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Le Défi magique, volume 1

François Laplantine
Jean-Baptiste Martin

Ésotérisme et spiritisme au Brésil

Why women are the mediums in Bahian Candomble

Peter B. Clarke


Cette communication met en doute l’hypothèse avancée par l’anthropologue Ruth Landes (A cidade das mulheres, N.Y. : Macmillan, 1947), selon laquelle la majorité des médiums dans le Candomblé de Bahia doivent leur statut au simple fait d’être des femmes. Landes soutenait que les femmes sont des êtres spirituels par nature, et sont par conséquent les instruments les plus aptes à la communication avec le monde des dieux et des esprits. D’ailleurs, elles ont une facilité innée pour la danse qui est à la base de la liturgie du Candomblé et la principale voie pour entrer en transe.
Les femmes sont « sacrées » alors que les hommes, au contraire, sont profanes ; la possession n’est pas normale pour eux, sauf pour les homosexuels « passifs ».
Cette présentation suggère que Landes avait exagéré l’importance du rôle féminin et du sexe, et que le rôle très important et central des femmes dans le Candomblé de Bahia peut être mieux expliqué par la référence à la situation de la femme noire dans l’esclavage, à sa position comme « tête » de la famille d'esclaves, à sa position comme gardienne des traditions et des normes africaines, à sa situation économique. Les questions de moralité et de charisme sont également importantes et expliquent pourquoi les femmes plus que les hommes occupent le rôle de médium à Bahia.

Texte intégral

1Like other researchers, most notably the American anthropologist Ruth Landes (1947) and, more recently, the French anthropologist Gisèle Cossard-Binon (1974), I was also struck by the large number of women mediums during my research on the Candomble in Bahia (1986-91). These mediums are referred to either by their Yoruba title iyalorisha, mother of the god, or by the Portuguese term mae-de-santo, which means mother of the saint or holy one. In rituals where possession is the climax the mediums are mounted (Yoruba: gun) by African, mainly Yoruba, gods (orixa) and become their horses (cavalos). The situation is different elsewhere, for example, further north in the State of Pernambuco where Candomble is known by the name of the Yoruba God of thunder, Xango (Yoruba: Sango). There, men are very often the leaders or priests – known by the Yoruba designation of babalorisha, father of the god, or in Portuguese as pais-de-santo, fathers of the saint and/or holy one – are the mediums.

2In most respects Candomble or Afro-Brazilian religion as practised in Bahia bears a very close resemblance to Pernambucan Xango. But it differs considerably from Umbanda which is much more widely practised in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and the South of Brazil generally. Umbanda, like Candomble, can be highly ecumenical. It can also, once again like Candomble, vary both in form and content from one centre or terreiro to another. Nevertheless, it is true to say that Umbanda has on the whole absorbed many more non-African elements such as the Spiritism of Kardec (Hess: 15), titan Candomble. Indeed Candomble terreiros have, it would appear, deliberately attempted to keep themselves free from such influence. Candomble in Bahia comes in a variety of forms: Jeje (Fon)-Nago (Yoruba), Congo-Angolan (Bantu), and Nago-Queto (Yoruba). Yoruba-based Candomble which will be referred to here simply as Nago, a word used mainly in Bahia and in the Republic of Benin in West Africa for the Yoruba (da Costa Lima, 1984: 7-9), is the most widespread today. Although the differences between these forms are often small they can be of considerable importance to members (de Costa Lima, 1984: 18). One example of a difference is to be found in the way the music is played: while one tradition, the Nago-Queto, will use drum sticks to beat the drums that call upon the gods from Africa to possess their daughters and sons another, the Angolan, will make use simply of the hands for the same purpose.

3Each tradition has incorporated elements from the others and each one has in varying degrees accepted elements of indigenous Amerindian belief and ritual (de Costa Lima 1984: 10-26). However, more Amerindian ritual and belief is found in Angolan-based Candomble than in the western African forms. Also, more use is made of the Portuguese language in Angolan Candomble than in the other traditions.

4All of these traditions have many Catholic elements and equate their African gods and indigenous Amerindian spirits (caboclos) with catholic saints, a practice also found in Cuban Santeria, Haitian Voodoo and elsewhere in Central, North and South America where African religion and Catholicism have met. For example, the Yoruba god of thunder, Xabgo, already mentioned, is equated in Bahia with St. Jerome.

5Some researchers, among them Valente (1977), describe the relationship between Candomble and Catholicism as syncretistic while others, including Verger (Verger interviews: 1986-91), speak not of the blending or mixing of the two faiths but of the way they are kept separate by believers, using the term juxtapositioning to describe this. Most members of Candomble are Catholics, and some clearly make a very definite separation, sometimes conveyed symbolically to participants at a Candomble ceremony, between the two religions. For example, a medium before entering trance will have the crucifix which she is wearing around her neck removed. However, for many Catholicism and Candomble are seen as little more than different expressions – African and European – of the same spiritual reality (Olga Francisca Regis, 1984: 27-35). To the Candomblesista of African descent the spiritual world is seen as one world and religions as different ways, culturally determined, of expressing and conveying to people the power of that world. Of course, there are few if any members of Candomble who can claim to be entirely of African descent. Most will have some Amerindian or European ancestry and this in itself makes it virtually impossible to insist on any rigid separation between the various religious traditions found in Bahia.

6Although already noted, the various traditions of Candomble have, over time, changed through interaction with each other and with both indigenous, Amerindian religious beliefs and practices and Catholicism, the Nago tradition, which is the most widely practised in Bahia has remained closest to its African roots (Bastide: 1960).

7In Salvador, the capital city of the State of Bahia, there are an estimated two thousand terreiros or compounds, varying in size from as few as twenty devotees to hundreds. Some are very traditional while others experiment a great deal. Some are old, well-endowed and exercise a great deal of influence in the political sphere while others resemble the base communities of Liberation Theology and although with little or no influence on the wider society they can be highly effective at the grass roots level. All are affected by the present harsh economic climate, including the gods who are obliged to accept in the form of a sacrifice not only less food but also poor quality food. Moreover, economic hardship makes it extremely difficult to continue with many of the traditional rules and regulations governing the rite of initiation such as the seclusion of novices for a set period of time, and the purchase of those items necessary for the initiation ceremony itself. Subsequent rites that mark the stages in the ascent of the devotee to the office of priest are also affected in this way.

8At the centre of the Candomble experience is possession. Devotees or filhas/filhos de santo (daughters/sons of the saint or holy one) have for guardian and protector a god (Portuguese: orixa, Yoruba: orisa) whom they resemble closely in character and who enables them to fulfil their destiny. It is worth noting that destiny can be modified but not fundamentally altered. The gods are called upon by means of drumming and chanting, as previously pointed out, to incorporate in their devotees.

9In the Yoruba context in southwestern Nigeria and the Republic of Benin from where most of them have their origin many of the gods or orisa are best described as ‘forces of nature’. They have a nature aspect to their make-up associated as they are in the popular mind with various features of the local environment such as rivers, rocks, hills, mineral deposits and storm winds. However, some, such as the god of thunder, Xango (Sango), already mentioned, also have what Horton terms a ‘deified hero’ aspect to their being in that they are thought of as:

the spiritual residues of great men or women of earlier times who vanished into the sky, water, earth or mountain instead of undergoing normal death or burial.


As such they are credited with highly distinctive and individual personalities (1983: 61).

11The orisa not only bring prosperity to the community in return for proper attention but also play a crucial role in the life of the individual by enabling the latter, in return for regular propitiatory offerings, daily salutations and memorial rites recalling their exploits, to either realize the good destiny which s/he choses before birth or to mitigate the negative consequences of a bad choice. The interdependence between individuals and their orisa (god) just described can become so intense that the devotees will eventually be possessed by, usually at a festival, and come, eventually, to take on the character of their god. Their god’s personality will become the model according to which devotees will assess their own worth, potential and appeal, regulate their conduct and relationships with others. Often a devotee will act out the behaviour characteristic of her/his god; thus one dedicated to the god of iron, Ogun, will display a very mixed set of characteristics which at one and the same time attract and repel: irascibility, unpredictability, openness and generosity.

12The gods are also the embodiment and bearers of ase, perhaps the most important notion in Yoruba religion and defined by Thompson as ‘the power to make things happen’, or as ‘God’s own enabling light rendered accessible to men and women’ (1984: 5). Olorun (Lord of the heavens), the supreme deity, is neither male nor female but a vital force or the vital force, the quintessential form of ase which is released through the orisa and in keeping with their character. Besides the gods, trees such as the iroko tree, iron blood and semen, among other things, can be vehicles for the transmission of ase, most potent when acquired through possession.

13In Brazil not all who are possessed either want or enjoy the experience. Few will try to explain what happens and many will describe its effects quite simply as making them feel lighter (mais leve), refreshed, renewed. At a festival in the Brazilian context it is the senior priestess with the help of her closest assistants who controls the whole course of the possession process. What one sees by way of response on the part of the devotee as a god incorporates is teleguided by the iyalorisha (mother of the gods and chief priestess) or babalorisha (father of the gods and chief priest). Initiation is not a sine qua non of possession; the one possessed can be a young child or a person with no formal links with a terreiro. Moreover, possession can occur quite randomly. For example, non initiates who have simply come to watch a ceremony are sometimes mounted by a god. This, in contrast with the more ‘programmed’ version just outlined, is referred to as ‘brute’ possession and may be interpreted as a sign that the person concerned is being called by the god in question to be a devotee.

14Possession can also occur quite independently of any ceremony. For example, while a person is carrying out such routine tasks as cooking or washing or cleaning the shrine of a god. In this kind of setting possession is often a means of maintaining order and discipline in a terreiro, for the one so possessed is usually entrusted with a message for the leadership concerning a misdemeanour or a potential source of conflict within the community.

15The main question here, however, is not the mechanics or purposes of possession but why the mediums are so often women, and we can begin our search for an explanation of this phenomenon by turning to the research carried out by the above mentioned anthropologist Ruth Landes.

1. Landes' explanation of the preponderance oe women mediums

16Landes, who carried out her research some fifty years ago, explained the large number of women priests and mediums in Salvador by reference to liturgical, aesthetic, economic and historical factors, and here space permits only the very briefest of summaries of her theory. One of her main arguments for the very high proportion of female to male mediums rests upon the structure of the liturgy of Candomble. Because dance is central to the liturgy so, also, is gender, Landes maintains. She writes:

Dance to them (members of Candomble) is life. It is their avenue of comprehension and response and their way of thinking, their manner of expressing themselves (1947: 224).

17Landes comments that where women are concerned the effects of dance are normal, while men, by way of contrast, are incapable of experiencing them while normal. Landes was not alone in believing that it was ‘unnatural’ for men to be the priests and mediums in Candomble. At the funeral of the widely revered Mae de Santo, Dona Aninha, she asked Edison Carneiro, an authority of Candomble, if it were not unusual for women in Brazil to receive the high level of recognition such as she had been given, and his reply was:

Not in Bahia... Not in the world of Candomble. The shoe is on the other foot here. It is almost as difficult for a man to become great in Candomble as it is for him to have a baby. And for the same reason: it is believed to be against his nature (Ibid.)

18After observing one of the women members enter trance, urged on by dancing and drumming Landes wrote:

Elizabeth of Xango (Yoruba god of thunder) appeared to be in love with herself, and after, when the divinity had incorporated her, it was as if she was dominated by an intense passion. Her life at that moment rose to its deepest, most profound significance. It is a pity men are not capable of that experience except when abnormal... and the reason is they are considered (by members of the Candomble and in wider society) to be the earthy material and the best they can do is to dance in the streets (1947: 224).

19In the opinion of the local people, Landes informs us, men are incapable of experiencing that spiritual feeling brought on by dance because they are, ‘hot, excited, profane and mundane’. Moreover, Landes was told that

the spirit of man is always on roads and did not return to within himself where it could serve as an instalment of the gods (Ibid.).

20There is, however, an exception to this norm in the person of the male homosexual and more precisely in the passive, male homosexual. Landes writes of one well known babalorisha allegedly of this tendency, Bernardino:

I believe that he is sufficiently honest about the practices of the cult to wish he were indeed a woman. Being a man he has to delegate many of the crucial functions to a woman member of the cult and in the last resort it is she who counts, not him (Ibid.: 227).

21Male mediums in Candomble were in Landes’ opinion a sexual anomaly. It was only by virtue of their femininity that passive homosexuals were able to perform in anything like an authentic manner the role of medium. In effect the only truly valid medium was a woman on the grounds of her natural innate disposition qua woman to express in dance that deep inner awareness of the self as divine and to act as a channel for the communication of the spiritual, sacred, transcendent form of life to others.

22Landes also stressed that other factors – historical, economic, intellectual- were an important part of the explanation of the large number of women mediums in Candomble. The main historical reason was that during the era of the slave trade, women as domestic slaves came to occupy a more prominent and responsible position in what was left of the African family. They functioned as family heads, based as they were close to their children, while their husbands were confined for the most part to the plantations. They also became the mediators between the slave masters and the male slaves and came to be regarded as effective and skilful negociators and conciliators, qualities of the utmost importance for the successful running of a terreiro. Furthermore, women slaves, Landes maintains, had better access to markets and therefore more opportunity to advance economically and purchase their freedom than men. Moreover, women became the teachers and depositories of wisdom and knowledge about the myths and traditions of Africa. Credited with a better knowledge of the myths and in general the cosmology and rituals of Candomble women were judged to be equipped to lead the services which are highly intricate and detailed enactments of the adventures and activities of the gods (1940 and 1947).

23While none of Landes’ critics have raised any objections of any substance to the historical and economic aspects of her thesis several have dismissed as groundless its basic premise that women are by nature more suited to the role of medium than men. The French sociologist Bastide wrote of her ‘biased’, ‘lopsided’ and

female view of Candomble that reflects the spirit of female protest in the United States which all observers have seen as a fundamental characteristic of that country (1960: 307).

24In reply to Bastide’s objection it is worth pointing out first of all that one of Landes’ main sources on the feminist dimension to Candomble was the Brazilian professor of law, Senhor Duarte, and not the American feminist movement. Duarte wrote of the immense difficulties women experienced in obtaining equality of treatment with men in religion or any other sphere of life in a predominantly patriarchal society such as Brazil (Landes 1947: 86).

25Bastide did point out quite correctly that in Brazil, the Caribbean and African from where it originated, Candomble and its equivalent were largely in the hands of men. And Verger makes the same point in his own refutation of Landes’ theory (1985). This line of argument does seriously undermine the Landes thesis although it is undeniably the case that the majority of mediums in Bahian Candomble are women.

26Verger maintains that this can be accounted for in economic and historical terms and reminds his readers that all devotees are in a sense female, recalling that after his own initiation ceremony had been completed he was informed by the officiating priestess that he should now consider himself to be the wife of his god, Xango. This, Verger insists, had nothing to do with either his or his deity’s sexual orientation, but simply provided the most apt model of the kind of relationship that should exist between them (Verger interviews: 1986-91).

27The remainder of this paper provides an outline of this writer’s views based on his research in Bahia between 1986-91 on why women mediums are in the majority there, beginning with the importance of tradition in this regard.

2. Tradition and women mediums

28Although Brazilianised, Candomble continues to feed off things African, especially African traditions. Indeed, African religion as found among the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria and the Republic of Benin constitutes something of a sacred text for much of Nago Candomble in Bahia, albeit a text that can be adapted and changed when necessary.

29One tradition that has influenced the development of the medium along female lines in Bahia at least is that, already mentioned, of Iyanaso.

30The meaning of the title Iyanaso has been discussed at some length by da Costa Lima among others (1984: 23). In West Africa it denoted a religious role involving responsibility for the worship of the personal deity of the King and/or Alafin of the Yoruba empire, Xango (Yoruba: Sango). The Iyanaso, one of the eight priestesses in the royal household, had the dubious privilege of being one of the four priestesses to accompany the king into the afterlife by committing suicide on his death.

31The relevance of this tradition to the development of Candomble in Bahia and the predominance of women priests and mediums there lies in the fact that the foundress of the oldest Candomble terreiro in Bahia, established in the early 1820s, the Casa Branca (White House), bore the title of Iyanaso; and it is very likely that this centre provided a model for other Candomble terreiros in the capital city of Bahia, Salvador. In fact some of the more historic, better known and highly influencial centres such as the Gantois terreiro, made famous by the late Mae Menininha (d. 1986), are off-shoots of the Casa Branca.

3. Sexual orientation, gender and mediumship

32My own research suggests that Landes was mistaken in believing that candomblesistas believed that women on account of their feminine nature alone had the capacity to communicate with the inner divine self and act as the vehicles for the dissemination of ase. This is not to suggest that she was entirely wrong about the sexual orientation of male participants in Candomble. On this there are no reliable statistics. However, pace Landes, it is very well known that heterosexual males actively participate in the ceremonies although by no means all of them are mediums.

33Very many of the male members have the title of Oga (protector). Some play the drums, other perform the sacrifices and other take responsibility for maintaining order and decorum during the services.

34It is worth noting that sexual orientation is of little relevance in principle to membership in Candomble. Leaders and participants in general may or may not look favourably upon homosexuality, but that is unimportant for several reasons. First of all, as we have seen, it is accepted that all devotees are what they are by virtue of their destiny which is decided before birth. And it is the principal duty of their god to help individuals to fulfil that destiny in return for propiciatory sacrifices. Consequently, it would be a serious mistake for one devotee to arbitrarily interfere in such an important matter as another devotee’s sexual orientation. That would be to interfere in the affairs of that person’s god who might well react by inflicting serious punishment in the form of an illness or unemployment on the wrongdoer. Furthermore, as previously noted, devotees often model their behaviour on that of their god; thus, criticism of an individual’s sexual orientation could be construed as criticism of the comportment in this matter of that same person’s god.

35The sexual orientation of members is not in theory any more of an issue than anything else for it is believed that the purification ritual performed prior to a ceremony by all those about to participate in it directly cleanses them of all fault. Thus, if homosexuality be a fault, it is one that can be ritually removed for the duration of the ceremony.

36In Landes’ time it was probably the case that many homosexuals, and in particular those she terms passive homosexuals, found in Candomble a haven from the intolerance and exploitation of the wider society. Today the opposition to homosexuality is likely to come from the family and can lead people to enter what they perceive to be the more tolerant atmosphere of Candomble. Among others, four informants, between the ages of twelve and fourteen, explained that their homosexuality was unacceptable to their parents and that Candomble was a good forum for meeting others like themselves. And, just as important to them, was the fact that through its dance and music Candomble enabled them ‘to feel the real rythm’ of their bodies which was otherwise for the most part suppressed (Interviews: Recife: 1986).

37In general a majority of the male members of Candomble do not become involved in the dance ritual of Candomble and the reason in part is that such dancing in public is traditionally more a feminine than a masculine activity. But more importantly, from the perspective of both the symbolism of Candomble and the socio-cultural background from which it derives, a woman is clearly a more appropriate vehicle for the sacred, a more fitting vessel for the gods to incorporate in than a man for, as previously noted, all those dedicated by initiation to the gods become their wives. Thus, the relationship between husband-wife in which the latter is subordinate to the former provides the model for the relationship between a god and his devotees. Looked at from this perspective Candomble is about submission to the will of the gods, about serving the gods by preparing their special dishes. Such service is widely regarded both in Yoruba society and in Bahia as the task of women. The men for their part have the duty of sacrificing animals, particularly large animals such as goats, dogs, oxen and so forth, for divine consumption, a task which, it is believed, requires the male attributes of strength, firmness and precision. There is also the widely held belief that menstrual blood is impure and can defile a sacrifice. Therefore, from the perspective of the liturgy of Candomble it could be argued that women are the mediums not because they have some innate, natural capacity to communicate with the divine which men do not possess, but rather on account of the fact that they provide more potent symbols of the basic elements – obedience and submission- of the relationship that ought to exist between devotees and their gods.

38There is also an aesthetic element in this relationship which, it would seem, makes it more appropriate for women rather than men to be the mediums. Candomble is theatre; it is the re-enactment of the adventures and exploits of the gods who are believed to be full to overflowing with desire and passion and who are attracted by the sensuous, the elegant, the graceful, the beautiful and related qualities which are more often associated with women than with men.

4. Living archives

39Candomble is largely based on oral tradition and the position of women is enhanced by virtue of the fact they established for themselves a reputation as extremely reliable sources of information about the myths, rituals and cures that give Candomble its shape, substance and value. Women are sometimes referred to as Candomble’s ‘Living Archives’. As the myth cited below illustrates, power comes from the possession of the knowledge of the inner secrets of religion. And, as previously noted, during slavery, while their menfolk were scattered throughout the sugar plantations, it was the women who, for the most part, kept the knowledge of the myths alive, arranged and presided over the ceremonies, cured the sick and passed on the traditions to the next generation.

40One of the more widely known of Yoruba myths in Bahia, now heavily Brazilianised, reveals that from the very begining men and women have been locked in a power struggle and sees ‘secret knowledge’ as the principal weapon in this war of the sexes. It bears the title How Men Came to Dominate Women and is worth quoting at some length:

At the beginnig of the world women intimidated the men of that time. It was Yansan (goddess of fresh water) who first invented the secrets of the freemasonry... When women wanted to enslave their husbands they came together at the crossroads with Yansan in front. One day the men deliberated how to end such shame and embarrassment. The babalawo (diviner) sent the male divinity Ogun (the god of iron) to make a sacrifice, to dress in a large dressing gown (for the purpose of disguise) and to carry in his hand a large sword. This Ogun did on that day when all the women were gathered together to celebrate a customary feast... Ogun suddenly appeared among the women as a terrifying old man and Yansan, the leader of the women, became known to all and sundry. As a result she disappeared forever from the earth. It was in this way that men came to dominate women and to this day they do not allow them knowledge of the secrets whatever they may be, unless it be question of a very exceptional woman (my trans. from: Braga, 1989: 59).

41Despite the male chicanery, the main depositories of knowledge about Candomble in Bahia, as already noted more than once, have been and continue to be for the most part women. Even today an enquirer is directed to the older ‘women’ members for ‘important information’ about Candomble and especially for knowledge about its remedies. Landes wrote that although many of the intellectuals knew a great deal about Candomble they acknowledged that the above-mentioned mae de santo, Mae Menininha, was ‘superior to them all in medicine’(1947: 85). According to Landes, Menininha was

the guardian of a religious philosophy... and had the authority over hundreds of souls by reason of her knowledge (sabedoria) and priestly talent (Ibid.).

42She also, as is the case generally with women leaders, inspired trust and confidence.

5. Moral factors

43Some mention has already been made about male and female attributes and here we can refer briefly to two other qualities – self control and probity – which are mostly associated with women. Self control in the sense of the ability to remain calm under all circumstances is perhaps the most prized of all those qualities deemed necessary in a Candomble leader. It does not prohibit firmness, decisiveness and even the punishment of wrong doers. But it does rule out displays of anger and, even more so, petulance, in public.

44It was pointed out above all that it is through a rite of initiation that one becomes a full member of Candomble and it was in relation to this rite in particular that informants spoke of women leaders being more honest and reliable than men. This is regarded as extremely important, for the leader alone has the right to visit and oversee the novice in her/his cell and it was in the discussion of this part of the rite that respondents would single out women mediums as being ‘safer’ than men.

45They also appear to combine great self-confidence and a ‘monstrous’ need to succeed with an abundance of charisma.

6. ‘Monsters’

46Perhaps just as important in the creation of the medium as the moral and other factors mentioned above is the crucial element of charisma grounded in an unshakeable belief found among many maes-de-santo in their own right and ability to perform this role better than others. Verger speaks of the need to be a ‘monster to be a mae-de-santo’ (Verger interviews: 1986-91). He means by the term ‘monster’ someone who is possessed of an extra-ordinary degree of self-reliance and a deeply felt need to succeed.

47Considering the disadvantaged position from which the early foundresses and leaders of Candomble in Bahia had started and the heights to which they rose – not only religiously but also socially and politically – then they clearly required an enormous amount of determination and self-assurance which in a patriarchal society accepted as the norm by almost everyone including women, must have appeared highly unusual and even somewhat unnatural.

48Two of Bahia’s most famous mediums have been mentioned several times before: Mae Senhora of the terreiro Ile Ase Οpο Afonja (the powerful stronghold of Xango), situated in Sao Ganzalo de Retira, a suburb of Salvador, the capital of Bahia, and the previously mentioned Mae Menininha of the terreiro of Gantois, in the district of Federacao, which lies closer to the centre of the same city. Comment here will be confined for the most part to Mae Senhora.

49Prior to becoming the Iyalorisha of Ile Ase Οpο Afonja, Mae Senhora made a living from selling fruit in the market. Verger, who was later to be initiated by her into Candomble, recalls that even then Mae Senhora’s intentions were clear. Among other things she named her stall ‘A Vencedora’ (the Victor) and drank only one brand of liquor, ‘O Vencor’ (Verger interviews: 1986-91). For Mae Senhora no position, tittle or tribute was too grand or undeserved.

50This makes sense in one who believed that slavery was not only a negation of her self as a person but also the destruction of a once proud and honourable people with a long and glorious history and civilization of her own. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Mae Senhora strove to reverse the degrading consequences of slavery which deprived people of her colour of dignity, opportunity and power by rising high in Candomble, the only avenue of advance open to someone like herself who was a descendant of a slave. It is perhaps worth noting that female mediums are not necessarily feminists, or socially and politically radical even when it is a question of black and/or issues. While in support of equality for all they do not always accept the means advocated for achieving it and can even display what would be considered to be conservative political attitudes. Likewise, in the exercise of their power and authority within Candomble they can show considerable authoritarianism in their dealings with their devotees. Possession by an African god enabled Mae Senhora to ‘return’ to the pre-slavery era, to ground herself, as it were, in the culture to which she felt she belonged and which later honoured her by conferring on her the title Iya Nasso the meaning of which has already been described. Verger's recollection is that Mae Senhora on hearing that the King of Oyo in Southwestern Nigeria had awarded her this title, exclaimed ‘Now I am my ancestor’, a response that lends support to the interpretation of the purpose of possession outlined above (Verger interviews: 1986-91).

51Although this self-assurance and self-confidence is not uncommon in female mediums in present day Bahia, the charisma of the kind exerted by Mae Senhora, Mae Menininha and other well-known priestesses generated its own momentum and survives long after their departure.

52The relationship between charisma and physical appearance is a complex one. On first impressions Mae Senhora appears to have been anything but charismatic. Although she possessed some very expensive clothes Landes noted that she dressed badly. She wore a black shawl over her head and shoulders and the rest of her clothes were not particularly tidy nor for that matter clean. She was also very overweight, had one tooth missing in the centre of her mouth and the lens of her spectacles were unusually thick. However, despite her weight, she was an outstanding dancer, and possessed ‘a strong, sweet contralto’s voice’, and spoke ‘calmly and peacefully’. Menininha struck Landes as

a priestly figure dancing and reciting with soul the old and refined lessons of her traditions (1947: 93).

53Today, leading mediums in Bahia, male as well as female, make a point to rule in the style of such famous maes-de-santo and to adopt during the ceremonials, and generally, the same air and the same tone of voice and gestures as these once very powerful and much sought after priestesses.


54Such remarkable examples of female charisma notwithstanding, any explanation of the high incidence of women mediums in Bahian Candomble must, it would seem, pay greater attention to historical, economic, social, moral, aesthetic and liturgical considerations than to gender. This is not to suggest that certain qualities and attributes are not seen in terms of gender. As we have already noted, precision, firmness and strength tend to be regarded as male while submission, obedience, inner spiritual depth, elgance and gracefulness are mostly associated with women, and are certainly extremely important assets in any Candomble medium.

55However, there are other essential requirements which are neither exclusively female or male, although historical and economic developments underpinned by reworked traditions have resulted in their being associated with the former rather than the latter. The most important of these are: wisdom, knowledge born of experience, integrity, self-control and tact or diplomacy.



Much of this paper is based on fieldwork in Bahia and to a lesser extent Recife and Sao Paulo from 1986-1991. I have referred to my interviews – ten in all – with Pierre Verger during this period as Verger Interviews (1986-91). There is also reference in the text to an interview I had with four Candomble members in Recife in Sept. 1986.

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