Ipanema Brazil, New Year´s 1959
Jane Warren Waller
January 9, 1959
I did want to write about the New Year's Party we had, before I forget about it.
About eleven thirty we walked the five blocks to the beach. There was a full moon, which silhouetted the mountains around Rio, giving the perfect background for a Voodoo ceremony. As we approached the Ipanema beach many candles could be seen flickering in the ocean breeze, while Roman candles lighted the sky in a noisy plea to the various gods. As we came nearer we saw mounds scooped out of the sand in many shapes, such as crosses, bottles, figures, etc. These are altars decorated with candles, flowers, figures (from Christ to African chiefs).
Another item found in all the many altars was bottles of "cachaca," which is a fermentation of the sugar cane and is very powerful.
The purpose of the ceremony is many-fold. Some women are there to pray for fertility, and other believers are there to get healing for a sick child or to get rid of some evil spirit. It is not a Christian ceremony, but a pagan one with the many generations of songs, chants, and rituals handed down by word of mouth and often in a particular African dialect. There are many gods for different purposes - such as Macumba, for which the ceremony is called, is the god for childbearing, and Itanunga for giving a little more prosperity (most of these people barely exist already on a diet of beans and rice).
To watch the ceremony we chose the largest gathering and as we stood there in this creepy atmosphere, it was hard to believe that it was in the first hour of 1959. One could imagine that this could be possible in the darkest Africa, but to see such in a civilized country was hard to believe. As in a three-ring circus, it is difficult to see everything, so did this strain our necks. In a circle around the altar, this one being in the shape of a cross and very large, stood fifteen or twenty black or "caf' com leite" (color) women barefoot and dressed in long white silk gowns, white kerchiefs, and many strands of beads. In the center of the circle were six or eight men some in white silk trousers, shirts, and some in colored silks. While two men sat cross-legged on the sand beating a constant rhythm on jungle drums, the women and men in the circle clapped their hands, weaved back and forth in a sort of half-dance, and chanted to the gods.
The principal character was a black man who was considered to have supernatural powers. He drank cachaca almost incessantly and smoked one cigar after another. Men, women, and children would approach him, kneel, kiss the back of both his hands, and sometimes even his feet as they received his blessing, along with an occasional word of advice or a promise of healing whatever might be ailing them. He would also embrace each in the French manner and with much snapping of his fingers and speaking of the unknown tongue he would pass his hands over the body of each. Every once in a while the circle would dance around the altar, and then one of them would go into a trance with spasms, jerks, and much yelping like a wounded dog. This meant that supernatural powers were entering the person's body and they then were allowed to assist the "high priest".
One girl and I decided that we would like a better seat, so we inched through the on-lookers and before we knew it we were sitting within the ropes, which separated the two worlds. She assured me that if you would not look in anyone's direction that they would not notice you, but I failed somewhere, as I was sitting there in the sand with my arms crossed and one of the men in white silk came up to me in a manner of "shame on you - you have forgotten the rules" and told me to uncross my arms. I was snow plowing back through the sand just as fast as I could scoot. As we sat there one man went into a trance and did a backbend to the sand with his head without the aid of arms, which is a feat in itself, but all the time he was lowering his head he was jerking and twisting in all directions. This was just two feet to the right of our ringside seats, and I thought for certain that I would have voodoo in my lap any second. We were warned before we went that whatever you do you are not to laugh, which was not too hard to follow, as it was more "mouth dropping" than it was funny, but when one of the livelier gals went into a real tailspin, winding up in a writhing heap on the sand just at our feet and was forced to lie there in half repose as a fellow "trancer" pinned her skirt, which had popped a button during her hysteria - this was almost more than I could take sober faced.
We saw the preparations and finally the offering of the sacrifice to the god of the sea, Yemanj. It was made on a raft, covered with flowers, bottles of cachaca, figures and over the top was a lovely hand crocheted bedspread supported by four poles. The men slid the altar the fifty feet to the ocean as four women carried the canopy. The worshipers followed chanting their pleas of favor to the Yemanj. Several men swam with the offering out several yards into the ocean where a boat was waiting to tow it out to sea. As it moved out to sea it was really a sight to see the twinkling candles, bob and toss in the arms of the sea god. Just at that moment the ocean became quite rough and the waves were breaking fast and with force. The believers took this as an answer of Yemanj and they all joined hands to rush into the ocean - clothes and all - with many getting over their trances with the first cold lap of a wave.
This was the largest of the ceremonies, but just down the beach a young Negro girl held reign over a small gathering of sightseers and it was really worth the money as she was a showman from the word go. As her "Butterfly McQueen voice" rose and fell in chants of praise, pleas, and admonishments to her audience, there was an aura of humor that hovered over her small domain. Just to my left elbow a man appeared with a camera, which we were told was not a good idea if you expected to leave the beach alive, and for the briefest moment there was a smile of importance playing with the corners of her mouth, but as the light of the camera flashed she called down the curse of every god at her disposal upon his head with the last dire threat that he would not get home that night alive.
We thought that this type of religion was for the very low and ignorant class, but to our amazement we noticed nicely dressed women coming to her for her cures. One noticeably expectant woman whispered into her ear and "great one" after much hamming it up and puffing on her pipe, which she favored to the usual cigar, she announced to a much-amused audience that it would be a menino (boy).
The ceremonies last until four and five o'clock in the morning with the "possessed" ones becoming more and more "polluted" on the cachaca, which is 100 proof, but about 2:30 we wound our way back to the house. We had all worn our shoes down there, but could not wear them in the sand, so thoughtful George put mine in his back pocket and then when half the guests wanted to return to the house for a midnight dinner and the other half wanted to stay he left - with my shoes and I was left to walk home barefoot.
We read in the paper the next day where a human sacrifice had been made to the god of the sea, but I'm not sure what happened, as it was on another beach. I am beginning to see that my joining the circle might have been as dangerous as the whites of the maids' eyes would indicate when I told them what I had done. They informed me that they were very good Catholics and thought the Macumba was crazy. That is a very good thing for me, as someone could put a candle and chicken feathers on the front door stoop and we would be without a maid for the whole time we were here.