The Orixás of Candomblé: Who Is Your Tutelary Spirit?

In Candomblé, the Orixás are demigods that connect the mortal and divine realms. Each person has an Orixá as their tutelary deity. Meet yours.

Jun 18, 2024By Jessica Suess, MPhil Ancient History, BA Hons History/Archaeology

orixas candomble tutelary spirit

 

Candomblé is a religion practiced in South America, especially Brazil, that mixes traditional Yoruba, Bantu, and Fon religions brought over by Africans, with Roman Catholicism. Central to the religion is the veneration of the Orixas, divine energies associated with different elements of nature. Individuals are believed to identify with one of the Orixas as their tutelary spirit.

 

What is Candomblé?

Painting of Candomblé practitioners dressed as the Orixás and dancing, by Hector Bernabo Carybe, 1983, Source: Templo Cultural Delfos

 

Candomblé is a uniquely South American religion that was created when beliefs brought over by the various African peoples transported to Brazil (mainly Yoruba, Bantu, and Fon beliefs) were mixed with Roman Catholic ideas in the New World. Candomblé is strongest in Bahia, Brazil, which was a major port for arriving African slaves. The first Candomblé temple was built there in the 19th century after the abolition of slavery. The religion is also practiced around South America, including in Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Candomblé appears in various forms in different regions.

 

Candomblé is an initiate religion with knowledge passed from elders to new members, so not all its secrets can be known to outsiders. But one element of Candomblé that is popular in South American culture among practitioners and non-practitioners alike is veneration of the Orixás.

 

Portrait of three Orixas, by Djanira da Motta e Silva, 1966, Source: Google Arts & Culture

 

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Candomblé, which means “dance of the gods,” teaches that there is one all-powerful being, called Olorun or Olodumare. But it also states that this god created many Orixás, lesser divinities, that act as intermediaries between the human and the divine. Following the bidding of the great god, these Orixás created the world and mankind and they embody the various natural elements within the world.

 

The Orixás are invoked by practitioners using dances that embody the characteristics of the specific Orixá, to create an ecstatic connection. The Orixás are also celebrated at festivals. For example, in Bahia, Iemanja, the Orixá of the sea, is celebrated with street festivals on February 2nd, to thank her for the bounty of fish that she provided for the hungry new arrivals when they landed in Brazil.

 

Orixás as Tutelary Deities

Mural do Orixas, by Hector Bernabo Carybe, in the Museu Afro-Brasileiro, Source: Contemporary & America Latina

 

It is believed that every individual has their own Orixá as a kind of tutelary deity that helps them fulfill their destiny. In Candomblé, Iwa is the essence of what it is to be human, and it is what separates humans from animals. Before the birth of an Iwa, the soul chooses an Odu, which is a personal fate. When the person is born, they then have an Ori, which is considered a personal Orixá that is unique to that individual. This Ori must then cooperate with the tutelary Orixá of the individual to help them fully realize their destiny, called Odi. A soul is only healthy when their Ori is in harmony with their Orix.

 

There are various ways to identify your tutelary Orixá. Some people believe it can be done numerologically by your date of birth, or that it is determined by the day of the week that you were born. But the most traditional way is to go to a Candomblé leader and participate in a ritual that lets you connect with your Egum, your ancestor spirit. This ritual reveals your Orixá.

 

Practitioners then honor their Orixá by doing things such as wearing their colors, particularly on their day of the week, greeting them with a special word, and learning their unique dance. Men will almost always have a male Orixá and women a female Orixá and they are called sons and daughters. The list of Orixás in Candomblé varies slightly depending on the region, but the nine listed below are the most popular.

 

Oxalá

Oxalá, by Emanoel Alves de Araujo, 1969, Source: Google Arts and Culture

 

Oxalá is said to have been created by God to create the world and mankind, making him the most important of the Orixás. He is sometimes called the father of the Orixás. He is depicted as a frail old man with an elaborate scepter that he uses as a walking stick.

 

Oxalá is associated with pure, clean, fresh water and is also linked through marriage with both Nana and Iemanja, who are also linked with water. He is the Orixá of creation, procreation, purification, and peace.

 

The sons of Oxalá often have a fragile constitution and may be marked by birth defects. They tend to be delicate and easily affected by their surroundings. They are known for their tranquility, morality, and perfectionism, but can also be cold in their relationships with others. While they are not aggressive, they never forgive offenses and will cut people out of their lives when they transgress. Oxalá always wears white, as do his children, and his day of the week is Friday. He is greeted with the words “Eba Baba.”

 

Xangô

Xangô, illustration by Lillian Ostrovsky for Caravana do Axe, Source: Lillian Ostrovsky Illustrations

 

Xangô is considered the patron Orixá of Brazil and he is linked with justice and conquest. He is also the Orixá of the natural elements of lightning and thunder. His symbol is an ax.

 

Xangô is a conquering warrior who never accepts defeat and is also a vengeful god who represents furious divine justice. He does not like to be alone and feeds off the energy of being around others and leading.

 

The sons of Xangô tend to be intense and temperamental people who are always passionate and ambitious. They have a naturally heavy and robust body, which can lean towards obesity since they love to eat and drink. While they are often unfaithful themselves, their pride and arrogance lead them to be jealous and vengeful. While they are often great leaders, they also tend to be very attached to their mothers.

 

Xangô’s day of the week is Thursday and he and his sons wear red and white. His dance is fast and furious, representing his strong and aggressive nature. His greeting is “Kawo Kabiyesile.”

 

Iemanjá

Iemanjá, by Zoravial Bettiol, Source: Anotabahia.com

 

Iemanjá is the female Orixá of the ocean and the most adored Orixá in Brazil. She represents the violence and unpredictability of the sea, but also its giving and cleansing nature. She is worshiped wherever salt water is.

 

Iemanjá is a mother to all and is especially kind to those in need. She is the protector of sailors, slaves, and the hungry. Desperate men often turn to her for guidance because she keeps all secrets. She is the overall embodiment of feminine power.

 

The daughters of Iemanjá are tall and robust, with a calm and dignified nature. Nevertheless, she is naturally sensual. But she can also be vain, combative, and unpredictable. She is an energetic and caring partner and mother, even to children who are not hers, but she can be jealous and possessive. While she is a lover, she is also very independent from the men in her life.

 

Iemanjá’s dance imitates the movement of the waves, and it is traditional to offer her flowers. Her day of the week is Saturday, and her colors are translucent white and blue. Her greeting is “Ode Iye.”

 

Ogum 

Ogum, Source: Templo de Umbanda

 

Ogum is a male Orixá linked with battle and iron, and he is often depicted with a machete and a round shield. He represents the vital energy that is needed to constantly transform to meet new challenges and win battles.

 

Ogum is associated with ideas of evolution, whether that be human evolution, personal transformation, or technological development. When something is transforming, it is in a state of Ogum.

 

The sons of Ogum are athletic and virile, which can make them full of pride and aggression. While they appear strong, extroverted, and efficient, they are highly emotional, susceptible to bouts of anger, and can be impatient and intolerant. They tend to act before they think.

 

Ogum’s day of the week is Tuesday and he and his sons wear blue and green. His dance imitates battle.

 

Oxóssi 

Oxóssi, by Hector Bernabo Carybe, 1950, Source: Google Arts and Culture

 

Oxóssi is a male Orixá and is linked with hunting and the forest. As an extension of this, he is also associated with good nutrition and fulfilling your essential needs to live a good life. Oxóssi is known for his strategic planning and thinking and is often called upon when it is time to step back and evaluate a course of action.

 

The sons of Oxóssi are often considered the most attractive men, slender and agile, but also explosive and irrational. They can be curious, introverted, and observant, which fuels creativity and sensitivity. They are often kind and polite and highly respected in social groups but with a hidden fickle and unstable side.

 

Oxóssi’s colors are light blue and green, and his day of the week is Thursday. His greeting is “Oke Aro.”

 

Oxum 

Oxum, postcard from Salvador, 20th century, Source: Google Arts and Culture

 

Oxum is the female Orixá of love and beauty and is the only female Orixá believed to have participated in the creation of the world. She overlaps with many of the other Orixá, with dominion over fresh water, fish, mermaids, and butterflies.

 

She embodies the natural energy of fresh water and is usually invoked close to water sources. But she is also linked with the liquid blood that flows in the veins of all life. She is linked with the art of divination and ideas of good luck and abundance.

 

The daughters of Oxum tend to be delicate and beautiful with a natural gentleness, innocence, and bright eyes. They are naturally sensual and express feminine emotions, so they are considered inconstant and frivolous. They are naturally caring and love children and small animals. They often know how to get other people to do things for them.

 

When Oxum’s dance is performed, the dancer will imitate looking vainly in a mirror at her own beauty. Her color is yellow-gold, and her greeting is “Ore Yeye.”

 

Iansã

Iansã, illustration by Lillian Ostrovsky for Caravana do Axe, Source: Lillian Ostrovsky Illustrations

 

Iansã is a female Orixá associated with wind and fire. She is a relentless force that can overcome any barrier or obstacle. There is no place that she cannot enter, including the realm of the dead. She has an intense sexual energy and is considered the owner of herself. She is subordinate to no man.

 

The daughters of Iansã tend to wear bold colors and designs and they are highly sexual. They know how to conquer and dominate. When they are in love, they are very dedicated, but they can be very jealous and cannot stand being deceived. They don’t tend to have much patience for children because they lack patience in general, and they are always ready for a fight.

 

Wednesday is Iansã’s day, and she wears red, from bright to earth tones. Her dance tends to look like the blowing of the wind and is flirty. Her greeting is “Epi Hei Iansa.”

 

Oxumarê

Oxumarê, Source: Templo de Umbanda

 

Oxumarê is unique in that he is both male and female. As an extension of that, he represents opposites, between the genders, between stability and transition, and between beginnings and endings.

 

According to legend, he had an affair with Oxum, but she was with Xangô, and he almost killed Oxumarê in vengeance. Rather than killing him, Xangô drove him away from the earth and back into the sky. He secretly returns to earth via a rainbow, and his symbols are the serpent and the rainbow.

 

Oxumarê’s children are marked by incredible beauty, but they can be frail, and they can have nervous temperaments and age prematurely. They are intelligent, eloquent, curious, and dynamic, all of which make them highly alluring. They appreciate art and beauty and aren’t afraid to break social norms. Oxumarê’s colors are yellow or green and black and his greeting is “AroMoboi.”

 

Nanã

Nanã, Source: Templo de Umbanda

 

Nanã is the female Orixá of rain. She is also considered the very oldest of the Orixás and is often called the oldest of the elderly. She dwells in swamps and in muddy areas. She may have made the bodies of men from clay, ready for life to be breathed into them. She is considered responsible for linking the spiritual and material elements of a person when they are born and separating them again when they die.

 

The daughters of Nanã are rarely considered beautiful, and they are not afflicted with vanity. They are often gifted with great physical strength. They don’t tend to be sexual and get along best without men in their lives. They always work hard and cannot tolerate laziness.

 

Nanã dances in a dignified manner and carries an ibiri, which is like a cornucopia, which symbolizes her relationship with birth and death. Her day of the week is Monday, and she wears dark blue, lilac, and white. Her greeting is “Saluba.”

Author Image

By Jessica SuessMPhil Ancient History, BA Hons History/ArchaeologyJessica holds a BA Hons in History and Archaeology from the University of Queensland and an MPhil in Ancient History from the University of Oxford where she researched the worship of the Roman emperors. She worked for Oxford University Museums for 10 years before relocating to Brazil. She is mad about the Romans, the Egyptians, the Vikings, the history of esoteric religions, and folk magic and gets excited about the latest archaeological finds.