Question: "What is Candomblé?"
Answer: The word Candomblé originates from the Yoruba language in Nigeria and has its roots in African tradition. Candomblé is a syncretic religion that combines various beliefs—including those of the Yoruba, Fon, Bantu, and Roman Catholicism—and heavily relies on Yoruba mythology. In some respects Candomblé is similar to Umbanda, another Afro-Brazilian religion.
Candomblé developed in 19th-century Brazil due to African slaves brought to South America during the transatlantic slave trade. The belief system was also influenced by Roman Catholicism, the main religion of the slave traders, though many adherents of Candomblé sought to remove the Catholic practices in the 20th century. However, to this day, many Candomblé believers remain baptized Catholics or even attend evangelical Protestant services.
In some regions, Candomblé and Umbanda are practiced together, but the two religions are distinct. Umbanda is more public and relies less on traditional African religions. Other belief systems similar to Candomblé are Haitian voodoo and Cuban Santeria, often considered sister religions.
Candomblé worshipers believe in Olodumare, the Supreme Being in Yoruba religions. Olodumare is venerated alongside lesser spirits known as orixás, who are considered more approachable than the transcendent, distant Olodumare. Therefore, the orixás serve as mediators between humans and Olodumare. According to Candomblé, each person is associated with a personal orixá that shapes his or her identity. During rituals, believers anticipate the arrival of an orixá, who may possess the person to convey messages. Orixás are given names such as Xango, Ogum, and Tempo. The last is often associated with the Holy Spirit, and others are syncretized with Catholic saints like St. Anthony (Ogum).
In addition to the orixás, Candomblé adherents believe in spirits like the exus (male), exuas (female), and exu-mirims (children). These spirits are thought to be subservient to the orixás, thus making them more approachable intercessors. Practitioners claim they can make the exus do their bidding.
Within Candomblé are different traditions called “nations.” Examples are Ketu, Jege, and Angola. Each has its own practices and language: Ketu uses the Yoruba language, and Jege uses Ewe.
Candomblé lacks a sacred text or central authority, granting each terreiro (that is, a house of worship) independence. However, there are common practices like making offerings to orixás and communicating with spirits through a medium. Candomblé followers are called povo de santo , or “people of saint,” with specific titles for priests (babalorixá), priestesses (iyalorixá), new initiates (iao), and others.
Many Africans view Christianity as a “white man’s religion” and view its acceptance as a loss of cultural identity. Thus, they either reject the Christian faith or syncretize à la Candomblé. But Christianity is not solely for Westerners. While following Jesus changes our worldview, believers are not called to become American, European, Jewish, or anything else. Peter the apostle declared that “God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34–35). Also, the apostle John recorded seeing a great multitude “from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9, emphasis added).
Christians in Africa and other non-Western nations need not feel pressured to drop their culture when embracing Jesus. Of course, Christianity will counter some African beliefs and practices, but following Christ is countercultural in all places, including the West. The Christian religion (and others) should be tested based on its claims, not cultural sentiments. And what is sinful in any culture should be jettisoned in honor of the lordship of Christ.
In its recognition of Olodumare, Candomblé represents a response to God’s general revelation, much like that of the Athenians in Paul’s day (Acts 17:22–23). Even before the arrival of the missionaries, pre-colonial societies in Africa believed in a Supreme Being or Creator, with different names like Chukwu, Mawu, and Modimo. “God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1:20). Further, pagan religions such as Candomblé seek a way to communicate with that Supreme Being.
The problem is that humanity is separated from God by sin—and Candomblé admits that Olodumare is distant. There is a zeal in the way practitioners of Candomblé worship the orixás to reach God, but such zeal is “not based on knowledge” (Romans 10:2). Even more dangerous is how their practices open the way to contact spirits that are not from God. The true “Olodumare” is not distant (Acts 17:27) but wants to have a relationship with His creation. He has made the first step of reconciliation. Also, we do not need many orixás to intercede for us while we appease them with various offerings. Our Intercessor, Jesus Christ, has offered Himself as the sacrifice for our sin.