Rio de Janeiro: the Brazilian Iemanja
Iemanja, is the orixa of the sea in Umbanda and Candomblé religions. She is the protector of sailors and fishermen, and rules fertility, family and womanhood. Her name comes from the Yoruban “Yey Omo Eja” (mother whose children are fish) and, as life is known to have begun in the sea, Iemanja is the mother of all. In Brazil, Iemanja is often depicted as an African, motherly mermaid, often dressed in blue & white.
Iemanja worship in Brazil is very much alive and well, with a festival of feasting, dancing and offerings in her honour held on New Year’s Day each year. Shrines dug from the sand and offerings of flowers, beauty products and white, sweet foods are given to the ocean. Offerings that are washed out to sea are accepted by Iemanja; those that the tides carry back to the beach are said to have been rejected by her.
As a Westerner, of European descent, I am used to my mermaids being youthful, sensual and, rather ironically, quite chaste. After all, mermaids have a gorgeous tail that conveniently covers their genitalia. Their swelling breasts allude to sexuality, but their tail sees to it that they are also sexually unavailable. They may take men as lovers. However, they also have the power to reject/drown men, meaning they have personal power over their own sexuality. In a world where women are sexualised and objectified and even victimised just for being women, there is appeal in a strong female role model who can hold her own against unwanted male attention.
European myths are mostly told from the male viewpoint and often portray mermaids as deliberately tempting and drowning men. I imagine the mermaids would tell the tale quite differently!
“So, there I was, minding my own business, going about my daily routine of hair brushing, singing and sunning myself upon a rock. Well, these stupid men saw me and decided they were going to risk their lives to swim across the river and ravish me. It’s not my fault they drowned!”
The #metoo movement has shown that many, many women in societies viewed as “progressive”, continue to experience unsolicited sexual attention, harassment and abuse, based on the fact that they are female. Like mermaids being blamed for drownings, women are often blamed for their own victimisation. Their every action, from what they said or did, or even what they were wearing is used a weapon against them.
Mermaids, as I have always connected with them, have been somehow liminal. Both sexually appealing but sexually unavailable at the same time.
Iemanja is not that mermaid. The Little Mermaid seems rather childish when compared to the overt fertility, femininity and divine power of this mother goddess. Her reproductive power is not separate from her power as a goddess. Her raw sexual power is bound to her woman-ness. She does not lose her sexual power because of her age or motherhood status. It is hers by birth rite.
Rio de Janeiro is a fascinating place. It is a city of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Wandering Ipanema and Copacabana, ostentatious wealth is clearly visible. Visiting the favelas, the poverty and danger of everyday life is both a shock and wake-up call. Many local women are raising families alongside the violence of drug wars and in squalid conditions with no access to running water or electricity. It is hard to reconcile both aspects of Rio as two sides of the same coin.
Regardless of wealth or circumstance, the one thing stands out about Afro-Brazilian culture is that they are survivors with a zest for life.
The same could be said of the history of those who brought Iemanja to Brazil. Candomblé, like Santeria and Voodoo, were originally African religions brought to the Americas by men, women and children taken as slaves. Barely surviving in horrific conditions, these people clung to their faith and traditions. When the slave owners tried to stamp out their culture, worshippers cleverly merged their beliefs with Christianity, blending the Virgin Mary with Iemanja and the other orixa with the saints of Christianity. In this way, their beliefs and practices survived.
Despite being a predominantly Catholic country, Brazilian locals do not seem to have the same hang-ups about female sexuality that I, raised in the Roman Catholic church, seemed to have internalised.
Brazilians embrace fertility. At the beach, voluptuous bronzed goddesses flaunted their curves unabashed. They were unapologetically feminine. Their curves and squishy bits were not a source of shame, but of empowerment. They were proud of their hips and rotund buttocks, seeming to possess a comfort in their own skin that I envied. I had never before seen so many different shapes and sizes of female-ness proudly on display!
The locals also know how to party, with Samba being their favourite dance style. This too was deliciously feminine – booty shaking, curve jiggling and a celebration of the female form in its entire myriad of sizes and shapes. I was raised in the world of ballet. Strict, stiff and image-focused, performed only by the best among us while the rest watched on in envy. Samba and other local dance styles were like a breath of fresh air. They were fun and wild and most importantly, inclusive. Pleasure, rather than a narrow ideal of beauty, was the aim.
Iemanja is an orixa who is worshipped through offerings of beauty, of dance and music. Dance and sexuality, beauty and indulgence are not seen as vain, but as sacred. Pleasure is not seen as a sin, but as holy. Iemanja is not see as being somehow less for not being young and girlish, for not being skinny enough or for not adhering to the narrow box of Western beauty. She is raw female power at its best!
Sipping caipirinha’s under the starlight on a night out in Rio, I felt called to dance. The music was wild and fiery. Practitioners of Candomblé use dance as a form of kinetic trance. In special trance dance ceremonies, Orixa are said to “ride” or possess worshippers, who enter altered states of consciousness as a result of their brush with the divine.
As someone who has struggled with static meditation and the art of stillness, the meditation of dance called me. This was not controlled ballet, perfectly choreographed and aesthetically pleasing. This was something wild and ancient; an instinctive channelling of power. The ecstasy of devotional dance overcame me, a natural high I had never before experienced.
After hours of dance, riding the ebb and flow of the drums, being moved by the fiery tempo of guitar strings, I collapsed in my bed exhausted, drained but truly happy. I reaslied dance, for the sake of pleasure and joy, was something missing in my life.
Brazil was a location that challenged how I saw the world and my relationship with my body. As a result, I would go on to spend many years healing my relationship with my sexuality and exploring kinetic trance. My journey to embody the divine feminine had truly begun!