By Ruth Knafo Setton
My first sighting of the goddess, Yemanja, is of a wooden mermaid at the Museu Afro-Brasileira in Pelourinho, the central square of Salvador, the capital of Bahia, the Brazilian state that holds the throbbing heart and soul of Brazilian culture, music, and religion. Covered in scales that lead to a mermaid tail, her belly filled with living creatures, she holds a large seashell to her ear and a mirror to her heart.
I stand before Yemanja for a long time, trying to understand why I, an American-Jewish woman born in Morocco, am so drawn to her. She is considered the Mother of all humanity, the Goddess of the Sea, descendant of the ancient Egyptian Goddess, Isis—“Goddess of Ten thousand Names,” whose fame spread to Greece and Rome, and who became the inspiration for worship of Mary, mother of Jesus. The symbol of female divinity, she represents both power and compassion to all living creatures. The orixa—God and spirit—of procreation, family, and community, she is often considered the Mother of all the orixas.
Even relegated to a sculpture, she transcends her wooden coil. Her eyes dare me to move closer and taste her power.
You see, I know about the power of Sirens and mermaids, and female goddesses from pagan religions to the present. I’ve written about the lure of their wondrous voices, and how often they’ve been censored and silenced through the years. I’ve taught courses in which I’ve traced the Siren’s voice—as it rose clear and triumphant, in its first incarnation: a light of a voice, a beacon, guiding sailors to shore. Later, that voice keened as it carried the souls of the dead to the Underworld and sang the song of each human’s life as he or she penetrated those dreaded gates. She sang eulogies and poems, hymns to the dead and epitaphs. With the unearthly beauty and power of her voice, she made them live again, a second time, and with the motherly comfort of her winged arms, she provided safe travels to the final journey of the human soul.
After her golden period, she was reviled, her voice transformed from a blessing to a curse, her wings into fins, and her dwelling moved from the skies to the seas. Still, she resurfaced in different centuries, and various countries and faiths, haunting our myths and dreams. And one of the most powerful reincarnations of the eternal Siren-Mermaid-Goddess is Yemanja, and her home is Bahia.
After my visit to Yemanja in the museum, I walk through Largo do Pelourinho in Old Town Salvador. It’s a sunny afternoon, and tourists sit on the steps in front of the pale blue Colonial-style Jorge Amado House, eating ice cream. Dona Flor, the heroine of Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands—Amado’s best-selling novel, later turned into a successful film—lived in one of the slender pastel houses surrounding the square. Amado lifted many colorful characters from the streets of Salvador and reimagined them on the pages of his novels.
Across the square, Red Bull workers set up a wooden stage and an enormous screen for tonight’s capoeira competition. Michael Jackson’s voice croons from an open doorway. Years after his death, Jackson remains a Salvadoran hero—he filmed the video to his song, “They Don’t Care About Us”, with the Bahian percussion band, Olodum, here in Pelourinho Square. A cardboard Michael Jackson stands on a balcony overlooking the square. In a nearby shop, the vendor will play the video if you ask. Nearly every shop displays t-shirts with images of Jackson and Bob Marley as well as caps in Brazil’s colors—green, red, yellow—from which dangle black dreadlocks made of yarn. A music store off the square blasts samba-reggae against a backdrop of African masks and dusty wooden instruments and jewelry.
Today, Largo do Pelourinho is a UNESCO World Heritage site, alive with music, events, and tourists, but the name, Pelhourinho, refers to the pillar of wood once used to attach slaves, and this was the square where slaves were bought and sold. Here, in Salvador—the first capital of Brazil, and now the capital of the northeastern state of Bahia—85% of the population has African heritage, and memories don’t die—they are transformed into creative expression. Samba was born here, as was the Brazilian form of Candomble—the African-based religion that worships orixas. So was capoeira, a fusion of dance and martial arts that requires extreme strength and grace. And every form of creativity is driven by percussion. According to indigenous shamanic teachings, drums are the heartbeat of the earth, and nowhere do you feel this more vividly than in Bahia.
Candomble literally means to “dance in honor of the gods,” and one night I have the opportunity to attend a ceremony at Ile Axe Opo Afoja—the largest and most important candomble house in Salvador—and to watch the worshipers dance and chant to the relentless pounding of percussionists. The founder and high priestess, Mother Stella de Oxassi, reigned over hundreds of followers and a thriving community until her death in 2018 at age ninety-three. When I saw her, she bestowed blessings from a chair and solemnly watched the dancers. A mix of hoedown, wedding celebration, revival meeting, and party, the festive gathering is held in a simple room decorated to give the feeling of being outdoors in a forest. The night I attended, the orixa the honored was Oxassi, the god of the hunt and the forest. His color is green, and his blessings are patience and prosperity.
The floor is strewn with green leaves, the columns are painted with birds, and white Tibetan prayer flags blow softly. About sixty worshipers dance in a large counterclockwise circle (moving backwards into the past to meet the ancestors). A few break away from the group to form individual planets revolving alone or to prostrate themselves before Mother Stella, who sits on a throne and watches. She says a few words to each, presumably to inform them which god will enter them tonight, after which they return to the circle to dance to the specific rhythm of their god. Each god has his own rhythm, and the percussionists shift the pace and tone of the music, according to which gods are dancing. In between “songs,” the dancers hug each other ceremoniously and bow to each other. Those standing and sitting in the seats around the dancers—divided into male and female—chant and sing.
After a couple of hours, the dancers break for food. To prepare for this worship service—every two weeks, an orixa in the pantheon of twenty-five or twenty-seven is honored—there is an animal sacrifice. Tonight, the community has prepared a traditional slave meal, including chicken meat, acaraje (bean fritters), corn and hominy, rice and manioc, and they distribute it in clay bowls to those who are hungry. It is part of the generous spirit of this house and reflects the warmth of the community.
When the music begins again, the dancers return dressed in gods’ costumes—faces covered with beaded veils, straw hats and straw tails dangling from their heads, turbans and the wide hoop bustle skirt of the baiana—the traditional aunties of Bahia. They carry small swords, mirrors, long-handled tails they stroke against each other, and in their bustles and vivid colors, they sway and brush their bare feet against the leaves. Every now and then, one of the dancers will yelp—a small bird cry—and lower her head, raise her butt, and shake her shoulders in a small fit of shuddering.
A word about the shuddering of shoulders and chest. It is one of the most haunting, chilling expressions of human spirituality I’ve witnessed, a trembling that inspires fear and awe. It seems physically impossible, the movement so isolated, the shudder emerging from inside the upper body as if the worshiper is truly possessed and entering a trance state. As I watch, I can’t help but think of Judaism, my own religion, which forbids physical, concrete representations of God—no idols, no statues or paintings. The entity of God is simply called: The Word; Ha’Shem in Hebrew. The most abstract religion, Judaism challenges the worshiper to imagine what cannot be seen or grasped, and to find the divine spirit in black and white symbols in the pages of a sacred book, the Torah.
Here, in this Candomble house, the worshipers feel orixas through the body—leap, writhe, yelp, kiss the ground, prostrate, hug others, and literally transform themselves into the gods they worship. The man who plays Oxassi is dressed in greens and browns and carries a sword and straw tail. He moves in and out of the dancing circle, and as he approaches members of the community, they lower their heads, scrunch their shoulders, and hold out their palms to catch the sacred spirit. He touches them lightly with the tip of his sword, and they shudder visibly. Once, he even hugs a follower, and then wipes the sweat off his face and holds out his palm.
I strain to see, and it appears the follower licks the sweat from the god’s palm and swallows it. This also reminds me of Judaism—a Moroccan-Jewish woman healer I visited in the ancient town of Beit Shean near Israel’s Sea of Galilee. In the shadows of the ruins of the great Roman city, Scythopolis, the healer confided that her powers were derived from her saint. Through a mystical communication, the saint transmitted elements of his power to the female healer, mouth to mouth. She literally swallowed his saliva, thereby taking on some of his power. When an ailing person came to her, she spit on the wound, and the mixture of her saliva and the saint’s formed a healing agent to cure the suffering.
My second sighting of Yemanja is on stage at the explosively brilliant Bale Folclorico da Bahia at a performance performing in the tiny Teatro Miguel Santana in Pelourinho. Face covered with a seashell-beaded veil, she wears a bustle gown in pale lilac, blue and white. Shell bands grip her arms, and she carries a jeweled fan. Men in straw hats and white pantaloons dance joyfully around her—she has given them fish to eat. The women crouch and wash their clothes in the river—she has given them water for survival. And when they draw near to her, they shudder, shoulders jerking wildly, in a pantomime of the power of the goddess’s presence. She too dances slowly and regally, weaving around and between her worshipers, and I can’t help but remember Nietzsche’s words, “I would believe only in a god that knows how to dance.”
On my last day in Bahia, I sail to Itaparica, a lovely, sleepy island a hour ferry ride from Salvador. It is mid-morning, the heat and humidity intense, as I stand on the deserted beach. A lone fisherman sails in the distance. I wade into the sea, and cool, clear water swirls around my bare feet. Although I am alone, I easily imagine thousands of worshipers dressed in pale blue—Yemanja’s color—gathering to honor her on February 2nd, her feast day in Salvador (in Rio, it is December 31). They fill holes in the sand with lighted candles and flowers. They also carve little wooden boats, cram them with mirrors, combs, flowers, and lighted candles, and send them into the sea with prayers.
I wade deeper, lower my head and stare into the water. In the wavering light, my sun-dazed eyes see Iemanja, rising, tall and graceful, from the waves. My third sighting of the goddess. Before I can register the wonder of this magical encounter, her face turns toward me, and her eyes meet mine.
For a long and terrible moment, I stand utterly still.
I blink, and she is gone.
But I saw her. And she saw me.
Somewhere drums are pounding. My chest shudders.
I dip my hand and bring it to my mouth and lick her sweat from my fingers.
Slowly, slowly, I make my way back to the mainland.
Born in Morocco, Ruth Knafo Setton is the author of the novel “The Road to Fez”, and the forthcoming “Darktown Blues”. A multi-genre writer whose award-winning fiction, creative nonfiction, screenplays, and poetry have been widely published, she teaches Creative Writing at Lehigh University.