When I met Dionisis Kostakis on my second day in Rio de Janeiro in December last year, there was little about him, if nothing at all, that indicated his unusual hobby. With beach blond hair and subtly tanned olive skin, I took him to be yet another European who had ditched the struggling economy of Europe in search of the laid back surf-life that Brazil offers thousands of expatriates.
Even when Dionisis wrote his email address for me to keep in touch after I told him about my plans of visiting Salvador to research my Afro-Brazilian ties, I doubted the depth of knowledge the Greek videographer had about African and African-diaspora religion.
It wasn’t until weeks later, while strolling down the iconic paved pedestrian path of Copacabana beach, that I would be proved wrong when I was approached by someone holding with a doll in a gold dress to my face. Thinking it was a local seller, I politely (or not so politely I can’t remember however that detail is minor) declined and proceeded to carry on walking. But it was when I heard my name called, and turned around to take a better look…
There he stood, holding a doll of a Orisha in his hand. Dionisis had been filming the Yemanja event that took place on the beach in anticipation to the New Year.
Now he had my attention!
And so it was a few days before the turn of the year that I showed up at his apartment off Avenida Atlântica geared with my note pad and pen, ready for a cultural religious lesson about Candomblé and Voudun. I can safely say, I’m yet to meet someone as passionate about African-diaspora religion and culture… And this is just his hobby!
“My interest in Haitian Voudun began when I came to Brazil. Voudun is the religion of the Fon people in Benin. It is also practised in parts of Brazil where the Fon were taken to during slavery. In Bahia the worship of the Voudun is Candomblé and in Sao Luis de Maranhao the worship of the voudun is called Tambor de Minas.
Haiti has always been looked down upon for being the poorest country in the western hemisphere, full of diseases and epidemics and political upheaval. Rumour has it that the Haitian Revolution began with a ritual for Ogun, the Orisha of metal associated with warfare, known as Gu in Fon Voudun. They are very similar deities, if not equal, and Ogun is worshipped in Haiti as a Loa/Lwa (there are two spellings).
My interest in Afro-Brazilian religions began in 2005. This was the first time I came here (Brazil)… I saw some figurines/statues in Sao Joaquim market in Salvador that caught my attention. They were images of red-skinned horned men with tridents in their hands, and red-skinned bare-breasted women in g-strings. I was told that they were sold to religious temples and to followers of “macumba”. People told me that the name for the men is exu and the women are called pomba gira.
I heard some negative comments from people from the south (of Brazil) about how Bahia is a backwards state because of macumba and the “things brought from africa, the dark continent”. I found the red statues to be quite European-looking, so I began to read about the religions and realized that there were actually two main ones; Candomblé and Umbanda.
The first stuff I read was written by non-Brazilian researchers, and they visited the religious temples that mixed both religions, so there was a mix-up which is also sometimes the case in Brazil today. Exu and pomba gira are part of the Umbanda religion that is an Afro-Brazilian religion with Bantu roots. It is part of espiritismo and began as a result of white espiritismo temples which shunned the spirit possession and worshipping of Amerindian and black spirits. The main idea behind this religion is healing, so Umbanda was formed in able to let the spirits continue their work.
The case of exu and pomba gira is the following: they are the less evolved of all spirits and perform deeds in exchange for offerings. They are the socially marginalized spirits (courtesans, thieves, prostitutes, etc). They are worshipped in Umbanda and some Candomblés, because these Candomblés were set up by people with an Umbanda background. Candomblé is the worship of the orixas (Yoruba deities), inkises (Bantu spirits), and vouduns (dahomean deities). I focus on the most dominant of all: Candomblé ketu, which is the worship of the Orishas (orixas in Portuguese, they are Yoruba deities).
The first to receive an offering in the Yoruba system is Eshu (Exu in portuguese). He was unfortunately identified by the catholic church as being the devil due to his trickster-like character. “Devilish aspects” involve a story of him devouring his mother after she had offered him all she could when he was very hungry one day, tricking people, loving to have sex, drinking booze etc. He is said to be the most human of all the Orishas. He is identified in this way in Brazil but has a more child-like appearance in Cuba, for example, where he was syncretized with two Catholic child saints: el niño de atocha and el niño de praga.
This is why I began to study this area. Because I could not see why something seen as African was actually of European influence. The exu and pomba gira characters do not have African features. Most of them are spirits of the dead that came from Europe. They were identified with Orishas Eshu (the yoruba deity) as a result of people from Umbanda initiating to Candomblé, and because they share these “devil-like” characteristics.
Similarities between Candomblé and Voudun (voodoo is seen as being a derogative spelling, originating in hollywood films depicting Voudun in Haiti as devil-worship) are; contact with ancestors, spirits, sacrifice, divination, and African-roots. Deities worshipped in both religions: Eshu (Candomblé) and Papa Legba (Voudun) are the keepers of the gates, lords of the crossroads. In Brazil Eshu is associated with the devil, in Haiti Papa Legba is an old man with a cane in his hand. Ogun/Gu, Shango (lord of thunder, both Yoruba and Fon people call him the same way. There are deities that are similar but are worshipped in different ways.”
Dionisis is currently working on his latest project that focusses on the change of look, from black to white and sometimes mestiza, of Orisha Yemonja. Something I observed quite blatantly both in Rio and even Bahia during the Yemanja festival in Salvador’s Rio Vermelho district. Yemonja is a Orisha, that in Yorubaland is a river deity and has been transformed into the owner of the ocean in Brazil… The Goddess of the sea.