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Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Pictures From Uruguay Special: The Day of the Sea-Goddess

So, yesterday was the day of the feast of Iemanja, an important goddess in Umbanda (afro-descended religion, the local equivalent of Voodoo, Santeria, Etc.).  While Uruguay is the most secular country in all of Latin America, with the lowest rates of religious belief, there is a significant percentage of Uruguayans who practice Umbanda, and Iemanja and the day of Iemanja are quite important to them.  So every February 2nd, the beaches of Uruguay are filled with believers making offerings and performing rituals, and even more filled with curious onlookers, carnival barkers, candle-salesmen, food stalls and other assorted vendors who turn the whole thing into more of a fair than a solemn ceremony.

As it happens, the core of celebrations, the holy of holies, is the Ramirez beach in Montevideo (because it was the beach closest to the 'barrio sur', which was the neighbourhood of the descendants of the African slaves who fled from Brazil to freedom in Uruguay). And that beach happens to be only about four blocks from my house.

So here are quite a few pictures of the festivities.  They were taken near sunset, which is still early by standards of the celebration; the whole area gets even busier at night.

So first off, this is the statue of Iemanja; which caused some controversy when it first came up because, as I said, Uruguay is a very strongly secular country.  Also, Umbanda is seen by many Uruguayans to be a kind of 'lower-class religion', which they treat with a special kind of contempt shared only with Evangelical Christians (who ironically despise Umbandistas as devil-worshipers).  In any case, you can see the statue is quite popular today.

A stage with some Umbanda drummers and singers, singing religious songs about their different spirits.  The stage is a new addition, it wasn't there the last time I came to Iemanja day a couple of years ago.

For a lot of people, Iemanja day is only/also an excuse to go to the beach. But you can see there a couple of women ('Mai Santas') dressed in white and blue (the colors of Iemanja) giving 'cleansings' or making predictions for the faithful.  Here's a closer shot of the same sort of thing:

And here's a guy doing it, in the red color which denotes a different spirit (maybe Shango? I'm not sure):

Here you can see a group activity, and the little blue boat covered with symbols connected to Iemanja; its serving in a sense as a kind of altar for offerings, and at the end of the night will be cast into the River Plate as an offering to the goddess, and to no doubt end up polluting the waterway.

Another little boat-altar:

Here's one that was entirely made out of fruits, I would presume by some hippie wanting to show people that you could do something similar (and yet, from a religious perspective, not the same) but 'biodegradable' for ecology's sake. It is NOT orthodox to the religion:

Here's one group of Umbandistas who have circled off an area of the beach, and are preparing to do a ritual there.  The Umbanda ritual consists of some banishing (clearing the area of negative forces) then ecstatic drumming and singing building up to a crescendo where the Pae or Mae (the priest/priestess) end up being possessed/incarnating one or more of the spirits (loas) of Umbanda.  It involves frenzied whirling and dancing. Once incarnated, the spirit (speaking through the priest/ess) will offer advice and blessings on the faithful.

Here are a couple of Umbanda priests who have set up a little tent (one of many on the beach), and people are lining up to see them for blessings.  I should note that there are three types of Umbanda groups that you can find on Ramirez beach on Iemanja day: the totally legit old-school groups that have serious rep, the newfangled Umbanda groups teaching a more new-agey sort of version of the religion which has appeal outside of the traditional demographics (a kind of white-washed Umbanda for middle-class Uruguayans) and total and complete frauds utterly bullshitting people who don't know any better on the beach for money.

I won't say which these two were, and sometimes it can be hard to tell.  Obviously, some of the Frauds are really obvious frauds, like the guys doing tarot readings on the beach (where Tarot is not a traditional part of Umbanda).  But with others, it can be difficult to be sure, except in one detail: there's a very notable difference, once you've seen it (or had experience in it yourself) between what it looks like when someone is really "incarnating" and when someone is just faking it (whether they know they're faking it or not).

Someone really incarnating (having the experience of deep trance/connection that the Umbandistas associate with having a spirit enter you) will behave in a way that is very difficult to fake effectively. They are physically very different, their whole bearing changes, they are often capable of physical feats that they wouldn't ordinarily do (I've seen 80 year old women, while incarnated, taking flying leaps through the air I probably couldn't do myself) and there is a behavior that is very unique.    So with a bit of experience, you can really see that difference; or at least I can. It might be a wizard thing; because somehow a lot of fakers still seem to get a lot of customers.

Here's a priestess in mid-dance:

Another feature of Iemanja is believers digging holes in the sand and lighting a candle in the hole, as an offering of devotion.  Most are quite simple, literally just a hole in the sand with a blue or white candle in it. But some are more elaborately detailed:

Umbanda is what you call an 'afro-descended' religion.  That is to say it is NOT an African religion (in that nothing like it is practice anywhere in Africa),  but is a religion that was created out of the surviving native beliefs of African slaves, modified by the effects of separation and intermingling of different ethnic groups among the slave population, and deeply influenced by the European religion (usually Catholicism, but sometimes protestantism) that was dominant in the area.    The Umbandistas have a detailed, lengthy, and mostly invented history of just how traditional their beliefs are to African origin, including flags of the various "African Nations" they claimed to be descended from:

Here's a shot of the beach. As you can see, it's low tide right now.  Yes, the River Plate is so immense it has significant tides (which is why people say its not really a river at all).

Anyways, that's it for today.  There are a few more Iemanja pics which I'll get around to eventually in this series.  Hope you enjoyed it.


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  1. It's interesting how, over in the US, a lot of people claim to be secular. And then head over to Sedona in Arizona to be spiritual with stones and crystals, etc.

  2. I'd never heard of Umbanda, Pundit. That was really interesting.

    1. Thanks. It's one of many interesting religions of similar origin (along with Voodoo, Santeria, etc.).