Candomblé: 10 Facts About the Afrobrazilian Religion

The Afrobrazilian religion Candomblé is based on the worship of several goddesses and gods of nature. Its rituals involve dance, music, and the sacrifice of animals.

Mar 5, 2024By Agnes Theresa Oberauer, BA Drama & Philosophy
candomble facts afrobrazilian religion


Candomblé is an Afro-Brazilian religion originally practiced by enslaved people from Africa who were forcibly shipped over the Atlantic. It is based on the belief in several gods and goddesses associated with forces of nature. Candomblé was banned in Brazil for a large part of the 20th century. Read on to find out more about the roots of this fascinating religion, the beliefs held by its followers, and its history of persecution.


Content Warning: This post contains discussions that some readers may find sensitive or offensive. Reader discretion is advised.


1. The Word Candomblé Means Dance

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Candomblé is an Afro-Brazilian religion that evolved in the slave communities. Source: Wikidanca


Many of Candomblés’s rituals and ceremonies involve dancing, drumming, and singing. It, therefore, doesn’t come as a huge surprise that the word Candomblé can be translated as dance or dance with drums.  The name of the religion can be traced to the Yoruba language which is spoken in Nigeria, Togo, and other African countries.


2. Candomblé is a Blend of Religions

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Candomblé practitioners drumming and dancing in Bixiga, Brazil. Source: Unsplash


While Candomblé is considered a Brazilian religion, its roots can be traced back to Africa. It grew out of the religious and cultural practices brought along by enslaved people from Africa when they were forcibly shipped across the Atlantic. As the slave masters didn’t allow their slaves to continue worshiping their own gods, the oppressed slaves started using the names and statues of Christian saints as a cover-up. They would pretend to pray to the Christian God and the Catholic saints, while they were, in fact, worshipping their own God and the orixás.  Over the years, the religion has also been influenced by various shamanic practices and nature religions found among the indigenous people of South America.

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3. It Often Gets Confused with Umbanda

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Slave Trade by John Raphael Smith after George Morland, 1791. Source: National Gallery of Art, Washington


Candomblé often gets confused with Umbanda, which is another Afrobrazilian religion that emerged within the displaced slave communities. Both religions share African roots, but there are some important differences between the two. For one thing, the emergence of Candomblé, whose African roots go back thousands of years, can be traced back to the end of the 16th century.  In contrast, Umbanda was officially founded by the medium Zelio Fernandino de Moraes in 1908. Given that the Umbanda was strongly influenced by Candomblé, it is not surprising that the two have a lot in common. Both religions worship the orixás (spiritual entities of nature). But while Candomblé has remained more deeply connected to the beliefs of its African ancestry, Umbanda integrates elements of Catholicism and Spiritism in its belief system and its rituals.


4. Candomblé Remained Banned for a Long Time

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Umbanda grew out of Candomblé and was officially founded in 1908. Source: Espiritualistice


Brazil was one of the last places in the world to abolish slavery and the shadow of colonialism hangs above the country to this day. Even though slaves were officially freed in 1888, the former slaves and their descendants continued to suffer from discrimination and persecution long after. Afrobrazilian practices like capoeira remained banned for decades. Candomblé and its followers also continued to suffer from persecution. There is a lot of obscurity surrounding the question of when exactly Candomblé became legalized, but most sources seem to agree that it only became officially recognized as a religion in 1946.


Unfortunately, its newfound legal status did not mean the end of discrimination and prejudice. Even after its legalization, Candomblé practitioners still needed to ask for police permission and pay a tax in order to practice their religion. But it wasn’t just the police that Candomblé was up against. Up to this day, there are cases of its places of worship being burned down by the Brazilian population. This is partly because many Brazilians still associate Candomblé with witchcraft and so-called black magic. While it is true that some of the rituals associated with Candomblé involve animal sacrifices and its participants are known to become possessed by spiritual entities, these practices do not have the purpose of causing harm. Quite to the contrary. Like most religious rituals across the world, Candomblé ceremonies are aimed at bringing blessings, guidance, and spiritual transformation to its followers and the world at large.


5. Its Followers Worship Various Orixás 

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Quitandeiras in Rio De Janeiro in 1875. Source: WAMU


While the followers of Candomblé worship various entities associated with forces of nature, its practitioners do believe in a singular God reigning above all. This grander God is known under different names, including Olorum, Nzambi, and Mawu. On top of that, the religion involves the worship of around 20 different deities, which are associated with the forces of nature. These include Iemanjá (Goddess of the sea), Xangô (God of fire, justice, and lightning), and Oxum (God of the forest and hunting). During Candomblé rituals, some of its practitioners are said to be illuminated by these Gods. This illumination is a kind of lighter form of possession in which the energy of a particular spirit starts breathing through the human body of a particular worshipper.


6. Candomblé Uses Dancing, Drumming, and Singing to Invoke the Gods 

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Iemanjá, also known as the goddess of the sea, often depicted as a mermaid. Source: Candombledablahia


Candomblé’s rituals are rooted in the understanding that nature itself is divine, helping its participants feel the harmony and oneness of all. Candomblé ceremonies are known to take hours and involve a lot of dancing, drumming, and singing. Like many religious and cultural practices rooted in Africa, the act of engaging in communal movement and music-making is said to raise the axé (life force energy) of the participants. It also creates an energetic vortex wherein the divinities of Candomblé start breathing life into the dancers. The act of dancing serves as a kind of bridge between the human and the divine, the sacred and the mundane.


7. It Is Mostly Practiced in the Northeast of Brazil 

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Candomblé worshippers in Bahia. Source: Unsplash


While Candomblé can be found all over Brazil, and even beyond its borders, the practice of the religion is largely centered in the northeastern region of Bahia. This is mainly because most of the Brazilian coffee and sugar farms were located in this area. Once slavery was abolished in 1888, many of the former slaves remained in this region, which is why it has remained the center of Afrobrazilian culture to this day. Candomblé, Umbanda, Samba, Capoeira, and many other Brazilian practices rooted in African culture are still present in this area.


8. Its Places of Worship Are Called Terreiros

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A woman praying on the ocean shore in Bahia. Source: Unsplash


While Candomblé rituals sometimes take place on the street or the beach, its worshippers usually meet in so-called terreiros. These terreiros are believed to concentrate the power of axé (sacred life force energy) and serve as spaces for preservation and transmission of African-based values and beliefs. In this sense, terreiros are more than churches or temples. Given that Afrobrazilian culture continues to be undervalued and oppressed, terreiros also serve as sites of collective resistance against the dominant culture imposed by the colonialists.


9. Its Priests Are Called the Fathers and Mothers of Saints

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A terreiro in the Brazilian municipality Arapiraca. Source: Arapiraca


Candomblé’s rituals are led by the so-called mãe de santo or pai de santo, which can be translated as meaning mother or father of saints. These designations have their root in the Yoruba words babalorishá and iyalorishá, which roughly have the same meanings. These words were used to refer to the African priests and priestesses. The mãe or pai de santo is responsible for leading the Candomblé rituals, which often start with the sacrifice of an animal and the offering of its blood to the gods. This is usually followed by an offering to Exú, the orixá who serves as a messenger between the human and the divine. The rituals often go on for hours, during which the practitioners pay homage to the orixás via music and dance.


Apart from scheduling and leading the various festivities and ceremonies connected with the Candomblé belief system, the priestesses and priests also serve as a kind of spiritual mother or father. If one of the believers is passing through a difficult time in their life, they will give them consultations or do a special ritual for them.


10. Candomblé Continues to Face Oppression to This Day 

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Mãe de Santo. Source: Oglobo


While Candomblé has been acknowledged as an official religion and its practice is legal in Brazil, there are still a lot of prejudices surrounding it. For instance, it continues to be associated with witchcraft, satanism, and black magic. While Candomblé does involve the invocation of spirits, animal sacrifices, and other mystic practices, this is mostly done for the sake of bringing positive spiritual transformation. Just like Voodoo, Macumba, and other practices brought over the Atlantic by enslaved people, Candomblé continues to be misunderstood and undermined by the population at large.


Fieis de religioes de matrizes afro na Passeata em defesa da liberdade religiosa em Nova Iguacu 2019
Candomblé continues to suffer from racism up to this day. Source: Rioonwatch


We still live in a world where the cultural practices of Black people continue to be undervalued and met with suspicion, lack of understanding, and oppression. This is why Candomblé is much more than a religion.  Its continued existence is an act of resistance in a world that is still largely dominated by colonial values and ideas.

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By Agnes Theresa OberauerBA Drama & PhilosophyAgnes Theresa completed her BA in Drama and Philosophy at the Royal Holloway University of London in 2014 and is currently finishing her MA in Physical Theatre Performance Making at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. She works internationally as a writer, performance artist, theatre director, and performer. Born in Austria, she has lived in six countries (Russia, Ukraine, Austria, Germany, Estonia, and the UK) and traveled many more, always seeking to expand her horizons and challenge her preconceptions. Her interests range from Greek philosophy to capoeira, posthumanism, and Nietzsche.