Festival for the Queen of the Sea
By Paul H. Mason
Flower petals wash up against the shoreline
along the Oceanica Ave. There is an
unpredictable swell in the ocean but the skies
are blue. The sound of a distant crowd carries
across the quiet streets of Salvador da Bahia.
The Festival of Iemanjá is well under way.
Iemanjá, the Goddess of the sea, is a fecund
symbol of fertility worshipped among
communities all along the coastline of Brazil.
She is the archetypal symbol of motherhood
and the patron saint of fishermen. Ceremonies
in her honor are observed all year round but
particularly near the beginning of the year.
Along the south central coast, Iemanjá is
a prominent figure in the syncretism of
Umbanda religion. In the Northeast, she
is an Orisha, a nature Goddess, a divinized
African ancestor worshipped by the followers
of Candomblé. Iemanjá can be depicted
as a seductive mermaid, a buxom African
woman, and even the Mother Mary. Under
many different names and forms -Iemanjá,
Yeye oman ejá, Inaê, Janaína, the Siren
Mukunã, Kaiala, Dadalunda, Dona Maria -the
Queen of the Sea receives pilgrims from
all across Brazil. Along Urca beach in Rio de
Janeiro, ceremonies dedicated to Iemanjá are
observed at the end of the year or at the turn
of the New Year. In Salvador da Bahia, Iemanjá
is honored and celebrated on February 2, and
on other dates at Lagoa do Abaeté, Dique and
During the Candomblé-inspired Festival of
Iemanjá in Rio Vermelho, ritual offerings are
brought out to sea and submerged in the
ocean. Crowds gather along the beachfront
to celebrate the occasion and witness the
festival. At the Casa do Peso, worshippers
present gifts in baskets. The presents include
fresh and artificial flowers, perfumes, coins,
small mirrors, combs, cosmetic tools, dishes
of carefully prepared foods, soap wrapped
in cellophane, letters of supplication, dolls,
pieces of fabric, necklaces, bracelets, and
other presents to please this powerful and
alluring woman. Concerns about the human
impact on nature have left some groups wary
of non-biodegradable gifts.
Ordained Mothers and Fathers of the religion
of Candomblé conduct the events with
ritual song accompaniment. They oversee
the filling of the baskets, the embarkation,
and the launching of gifts out to sea. If the
gifts submerge, it signifies that Iemanjá has
accepted the gift and gives her protection to
her devotees. If the waves wash the gift back
to the shore, it is a sign of bad tidings.
The Festival of Iemanjá is an important
occasion for the affirmation of cultural
patrimony, the negotiation of regional
identity, and the creation of an Afro-Brazilian
national image. Although only a minority
of Brazilians claims to be practitioners of
Candomblé, the festival of Iemanjá attracts an
astounding number of pilgrims and tourists
from near and afar.
The improvised art of Capoeira is inevitably
found somewhere during the festival of
Iemanjá. Gatherings of capoeiristas (capoeira
players) can be impulsive, and impromptu
performances sometimes precipitate among
the crowds on the street. The sound of
the berimbal can carry across the throng.
Onlookers are attracted to vibrant and eclectic
Grupo Nzinga is a capoeira group located near
the beach of Rio Vermelho in the Alto da Sereia
(Mermaid's peak). Since 2005, Grupo Nzinga
has participated in the Festa de Iemanjá. They
perform capoeira, samba de roda and have
their own procession of offerings. Each year
they carry a basket of gifts from their academy
to the beach of Rio Vermelho. During the
performances and procession, they sing songs
dedicated to Iemanjá and celebrate her as a
symbol of feminism.
Environmentalist concerns have driven
Grupo Nzinga to develop a slogan for their
participation in the Iemanjá festivities:
"Iemanjá protégé a quem protégé o mar"
(Iemanjá protects those who protect the
sea) – an incentive campaign to promote
biodegradable gifts to Iemanjá instead of
those that pollute the sea. This anti-pollution
campaign meets with some disagreement
among various traditionalist communities
who observe the celebrations. Opponents
claim that it is wrong to stray from tradition.
For these traditionalists, the ceremonies
should remain as they have always been;
replacing the gifts that Iemanjá enjoys is out
of the question; tradition must be maintained
and religion should be respected.
Can there be a middle-ground? Some argue
that Candomblé exists to protect nature and
that people can offer fried fish, fruits of the
season, remove plastic from gifts and replace
non-biodegradable objects with paper
replicas. For these people, what are important
are the symbol and not the object.
The pedagogical coordinator for Grupo
Nzinga, Lígia Vilas Boas, explains that "the
academy's objectives are to introduce a
preoccupation with marine pollution." We can
hope that their campaign has an impact on
traditions more than 100 years old.