1780. The Recôncavo, Bahia. African-born slaves go to the forest to worship through music and dance. In chapter 32 of my novel I have attempted an imaginative reconstruction of the origins of Candomblé.
Please click on the bulleted headings below to toggle the full text.
Miracles of the People: John Ryle tells a story of Pierre Verger
Miracles of the People
By John Ryle The Times Literary Supplement, London July 31, 1998, expanded
How a French ethnologist became a magician in Brazil
In late December 1997 I received an irresistible summons from Rio de Janeiro. A samba school, União da Ilha do Governador, one of fourteen in the Grupo Especial, the first division of carnival, was taking as its theme for carnival the coming February the life of Pierre Verger, a French photographer and ethnologist who lived in Brazil, in the north-eastern city of Salvador da Bahia, from the late 1940s, off and on, until his death in 1996. As a friend and sometime acolyte of Verger, I was requested to join the ala de amigos, the "friends' wing" of the school, one of the teams that would constitute the thousand-strong assembly of dancers accompanying Ilha's floats in their floodlit progress through the Sambódromo, a half-mile long defile in downtown Rio where the carnival parade reaches its culmination
My initial reaction to the invitation was shock, then hilarity. What on earth would Verger have thought ? The spirit of Rio carnival - profane, lubricious, transcendentally kitsch - is fundamentally at odds with the tranquility and profundity found in Candomblé, the Afro-Brazilian religion of which he was an adept and chronicler. Though carnival and Candomblé both spring from the African strain in Brazilian culture, they are quite distinct from one another, as different as rap and gospel music. And Verger, although he took a certain pleasure in the iconic status he acquired in Brazil towards the end of his life, would undoubtedly have professed horror at the idea of joining the gallery of popular heroes, musicians, rogues, and mythic figures that are customarily portrayed on the carnival floats -- the carros alegóricos - colossal pleasure-vessels that move in a sea of glitter and feathers, surmounted by minor celebrities and near-naked dancers shimmying and shaking their booty for the TV cameras.
Rio carnival has become a highly orchestrated piece of television entertainment. Although it remains an authentic popular event, with hundreds of thousands of Cariocas (as the inhabitants of the city are known) joining in as spectators or participants, the high point of carnival is pure showbiz: an elaborate, formalized and highly competitive contest between samba schools, which vie with each other in the extravagance of their displays and the brilliance of their dancing and musicianship. A typical samba school (the term refers not to any educational function, but to its communal character, as in a school of whales) is identified with one of the morros, the hill-top shanty-towns that dot the landscape of the city, and is financed by the local drug-barons and organizers of the jogo de bicho, the illegal numbers racket. The core membership of a school is drawn from the inhabitants of the morro - poor, black or mulato, people at the bottom of Brazil's pyramid of race and wealth. Carnival in Rio is a holiday from reality, a dream of opulence, where all partake, for a moment, of the glamour marketed by the telenovelas and miniséries, the soaps shown daily on Globo and Manchete, Brazil's leading TV channels. During carnival, for two or three days of practically non-stop live broadcasts, the people themselves become the show; the society of the spectacle feasts on itself. As Joãzinho Trinta, most august of the carnavalescos (the professional metteurs-en-scène of the samba schools) is wont to say, "it is only intellectuals who are interested in poverty; what the people like is luxury."
Pierre Fatumbi Verger did not like to be called an intellectual. And his life in Brazil was far removed from the glitz and mammon-worship of carnival. But it was not distant from the life of the people. Candomblé, in a more fundamental sense than carnival, creates a world where, as Verger put it, those at the bottom of the social scale are lifted up, a world in which the capacity to enter trance and incorporate the spirits of West African divinities, the òrìsà (or orixás as the word is transliterated in Portuguese) gives a measure of dignity to the poor and downtrodden. In nineteenth-century Salvador, in the terreiros of Candomblé - the temples and sacred groves that today outnumber the city's churches - slaves and descendants of slaves reinvented the culture of the Yoruba and other African peoples, creating an urban, new-world form of African ritual and cosmology, an act of faith that may be compared to the reinvention of Christianity in North America by Mormons. It is not only that Candomblé is the creation of black Brazilians, it is also a world where social relations within the world of the urban poor as a whole are transfigured, where, notably, homosexual men and women may become figures of influence, where the doubly discriminated against can attain high status.
It was this Candomblé community of Salvador, that Verger, an exile from bourgeois existence in pre-World War II France, took as his own. Although he rejected the label "intellectual", habitually referring to scholars as "imposters" and "colourless parrots", he became its leading chronicler. His historical work on the slave trade and his documentation, in writing and photographs, of religious practice in the linked cultures of West Africa and North-Eastern Brazil, locate him in the world of learning. But for Verger these activities were all ways of drawing closer to the black Brazilians who were the objects of his admiration and affection. As he put it in an interview with Emmanuel Garrigues (quoted in a recent essay by Stéphane Malysse):
Soyons francs, l´ethnographie ne m'interesse que modérément. Je n'aime pas étudier les gens... ce que j'aime, c'est de vivre avec les gens et de les voir vivre d´une façon différente de la mienne. . .
To be frank, ethnography does not interest me that much. I don't like studying people… what I like is to live with people and see how their lives are different from mine.
For the last decades of his life Verger lived a life of extreme simplicity in a low-income bairro of Salvador called Vila América, part of the larger neighbourhood called Vasco da Gama. He had no telephone, not even a radio. For some months in the late 1980s I was his guest there, staying in a half-abandoned house at the back of his property, a house that, since his death, has become the Fundação Verger, an institute dedicated to research in the field he pioneered. The day I moved into my new quarters Verger enquired if I was superstitious. "No, not really", I replied. "That is good," said Verger. Then he informed me, with a characteristically subliminal chuckle, that the building had been the site of a recent tragedy. Its previous inhabitants, he said, had come to an untimely end: "Ils se suicident ici - toute la famille."
It was at that time, in the main house, with the help of his research assistant, a medical student named Fábio Araújo, that Verger was slowly and laboriously assembling the information on Yoruba traditional medicine that now appears in Ewé (the title of the book is the Yoruba word for leaf.) To say that Verger lived ascetically would be an understatement. He survived on toast and black coffee, with the occasional boiled egg - though he would sometimes also offer me, using the exaggerated French accent with which he amused himself when speaking English, "a little cup of thé". When I brewed coffee in his kitchen I would be reminded to seal the unused coffee filters in a tin; the cockroaches, he explained, were partial to the glue in the seams. Cooking was done on a blackened two-ring gas burner. Once I found a mouse asleep in the oven. The long-suffering Fábio, now a medical doctor in São Paulo, said to me on one occasion "You know, I do draw the line at reheated tea."
Verger was serious and a trifle possessive about his research. The sheets of paper that contained the data on Yoruba herbal medicine that he had collected twenty or thirty years earlier in Nigeria and Benin, he habitually referred to, in a pun true to the Yoruba taste for deep word play, as his "leaves". These leaves drifted from room to room of the house - formulae, invocations and lists of ingredients, fragments of an old world scheme of knowledge, most of which - although it has been partially reconstructed in the new world religion of the orixás - exists only in West Africa; and some of it now not even there. There were no copies.
From a cupboard in the kitchen, meanwhile, the negatives of five decades of Verger's photographic work, the visual analogue of his scholarly explorations in African cosmology, some still unprinted, most unpublished, spilled carelessly out onto the floor. Full of books and papers, the house was a tinderbox. But it enjoyed the protection of African deities, being dedicated to Xangô, the Yoruba Sòngó, god of fire, and painted a deep red in his honour. It was the same stock of red paint, Verger would point out with amused satisfaction, as had been used to decorate the fire station in downtown Salvador. (He was acquainted with the dangers of fire, having earlier lived on the top floor of a spectacularly burned-out building in Pelhourinho, Salvador's then-ruinous historical centre.)
The red façade of Verger's house stood out from the deep green of the trees on the steep slopes of Vila América - you could see it from half a mile away. In addition to this colour symbolism, Verger had placed inside the front door a local ironworker's representation of Exú, the trickster messenger of the orixás, dweller at crossroads and guardian of thresholds. It was no doubt the high level of supernatural protection afforded by these divinities that kept the leaves and photographic negatives safe from theft or accidental destruction during those years.
Slowly, during the 1970s and 1980s collections of Verger's photographs were published, or republished, under the Corrupio imprint, by Arlete Soares, a São Paulo publisher and friend of Verger. Now, in The Go-Between, a selection is finally available in an international edition. In Ewé, meanwhile, the results of Verger's long and painstaking investigation of the Yoruba art of medicine also see the light, completing the last phase of his scholarly work, an enterprise which began with his monumental study of the slave trade, Flux et reflux de la traite des nègres entre le Golfe de Bénin et Bahia de Todos os Santos, du XVIIe au XIXe siècle (a book invoked by Bruce Chatwin, in his rather shorter work, The Viceroy of Ouidah, principally, one suspects, for the magnificent gravity of its title)
Ewé is not a work of analysis. It's more like a cookbook - a book of recipes, of medicinal herbs and materia magica. Should you wish to cast a spell - to cure worms, say, or get rich, or make rain fall, or make someone fall down a well, or render them sexually impotent (or find a cure for impotence) or - a rarer requirement nowadays - make a peasant dance in front of a king, then this book will inform you, or remind you if you are already an adept, of the ingredients and forms of words required. Verger writes from within the Yoruba tradition, as a babalâo, or father of secrets, a devotee of Ifá, the spirit of divination, a role into which he was initiated in 1952 in Dahomey, where he was also given the name Fatumbi (signifying symbolic rebirth under Ifá's aegis). It was a name that he used with pride. Ewé is, accordingly, a book that takes little or no account of developments in the academic fields of ethnobotany and ethnomedicine. What it provides - as Theodore Monod, one of Verger's academic patrons, said, a trifle bluntly, of Flux et Reflux - is a rubble of information ("cet énorme volume de moellons") building material for some future architect.
Nor does Ewé broach the question of the survival of Yoruba medical techniques in Brazil, though Verger was himself an occasional consultant to practitioners of this art in Bahia. Fortunately, however, Afro-Brazilian herbal medicine is the subject of a useful new book by Robert A. Voeks, Sacred Leaves of Candomblé. Here, Voeks describes how, while their white masters were introducing temperate agrosystems to the tropical environment of North-Eastern Brazil, Brazilian slaves were busy discovering analogues to the flora they had left behind in West Africa. Geomorphological happenstance - which links North-Eastern Brazil to the Bight of Benin as part of the ancient southern supercontinent Gondwana - has produced an environment in Bahia that is not so far removed from that of West Africa. Thus some of the key ingredients of traditional Yoruba and Fon medicine (and cuisine), such as dendê palm oil, the viscous reddish oil familiar to lovers of Bahian street food, were easily introduced and cultivated in the new world. For others, such as the iroko tree, the tree at the heart of the Yoruba sacred grove, Afro-Brazilians were able to find botanically related local substitutes. The species lists in Ewé and in Sacred Leaves are important contributions to ethnobiology. They also act as a metonym, a key example of the process of cultural translation and substitution that brought the wider Afro-Brazilian cultural world into being, the world that Verger documented so copiously and with such loving empathy.
The Go-Between is a selection of the photographs that once mouldered in Verger's kitchen cupboard. It's an apt title: Verger moved back and forth between Africa and Bahia, reintroducing one to the other, both in his scholarly research and his work as a photographer. Unlike the pictures in his most remarkable photographic work, Dieux d'Afrique (1954), which paired images of West African religious rituals with their Brazilian equivalents, those in The Go-Between are not arranged ethnographically, but chronologically and topographically. They reveal a further aspect of Verger's work: the global range of his working life in the years after he left France, before he settled in Brazil.
Verger was a true world-wanderer, determinedly expatriate. He was born in 1902 to a prosperous family of Belgian immigrants in Paris, where his father owned a printing works, and in old age his good manners still bespoke the discipline and charm of the French grands bourgeois. But he spoke with loathing of his upbringing, professing, like Jean-Paul Sartre, to hate everything about his childhood. This antipathy to the culture of his birth did not drive him to activism or moral philosophy, as it did Sartre; it found its outlet in another form of escape, a centrifugal trajectory that drew him to the tropics, to the allure of otherness embodied in non-European peoples. As his fellow photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson put it succinctly, "He came from a grand family, but his first pictures were of prostitutes in Mexico."
The photographs Verger took during his Wanderjahre, in the nineteen thirties, forties and fifties, are a tour d'horizon of the Western world on the brink of decolonization. They were published in Life magazine, in the London Daily Mirror and in a number of collections - now rare - produced by French publishers. These are pictures of people in their own element, largely on their own terms - in Tahiti and Algeria, in Harlem and Haiti, in Cuba, Surinam and Ecuador, in Mauretania, Rwanda and Niger. The photographs are all - or nearly all - of people rather than landscapes or artefacts. Some are of notables: Trotsky and Diego Riveira in Mexico, Hemingway in Cuba, Chiang Kai-Chek in Nanking, Yoruba and Fon religious dignitaries in Nigeria and Dahomey. Most, however, are of good-looking young men - dockers and colporteurs, ferrymen and musicians. Verger's eye plays over limbs and faces, taking in the light on the smoke of an exhaled cigarette, the glance between two friends, the half-closed eyes of a man in trance. Or it comes to rest on a youth with whom, it seems clear, he is himself exchanging a flirtatious stare - a kind of photographic counter-transference. Verger's sensibility was, as these pictures bear witness, manifestly homoerotic. But they are pictures from an age of innocence, when the contract between photographer and subject could remain unexamined.
Huge enlargements of these pictures adorned the carros alegóricos that were assembled outside the Sambódromo in Rio at midnight on Shrove Tuesday, 1998, when I arrived to join the throng of União da Ilha's carnival supporters. Standing out from the crowd was Milton Cunha, Ilha's extravagantly-attired carnavalesco, the architect of this homage to Verger. He was dressed in skin-tight black leather in the eighty-degree heat. On his head he wore a helmet with pair of bright red horns - a reference to the colours and accoutrements of Exú, trickster intermediary of the orixás (a figure who acquires a lurid, demonic aspect in the half-Christianized appropriations of African religious systems that are practised in Rio). Milton Cunha was doing a last-minute inspection of the floats he had created. Among them was a Mount Rushmore-sized sculpture of Verger, carved from Styrofoam, and a giant model of a single-lens reflex camera, recognisable as Verger's 6 x 6 cm Rolleiflex, magnified to the power of a hundred, with a group of dancers pirouetting atop the viewfinder. Two youths lay stretched out on projecting spars like jaguars, their limbs dangling above the groundlings. In the midst of all this kitsch Milton had succeeded in retaining vivid glimpses of the Vergerian aesthetic; the lounging youths formed exactly the kind of tableau that, in life, would have caught the photographer's eye.
The amigos de Verger were in the rearguard of the parade, where any amateurishness on our part would be inconspicuous and less subject to scrutiny by the judges. We were kitted out in our carnival costumes, white, with an ethereal screen-printed portrait of Verger on the front, and on the back an image of the shaved, painted and befeathered head of a Candomblé initiate. As the clock moved towards the hour of judgement in the Sambodrome a good few of us were still struggling to master the lyrical and rhythmic complexities of the song we would be singing in the parade. This samba-enredo (story-samba), composed each year by the most talented lyricists and musicians of each samba school, is the text of carnival, the thread that unites the costumes, the floats, the dances and the rhythm of the drums. União da Ilha's samba was called "Fatumbi, A Ilha de Todos Os Santos" - the Island of All Saints - a title that combined a reference to Verger's Yoruba name with a fusion of the name of the school, Ilha, and the city where Verger lived, which enjoys the name of Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos (known variously in Brazil as "Salvador" or "Bahia").
The composers of the samba were three stalwarts of the school, Marco André, Almir da Ilha and Mauricio 100; the singing was led by a Pavarotti-sized baritone named Rixa. The task of keeping a thousand-strong chorus in synchrony as the parade turned the corner into the sambadrome was down to pairs of compositores assigned to each wing. Dancing backwards into the light, they whipped us into a frenzy of repetition. Vem ver, vem ver, began our song, a bateria arrepiar:
Come - the drums will make you tremble... Shine down on us, divine gift ! A child of destiny, born in thrall to Ifá Crosses the sea with our Island. The vessel is a slave ship With the orixás on board... Giving himself to them completely, He is consecrated a diviner. The white man becomes a magician.
Verger, this child of destiny, our song explained, had crossed over, from the Old World to the New, and, before that, from the culture of his birth to that of Africa, the domain epitomized by Ifá, Yoruba spirit of divination. And there he had become a magician, homem feitiçeiro.
Negro chora, negro ri, ran the chorus of the samba
Black people lament and laugh Love, love Black is the race and black the cry Black people are so handsome And Fatumbi was their photographer.
This voyage that Verger made, we sang, changed the course of his life - muda sua trajetoria. After this he settled in Bahia and became an adept of Candomblé:
He changes course and comes away, Making Bahia his home. And becomes a son-of-saint of Mãe Senhora . . .
This name, the name of Mãe Senhora, is one to conjure with in Salvador, especially in the world of Candomblé. Among the Cariocas, though, in the flag-waving, dancing crowd that lined the terraces of Rio's Sambadrome, only a few would have fully understood this reference to the redoubtable woman who was Verger's mentor and protector. A high dignitary of Bahian Candomblé, until her death in the 1970s, Mãe Senhora was the presiding priestess at the most celebrated terreiro in the city, Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá, the House of the Power of the Sign of Xangô. It was she who put Verger's house in Vila América under the protection of Xangô (a god who is the patron not only of fire, but also thunder, forked lightning, justice, money, and a few other things besides).
Verger, who lost his own mother when he was in his twenties, spoke of Mãe Senhora with a wry reverence. Strictly-speaking - pace Marco André and the co-authors of our samba - he was not actually her filho-de-santo (that is, her initiate or "son-of-saint"), since it was in Benin, not Brazil, that he went through the full-scale initiation into the religion of the Yoruba. But soon after he settled in Bahia, Verger became a frequenter of Mãe Senhora's terreiro, along with a number of Bahian artists and intellectuals, and she appointed him to one of the posts in the elaborately Yorubafied hierarchy that she reserved for patrons of the temple: in Verger's case the role of Oju Obá, the Eye of the King ("King" being, here, an honorofic term for Xangô).
The portrait that Verger took of Mãe Senhora, swathed in bounteous starched crinolines and flowing brocades, is an arresting study in matriarchal hauteur. It is an act of homage unlike any of the other pictures that he took, either of celebrities or lounging youths. And he always spoke of her, unlike many of those he knew, with respect and affection. He was not, however, completely under her sway. Once, when I was driving across town with him, he pointed out to me the site of another Candomblé temple near Afonjá. "I used to go there to make Mãe Senhora jealous," he said. "It was the only way I could get her to tell me her secrets."
He also resisted his mentor in another respect. Although Mãe Senhora dedicated him, as well as his house, to Xangô, the patron of her terreiro, Verger came, finally, to serve another orixá, Oxalá, the father of the gods (the Yoruba Òrìsàálá or Obàtálá). Oxalá eclipsed Xangô as his principal orixá (in the Candomblé phrase, the "possessor of his head"). Although his house remained painted red for Xangô, Verger's habitual dress, by the time I knew him, was a flowing tie-dyed white shirt with blue patterning, conforming to the sartorial convention of Candomblé iconography, where the figure of Oxalá is always dressed in white, and to the customs of Salvador, where, on Fridays, many of the inhabitants of the city don white in Oxalá's honour, imparting an ethereal glimmer to the streets at dusk.
Thus the final float in Ilha's Carnival homage to Verger, which portrayed him in cadaverous old age, had him swathed in white and silver, his thirty-foot high head surrounded by a canopy of light that turned out, on examination, to be a representation of a giant flash bulb. Fatumbi Illuminado, read the inscription, Encontra Oxalá. "Fatumbi, Radiant, Comes Face-to-Face with Oxalá". In this last tableau Milton Cunha, the carnavalesco, had excelled himself. It was a vision of blinding whiteness: the photographer, the magician of light, the Eye of Xangô, caught at the point of death, passing through the lens into the brightness of eternity.
At a certain point in Ilha's samba-enredo, there was a cunning modulation in the drumming of the bateria that conjured up the rhythm of Oxalá - that is to say, the percussive signature, specific to a specific orixá, that is employed in Candomblé to invoke spirit possession among adepts. At this point, it seemed to me, the rhythm modulated from that of Oxalá into that of Xangô, Verger's other orixá. Maybe I was mistaken: it was some years since I had been in a terreiro; my memory of the drums had been blurred by time. But there in the fantastic light and noise of the sambadrome, with a hundred drummers surrounding us, I felt myself instantly transported back to Salvador, to the Saturday night drumming rituals in which candomblézeiros would become possessed by these dancing African gods. And as we paraded through the canyon of spectators I saw in my mind's eye - and felt in my limbs - the transe-en-danse that had intrigued and detained me there, as it had intrigued and detained Verger so many decades earlier when he first visited Brazil.
Candomblé beguiles the unbeliever. It is partly because no one ever asks the question "Do you believe ?". Like most African religions, it is system not of creeds but of observances. At its heart is a dance, a visible leap of faith, a wordless submission to possession by a deity, a religious experience so spectacular and all-absorbing that the question of belief may be considered otiose. The Brazilian singer and composer Caetano Veloso, himself from Bahia, suggests this in a song called "Milagres do Povo" - miracles of the people - a description of the middle passage and of the reinvention of tradition by slaves in the new world. He pays characteristically elegant tribute, in this song, to Verger's role as Ojuobá, the eyes of Xangô, the observer and chronicler of the cultural endurance of Afro-Brazilians.
Quem é ateu, Caetano begins, in his limpid tenor, e viu milagres como eu. . .
Atheists who've seen miracles, as I have done Know that where God is not, the gods Don't disappear; they multiply. The gods don't give up; for the sovereign heart, Cannot be confined by slavery, Cannot be confined by "No". So much "Yes" can never be confined: The dancing Yes The Yes of sex The glorious Yes That arches across our history Ojuobá came here - and he saw this
Verger's vision of black Brazil was imbued in this way with love and with learning. It was, both in its beginning and its end, a vision of an ideal. For him Salvador was the place where black people had contrived to redeem the history of slavery, wresting dignity and power out of the cruelty and humiliation of the slave trade. A recent Brazilian television documentary about Verger includes an interview (given on what turned out to be the penultimate day of his life) in which he mentions a long-time friend and former protégé of his, the pai-de-santo Balbino Daniel de Paula. He explains that Balbino, although he was an illiterate okra seller in the market in Salvador when they first met, had no sense of social inferiority, "because," Verger tells the interviewer, "he knew he was a son of Xangô".
For Verger the miracle of the people thus held out the promise of redemption, of reconciliation between blacks and whites, between the peoples of the African diaspora and the descendants of their former masters, including exiles like himself, who were also indirect beneficiaries of their labour. The inversion of social relations in the terreiros of Salvador da Bahia extended, in his vision of things, to the entire city.
At this point a reservation needs to be made. Verger's understanding of Afro-Brazilian culture was deep and sincere, but it was partial. Race relations in Salvador, as the Bahian historian João José Reis pointed out in an obituary of Verger in the Folha de S. Paulo, cannot accurately be portrayed the way Verger was wont to do, as a meeting of calm waters, as the redemptive coexistence of different cultures. Despite the ubiquitous African flavour of Bahian culture, political and economic power there remains, as it does in the rest of Brazil, with os brancos. Verger was by no means sentimental about human nature - he applauded, for example, what he described as the moral realism of Candomblé, with its acknowledgement of the universality of malice - yet his own asceticism and a tendency to what may be termed nostalgie de la bidonville could blind him, on occasion, to the economic reality of the lives of the poor black inhabitants of his adopted city.
Verger, then, lived the life of Candomblé and performed its rituals; he officiated at hundreds of Candomblé ceremonies. His life's work was to record and celebrate the religion of the orixás. But did he in any sense believe in it ? It had been a question in the mind of his first academic patron, Théodore Monod, then Director of the Institut Français d'Afrique Noire, who is quoted in The Go-Between. "Ce n'est pas tout de même pas," wrote Monod, "pour que Pierre Verger se convertisse au paganisme que j'ai obtenu des bourses d'étude pour lui" (I didn't get scholarships for Pierre Verger so he could convert himself to Paganism).
For adherents of Candomblé the question of formal belief may be beside the point, but in the western tradition, in the tradition Verger sprang from, it cannot be avoided. Had it really been as we sang in the carnival samba ? "Se entrega por inteiro…"
Giving himself completely He is consecrated a diviner. The white man becomes a magician.
While I was staying with Verger in Bahia I was curious, naturally, to know to what extent, living in that red house dedicated to Xangô, with its metal Exús guarding the door, he had come to reside spiritually as well as physically in the universe of the orixás, in the world of diviners and magicians. The question was given additional weight for me by the problem I was having defining my own relation to Candomblé. As an itinerant researcher and lapsed anthropologist, in Bahia I found myself a spectator at the ceremony, seduced yet sceptical, in a terrain vague between ravishment and unbelief.
Years earlier, as a student of anthropology at Oxford preparing for fieldwork in South Sudan, I recollected, I had listened in on a conversation in which E. E. Evans-Pritchard, the doyen of British anthropologists, the author, inter alia, of the classic ethnographic monograph Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande, discussed this question of belief. E-P, as he was known, then in his final days, maintained that while he was engaged in field work in Sudan, immersed in the Zande spiritual world, he found himself acting to all intents and purposes as though he himself believed, as Zande did, in the reality of witchcraft and divination. But this state of mind, he said, lasted only until he left the field. Back in his own culture he became a child of the Enlightenment again.
Verger, unlike E-P, did not frequent the academy. He never left the field. The field was where he spent his life. When I was with him in Bahia, sometimes accompanying him to Candomblé ceremonies where he performed a ritual function that was certainly more than ornamental, I wondered whether it was possible, living as he had for so long on terms of intimacy with the Candomblézeiros, that he had gone so far as to take on their view of the world as his primary mental reality. Or alternatively, whether Candomblé had somehow delivered him from the demands of belief - into a world where religion was defined solely by observances and performances.
I knew he did not consider himself a Catholic (unlike E-P, who became a Catholic convert). Verger's intellectual temper was much too sceptical for revealed religion. He had rejected Christianity as part of the baggage of Western bourgeois culture and spoke of it with a certain bitterness. Once, for instance, while I was staying with him, a supplicant came to his door to try and borrow money. The man pleaded with Verger to help him pelo amor de Deus; Verger told him he should not be foolish, that there was no God and, if there was, no evidence that he loved men.
Clearly, for Verger, the god of his fathers was not part of his cosmology. What was less clear, however, was his epistemological relation to the religion that he had served half his lifetime. There was no doubt that his interest in Candomblé was much more than ethnological; he was concerned that it be recognised as a religious system on a par with religions of the book, such as Christianity. According to his protégée, the ethnomusicologist Angela Lühning (now Project Director at the Fundação Verger in Salvador) he saw, in the system of consecration to a particular orixá, a recognition and exaltation of the individual personality, of deep aspects of character otherwise obscured by the process of socialization and education. (As Caetano Veloso put it, "…os deuses sem deus /Não cessam de brotar" - where there is no God, the gods multiply.) This hidden personality, Verger held, is what manifests itself in the possession trance - or, as he preferred to call it, the expression-trance.
One day in Salvador I gathered the courage to ask him a crucial question - a question all researchers into trance-based religions would like to put to the authorities in their field. Had he himself, I asked, ever gone into trance ?
"Alas," he said, "I am far too French for that. Far too rational."
Then he added, with uncharacteristic vehemence, "Reason. It kills everything. All chance for pleasure, for relaxation, for real sentiment."
Embarrassed by this unwonted strength of feeling, but not enough to be deterred, I persevered with my line of enquiry. Although he, Verger, might not be an adept, I pointed out, he certainly knew, as I did, plenty of people who habitually went into trances. And he talked of these friends of his quite naturally in terms of the orixás they were held to embody when they were in the trance-state. Had he not, just the other day, I reminded him, together with his friend, the pai-de-santo Balbino Daniel de Paula, been casting the cowrie shells and deciphering their patterns in order to discover what Ifá, the Yoruba spirit of divination, had to say about their fortunes in the coming year ? Clearly in his own life, I suggested, he had embraced the descriptive language of Candomblé, its deep metaphor. Wasn't there consequently a sense in which he did, in fact, believe in the orixás, in their day-to-day reality ?
I was to see Verger several times in the years after I left Salvador, in Rio de Janeiro and in London, but this was the only occasion that I ventured to raise the subject of his personal beliefs. I sensed his exasperation at my pertinacity, or my literal-mindedness. He turned towards me and repeated the question. "You want to know if I believe in them?" he asked. Then, turning away again, with an air of regret and finality, speaking first French, then English, he said. "Je vis comme si. I live as if ."
John Ryle is Anthropology and Ecology Editor of the Times Literary Supplement
Caetano Veloso, composer of the song, "Milagres do Povo", had this to say on Verger's vision of race relations in Salvador and Jõao Reis' critique of it: "Both are right and wrong," he wrote in an e-mail, "Truth should be searched [for] in the tension between the two poles."
Pierre Verger Ewé: The Use of Plants in Yoruba Society 744 pp. Odebrecht / Companhia das Letras, São Paulo. n.p. (French edition: Maisonneauve & Larose. Fr 198) 8 57164 514 0
Pierre Verger The Go-Between / Le Messager: Photographs 1932-1962 237 pp. 215 photographs. Ed. Revue Noir, Paris / D.A.P., New York $65 2 909571 24 6 hardback, 2 909571 25 4 paperback
Robert A. Voeks Sacred Leaves of Candomble: African magic, medicine and religion in Brazil 236 pp. U. Texas, Austin. $17.95 paperback $37.50 hardback 0 292 78731 6 paperback
Video / Film / Interview
Pierre Fatumbi Verger Conspiraçao Filmes, 1998
Pierre Verger "Entretien avec E. Garrigues" L'Ethnographie 109, 1991
Recent studies of Verger
Angela Lühning "Pierre Fatumbi Verger e sua obra" Salvador da Bahia, Brazil: Afro-Ásia 21-22, 1998-1999
J. Souty "Comme un seul homme, Pierre Fátumbi Verger" Paris: Revue l'Homme 147, 1998
Stéphane Malysse "Les Inconsciences de l'oeil" Ms., n.d.
© John Ryle 1998 All Rights Reserved E-mail: email@example.com
I did a search on Judith
Gleason at the Amazon site and this is what it turned up, in addition to
This Africa, 1965
Orisha: The Gods of Yorubaland, 1971
Santeria, Bronx, 1975
Leaf and Bone : African Praise-Poems, Judith Gleason (Editor), published 1980 and 1994
A recitation of Ifa, oracle of the Yoruba
Oya : In Praise of an African Goddess, 1992
There is a review of only the last of these, which reads as follows:
firstname.lastname@example.org from USA , June 21, 1998
Very good and interesting
reading. Hepan Heyi !!
This is the best book written on the matter of the goddess Oya. I am an Oya priestess and I have not only found this book to be very illustrative, it contains prayers, patakis, and a totally different version of the "Oya" then the one the western world has attempted to illustrate.
The author is very well informed and the context is well written.
However, I would have given it a higher rating should the author not have gone into the lengthy discussion of Oya's role in the winds and atmosphere. Although the author's information on the matter is quite good and informative, I would have liked to have seen more context on the works, principals and patakis of Oya than a lengthy discussion on her role in the winds and atmosphere.
Nonetheless, I would recommend this book to any Oya priest/ess or follower , student, or practicioner of the Yoruba religion.
H-NET List for African History and Culture [H-AFRICA@H-NET.MSU.EDU]
Date: Fri, 05 Nov 1999
From: Mamaissii Dansi Hounon
"Wonders of the African World": Reply
As an initiated and practicing Mami Wata and Vodoun priestess, with direct ancestral roots in this particular branch of African religion, I too found Gates' treatment of West African Vodoun to be both condescending, and stereotypical of how most in the world have been socialized to view African Traditional Religions and cosmology.
What is more tragic, is that someone of Gates' professional stature, going to Africa, and publicly undermining the traditional spiritual treatment by the "fetish" priest ( i.e., "I think he might have malaria" . . . as oppose to a "spirit" foundation for the client's illness), and his atrocious treatment of West African Vodoun, (as superstitious "magic" focused primarily on debauchery), has made our job, and attempt at gaining respect and visibility even more difficult.
Thousands (if not millions) of Africans brought to the "New World" as slaves were threatened, beaten, maimed, tortured, murdered and legally prohibited from practicing their African religions, (i.e., honoring their gods and ancestors) in an orchestrated attempt to disconnect and "de-africanize" them from the vital source of their profound connection to their homeland.
The religious persecution of Africans is the most underreported crime in the annals of slave, colonial and modern history. It is spuriously unquestioned, and even acceptable dogma for some to proclaim that perhaps our ancestors' "conversion" to Christianity was, though forced, a lamentable necessity, and is even viewed as something "good" that evolved from slavery.
Additionally, today, African Traditional Religions are still one of the only major, ancient spiritual traditions that are fair game for horrific malignant, "superstitious study" and debasement by many a "researcher" and popular Western culture. "Fortunately," they have Gates to thanks for validating that even he found them "interestingly trivial," and unworthy of serious examination, respect and dignity.
Gbadegesin, Segun, African Philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities. New York: Peter Lang (1991)
Herskovitz, Mellville J The Myth of the Negro Past Beacon
Thompson V. B., The
Making of the African Diaspora in the Americas 1441-1900 Longmans
Valladares, Clarival Do Prado (ed) The Impact of African Culture on Brazil, Rio de Janeiro 1977