Officially, Brazil  is the planet’s largest Catholic nation. But despite the abundance of magnificent churches and the number of people wearing religious medallions, when it comes to spiritual matters, the country is a lot more heterogeneous than it might seem. And nowhere is this religious mixture more pronounced than in Salvador .
When the hundreds of thousands of African slaves who were shipped across the Atlantic arrived in Bahia , they came armed with the divinities of their homeland. After Portuguese slave masters banned any practices that strayed from Catholicism, many of the slaves slyly pretended to adopt Christian dogmas and rituals, but in reality, their adherence was often only superficial. Instead, they merged Catholic symbols with age-old beliefs preserved from their religious heritages. The result was the syncretic Afro-Brazilian religion known as Candomblé.
As Candomblé developed, the orixás — traditional African divinities representing various natural forces — became associated with Catholic saints: Oxalá, the Creator, was associated with Jesus Christ; Iemenjá, queen of the seas, was identified as Nossa Senhora da Conceição (Our Lady of Conception); the great warrior and blacksmith, Ogum, was linked to both Santo Antônio and São Jorge; and Iansã, goddess of fire and thunderbolts, was associated with Santa Bárbara.
This clever strategy ensured Candomblé’s survival for more than four centuries. Nonetheless, during this time, it was often brutally repressed, not only by clerical authorities, but by the ruling elite as well as government and police officials. In fact, until quite recently, there was a lingering prejudice against worshippers, who were known derogatorily as macumbeiros (practitioners of macumba, or witchcraft).
Candomblé is still very much alive in Salvador . Indeed, its influences and references are woven into the tapestry of daily life. Terreiros — the sacred casas (houses) and surrounding areas where rituals and celebrations take place — are all over the city, and in many cases the public can attend ceremonies and celebrations presided over by mães and pais de santos (venerated Candomblé priests and priestesses). Among the most famous and traditional terreiros are Gantois, Ilê Axê Opô Afonja, and Casa Branca.
Candomblé rituals vary depending on the terreiro and the orixás. Although the casas are usually very simple, decorations are often quite elaborate, as are the magnificent altars and traditional costumes worn in honor of the orixás. You can expect a lot of hypnotic African-inspired drumming and chanting, accompanied by graceful dancing that becomes quite frenzied as initiates “receive” orixás and go into a trance-like state in which they may stumble around and fall, literally possessed. Ceremonies often go on for hours at a time before a banquet of traditional food is offered — first to the orixá, and then to all those in attendance.
Although (well-behaved) tourists are welcome, Candomblé rituals are sacred events. If you do go, dress simply but formally — long pants and shoes for men, a long skirt and no cleavage for women — and inquire beforehand about using a camera. On no account should you ever join the dance. Most hotels, as well as the Bahiatursa tourism office in the Pelourinho , will be able to provide information about authentic Candomblé festivities. These take place on the specific days associated with various orixás. The majority of terreiros, including the three listed here, are located in poor suburbs that are best reached by taxi:
Gantois (Rua Alto do Gantois 23, Federação, tel. 71/3331-9231)—Founded in 1849. The most important festa is held in honor of Oxossi, on June 19.
lê Axé Opô Afonja (Rua Direita de São Gonçalo do Retiro 557, Cabula, tel. 71/3384-5229)—This traditional terreiro houses various casas, each devoted to a specific orixá. The most important festas take place between June and July as well as September and October.
Casa Branca (Avenida Vasco da Gama 463, Vasco da Gama, tel. 71/3335-31000—Brazil ’s oldest surviving terreiro (dating from 1830) is recognized as National Cultural Heritage. The most significant festas, held in honor of Oxossi and Xango, take place in May and June.