ISSUE #1: Pan-Atlantic Parallels and Forced Migration by Liam Paul O’Kell

Gelede Helmet Mask

Gelede Helmet Mask, photographed by David Malik

The cults of oria, associated with the Yorùbá-speaking peoples of West Africa (including peoples from Nigeria, Benin and Togo) and Candomblé, primarily from the State of Bahia in Brazil, are seemingly separated by over 3,000 miles of ocean, yet they show marked similarities. Below I will question to what extent Candomblé developed as a syncretic belief system, emerging from oria cults and diverse other influences such as Roman Catholicism and animistic traditions. These belief systems all have complex historical trajectories but are also pursued today and therefore include active, developing practices. They are, and have been, expressed in particular, different ways and are not static nor without variation internally. A further important consideration is the complexity of definitions and categories which, while they may be necessary for denotation in discussion, can distort the image of their referents to better fit the shape they describe. In other words, categories are not absolute and this is nowhere more true than with issues of belief and identity.

The Yorùbá term oria (also “orixa” or “orisha”) may be translated as “deified ancestors”. They are innumerable and perceived as inhabiting a spiritual realm (orun) with the creator Olodumare, non-deified ancestors and many spirits. This is in contrast to the tangible living realm (aye) which we currently inhabit. All that exists is believed to have a “force”, “power” or “energy” (ase) which is unique to every person and must be increased though active reflection and interpretation. A person’s character (iwa) derives from their ase and it is ase, as opposed to matter, which explains the true nature of living beings and objects. Ase emanates from and is expressed most strongly by speech and the face, a factor evidently expressed in Yorùbá sculpture, and iwa can be equated with “true beauty” (the near homophone: ewa) as aspects of the same essential nature. Oria-related beliefs and practices are not timeless or contemporaneously homogeneous within or across every relevant community (as reflected in the plural “cults of oria”). However, limited similarities have been proposed between fourteenth century artefacts and extant “Yorùbá institutions”.

Afro-Brazilian Candomblé also refers to “oria” and has strong historical links with the cults of oria found around the Bight of Benin across the Atlantic. People from Yorùbá-speaking territories, forcibly taken to Brazil as slaves from as early as the mid-sixteenth century, patently took with them their beliefs and memories and knowledge of rites and rituals. Thus, associated but essentially eclectic ritual practices and ideas developed, primarily communicated orally. Daniel J. Crowley explains, referring also to Bahian carnaval:

“… the Africans brought their indigenous religions to Brazil, which in Bahia were reformulated into elaborate cults called Candomblé. Among the various types of this distinctive Afro-Brazilian religion, Candomblé Nagô is of particular importance (Omari 1984:40), as it features a rich pantheon of deities (Orixás) derived from the Yorùbá peoples of southern Benin and southwestern Nigeria.” (1984, pg. 13)

In Candomblé temples the oria may be manifest through spiritual possession of a devotee or devotees. In Bahian carnaval possession an oria may be imitated by both believers and non-believers. (ibid.) For many practitioners, Roman Catholic saints are syncretised with the oria as “deified ancestors”. Although I hold no evidence, by logical extension heaven may also be syncretised with orun (the spirit realm). In South America many slaves were, often forcibly, converted to Catholicism and it is under such circumstances that the practice of what came to be known as Candomblé originated and developed (as it continues to develop under contemporary socio-political circumstances).

What were actually or essentially cargo vessels took people as slaves to the Americas, following a complex network of slave trade routes across the southern Atlantic Ocean, or the “Middle Passage”. People were forcibly taken from what are now Sénégal, Sierra Leone, countries around the Bight of Benin (then known as the “Slave Coast”), Angola, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique (on the south-west African coast), and elsewhere. The trans-Atlantic African slave trade began in the late fifteenth century; in part, to support European expansion in the Americas. According to Patton, over 400 years approximately 12 million Africans were forcefully taken to the New World; the height of “trade” between c. 1650 and c. 1850. However, estimates of the number of Africans taken in the trans-Atlantic slave trade range from 9 to 25 million and between 1560 and 1850 the number of Africans forcefully taken to Brazil alone may have been between four to six million or at least three and a half million.

Historical circumstances enabled cultural syncretism (including, but not limited to, language, philosophy and art), on some level, in Brazil and elsewhere in the Americas. Historical trajectories may find the origins of their confluence in the violent and heinous crimes of the fifteenth to nineteenth century trans-Atlantic slave trade. However, the complex nature of pan-Atlantic forced migrations, including the varied histories of the people involved, both slaves and their descendants, is a warning to drawing simplistic conclusions. There are patently strong similarities between the cults of oria and Candomblé (such as the existence of “oria” in both); although, to achieve a complete and accurate understanding, accepting a direct correlation between parallels should be challenged and not accepted without recognising complexity. In this case the language used must also be questioned; does oria mean exactly the same in both contexts? It would appear that there are differences. People of African descent who were not from Yorùbá-speaking communities can also be seen to have had some influence on Candomblé. Considering the earlier links various West African practices may have had to each other adds even greater complexity. Indigenous South American peoples have not been mentioned in this essay but are also of great importance.

Bibliography & Further reading

Araujo, A. L., 2010. Public memory of slavery: victims and perpetrators in the South Atlantic. Amherst: Cambria Press.

Crowley, D. J., 1984. African Myth and Black Reality in Bahian Carnival. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History.

Drewal, H. J., n.d.. “Yorùbá” in Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online.

Garlake, P., 2002. Oxford History of Art – Early Art and Architecture of Africa. Oxford: Oxford: University Press.

Patton, S. F., 1998. Oxford History of Art – African-American Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Price, S. and Price, R., 1980. Afro-American Arts of the Suriname Rain Forest. Berkely: University of California Press.

Tribe, T., 1993. Saints and orixás: popular uses of religious syncretism in contemporary Brazillian painting. In: S. Rostas & A. Droogers, eds. 1993. The Popular Uses of Popular Religion in Latin America. Amsterdam: CEDLA. Pp. 53-70.

Under the Sun: The Actress, the Bishop and the Carnival Queen. 1991. Producer: Reid, H., Series Editor: Curling, C.. Great Britain: BBC Elstree.

uofmemphisvideos, 2010. Dr. Mikelle Smith Omari Tunkara, Dorothy Kayser Chair of Excellence in Art History, The University of Memphis – Global/Local: Contemporary Art in Africa and its Diaspora. Available at: <> [Accessed 01 February 2013].

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