St. Lazarus (“What is Candomblè” 1-3). The orixá that I will be discussing is the deity Omolu. I will be discussing one of the stories of Omolu, descriptions, and dance movements, as well as, attire.
Omolu was one of the two children from Naña, the other being Oxumaré. He was the first born, at a young age he contracted the smallpox disease. So Naña left him in a basket that was close to the shore side, due to the fact that she could not cure him. However Iemanjá, the orixá of the ocean, noticed him covered in crabs as she was passing by; in which, the crabs were engulfing him. She picked him up and raised him in the sea, despite the fact that he was sick. Iemanjá stitched a hood for him that was made out of palha da costa, also known as raffia fiber, so that his abnormalities would not show; considering, he had unpleasantly deformed skin and small pox scars. Since Omolu was raised away, he became studious and demonstrated that he was very knowledgeable. After noticing how educated he was on human nature and human diseases, Iemanjá suggested that Omolu overcome his differences with his real mother Naña. Iemanjá then leaves the water with Omolu, so she can go to land to present Omolu to Naña. In which, there was a reunion between Omolu and his mother. Omolu became known as the master of land or the owner of land, since he had inherited a vast knowledge of soil from Naña. From the axé he acquired from Naña as the owner of the soil and Iemanjá as the owner of the ocean, he became a counseling doctor; who is the one that knows how to avoid evil (Voeks 79-80).
Omolu is the god of smallpox and with infectious diseases. Now his realm has expanded to include AIDS as well as other modern diseases. His ritual number is 17, and the sacrificial foods that are offered to him are peas, beans, and popcorn (Dorsey 88-89). Popcorn is a primary offering and bath ingredient for Omolu. The popcorn is used to symbolize the skin outbreaks associated with smallpox, due to the contorted shape of the popcorn. The popcorn can also reflect Omolu’s explosive temper (Minnis 163). The color that Omolu is associated with is brown.
When Omolu moves, his body will be bent in half due to the weight of pain, in which he seems like he is always on the brink of falling. He drags his feet for three steps, then he gathers to lift his torso up slightly and then he goes the other direction. He breaks at the knees and lunges to the left with his arms behind him shaking with fever. Furthermore, his movements require a vast amount of strength and flexibility to keep the body in a bent position without ever breaking, along with being balanced at a pivotal point that is between the upright and lying down positions (McHugh 3-5). He dances with the xaxará which is the leather, shell and bead wrapped broom that he uses to sweep away disease and tribulation (Murphy 72). During the dance Omolu also points to the palm of his hand, his eyes, and his mouth to show his different wounds.
Omolu’s costumes are comprised of his head being covered in the iko, which is a vast cone of dried raffia, along with a gold palm straw skirt that comes from Africa. Raffia is a fiber that is gathered from the raffia palm tree in Madagascar. The raffia takes on a yellowish tan color after being dried in the sun (“Raffia” par.1). He carries the xaxará, a broom, in his hand to sweep away disease and death (Murphy 64).
I attached a video link of an Omolu dance. I recognized their bent posture that they maintained throughout the dance. The dancers wore the raffia that Omolu is embodied by. They danced with a bounce that they would do after the three steps. I noticed them spreading their hands, which might have been to symbolize Omolu spreading smallpox.
Compared to the first video, the second video really displayed the costume of Omolu. In the video, you could see the raffia that covered the dancers faces, along with the skirts that were under the large amount of straw. In the video, you could also see the iko at the top of their heads, which I thought all the different kinds were very nice. The video also displayed the xaxará that was the broom that Omolu carried in his hand to sweep away smallpox. The dancers also had a posture where you could really see them bent over, which they kept that posture through the whole dance.
Blog by Monique Stansell
1. Dorsey, Lilith. Voodoo and Afro-Caribbean Paganism. Citadel Press. 2005. Google. 5 May 2009
2. Kraay, Hendrik. Afro- Brazilian Culture and Politics: Bahia, 1790’s to 1990’s. M.E. Sharpe. 1998. Google. 5 May 2009
3. “What is Candomblè?” Google. 5 May 2009
4. Murphy, Joseph. Working the Spirit. Beacon Press. 1994. Google. 5 May 2009
5. Voeks, Robert. Scared Leaves of Candomblè. University of Texas Press. 1997. Google. 5 May 2009
6. Minis, Paul. Ethnobotany. University of Oklahoma Press. 2000. Google. 5 May 2009
7. McHugh, Isabelle. WAR, DEATH, & BEAUTY: OGUM, OMOLU, & OXUM. 2005. Google. 5 May 2009
8. "raffia." The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2008. Encyclopedia.com. 7 May. 2009 <http://www.encyclopedia.com/>.