African Roots II – Faith

(photo by Emilio Navarinho)


Oxalá que me guie                                   Oxalá who guides me

Por todo caminho                                    the whole way

Nâo deixe na rodaa fé me faltar              Don’t let my faith fail in the roda

Sou vento que sopra eu sou capoeira      I am the wind that blows I am Capoeira

A luta de um povo prá se libertar            The fight of a people to be free

(Capoeira song translated by Mathew Brigham)


The people who were transported to Brazil brought with them the roots of Capoeira. These are not only the Martial Arts who came with them and who are the direct ancestors of Capoeira. There is also a lot of different religions which came to and started spreading in Brazil. It is impossible to mention all the manifestations of African belief in Brazil and it is also impossible to dig into every African religion which had an influence on African Faith in the Diaspora. This is the reason why I will just write about certain parts, just to give people an idea what to look for and as a kind of starter. If you are really interested into this topic you should do a more proper research than just reading this post, but start digging yourself. You will discover a very interesting and fascinating world, believe me!

When you ask a Capoeirista which religion might be closest to Capoeira the first or the second answer will be Candomblé. We all were taught that Capoeira itself does not have a religion and can and should be practised by all, but on the other side there are a lot of songs in Capoeira which actually refer to Candomblé belief and there are a lot of mestres who practise Candomblé. This is because Candomblé is, like Capoeira, an Afrobrazilian Tradition practised despite being outlawed and banned for hundreds of years, a way of resistance slaves practised despite the overpowering rule of their masters. It is a piece of this culture, which was as endangered as Capoeira and which did perceive similar demographic changes in the last 100 years. This is the reason why this post is mainly about Candomblé, its roots and its manifestation in Brazil.

The Yoruba Roots

Today’s Candomblé is strongly influenced by Yoruban traditions. That is why I begin with describing the Yoruban religion. Yoruba religion (or religions, if you dont want to see it as one whole) is the largest African born and developed religion in the world, practised by the relatively diffuse nations influenced by Yoruban tradition in West Africa. In Yoruba faith the world is made of two connected realms, Aye, the visible world we are living in, and Orun, the spiritual world, with its own inhabitants, with ancestors, nature spirits, and most importantly, the Orishas. Orishas are anthropomorphized forces of nature, associate with geographical features, extended families, towns and Yoruba ethnics dominant in these towns. Yoruba religion does know 401 (or, in other sources 601) Orishas, of which some are known and worshipped by all and others are only worshipped by certain families and towns. It is also important that every person is given a particular deity for worship. This is usually the deity the father or the mother did worship to, but it can also happen that a certain god does reveal itself in a dream and thus the believer will worship that particular god.

Among the Orishas there are some with special meaning and function. Olorun is the first Orishato be mentioned as he is the Creator of the entire universe and rules over it with the help of all the other gods, which are his children. He lives in the sky and has no special group of worshippers or shrines (while all the other Orishas do). This is the reason why some scholars do believe that Olorun was “invented” only later in Yoruba religion, being influenced by monotheistic religions like Islam or Christianity. But there are also other Orishas of great importance, like Shango, the god of thunder and fire, Ochossi, the hunter and scout of the gods and the god of those who seek for justice or something else, Iemanja, the loving mother of mankind and goddess of the sea. And there is Eshu, the divine messenger and trickster god. He is the one who connects the world of the Orishas with ours and he is the one everyone worships to, not only to establish the connection to the world of Aye, but also to stop him from tricking and consequently harming people (despite Christian scholars seing Eshu as Satan himself,  Eshu does not represent evil, because a) Yoruban religion does not have a dichotomous good-evil distinction and b) Eshu is merely a chaotic power necessary for everyday’s life and being a warning to those who do not establish a good connection to the Orishas).

Besides the Orishas there is the Egun. They are the spirits of the ancestors who assist and guide the believer through his life. On the other side there is also belief in reincarnation amongst the Yoruba, which does reveal itself in names like “Babatende“, which means “Father returns”. The Yoruba believe that, to lead a good life, you have to know your Orisha to worship and you have to know to align your Ori, which means literally “head” and which does come down to one’s spiritual intuition and destiny. Aligning your Oridoes mean that you establish a balanced character. To achieve this you have to work with the Orishas and folowthe guide of the Egun. To come to know your Ori is to come to know yourself, to achieve inner peace and satisfaction. Another important concept is the concept of Axé, which is the force that gives rise to all pocessesthat define the universe. Without Axé nothing would move, evolve or actually do anything. Roughly you can say that Axé is something like life force, although it is in everything, living and non living objects.

Roots of Candomblé

When the West African Oyo empire collapsed in the 19th century, a lot of ethnic Yoruba were transported to the Americas. Here they had considerable influence on the religious practises of the slave population, which were summarized under the term “Candomblé”. But Candomblé is not merely the Afrobrazilian version of Yoruban tradition. Candomblé exists in Brazil for 400 years, that is since a time when Yoruba slaves were only part of the slave population of Brazil. This explains why “Candomblé” is not a Yoruban, but a Bantu word. It comes from the root “Kandombele” which means something like “prayer meeting”, “festival” and “dance”. Thus, there are Bantu traditions in Candomblé, too. To understand the heterogeneity of Candomblé one has to remember that in the beginning slave masters were not fond of homogeneous groups of slaves on their farms. They feared that this would lead to allying and rebellions, so they took care that the slaves came from different nations and were speaking different languages. So Candomblé did evolve being influenced by many different traditions (thought the Bantu and Yoruba traditions are most visible). One example of this mixture of influences is that you can find Orixas from Yoruban, Vodouns from Ewe and Fon, and Nkisis from Bantu tradition in Candomblé. There is also some influence of Islamic Malés and their traditions, but this one started to decrease since the import of Islamic slaves was stopped after 1835 and the remaining once were forced to change to Christianity. And there is some strong influence of Christianity, which I will come back to later. Important to know is that the mixture of traditions is not causing problems in Candomblé. Some Vodouns, Nkisis and Orixas do have same or similar functions, but nobody does exclude the one or other deity because of this. The deities are recognized as different, but equal beings. And Candomblé is not the only religion in the Americas with mixed influences. Yoruba, for example, did not only have an influence on Candomblé, but also on other traditions like Palo on Cuba and the Dominican Republic, Umbanda in Brazil and the Petro rites of Haitian Vodoun.

Syncretism with Christianity

The Portuguese masters didnt like their slaves practising African rituals and religion. That’s the reason why a lot of slaves were forced to convert and participate in Catholic mess. This was the beginning of the Syncretism which evolved between Christianity and Yoruban traditions influencing Candomblé. Although the word Syncretism is a bit disturbing, as syncretism is “blending of two or more religious systems into a new system”. Christianity was not accepted by the slaves (at least not in the beginning), but forced into their lifes. And the blending of their traditions with Christianity was not because they thought some ideas of Christanity are actually good, but because there was no other way. And here we come to a concept, which every Capoeiristaknows by heart. The concept of “hidden resistance”, of deception and trickery, for the cause of survival (of one self, of one’s traditions, of one’s religion…). A lot of slaves did not accept Christian religion as such, but did use the saints for hidden worship of the Orixas and a camouflaged pracise of Candomblé. They learned names and characteristics of the saints and saw similarities to their Orixas. So they started serving those saints, with the casual hidden relic of the corresponding Orixa on the Christian altar.

O Santa Barbara de Relampué,
O Santa Barbara de Relampua.
O Santa Barbara de Relampué,
O Santa Barbara de Relampua.
E Relampue, de Relampuá.
O Santa Barbara de Relampué,
O Santa Barbara de Relampua.
De Relampue de Relampuá.

The song given above is for example not praising St. Barbara, but Iansá, the cleaning force and goddes of the storm and wind, wielding thunderbolts. Other corresponding saints are e.g. St. Sebastian for Oxossi, the Virgin Mary for Yemanjá, and Jesus for Oxalá. Today this Syncretism goes on. This is not only becauseof the pressure applied by the Christian slave masters, but also because there is a high degree of tolerance in African religious tradition. Believers did’thave problems regarding Jesus and the saints as equal deities. They did the same with Nkisis and Orixas and Vodouns. And they also did include other non-African deities, like Native American deities, which were seen as “Orixas of the Land”.

Candomble in Modern times

Despite being banned by the Catholic church and despite being criminalized by various governments, Candomblé did continue to exist in Brazil for hundreds of years (just like Capoeira). It did not only continue to exist, it did also expand considerably in the late 1800s (just like Capoeira!). This was due to the increased import of Youba and also to the influence of freed slaves and their religious practise. It was three freed African women who opened the first official Candomblé temple (“terreiro“) called Engenho Velho in Bahia. They were called Iya Deta, Iya Kala and Iya Nasso. Bahia was and is the centre of Candomblé belief and practise. Beginning with the Engenho Velho, other terreiros followed. Some did split up after several disputes (just like in… you guess it…) and the new Candomblés did orientate themselves upon certain African traditions. That is how the different “sects”, the “naçŏe“s (nations) of Candomblé did evolve. The traditions leading to the nations were existent before and were preserved by a Catholic Institution, amongst others. How? Well, at a certain time the Church did organized socalled irmandades, Brotherhoods for African slaves of the same ethnicity in the 18th and 19thcentury. This was meant to facilitate preaches in the slaves’ languages, but did ultimately lead to the preservation of a lot of traditions and their introduction into the practise of Candomblé. Today there are the nations of Candomblé de Ketu, Candomblé de Angola, C. de Jejé, C. de Congo, C. de Ijexa, C. de Cabocloand so on, each with a different set of main deities, different music and languages used in ritual. The nation of Ketu (or Queto in Portuguese) is the one with the strongest Yoruba influence and the one with the highest number of believers. Today there is as many as 2 million practicioners of Candomblé throughout Brazil. People from all social classes and all ethnicitiesstarted practising Candomblé in the last hundred years, not only because people believed in it, but partly to find back their roots, to solidarize with the Black people’s fates, partly because it was chic or becauseit was exotic, or as a protest against the Church. The same demographic change happened with other Afrobrazilian traditions, like Capoeira. Other than the 2 million “official” practicioners of Candomblé there are a lot of nominally Christian Brazilians who do occasionally engage in Candomblé rituals. This is because religious practices are not mutually exclusive in Brazil. On the other side there are of course people who do see things exclusively. In Candomblé there is the concept of Pureza which does imply the original African traditions of Candomblé and people trying to apply the Pureza try to cleanse Candomblé from Christian influences, creating a pure Candomblé (reminds me of the Angola movement in Capoeira…).


OK, as I said, this post is meant to be introductory. There is a lot of things I havent written down, just to streamline this post. My best advice is for you to inform yourself, if you are interested, and remember to be critical and remember that a lot of Afrobrazilianhistory was actually burned in 1888. On the other side it is important to say that Capoeira is not Candomblé. They are both expressions of Afrobrazilian culture, both have their roots in Africa and there are a lot of connections between both. And both have to be respected as traditions which grew over hundreds of years and are existent in modern society. But Capoeira is, although it is a lot of other things, not the practice of a certain religion.



Some interesting sources used for this post (by far not all + not sorted according to information richness):


Filed under African Roots

9 responses to “African Roots II – Faith

  1. xixarro

    Great stuff. I knew lot’s of it already, but I’ve never seen it so well structured together before!

  2. Calango

    I agree with Xixarro, I enjoyed reading this because it’s a very clear explanation. Some of those sources are indeed interesting, I’m going to take a closer look at those as well. Nice work Angoleiro!

  3. Hey Xixarro, hey calango, thanks 🙂 I am glad you enjoyed reading the post. I agree, Xixarro, there is a lot more I could have explained, but I think that I am a) not qualified enough for that and b) that it would just be too much. So I kept it simple.

    P.S. just had a small conversation with a fellow capoeirista and she didnt know what Candomblé was (at all).. well, at least she had heard about it. So I hope there are a lot of people out there who might learn sth out of this 😉

  4. xixarro

    I’m sure this post brings a lot of new information to most capoeiristas. It just so happens to be that Calango and myself have been intrested in this stuff for a long time 😉

    And you’re right not to write more. This post is long enough. The longer it gets, the fewer people read it…

  5. Hahah Angoleiro, I agree with Xixarro…for the amount you write, you could split up each of your “African Roots” series posts into individual mini-series!!

    I was debating whether to comment now or not because I actually haven’t read this one post yet—I’m waiting for an hour when I’m not just about to go to bed and completely exhausted from a day of full-time work + training! (Note that’s 80% of my weekdays, so basically most of waking hours XD)
    Wanted to say it’s great to see you back though, and hope you enjoyed your vacation! 🙂

  6. Angoleiro, this is a very interesting post. However, I failed to see the conncetion to Candomble with the indigenous Black people of the Americas and the Xi a Mende people that came to live in the Americas at least 1200 years before the birth of the Christ. Many of the enslaved Africans made contact with these peoples that were enslaved by the Portugese and Spaniards in the Americas long before any Africans were transported to the Americas. Why is this history so often overlooked or played to such a small degree?

  7. Hey Joaninha!
    sounds like a busy time for you. Well, hope you will find some time to relax and do something not work-related. But I am pretty sure you will be able too. Actually my vacation goes till tomorrow and I am now worried that I will have an after-holiday deep on Monday. Y’know. Coing back from holidays and realizing that there is SO much to do.. well, that’s life, right?

    Hello Ensayn! first of all, welcome to my blog. I checked your blog. Looks interesting. I gotta admit I didnt find much about the influence of indigenous Black people of the Americas on Candomblé. Sometimes I have seen it mentioned, but it didn’t seem much essential to the understanding of Candomblé. I’d like to see some sources of that or maybe you can give me a hint where to look at? That would be very interesting! I can’t tell you exactly why that history is overlooked or played small, though I might have some guesses. It just does not fit into the general opinion of historians (that does not mean that it is not true, we all know that history and most other sciences are quite biased…). But if there are sources and facts to show to the public maybe it would be great to share?


  8. xixarro

    next on Angoleiro: African Roots III – Indigenous Black People 😛

  9. well… check this out:
    quite interesting… but: no, the African roots series will not concentrate upon them, cause there is a) little information on Black indigenous people of the Americas and b) their influence on contemporary Afrobrazilian culture is not really apparent (until somebody proves otherwise of course)…

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