Yemanja Festival

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Yemanja Festival (Iemanja)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Candomblé, Macumba)
Date of Observation: January 1 or February 2
Where Celebrated: Brazil
Symbols and Customs: Miniature Boats, Offerings, Yemanja Statue Yemanja Festival

ORIGINS

Yemanja is a powerful sea goddess from the Brazilian religion known as Macumba or Candomblé. Many practitioners of this religion see Yemanja as similar to the Blessed Virgin Mary in Roman Catholicism. In some regions of the country and in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's capital city, people celebrate Yemanja on January 1. In the city of Salvador her festival takes place on February 2. The Yemanja festival is so popular that some of the most spectacular scenes from the celebrations are broadcast on Brazilian television.

Candomblé and Macumba are African-based religious traditions in Brazil and can be traced to the arrival of the first African slaves in the sixteenth century. However, these religious traditions became very popular during the nineteenth century. During the years of slavery, ceremonies were typically conducted in secret. Following the emancipation of Brazilian slaves in 1888, some gatherings were held in the open and others remained concealed. The gatherings, organized into communities, centered around a local leader, most often a priestess. Although individual Candomblé and Macumba centers share a common heritage, they may differ in religious practice. Some focus on maintaining the purity of African traditions; others freely incorporated Roman Catholic elements and even added some gods from indigenous Brazilians to their pantheon.

The origins of this festival can be traced back to the sixteenth century, when the Portuguese began to import slaves from Africa to Brazil. The slaves brought their West African religion with them, complete with various gods and goddesses, which they called "orishas." The Portuguese then tried to impose Roman Catholicism on the African slaves. This process gave birth to a new Brazilian religion, which mixes elements of the Yoruba religion of West Africa with certain Roman Catholic beliefs and practices. The black Brazilians found many parallels between the gods and goddesses of West Africa and the saints of Roman Catholicism. The sea goddess Yemanja, for example, became interchangeable with the Virgin Mary. There are several different variants of this Black Brazilian religion. The practices that are most closely aligned with the old Yoruba religion are called Candomblé. Macumba is a name applied to all of them, including those that involve the practice of black or white magic.

No one knows exactly when the first Yemanja festival took place. Until 1888, when slavery was abolished in Brazil, Macumba practitioners had to keep their religious practices secret. The first center for Candomblé was established in the city of Salvador, which is still regarded as the center of the nation's African-Brazilian religions. The ceremonies were presided over by women priestesses, and many women still serve in this role today.

Brazilians treat Yemanja as the patron saint of navigators and believe that she associates with mermaids. Moreover, they claim that she presides over the oceans and ensures a good fishing season. She also helps the faithful to have a happy family life and grants them favors.

The people of Rio de Janeiro host fabulous celebrations in honor of Yemanja on January 1. Several days beforehand, workers build stands and loud speakers along the long beachfront. On the afternoon of December 31, people begin to anticipate the night's festivities as office workers dump waste papers out of the windows of their high rise buildings, creating a snow storm effect. After dinner, people stroll towards the beaches. The locals wear white clothing to celebrate Yemanja's feast day.

As midnight approaches, crowds roam across the sands. People who practice Candomblé or some form of Macumba gather together to make little altars in the sand. Some people celebrate the excitement by setting off firecrackers and fireworks. The loudspeakers blare music out towards the sea. When the loudspeakers announce the arrival of midnight, fireworks splash bursts of color across in the night sky. People on the top floors of the beachfront high-rise hotels toss cascades of fireworks from the roofs of these buildings. The assembled crowds begin to move towards the sea to set free MINIATURE BOATS in the waves. People also toss flowers into the sea. Then they stroll along the beach enjoying the party-like atmosphere created by the large crowds, the food stalls, and the samba bands. For many, eating, drinking, and samba dancing complete the night's festivities. Those who make an early night of it leave the beach around three a.m. Others stay until dawn.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Miniature Boats

In order to ensure that Yemanja receives the offerings presented to her, some of her followers place them in miniature boats. People also place statuettes of one or more of the Candomblé gods and goddesses on these boats. On the day of her festival they wade into the sea and release the boats, hoping that they will carry the offerings directly to the goddess. Some say Yemanja lives in the "seventh wave," and so a boat is needed to carry the devotees' gifts from the shore to her watery home.

Offerings

People make offerings to Yemanja in order to thank her for past favors and to ask for future favors. They give the goddess things that she is believed to enjoy, such as perfume, mirrors, combs, soap, flowers, and champagne. The goddess is also thought to prefer certain kinds of incense, which her devotees buy and burn for her on the day of her festival. Faithful followers of the goddess also provide Yemanja with miniature representations of things they would like the goddess to Yemanja Festival

help them acquire, such as cars and homes. They hope that the goddess will appreciate the miniature and be inspired to grant them the real thing.

People leave the offerings on the beach or place them in miniature boats that they cast off into the sea. Lit candles sunk into the sand mark the beach offerings. Some people create a little altar in the sand, outlining it with candles. They place lit candles in a star-shaped pattern and arrange food, drink, and flowers inside. Then they stand around the altar, offering prayers or singing songs. Many people toss flowers into the sea as a tribute to the sea goddess. Folk tradition teaches that if the waves carry the flower out to sea, Yemanja will bless the giver with good fortune. If the sea returns the flower to shore, however, Yemanja frowns on the giver.

Some Macumba practitioners kill animals and present them as part of their offerings to Yemanja. Although city officials have outlawed animal sacrifice on the city's main beaches, those who wander further down the shore could run into scenes of animal sacrifice.

Yemanja Statue

In Brazil, followers of Yemanja often keep a small statue of the goddess in their homes. They dress the statue in blue and white clothing, because these colors symbolize the goddess. On the day of her festival, devotees carry large statues of Yemanja out into the streets. They end up at the ocean where the statue bearers carry the image a little ways out into the water.

FURTHER READING

Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Ferro, Jennifer. Brazilian Foods and Culture. Vero Beach, FL: Rourke Press, 1999. Hess, David J. Samba in the Night: Spiritism in Brazil. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. Hillman, Elizabeth. "Rio Welcomes its New Year Goddess." Contemporary Review, January 1994. Morwyn. Magic From Brazil: Recipes, Spells and Rituals. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 2001.

WEB SITE

Brazil Embassy www.brasilemb.org

Yemanjá Festival

February 2
Yemanjá is a major festival of the CandomblÉ religion in the Rio Vermelho district of Salvador, Bahia state, Brazil. Maes-de-santo and filhas-de-santo (men and women mediums, or followers of the saints) sing and dance from daybreak on, summoning Yemanjá, or Iemanjá (the goddess of the ocean), to the festival. Offerings are placed in boats and carried down to the sea, where they are set afloat. Thousands of people flock to the coast for the festivities.
See also New Year's Eve in Brazil
CONTACTS:
Bahia Tourism Authority
Av. Simon Bolivar S/N
Centro de Convences da Bahia-1dg Pisa
Salvador, Bahia 41750-230 Brazil
55-71-3117-3000; fax: 55-71-3371-0110
www.bahiatursa.ba.gov.br
SOURCES:
EncyRel-1987, vol. 1, p. 104
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