Candomblé, Afro-Brazilian Women, and African Religiosity in Brazil

Mãe (Mother) Filhinha of Yemanjá-Ogunté. Photo: Yemanjá the film (2015).
Mãe (Mother) Filhinha of Yemanjá-Ogunté (Photo: Gerald Lee Hoffman, Yemanjá the film (2015).

While prejudicial, racial, and discriminatory ideologies of religious exceptionalism in regards to African spirituality persist even today (as many still hold on to the clichéd worldview of African religions as “savage, “wicked,” and/or “demonic”), African mysticism has evolved into various denominations, adapting to a new order of cultural, social, and political characteristics just as its fragmented disciples were forced to do during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In the wake of slavery, Afro-Pessimism, and other caustic methods that attempt to thwart African cultural and religious identity, indigenous African religions have had and continue to have an impact in the African Diaspora — especially the manifestations of the Yoruba religion, Ifá, which has transcended into other monikers in the Pan-African paradigm such as Santeria and Vodun.

Africana women — in particular, Afro-Brazilian women — who practice African indigenous religiosity both historically and contemporarily play a pivotal role in Black women’s political mobilization in Brazil. By embracing Candomblé — a Pan-African spiritual subset of Ifá — Black Brazilian women who practice African religious customs are not only asserting their socio-political agency, but more importantly, they are promoting an intersectional stance that focuses on their race, gender, and the social injustices that impact their livelihoods.

Many of the foundational principles of Ifá still apply to this practice, but within a Pan-Africanist paradigm of new cultural, social, and linguistic variation. Candomblé, according to Sheila S. Walker, “is the religion that provides the spiritual foundation and superstructure of Bahian life.” Among the regions that were impregnated by the Diaspora, Bahia, which has been dubbed the “African Rome,” is considered the guardian of African traditions due to its “immense legacy of Africanisms.” In Bahia, Candomblé is seen and valued as an intrinsic force of cultural and societal values, as the African spirit permeates an officially Catholic city of more than two hundred million people. Whether it be in the fifteen hundred-plus Candomblé terreiros (temples); in the presence of the maes e pais de santo (mothers and fathers/priestesses and priests of Candomblé); or in the acaraje, a black-eyed pea fritter (a delicacy of certain deities that is known as “Baianas,” served by Afro-Brazilian women), Ifá has reconstructed itself in an Afro-Brazilian cultural and societal context.

Photo: Chika Oduah
Salvador, Bahía, during the feast of Yemanja. Photo: Chika Oduah.

In a town in Cachoeira in Salvador, several maes de santos or Iyalorixás (priestesses) practice Candomblé, with terreiros dedicated to Orixas or “deities such as Yemanja, goddess of the sea; Oxum; goddess of fresh water; Yansã of wind and storms; Oxóssi of the forest; Ossain of sacred leaves; and peace-bringing Oxalá, to name a few.”1 Here, several Afro-Brazilian women are practitioners of the religion and consult with maes de santos for divination. Serving as divine mothers, maes de santos not only offer guidance in the spiritual sense, but are also considered counselors, healers, and activists. With Afro-Brazilian women embracing Candomblé (a Pan-African spiritual subset of Ifá, which serves as the Yorubaland prototype to Orisha worship in the African Diaspora), “women of African descent in Brazil have established their own arenas in which they have been able to assume positions of leadership and control.”

Historically and contemporarily, Black women in Brazil have constituted subaltern positions such as maids, sex workers, and mammies. In the context of Candomblé, however, Afro-Brazilian women have been able to counter the pervasiveness of racial-gendered hierarchies by using the religion as a spiritual vehicle in reclaiming themselves in the wake of socio-economic and political erasure in Brazilian society. Specifically in the “sphere of [Candomblé], Afro-Brazilian women have achieved unquestioned respect, power, and dignity as priestess or maes de santos (mothers-of-saints) of the Candomblé religion; and they are unquestioned authorities on all matters that pertain to the spiritual, physical, and mental well-being of their religious followers.” Not only do they assert their Africana identity in a religious paradigm, the maes de santo also “collaborate with organizations on all levels, and their influence among black activists and women’s groups is due to the fact that many militants are Candomblé followers.” Author Cheryl Sterling elaborates on the matriarchal power dynamics of Afro-Brazilian women in Candomblé:

Within its female-centered hierarchy, we see the conjunction of spirituality and epistemology. The supreme Mae de Santo or Iyalorixa is both the administrative and ritual head. Other Maes dos Santos are given attendant positions based on their specialty of knowledge. Along with these Maes are a host of filhas e filhos dos santos [daughters and sons of the saints], who perform the ritual events and incarnate the orixas when in trance.2 The hierarchy is often reduplicated in ritual ceremonies wherein the premier Mae sites in state, surrounded by the lesser Maes. In some houses, her chair is elevated and in others her chair is distinguished by its elaborateness and height above the others.”

Maes de santos in Bahia have been critical in asserting their agency via anti-racist and discriminatory resistance initiatives, political mobilization, and advocating for the advancement of the Afro-Brazilian community. In the 2015 documentary film Yemanjá: Wisdom from the African Heart of Brazil, filmmakers Donna C. Roberts and Donna Read explore the history and contemporary nature of Candomblé in Bahia through the perspectives and lens of pioneering women who have maintained their African roots vis-à-vis African religiosity. Interviewing several maes de santos, Roberts and Read showcase how pivotal Afro-Brazilian women have been in catalyzing socio-political transformations in Bahia and beyond.

For example, Mãe Filhinha was leader of the Casa de Yemanjá terreiro in the town of Cachoeira and was known to be the matriarch of the “Irmandade da Boa Morte (Sisterhood of the Good Death), a society formed before abolition to buy the freedom of female slaves, of which she is the eldest member.”3 Denize Ribero, who is the president of Bahia’s Rede de Mulheres dos Terreiros (Women’s Terreiro Network), is also a mae de santo who works to combat racialized gender hierarchies in Bahia. As the head of Casa Branca, Brazil’s oldest Candomblé temple, Ekedy Sinha is also a political organizer and activist and “is a recognized leader in Salvador’s social movements, including the Carta das Aguas water campaign.” Creating initiatives to fight against racism in healthcare, “Ekedy founded an annual health fair where the Candomblé community shares traditional medicinal and cultural wisdom with ‘western’ health practitioners, who offer diabetes and blood pressure screening on site…and this process has now become official public policy [and now] many other terreiros hold similar events.” Mãe Stella de Oxóssi is the leader of Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá, which “functions as a village, with a museum, weaving center, and municipal school for the community’s children.” As an author and activist, she has written several children’s books, including Terra Viva (Earth Alive), which “links the legends of Candomblé’s Orixás (deities) with urgent environmental concerns.”

Photo Credit: Yemanjá the film (2015)
Photo Credit: Yemanjá the film (2015).

A spiritual leader of her own terreiro and also recognized as an important figure in the Bahian Candomblé community, Makota Valdina Pinto works on “socio-environmental issues and is one of the primary organizers of an annual demonstration for peace and against religious intolerance.” Mae Hilda Jitolu was the director and founder of Bloco Afro Cultural Ilê Aiyê (Black Cultural or Carnaval Group), an important Afro-Brazilian cultural organization in Bahia. Jitolu, who was a Candomblé priestess and considered to be a “guardian of the faith and the African tradition [and] earned the respect and admiration of politicians, followers, and the community,” founded Ilê Aiyê in 1974 in Liberadade, a neighborhood in Salvador. Considered to be a pivotal organization representing Candomblé and the Brazilian Black community and known as the “most African of the blocos afros in Bahia,” Ilê Aiyê has a history of inserting spiritual inspirations and elements of Ifá and Candomblé such as Orisha pageantry, African musical styles, and even in the 1970s, “a black consciousness movement associated with specific Candomblé houses.”

Afro-Brazilian women, as maes de santos, have used their positions as religious leaders to not only combat racialized and gendered hierarchies but to advance a religion that was persecuted by Portuguese Christian colonizers. Moreover, maes de santos have catalyzed what Cheryl Sterling describes as a “Black matriarchal universe.”

In understanding the role of religiosity in Brazil, Afro-Brazilian women who are maes do santos have used Candomblé to advocate for social parity in Brazil. African indigenous religions had and continue to have an impact in the African Diaspora, especially in Brazil where Afro-Brazilian women have used African religiosity to assert their agency. Not only have manifestations of the Yoruba religion, Ifá, extended the religion through the Transatlantic slave trade, it has manifested itself in other monikers in the Pan-African religious paradigm including Candomblé, Santeria, Lucemi, and Vodun, and can be seen in many countries including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Haiti, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States.

While many of these religions have survived through syncretism, Ifá has emerged as an autonomous faith outside religious amalgamations and has catalyzed organizations and institutions such as the Ifá Foundation International and the Ifá Heritage Institute. Moreover, as noted in Ayele Kumari‘s book Iyanifa, Woman of Wisdom: Insights from the Priestesses of the Ifá-Orisha Tradition, their Personal Journeys and Plight for the Divine Feminine, though “women have lost much of their ancient mysteries to patriarchy and slavery, Iyanifas, Iyamis and Queen mothers of Africa [have] resurface[d] to continue in an ancient tradition legacy for new generations across the globe.” Africana women continue to reclaim themselves and the Ifá tradition while also countering racism, sexism, and patriarchy through Ifá religiosity in the Diaspora, including through Candomblé in Brazil.

  1. Roberts, D. C., & Read​, D. (Directors). 2015. Yemanjá Wisdom from the African Heart of Brazil (Motion Picture).
  2. Sterling cites here Jean Ziegler’s 1972 text O poder Africano.
  3. This quote, and all following quotes that are not otherwise attributed, are from the film Yemanjá: Wisdom from the African Heart of Brazil.
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Jaimee A. Swift

Jaimee A. Swift is a Ph.D candidate at Howard University. Her research focuses on how Afro-Brazilian women activists counter racialized-gendered state-sanctioned violence and LGBTQ+ violence in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. Her writings have appeared in several media outlets including AfroPunk,, HuffPost, The Grio, and For Harriet. Follow her on Twitter @JaimeeSwift.

Comments on “Candomblé, Afro-Brazilian Women, and African Religiosity in Brazil

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    G R E A T work. I’m going to get that book, Iyanifa, Women of Wisdom.

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    Great piece. May I suggest as well Rachel Harding’s excellent A Refuge in Thunder?

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