Pagan Paths

Delve into a fascinating cultural force and deeply spiritual tradition that comprises the axe--power--of Brazilian magickal religions. Followers of all paths will find something unique to incorporate into their lives.

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Carnaval: More than a Party

Sorry I've been a bit remiss with my blogs. Crazy times, as with everyone. But I've decided to definitely continue on. I'm hoping to write somewhat shorter blogs, but with more frequency. So, here I go:

Since the season of Brazilian Carnaval is upon us, I thought I might spend the next few sessions discussing the history and meaning of this tradition. Wait, you say! Aren't you supposed to be blogging about Brazilian folk religions? Well, yes I am. And you really cannot separate the Carnaval celebration from the Afro-Brazilian religions. The music played, the rhythms, the instruments, the dances, the costumes, and more all cross over into the Brazilian religions. So bear with me while I talk about the history, what Carnaval is like today, the Samba Schools. and the story of the parades. After that, I'll talk about various instruments and their functions both in the celebration of Carnaval and in the religion. Besides, this stuff is interesting and will give you a more in-depth picture of Brazil and Brazilians (at least I hope it will).

History of Brazilian Carnaval

Carnival rites have always been observed enthusiastically in Brazil. The tradition, so Brazilians tell us, was imported from the Azores (islands in the Atlantic belonging to Portugal). There it began as a pre-Lenten game. When the custom arrived in brazil, it partly degenerated into a free-for-all for the populace, whle at the same time, the wealthy celebrated with extravagant parties.

One of the earliest descriptions of Brazilian Carnival dates back to the mid-19th century, when two Protestant ministers from the States, Kidder and Fletcher, took an extended tour of the country. They fell in love with Brazil and wrote about their travels in a book titled Brazil and Brazilians. This book has since become indispensable to researchers of Brazilian traditions, including Carnaval and the various folk religions. In those days Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro was called the intrudo, and it was celebrated three days before Lent. The authors describe:

It was then a saturnalia of the most liquid character, and everyone,--men, women and children--gave themselves up to it with an abandon. It was not with showers of sugar-plums that persons were saluted in the days of the Intrudo, but with showers of oranges and eggs, or rather of waxen balls made in the shape of oranges and eggs, ut filled with water....The shell was of sufficient strength to admit of being hurled a considerable distance, but at the moment of collision, it broke to pieces, bespattering whatevr it it....In the enthusiasm of the game the waxen balls were frequently soon consumed; then came into play syringes, basin bowls, and sometimes pails of water which were plied without mercy until the parties were thoroughly drenched.


Even in the 1930's the tradition of the wax balls filled with water endured. By 1938, they merrymakers carried metal syphons filled with a combination of perfume and ether, which they cast into the faces of passersby, causing an instantaneous freezing effect. Wonderful feeling in the February heat!

As a side comment about this: On December 31 in Rio, besides celebrating Yemanja Day, it is the end of the year. So as you walk through the downtown area, you walk thigh-high through paper that people who work in the high-rise office buildings chuck out the windows. As I was walking down the street, the two men in front of me were hit with a water balloon. One of the guys sniffed his shoulder and said, "Thanks be to Oxlala that it's only water!"

Other travellers to Rio around the turn of the century commented that groups of merrymakers used to dash through the streets shouting in falsetto, dressed as bebes choroes (crying babies), skeletons, baths, donkeys, or bears. These abizarre apparitions would dance from house to house in long lines, clasping hands to shoulders. Now think about the folk religions and the part that the Ibeji, the twin children/babies play as very powerful orixas. Their laughter can turn aside the fiercest warriors.

Around the same time prestigious Carnaval societies or clubs were established that paraded through the streets on floats. Masked balls and musical festivals were also in fashion. This attention to costume is also reflected in the folk religions. Also the concept of frenetic dancing with abandon parallels they way many of the practitioners of the various religions dance in order to become possessed of the spirit of an orixa or other entity.

So much for the history. In my next blog--which I vow will be shortly--I will continue with comments on Carnaval today.

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Caroline Dow holds a Ph.D. in Luso-Brazilian Studies, is a former Fulbright Fellow to Brazil, professor at Brown and Pittsburgh universities, and current intercultural trainer and assessor. She has authored 15 books on Wicca, Magick, Brazilian traditions, and mystery novels. As a Wiccan High Priestess and Ceremonial Magician, she brings an unique perspective to the study of Brazilian folk traditions.
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