I spent the Winter Holidays in Rio de Janeiro with my sister, who lived there in the past, giving me almost a local’s insight to that city. Vaguely I knew that the goddess Yemaya was worshipped in Brazil but I had not made the connection to the New Year’s Eve celebration in which people all come to the beach at night, dressed in white and laden with white flowers. The white flowers are offered to Yemaya, known as Iemenjá in Brazil, at midnight by throwing them or sending them out on little boats into the sea.
Once I realized that not only was Yemaya an important deity to the practitioners of the Candomblé religion but was also alive to Christians and non-religious folks alike, I knew I had an opportunity to experience something special.
Yemayá came to Brazil, Cuba and Haiti with the Yoruba people of Nigeria in the 1600’s during the African diaspora. Her most ancient and full name, Yeyé Omo Ejá, means “Mother Whose Children are the Fish.” She rules over the Seven Seas and large lakes. Her domain is the upper waters of the ocean, where life originated and continues to be concentrated.
The Afro-Brazilians practitioners of Candomblé, the Afro-Cuban practitioners of Santeria, and the Haitian practitioners of Vodou all have deities called Orishas, of which Yemaya is a Great Mother figure. Each Orisha is celebrated on their sacred day with hours of singing and dancing in a circle. Certain kinds of herbs and drink might be imbibed. Suddenly the Orisha comes down and possesses the chosen among the faithful. Those who become possessed by the deity writhe, shout and moan. The deity is within them providing a link between the world of spirit and the human world.
We had heard contradictory accounts of when to see a Candomblé ceremony to Iemanjá. Traditionally the worshippers come to the beach from a more inland part of Rio on New Year’s Eve. But as the crowds have grown with each passing year we were told that they hold their ceremony on January 30. We looked for them that day but with no luck. But we did find an unused blue candle on the beach – the candle color that is used during ceremonies honoring Yemaya.
With an expected turn out of 2 million plus people to the beach for the New Year’s Eve celebration of music, fireworks and offerings to Iemanjá we knew that we were not up to being in that crowd until midnight. So we went down to the beach in late afternoon to feel the build up of energy and to perform our own ceremony to Iemanjá at sunset, instead of midnight. That felt comfortable to me since in the Celtic tradition sunset and sunrise are considered to be liminal/transitional moments in which the veil between the worlds thins out a bit.
The boardwalk and beach were already hopping with people so we made our way to the opposite end of the beach from where the stage and main set-up for the fireworks was located. As sunset neared we found a spot on the beach where the waves met the shore, laid down our flowers, lit our blue candle and stood facing the sea in meditation. We offered our gratitude to Iemanjá for our many blessings and asked for her help in realizing our dreams for 2018.
We had kind of given up on finding a Candomblé ceremony but as we left the beach and walked a little further on the boardwalk we found one. The practitioners were enclosed in a little wire fence with onlookers all around. They were oblivious to us non-practitoners as their ceremony heated up. We watched in awe for awhile. When we left they were going strong. I can only assume that they would continue in that way until the spirit called them to take their offerings to Yemaya down to the sea.
Read more about Yemaya, her story and where and how she is still worshipped today on my recent post on the Feminism and Religion blog.
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