Reveillon in Rio de Janeiro: New Year's Eve With Iemanjá
by Laurie Nadel
Riotur Offerings for Iemanjá
Rio de Janeiro - At the base of Corcovado mountain, about 100 men and women dressed all in white clapped and chanted around a makeshift horseshoe-shaped trench in the sand. Candles flickering within the trench made Urca Beach glow with primal inner fire.
At the apex of the trench, which served as an altar, someone had placed a statue of Iemanjá, the unofficial patron saint of Rio de Janeiro who incorporates the Holy Mother with an African feminine archetype who protects the ocean. Revered by some 30-million people in Brazil, and honored by millions more on both sides of the South Atlantic and the Caribbean, Iemanjá grants good fortune and blessings for the New Year to those who offer her white roses or gladioli, champagne, shiny jewelry, and sweets.
The celebrants who had gathered on Urca Beach three nights before New Year's Eve were there to beat the crowds that flock to Rio's shores on December 31. As practitioners of Umbanda, one of the two main Spiritualist religions in Brazil, the celebrants took turns stepping into the shallow water to make their offerings and to receive a ritual cleansing which consisted of having their head dunked in the bay by a priest wearing a green shirt. Around 1 A.M., when the street lights went out, observers and participants gasped as the lighted image of Christ the Redeemer who stands atop Corcovado seemed to hang suspended in midair, as if giving his blessing to the ceremony below.
Iemanjá, also known as Yemoja or Janaína, is one of the deities called orixás which have spiritual dominion over elements of nature that include fire, wind, thunder, stones, marshes, and rivers. Orixá worship predates Christianity by thousands of years but it was prohibited in Brazil until recently. (The practice of making offerings to Iemanjá for the New Year was illegal until the 1950s.) African slaves who were forcibly transported from their homelands were persecuted or killed by the Portuguese landowners for following their religion. To protect themselves, they syncretized each orixá to a particular Catholic saint. That way, they could say they were worshipping Jesus or the Holy Mother or Saint Anthony when their masters interrupted their religious services.
For example, Xangô, the god of fire who also rules justice and the courts, became St. Barbara. Oxalá, also known as Obatala, or God the Father, was syncretized with Christ the Redeemer whose statue stands atop Corcovado. Oxum, who is called Ochun in the Caribbean, is a manifestation of the Holy Mother of Charity (Caridade). The original symbol of Iemanjá depicts her as a buxom African woman but in most of Brazil and the Caribbean, she is depicted as the Virgin Mary sometimes called Mary of the Miraculous Medal, standing in the sea with her open hands extended. She is also presented as a seductive mermaid.
Those who are serious in their worship of Iemanjá in Brazil generally belong to either the Umbanda or Candomblé religion. Umbanda, which combines ecumenical elements of Congo, Angola, Yoruba, Roman Catholic, Spiritualist, Kardecist, and indigenous Brazilian spiritual tradition, is widely practiced in Rio where there are hundreds of "centros espíritus Umbandistas." The term "Karrdecist" refers to Alain Kardec, a 19th century French Spiritualist whose prayers are used to invoke ancestral spirits.
Candomblé, which predominates in Salvador, Bahia, has African soul roots. In candomblé terreiros (temples) in Rio's Zona Norte, the orixás are not Catholicized. Each orixá retains his or her original African character. Each person comes into this world accompanied by both a mother and a father (male and female) orixá who serves as a guardian angel and intermediary between the material and the spiritual world. Knowing the identity of one’s orixás gives an individual greater self-awareness and balance in all areas of his life by helping him to achieve harmony within himself and the world around him. (One can only find out who his orixá is by consulting the appropriate oracle. The orixás communicate directly through the oracle, which can only be interpreted by an ordained priest or priestess.)
Personal beliefs notwithstanding, the practice of offering white roses, jewelry, and sweets to Iemanjá is as widespread in Rio as is our custom of leaving a plate of cookies for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Ano Novo, also called Reveillon, is the second largest festival in Brazil, attracting between 2 and 3 million people to Rio's beaches every year. While Brazil's biggest festival, Carnival is well known around the world, Reveillon has not received much publicity outside South America. Unlike Carnival, which has well-organized samba schools, Ano Novo retains a more spontaneous character despite attempts by Rio tourism officials to create an infrastructure for it. Six years ago, Rio's Mayor Cesar Maia went so far as to invite Franco Zefirelli, the Italian film director, to "direct" the New Year's celebrations. It was an idea that failed to get off the ground, largely because Ano Novo is a spiritual pilgrimage that is unique to each person.
Nonetheless, the official contribution to the revelry is impressive in its own right. Avenida Atlântica is closed to traffic from lunchtime on December 31 until the following evening. There are fireworks over the ocean at midnight, Brazilian bands playing live music from mega-stages with giant speakers set up along Copacabana beach, and spotlights from the oceanfront hotels sending spectrums of color into the sky. For a city with a reputation for pickpockets and street crime, Rio is surprisingly mellow on New Year's Eve. Even more surprising: In the past several years, there have been no reports of robberies, muggings, or fights during Ano Novo.
Along the 2.5-mile long mosaic sidewalk, artisans, fortunetellers, and food vendors set up stalls and informal stands made of cardboard cartons covered with plastic tablecloths. After dark, flower vendors sell white roses and gladioli for Iemanjá on every street corner. Umbanda and candomblé practitioners also bring small blue wooden sailboats laden with fruit, sweets, and jewelry for Iemanjá. According to custom, if your sailboat floats out to sea, Iemanjá has accepted the offerings and you will be granted protection and good fortune in the new year. If the boat returns to shore, you can expect disappointment. At the very least, your wishes will not be granted.
The heart and soul of Reveillon is the beach itself, lit with thousands of white candles set into horseshoe shaped trenches and homemade altars honoring the goddess of the sea. A walk through different groups of celebrants takes the observer out of time and into a magical realm where entities take possession of human beings in order to bring greetings and messages from the spirit world for the coming year. During last year's Ano Novo, a group of 13 Umbanda practitioners lined up on two sides of a horseshoe shaped altar whose rim was lined with white gardenias and 7 bottles of rum and cachaça. Five men in white stood on one side of the altar chanting and clapping while on the other side, 8 women in long white skirts and white blouses did the same. After about ten minutes of chanting, one of the men started to convulse. His eyes rolled back into his head and his body went rigid for a few seconds. With his eyes still closed, he began walking with jerky movements. Kneeling on the sand, he touched his head and chest in salutation to the sea and to the altar. With eyes remaining closed, he stood up and walked to a small blonde woman in her 50s who was the group's leader. She held out her arms and he embraced her, nodding as he hugged her twice, first on her left, then on her right shoulder. The other 12 celebrants continued singing, chanting, and moving their feet in rhythm until one of the women convulsed into shrieking and writhing. She threw herself face first into the sand and lay there, shaking, for a few minutes. When she got up, the spirit that had taken possession of her body moved awkwardly as she knelt to touch her head and chest in salutation to the altar and then to the ocean. Meanwhile, the man who had been possessed was smoking a cigar and giving each celebrant a stiff hug followed by a brief message for the coming year.
Thousands of similar rituals were going on simultaneously all over Copacabana as the ancestral spirits called caboclos (indigenous entities from the Brazilian forests, Pretos Velhos and Pretas Velhas (spirits of the original slaves) and crianças (spirits of dead children) entered human hosts, called "horses" or mediums in order to offer advice and counsel.
Near midnight, a young woman standing behind the worshippers took the hand of an eight year-old boy and walked with him to the edge of the sea. She gave him a white rose and, as they held hands, he offered it to Iemanjá. Then they knelt together and with their hands, carved out their own altar to Iemanjá with their hands: a simple round bowl in the sand which held one white candle.
Hip Brazil Travel Tips
Blue wooden sailboats and ritual offerings for Iemanjá can be found at Palácio das Velas, Praça Tiradentes, 72, Centro, Rio de Janeiro (tel: 2232-7354) and Bazar Oxalá, Rua Voluntários de Pátria, 1, Loja 30, Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro (tel: 2286-4349).
Laurie Nadel is based in New York City where she writes for The New York Times and other publications. She has been reporting on cultural and political events in South America since the 1970s when she was a reporter for UPI and Newsweek based in Lima and Santiago. Her most recent book, Dancing with the Wind (Paraview Press, 2001) describes her encounters with shamans in the Amazon. Dancing with the Wind was nominated for a National Book Award.